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HP TouchPad has bright spots but seems very 2010 Add to ...

With the TouchPad, Hewlett Packard is about to join Apple, Google, and Research in Motion in the high-stakes game that is the tablet computer business. With a trio of popular operating systems and a dozen or more noteworthy devices already on the market, it may seem a little late in the day. But keep in mind that this category sprang into existence only a year ago. Most of the players are still sorting their cards.

I had the opportunity to spend about a week with the TouchPad, which launches in the U.S. this weekend and in Canada July 15{+t}{+h}, and found it to be an original take on tablet computing, though it has some growing pains that need to be worked through – especially in the hardware department.

Measuring 13.7 millimetres deep and weighing 740 grams, the TouchPad is a chubby, glossy black obelisk. A handful of ports and buttons – power, volume, headphones, and miniUSB – surround its clear and bright 9.7-inch 1024-by-768 touch screen display. A front-facing camera is at the top of the screen for Skype calls (there’s no lens on the back, which means no stealth videos or pictures when people think you’re just reading a book on your tablet), and a Home button sits at the bottom.

It looks more or less like the original iPad, but is considerably heavier, which could make it a hard sell for people eager to own the sleekest, slimmest gadgets. However, there are a couple of original hardware features here that could go overlooked.

The first is built-in wireless induction charging. Just prop the TouchPad up on the Touchstone Charging Dock ($79.99), and the 6300 mAh battery – which, by the way, endured three days of frequent but casual use with screen brightness turned down and WiFi on – will automatically begin juicing up, even through the TouchPad’s thick protective case. Great stuff for folks who hate fiddling with plugs and wires.

The other is Touch to Share, which lets users swap URLs with the soon-to-be-be released Pre 3 smartphone simply by making the two devices physically touch each other (assuming both devices are signed into the same WebOS account. I watched this feature in action with a pre-production Pre 3 and saw a website instantly migrate from phone to tablet. It felt a little like magic – the sort of marvellous, ridiculously intuitive technology seen in near-future sci-fi films brought to life.

Touch to Share feels limited at the moment – it would be great to be able to sync and share more substantial content this way – and it necessitates buying into HP’s “better together” sales pitch, but there are definitely some unique possibilities here.

The TouchPad comes in two hardware configurations to start: a 16-gigabyte WiFi version for $519, and a 32-gigabyte WiFi version for $619, which is about on par with competing iPad models. HP refused to comment on the possibility of 3G editions, but I expect they will come, and sooner rather than later.

Viewed next to the svelte forms of an iPad 2 or Galaxy Tab 10.1, the portly TouchPad doesn’t do a great job of selling itself. But the real draw of HP’s tablet is webOS, the critically acclaimed but slow-to-catch-on operating system that powers HP’s Pre phones. It’s been optimized for the slate’s larger screen, and it distinguishes itself from the competition in a number of ways.

For starters, it excels at true multitasking. Each active app is assigned a “card” that appears on the desktop. Simply swipe through and tap cards to switch between open apps. What’s more, if you open one app from within another, its card will stack on top of the first app’s card. For example, if you open a web page from within an e-mail, a card for that browser page will appear on top of the e-mail app’s card. If you open a PDF from that website, a new Adobe Reader card will appear stacked atop the other two cards.

I came to think of cards as similar to the way some e-mail clients sort messages into conversations, with all related messages stored together. It’s a good way to group tasks and retain quick access to related materials. When you want to free up resources, just flip a card off the top of the screen to close the app.

Finding content is handled well, too. At the top of the desktop sits the Just Type search box. Type in whatever you happen to be looking for and the tablet will return results from the web (including Google, Bing Maps, and Wikipedia), social media networks (Twitter and Facebook), HP’s App Catalog, contacts, e-mail, and media and documents residing on the TouchPad. You can also choose to limit searches to specific categories.

I found myself using Just Type all the time, whether I wanted to look up something online, find someone, or track down something in Gmail. Just Type is always at the ready and often proves quicker than opening and searching within a specific app. I honestly found myself trying hard not to grow too attached to this feature for fear of missing it overly much upon sending the TouchPad back.

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