The key thing about the WebOS interface that the HP TouchPad employs is that it’s centred around multi-tasking. Instead of screens full of apps being your default view, the TouchPad presents a largely blank space with just five icons running along the bottom. To get to the full list of apps, you tap on the arrow button in the bottom right.
The reason for this arrangement is that once you’ve opened an app, or more to the point, several apps, they occupy this space as large thumbnails, or cards as they’re called in WebOS. These cards lineup from left to right allowing you to quickly swipe between apps, while they can also be stacked on top of each other to create groups of related apps. The cards are large enough that it’s easy to see what’s happening in each app from this view, thus making it a breeze to find the app you’re looking for.
It’s a very slick system that was rightly lauded when it was first shown on the Palm Pre and subsequent Palm smartphones, and it still brings a smile to our faces even now. However, ultimately it’s not actually that practical, particularly on a tablet. On a phone the simplistic layout feels right, as there’s only so much screen space but, on a tablet, leaving the homescreen so spartan just feels like wasted space. After all, the multi-tasking interface on the iPad is pretty poor but with all those icons on screen, it’s quick and easy just to tap the icon for an app again and re-open the app where you left off.
Otherwise, the WebOS interface is very good. The styling all ties in together nicely – only the iPad looks as good, fonts look lovely, and there’s consistency across both native and third-party apps.
For instance in apps like email and Facebook you can split the view up into multiple columns or go fullscreen with the simple tap of an icon depicting three vertical bars. This makes it really easy to take full advantage of all that screen real estate.
Other key elements like the onscreen keyboard are also very nicely done. In fact, the keyboard is currently the best available (at least until the split keyboard for the iPad arrives with the iOS5 update). The layout is excellent and the extra row of numbers along the top is very useful. You can also change the size of keys quickly and easily, though we did find the standard medium setting to be best for speedy touch typing.
Other key elements are also easily accessible. In the top right there’s an area containing notifications and quick access to settings for things like the Wi-Fi, brightness, mute, and airplane mode. Unless you’re in a fullscreen app, these can be called up with a swipe of your finger, without disturbing what you’re doing. Likewise, options for apps are available by swiping down from the top left corner.
The five shortcuts along the bottom of the screen can easily be changed to ones of your choosing and there are plenty of options for organising all your apps in the main app launcher.
The final two primary parts to the TouchPad interface are Just Type and Synergy.
Just Type is an instant search service akin to Apple’s Spotlight feature and Android’s Google search. Principally it works in the same way, allowing you to quickly search for contacts, apps, emails, calendar events and such like, as well as jump into a full Google search at the touch of a button. Where it differs to other systems, though, is it adds Quick Actions and Search Using.
Quick Actions provides one touch links to things like starting a new email, text message, or Facebook update. Similarly, Search Using provides links for searching other websites. So with one tap you can search Twitter, Wikipedia, Google Maps, and many more.
The key to both these services is that they’re open to third parties. So with Quick Actions, any app can integrate itself with this service, theoretically allowing you to quickly send a Tweet or update your WordPress blog for instance. Meanwhile Search Using can use the search on any website compatible with the open search standard. Once you’ve visited a compatible site, it will appear in the preferences for Just Type where you can select it to appear in the Just Type list.
Just Type is useful, though it doesn’t quite have the same impact as on WebOS phones that have a physical keyboard – all you need do is slide the phone out and start typing whereas the app needs to navigate to the search bar on the homescreen.
Synergy, meanwhile, is HP’s name for its contacts, calendar and messaging integration services. Like a number of similar services, such as MotoBlur on Motorola’s Android phones, it enables you to sign into multiple online, or local services, that provide messaging, have calendar entries or store contacts. It then presents them through single interfaces.
So, you can jump into the calendar app and see all your goings on from Facebook, Google, Outlook, and more. Meanwhile your contacts have all been neatly arranged with the same person on different services having only one entry.
It’s a good system made better by the fact that, like Just Type, it’s an open platform so any service can quickly and easily be added without need for a major update.
Unfortunately, the actual interfaces aren’t all that clever. While other similar services present status updates, messages and pictures from various social networking services right there in your contacts profile, the TouchPad merely tells you that a Facebook account is associated with this contact – you can’t even tap the Facebook account to open the Facebook app.
Likewise the calendar, while easy enough to use, lacks things like the ability to customise layout style (only colours can be changed) or decline syncing with certain calendars.