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Originally published July 15, 2011 at 12:00 PM | Page modified July 15, 2011 at 7:34 PM

HP's TouchPad best iPad rival so far

Hewlett-Packard's new TouchPad tablet computer is no iPad killer, but in some ways it's the most polished rival so far.

San Jose Mercury News

Hewlett-Packard TouchPad tablet

Troy rating: 7.0 out of 10

Likes: webOS operating system; integrated video calling via Skype; Exhibition feature

Dislikes: Lack of apps; limited number of services that can connect to Synergy feature; thicker and heavier than rivals; no rear-facing camera

Specs: 1.2GHz processor; 1.3-megapixel front-facing camera

How much: $500 for 16 gigabytes of storage; $600 for 32 gigabytes of storage

Web: www.hpwebos.com

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Apple has dominated the tablet market since it launched the iPad last year. But it might finally have some competition.

Hewlett-Packard's new TouchPad tablet computer has hit store shelves. The device is no iPad killer, but in some ways it's the most polished rival so far.

The TouchPad actually bears a lot of resemblance to the iPad. Unlike many other tablets, it includes a similarly sized and proportioned touch-screen. It has a front-facing camera and a case with a curved back that resembles the one on Apple's device. It has a home button that works like the iPad's and has a similar black border around its screen.

Underneath, it has other similarities. Both run on dual-core processors clocked at 1 gigahertz or more. Both are offered with 16 or 32 gigabytes of storage. (You can also get a 64GB iPad.)

And HP is offering the TouchPad for the same prices that Apple charges for similar iPads.

But the TouchPad is more than an iPad knockoff. It has its own distinct operating system and some features you won't find on Apple's device.

The TouchPad runs on webOS, the innovative operating-system software developed by Palm, which HP acquired last year. WebOS has long been a favorite of mine because of the way it merges data collected from multiple sources and for a system that allows you to run and switch between multiple programs.

WebOS includes a feature dubbed Synergy, which automatically combines things like address-book contacts and calendars stored on multiple accounts. Synergy is woven deeply into webOS. The preinstalled messaging application, for example, allows you to log in to multiple chat applications at once, including Google Talk, Skype and Yahoo Messenger. And the photo gallery pulls in pictures from Facebook and Photobucket.

Some of these features can be found on other tablet and smartphone operating systems, but typically in more limited forms than on webOS.

The other standout feature of webOS is the way it handles multitasking. Open applications are represented as cards, and to switch among them you swipe left or right to call up the one you want and then tap on it. To close an application, you simply toss its card up and off the screen.

This system debuted with the original Palm Pre two years ago, but it's still more elegant than what you'll find on the iPad or on the new tablets running the Honeycomb version of Google's Android operating system.

In addition to these webOS standbys, the TouchPad out of the box can make video calls using Skype. And the device includes a version of the Quickoffice application that allows users to view documents stored in Dropbox or Google Docs or sent as email attachments.

It also has a feature called Exhibition, which is intended to be used when you're not actively playing with the TouchPad. Instead of showing an app or the home screen, Exhibition will display a clock, recent Facebook posts from your friends, your upcoming appointments, or your pictures like a digital picture frame. You can turn Exhibition on manually, or it will launch automatically when you set the TouchPad into an optional charging dock.

For all its compelling features, though, the TouchPad does have some significant shortcomings.

Perhaps most notable is that it suffers from the same problem plaguing other tablets that have tried to take on the iPad: a lack of applications. You'll find just 300 tablet-customized applications in Palm's App Catalog.

With Android tablets, you at least have the comfort of choosing from tens of thousands of applications, even if they haven't yet been customized for tablet devices. But webOS users don't have that luxury. There are only about 8,000 total apps for webOS, and HP says about 700 of those won't work on the TouchPad. While you can find some of the most popular apps for webOS, such as "Angry Birds" and Facebook, there are many holes.

A lack of apps is not the TouchPad's only problem. While I like Synergy and appreciate that HP has increased the number of services you can connect to with it, I'd like to see it connect to far more. You can't use Synergy to connect to Twitter, pull up Picasa photos in the TouchPad's gallery, or access Facebook's chat services in the TouchPad's messaging program.

If you're nit-picky like me, you'll find other ways that the TouchPad doesn't compare well with the iPad. It weighs 3 ounces more than the iPad 2 and is 50 percent thicker. Although it has a higher-resolution forward-facing camera than the iPad 2's, unlike that device it doesn't have a rear-facing camera. Rear-facing cameras can be useful when you are on a video call and want to show someone what you can see.

So I like the TouchPad. It's a more pleasurable device to use than other iPad competitors. If HP can entice developers to make more webOS apps, it might be ready to take on the iPad. But for now, it's not in the same league.

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