Why the HP TouchPad has the best tablet UX I’ve seen

If you asked me last week which tablet user experience was the best, I wouldn’t have had a solid answer for you. They all have good points and bad. Whether one is “best” depends greatly on the user. Well, I’m chucking some of that out the window because I have seen the light and it is the HP TouchPad.

At first glance, the TouchPad looks like an iPad wannabe. Same screen size and dimensions. Similar home screen layout, onscreen keyboard, and app layouts. Lot of the same specs or improvements that are expected on the next iPad. Criticisms on those points are fair, and I’d guess the designers (or their bosses) made a deliberate attempt to start with the iPad as a base and improve upon it. But the distinctions between the two are substantial and great enough in my opinion to put the TouchPad a step not just above the iPad but also all of its direct competitors to date.

First, the card metaphor just makes sense for the larger tablet screen. I wasn’t thrilled when I first saw the card system on the Pre, but it looks ideal for a tablet. There’s more room to see the cards and shuffle between them. I couldn’t see myself thumbing through them on a phone, but I am definitely attracted to the idea of flipping through them on a tablet.

Second, the interoperability between Pre and TouchPad fits lock-step with my concept of phone + tablet combos. Use the Pre or other webOS phone as your roaming mobile device (outside home or office), carrying the TouchPad as needed. At home, the Pre goes down and the TouchPad gets picked up with calls and messages forwarded to it. Going back out, touch the Pre to the TouchPad to shuffle data back over. The ability to seamlessly switch between the two and having them work in tandem is really amazing. RIM was headed in this direction with their Playbook, but it falls short of what the TouchPad demonstrates. Most impressively, these power features look easy enough for a casual user to pick up.

Third, it completely buries the “portrait vs. landscape” debate. Like the iPad, it has a 4:3 screen ratio that is better suited for switching between orientations than the widescreens that other tablets favor. Unlike the iPad, it has no home button on the front bezel and the location of the charging port is made irrelevant by the Touchstone docking station. Portrait or landscape, it doesn’t matter. The design negates the argument.

Fourth, the webOS guys did not fall into the same trap that Android 3.0 stepped into, which is the temptation to make it more like a desktop. More screen space does not mean open season to introduce elements taken off a desktop PC. They didn’t cram in more elements to webOS for TouchPad. Instead, they made better use of the existing elements, like the notifications in the top bar, and retooling of apps for the larger screen. It remains simple, elegant, and geared for the average user, not power users.

All that said, “best” does not mean most desirable nor best for everyone. The TouchPad’s greatest strength could be its greatest weakness. Many of its killer features are tied to being partnered with a webOS phone. Great if you already have a webOS phone, but anyone else will be buying into a whole new ecosystem. That’s a tough sell.

Ask me which tablet use experience looks the best, I’d say the HP TouchPad. iPad, Playbook, and Xoom may match or exceed it in some ways, but this is the one that gives me that “wow” factor, that hits it on so many (but not all) key points. True, I haven’t laid hands on this tablet, nor the Playbook or Xoom for that matter, but from what I’ve seen, the TouchPad user experience is the one to beat. Ask me if you should buy one and that’s where I’m back to looking at usage, preferences, and current ecosystem.