6 things to like about the HP TouchPad

Is there room for one more contender in the tablet market? HP (s hpq) thinks so, and last week it launched the TouchPad: a slate that looks similar to competing devices on the outside, but offers a fresh, new take on the inside with the webOS software. Apple’s iPad (s aapl) currently has the lion’s share of the tablet market, mainly because it offers a strong user experience, a myriad of applications and a strong media ecosystem. HP’s TouchPad clearly faces a challenge in the latter two areas for now, but in terms of user experience, there’s much to like.

  1. Superb multitasking. When HP bought Palm and the webOS platform last year, the company wisely continued one of the most compelling functions found in the operating system: simple but effective multitasking. Applications open in full-sized windows, but one touch gesture — a finger flick from the bottom of the screen — shrinks the app into a small card. Users can swipe through multiple cards on the TouchPad to jump from one app to another. And similar cards are automatically grouped together. Open multiple web pages, for example, and the TouchPad stacks them for easy access. Closing an app is as simple as flicking a card off the top of the tablet screen.
  2. Monster messaging. Another webOS differentiator for HP’s Touchpad is the singular Messaging app that integrates several services. From one app, the TouchPad natively supports Google Talk (s goog), AIM (s aol), Skype audio and video calls (s msft), Yahoo! Messenger (s yhoo) and future third-party apps. TouchPad owners who also have a webOS smartphone can send and receive text messages from the application as well.
  3. Notifications. These are a necessary evil for any mobile device, and there’s a fine line to balance. People don’t want to be pestered with “in your face” notifications for every email, message or news blurb. But incoming notifications can’t be missed either, or they defeat their primary purpose. The TouchPad offers the best of both worlds, and even an added bonus. Notifications appear directly on the device lock screen so you see them at first glance. An LED light in the home button blinks when there are notifications and the TouchPad display is off. When using the tablet, notifications appear in the top right of the screen and are stacked by application: Emails are grouped as are Facebook updates, text messages, etc. You can swipe through these notifications, and if there’s one that requires attention, a quick tap opens the appropriate application.
  4. Printer integration. I often use a tablet in lieu of a full notebook or desktop computer and although I don’t print often, when I need to print, it’s a must-have function. Other tablets, notably Apple’s iPad, now support wireless printing, but the TouchPad goes toe-to-toe with the iPad in this area. That’s likely due to HP’s commitment to wireless and cloud printing: I recently bought such an “ePrint” device, and the TouchPad automatically discovered my Photosmart C310 printer. Wireless or network printers not found automatically can be added manually with the devices’ IP addresses. You can even choose different print settings such as 2-sided printing or color, directly from the TouchPad.
  5. A keyboard for all hands. I think one of the most under-rated features of the TouchPad is the re-sizable keyboard. In either portrait or landscape mode, holding the keyboard button brings up four size choices: extra small, small, medium and large. When I passed the device around to several people and told them about this function, I found that all used different sizes, customizing the keys just for their hands and use. Given that mobile devices are highly personal, the customized keyboard sizes offer both a nice personalization touch and a wider range of input usability.
  6. A new canvas for developers. The quality of apps on the iPad makes it a compelling device and the TouchPad has a ways to catch up here in terms of quantity. But I’ve already noticed some outstanding new features found in webOS apps that not even the iPad had. Take the Facebook app, for example. There still isn’t one for the iPad, but the webOS version is stellar. Outside of chat support, there are no major features I find lacking. And a unique magazine-style layout option has no equal on any other Facebook client: You can see this useful design in my video overview of the TouchPad below. Need another example? I constantly check WordPress to view and respond to reader comments here on the blog, which leads to various checking in on the comment queue. I don’t have to do that on the TouchPad though, because the software supports integrated notifications in webOS: Comments appear alongside my emails and texts, where I can quickly manage them.

The last aspect is one that shows the most promise to me because I’m looking forward to seeing what applications third-party developers can create for HP’s TouchPad. Unfortunately, this strength also points out one of the key reasons why consumers may balk from the TouchPad for now. A solid mobile platform on a tablet with strong base features is nice, but not enough for everyone to make the purchase. Instead, the TouchPad offers much to like now, with the potential for even more to like later. As much as I’m enjoying this review unit, it’s that potential that I — and many others — are waiting to see.

Note that there are plenty of other pleasant aspects to the TouchPad: a great email client, a wireless charging dock and the JustType feature that works as a universal search function, to name a few. My list of likes will likely vary from yours, but these six items jumped out at me. With solid basics out of the way for the TouchPad, access to a media store and strong third-party apps are the key for HP’s TouchPad going forward.

DisclosureAutomattic, maker of WordPress.com, is backed by True Ventures, a venture capital firm that is an investor in the parent company of this blog, Giga Omni Media. Om Malik, founder of Giga Omni Media, is also a venture partner at True.