Cheaper, faster HP TouchPad is iPad’s best challenger

HP(s hpq) was expected to push an update for its TouchPad tablet by the end of July, and just after the month ended, the software began to arrive. I received webOS version 3.0.2 last night, and after a few hours of using the device, I think it makes a solid tablet even better.

The overall device is much faster; email management is more effective; background wallpapers can be customized; and autocorrection is better, among other improvements. I already thought HP nailed the basics in terms of a smooth user interface and smart multitasking, so for me, the new update addresses quite a few of the remaining gaps.

After using tablets on all of the available platforms now — iOS (s aapl), Android (s goog), BlackBerry (s rimm) and webOS — I think HP’s tablet platform currently appears to be the best competitor to Apple’s iOS. Yes, there’s much to like about all of the different choices; I’m simply speaking from my own experience and usage patterns.

If you want a small, portable  7-inch tablet with great Flash (s adbe) playback, for example, the PlayBook is your best bet. Looking for the best Google service integration and software? Nab one of the many Android tablets running Honeycomb. And the widest variety of apps and media options makes the iPad appealing. Only you can choose the best tablet for you; it’s not a one-size-fits-all product category.

Having said that, I’m a little sad that this TouchPad review unit is going back to HP in the next day or two. It’s only now, with this recent software update, that the device performs as expected, considering its 1.2 GHz dual-core processor. Instead of waiting for cards to appear when opening programs, they’re flying faster than actual cards at the World Series of Poker tournament. Scrolling in the browser is much smoother and page rendering is noticeably faster. All in all, this is the HP TouchPad that should have launched last month, not the one that seemed a little pokey.

It’s not too late for the TouchPad to be a hit, however. Yes, the application store is still missing some top-tier titles and services, but hopefully those will come in time as HP continues to court developers to the platform. The company didn’t spend $1.2 billion on Palm to make a half-hearted return to the mobile space. And even as a heavy Gmail user and Android owner, the TouchPad’s email client offers a superb experience; so much so that it takes away one of the key benefits of using an Android device for me.

Of course, any tablet that launches today will surely be compared to the iPad, which has been around for 15 months and outsells all others by a wide margin. The challenge to competitors is: If you can’t sell the “iPad experience” in a tablet, how will customers justify buying a non-iPad at the same price as an iPad? While I think HP is offering a solid experience with the TouchPad, the company is also cutting the price of the Wi-Fi tablet.

The 16 GB model is now $449, while the 32 GB edition is $549; both are now $50 less than their iPad counterparts. If HP can get consumers to spend some hands-on time with the updated TouchPad, the price cut, combined with the updated software, could definitely help boost sales.