A plea to HP: make your mobile products pop

HP Slate7

HP’s Slate7 is the company’s return to the reasonably-priced consumer tablet space, following the failure of its webOS-based TouchPad. I’ve had a hands-on play with it a couple of times at Mobile World Congress, and spoken to HP mobile chief Alberto Torres about it, and I’m still unconvinced.

I do think the tablet will sell — not magnificently, but not poorly either. Its outward styling is attractive enough, and some people find Beats Audio to be a killer feature (I’m a bit too much of an audio purist to enjoy the bass overload that it represents, but that’s me). It has a slightly feeble camera when its key rivals around its price — $169 — have none.

Blandness

HP mobility chief Alberto TorresHowever, if I were in the market for a small tablet — I’m not, as I own both an iPad mini and a Nexus 7 — I would steer clear for one reason: the screen.

The resolution isn’t the problem; it’s fine for the size. What I can’t get past is how washed-out it is compared to both the devices I own. More than any other kind of computer, a tablet is essentially a screen with trimmings. It has to convince.

The upside with relatively low-contrast screens is that they can be easier to view in sunlight, and according to Torres this was a conscious choice.

“We really have emphasised readability, particularly outdoors readability,” he told me. “It provides quite a good experience for video and gaming, but we decided to emphasise readability.” Why so? “We were looking at a worldwide product. We thought this product will play well in America, but also when looking at emerging markets outdoor readability is quite important.”

You may wonder why I’m obsessing over this contrast point. Part of that’s down to the splendid metaphor it presents. But it’s also because, even after conversing with Torres on the subject, I am none the wiser as to HP’s mobile strategy. So the tablet has what many potential customers will consider an unsuitable screen, because HP wants to address emerging markets? Why then is the Slate7 priced for the U.S., not for the emerging markets, where you really want to strike below the $100 mark if you want to make an impact?

More blandness

And why has HP chosen to barely skin the Slate7’s Android interface? “It’s not final — there will be a bit more [before release],” Torres said, but he confirmed that HP is trying to leave the Android user experience as close as possible to its stock origins.

I’m an Android user, and I opt for the Nexus line (I also have a Nexus 4 phone), which does use pure stock Android, but that’s not why I buy Nexus: I buy Nexus so I always get the latest OS updates as soon as possible. I used to have an HTC phone, and I kind of miss some of the Sense gimmicks that HTC throws into its devices. Stock Android is fine, but HP is missing an opportunity to really differentiate what it’s offering here.

And that’s the fundamental problem with the Slate7: it’s too “meh.” In my opinion, HP rushed it — you must bear in mind that the company only set up its new mobile division last September, less than six months ago. It feels like the Slate7 was timed to come out at Mobile World Congress, as opposed to coming out when it was ready to turn heads on its own merits.

Hoping for greater contrast

“We are the number one PC manufacturer in the word and we intend to be a leader on tablets as well,” Torres told me. But HP’s leadership strategy is to have as broad a portfolio as possible — some Google and some Microsoft in each segment, a bit of something for everyone.

That’s not enough. Samsung also plays that game, but it can get away with it because some of its products have been real head-turners; the Galaxy Note, which was unlike anything else out there when it launched, springs to mind.

The Note was a risk. Half the world laughed when it came out, scorning its excessive size, by smartphone standards, and its reintroduction of the much-maligned mobile device stylus. But it was a hit, and no one’s laughing now.

It’s not too late, HP. You still have it in you to release something extraordinary. Take your time, take a risk, and make the next one a killer.

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