Do you hate fitting in? Would you gladly jump off the bandwagon even if it meant landing in a ditch? Do you revel in neighbourhood children's cries of 'Mary, Mary, quite contrary' when you stroll the local lanes? Then take a gander at the HP TouchPad, the other, other tablet.
It's not an iPad, and it doesn't run Google's Android Honeycomb software, like most other tablets. Instead, it offers a smooth webOS user interface, a great Internet browser and some booming Beats speakers. Unfortunately, it also suffers from comparatively terrible battery life, a chubby case and a severe lack of apps.
The TouchPad is available for pre-order at £400 for the 16GB version and £480 for the 32GB version. Neither have 3G connectivity -- just Wi-Fi. Those prices are almost identical to what you'd pay for the equivalent iPad 2. The TouchPad will be released on 1 July.
Got a belly
The TouchPad is a tablet outsider. The UK never warmed up to its little brother, the Palm Pre (HP now owns Palm), and few are holding their breath for a giant Pre now. Nevertheless, HP has decided to stick with the Pre look for the TouchPad.
That means it has a rounded, shiny plastic body. We like this approach on HP's phones, because it makes them fit in the hand like a smooth pebble. Unfortunately, its rounded back makes the TouchPad look larger than it needs to be, and rather tubby compared to the sleek iPad 2.
The TouchPad measures 190 by 230 by 14mm and weighs 770g. The iPad 2 measures 186 by 241 by 9mm and weighs 601g. Despite both having a 9.7-inch screen, then, the TouchPad feels heftier in the hand.
When it comes to what's inside, we're happy that HP has stuck to Palm's path. WebOS is a fabulous operating system -- something proven by the fact that many features have been shamelessly ripped off by other manufacturers.
Multitasking, in particular, is well handled. It all takes place on the home screen, which is easy to access via either a swiping gesture from the bottom of the screen, or the home button -- the only button on the front of the TouchPad.
Your open apps show as a row of giant thumbnails on the home screen. To open one, you tap it. To close one, you swipe it up into the app graveyard. It's such a satisfying system that it's no wonder it's been cheekily reproduced on the BlackBerry PlayBook tablet.
Compared to Android on a tablet like the Motorola Xoom, we think the TouchPad offers a slightly more intuitive way to swap between open apps. But you can't fill up the home screen with shortcuts and widgets, as you can on Android, because it's already taken up by the 'deck of cards' display of open apps.
Notifications are another place where the TouchPad shines. Even if you're on the receiving end of a flurry of emails, calendar updates and other alerts, they chill out unobtrusively at the edge of the screen, just nudging the corner of your eye until you're ready for them.
But it's not all good news. Despite being in the works for what feels like decades, the TouchPad still has some software quirks.
For example, we had some trouble with the TouchPad's email client. Although it looks great, and it brings together all your email accounts like a charm, it has an awkward bug. At one point, every email we tapped showed the same content. Even swapping between accounts, emails with different subject lines and headers all contained the same sentence from another email. Restarting the app made no difference, and we had to reboot the tablet to get relief.
In search of apps
Not only are there far fewer apps available for the TouchPad than for its tablet competitors, the app store also proves flaky at times.
There are some good apps in the store, such as the magazine-style Pivot, a guide that aims to introduce you to the best apps. But on our TouchPad, apps sometimes showed as unavailable, then available, then failed to download, and then downloaded but turned up empty. That was our experience with the TED app, for example.
Many of the TouchPad's software wrinkles could be ironed out with some timely updates. But such software slip-ups could prove a serious problem when it comes to competing with more established rivals.
Presents for Pre owners
The TouchPad has some special features for the few people who have the latest webOS phones. For example, tapping your HP Pre 3 against the tablet when it's showing a Web page will automatically open the same page on the TouchPad. Unfortunately, without a new Pre 3 or Veer on hand, we weren't able to test this feature out.
HP says this feature will eventually evolve to allow users to transfer files, applications and application data, but there's no news on when this might happen. It's a very cool-looking feature when you see it in action, but it depends on you buying an HP phone, so don't put too much store in it unless you're planning to become an HP fan for life.
Beats yourself up
Other than a micro-USB port, there aren't any ports cluttering up the TouchPad -- that means no HDMI or other gubbins. But the USB socket makes it straightforward to transfer music and photos back and forth onto the tablet, without being chained to a horror like iTunes. Instead, you can sync your media using the software of your choice. But note that the tablet will be out of commission while you're plugged in over USB, so you won't be able to use it until it's unplugged.
Once your tunes are on the TouchPad, you can take advantage of its booming Dr Dre Beats speakers. The whole CNET UK office can vouch for the fact that they are indeed loud. In fact, we've never heard a tablet sound better, and we'd be happy to use the Beats speakers to watch films on the TouchPad.
Flash in the hand
The TouchPad's browser supports Flash and HTML5, so the wonderful world of Web videos is open to you. In our tests, the tablet rendered pages entirely accurately. YouTube videos worked a treat, as did the embedded video players that we tested on CNET UK and CNN. We didn't even have to install the Flash Player first, as you must with most Android tablets.
With so many sites using Flash for animations and navigation, as well as video, we have a hard time living without it on the iPad 2. So it's great to see it working well on the TouchPad.
The TouchPad's 1.2GHz, dual-core Qualcomm processor seemed to keep video moving smoothly. Overall, the tablet didn't feel lightning-fast, though. It wasn't uncommon for us to face the spinning icon of thoughtfulness when we launched a new app like the email client. It wasn't a horror show of delays, but it goes to show that a top-of-the-line processor doesn't necessarily mean you'll never have to wait around.
When it comes to backing up, the TouchPad is the king of the cloud. We already had an account with Palm's cloud service and, now that HP has taken the company over, we were able to log into the tablet and pull down all of our account settings from our old phone.
But beware -- you must have access to a Wi-Fi network to sign in for the first time, and you can't do anything with the TouchPad until you've done that. We couldn't even use the Wi-Fi at CNET UK Towers because the TouchPad doesn't support networks with landing pages. So, if you're thinking of buying a TouchPad at the airport, be aware that you won't be able to do much except turn it on until you can get some Wi-Fi going.
You can't charge the TouchPad using just any micro-USB cable, either. Like most tablets, it needs more voltage than a typical cable can provide. You can buy a charging stand for the TouchPad for £70, but it's just okay -- it plugs into the wall and you can't ditch the cable, so it's not that portable.
The TouchPad needs all the power it can get. Unlike some of its competitors, this tablet only lasted just over a day with normal use. While we can stuff the iPad 2 in a drawer and come back to it weeks later to find it still going strong, the TouchPad didn't last a weekend snoozing in our cabinet.
The HP TouchPad is up against some serious challengers in its bid to become the titan of tablets. It has some mighty weapons at its disposal, in the form of an attractive user interface, top-notch speakers, and a cracking Web browser. But it will suffer some mortal wounds due to its lack of apps, poor battery life, chubby plastic case and occasionally flaky software.
If you're not keen on apps and would rather stick to surfing the Web, the TouchPad could be a contender, thanks to its well-designed interface. But, if you're willing to get to grips with Android's more complicated interface, most Honeycomb tablets have more potential to thrill. For sheer design quality and app selection, the wafer-thin iPad 2 comes out on top.
Edited by Charles Kloet