Flash Forward: A Short Review of the HP Hurricane

October 1, 2010 December 27, 2011

When HP first announced it was purchasing Palm in April of this year, speculation ran rampant about the tech giant’s intentions in the smartphone market and about how it planned to utilize Palm’s revolutionary webOS mobile operating system. HP was quick to stress their desire to use webOS everywhere, from smartphones to tablets to netbooks and even to printers, but still many questioned HP’s ultimate objectives in acquiring Palm. Would they continue selling smartphones, and if so, how serious would they be? Would they support the open development environment originally fostered by Palm? How long would it take for HP to release a competitor to Apple’s iPad? HP answered those questions unequivocally soon after, however, but still the webOS faithful remained anxious for new hardware.

In August October, of course, HP Palm released a very competitive smartphone in the Palm Prime, to much critical and market success (ironically, had the Pre sold as well as the Prime, then the HP purchase might have been unnecessary). The Prime, though, was already in Palm’s roadmap and didn’t by itself answer the question of how important webOS smartphones would remain to HP. At the same time, HP also released a handful of webOS-enabled printers and multifunction devices, and with no tablet immediately in sight the Palm faithful were getting worried. That was enough to convince webOS enthusiasts that HP was serious about making the platform successful, and webOS 2.0 granted the majority of users their most fervent wishes for the platform’s capabilities.

With the unofficial official announcement of the HP Hurricane expected at CES 2011 in early January, however, Palm fans can take heart have even more proof that webOS will not be relegated to printers and to a one-hit wonder in the Prime. Coupled with the Prime’s success, the Hurricane ensures that webOS will live on in a vast array of impressive, industry-leading, and interconnected devices. HP may or may not be using Palm branding in its non-smartphone products, but the Palm legacy lives on regardless throughout HP’s webOS product line.

We were lucky enough to get some hands-on time with the Hurricane, and in short, it’s a remarkable device. Based on a design that Palm tweaked for over a year while lacking the funds necessary to produce it HP’s Voodoo DNA-inspired and MUSE design philosophy, the Hurricane is made of high-quality materials, mainly aluminum and glass, and features the trademark gesture area along one vertical and one horizontal edge of the minimal bezel (more on that later).

Read on to learn why we say that if you’re in the market for a tablet device (and you should be), the Hurricane is the one to beat. HP has asked us not to include any screenshots or images of the Hurricane in this short review—they’re saving them for the official announcement in a few days next week, understandably—but trust us when we say that you’re going to like what you see.

Specifications

HP brought its big guns to the fight in realizing Palm’s vision of the webOS tablet. No company has more supply chain clout than HP, and it shows: components are top-notch, manufacturing build is superior, and yet HP has managed to beat the iPad—its obvious competitor—in price. Coming in at $50 less than the iPad across equivalent versions while providing significantly better connectivity, screen, and input options, the Hurricane is simply an impressive accomplishment for the money.

All versions of the Hurricane are driven by the Tegra 2 chipset, which means a dual-core Cortex A9 processor running at 1GHz and sporting an nvidia GPU supporting OpenGL ES 2.0. The Tegra 2 can drive accelerated 1080P video and a wide variety of multimedia formats, and HP has elected to support them all in the Hurricane. While the chipset is planned for a number of tablet devices, HP beat its most competitors to the punch in announcing the one of the first implementations—and like the iPad before it, the Hurricane has set the bar extremely high.

The Hurricane is loaded up with a full 1GB of RAM to provide the best webOS experience available on any device so far, and storage options range from16GB on the lowest-end model all the way up to 64GB on the high end. HP followed Apple’s example in providing 3G and non-3G versions (in this case, on the Sprint network), while one-upping Apple by offering a WiMax version supporting Sprint’s increasingly ubiquitous 4G network. All Hurricanes support 802.11n wifi and Bluetooth 2.1 + EDR.

Two areas where the Hurricane outshines the iPad are in connectivity and input support. WIth two USB ports, HDMI-out on the device, front- and rear-facing cameras, a compass, a gryoscope, assisted GPS, and support for pen input (with a supporting API), the Hurricane is an incredibly well-equipped device. A proprietary port supports a docking station that provides Ethernet connectivity and a DMI input connection that turns the Hurricane into a small second monitor for a notebook or desktop PC. It’s a small but nice touch, and just one of many. An additional DMI output connector on the docking station means that the Hurricane can drive a second monitor, although HP has yet to provide a webOS update supporting dual monitors.

Where the Hurricane really shines, though, is in the 10.1” Pixel QI screen. Supporting three modes—standard transmissive, transreflective, and reflective—the Pixel QI can accommodate all possible lighting conditions. In standard mode, the screen is extremely bright and responsive for watching video, Web browsing, and standard productivity tasks. Transreflective mode works well in the typical office environment and provides good contrast and performance, while reducing battery life. Finally, Pixel QI’s unique high-contrast reflective mode rivals dedicated e Ink readers for ebook reading, being viewable in direct sunlight and dramatically reducing eyestrain for long-term reading. The kicker: the reflective mode performs like an LCD, meaning that page-turns are instantaneous and suffer none of the lag seen with standard e Ink screens.

Finally, HP has managed to cram 25 watt-hours worth of battery into the Hurricane, while keeping the weight competitive to the iPad at around 1.5 pounds. Unfortunately, the battery is non-removable as with the iPad, a compromise likely made necessary by the Hurricane’s svelte design.

Performance and Real-World Use

Let’s start with the best: the Pixel QI screen turns the Hurricane into not only the best multimedia and productivity tablet on the market, but also the best ebook reader. A convenient button turns the backlight off to enable reflective mode, while an ambient light sensor automatically adjusts the backlight when in use in different environments. Simply put, the Hurricane can handle any kind of lighting, from the intense sunlight of Southern California to a poorly lit office environment. It’s really quite impressive, and it turns the Hurricane into a uniquely versatile device.

Next, webOS performance is simply stunning. While the Palm Prime and webOS 1.5 showed how well the mobile OS can perform with better hardware and support for the GPU in the UI (one of the most visible additions in the 1.5 update), webOS is simply a transcendent experience with the Tegra 2 processor and so much RAM at its disposal. A seemingly infinite number of applications can be opened at once, and the tablet-specific user interface enhancements mean that the Hurricane exposes running applications in an incredibly productive manner.

No other mobile device provides such smooth and elegant multitasking, and with the superior Synergy and notifications of webOS on a larger device, the Hurricane provides simply the most productive experience of any mobile device. It’s a little difficult to describe in words, but suffice it say that while webOS works well on the smaller screen of a smartphone, it really opens up on a screen as large as the Hurricane’s. We’re looking forward to seeing apps written to utilize the Hurricane’s performance and unique screen characteristics.

The Palm design also intelligently incorporates the standard webOS gesture area into a tablet format. Essentially, either the vertical or the horizontal gesture area becomes active depending on how the tablet is being held, a design that seems to work well in practice. It does mean, however, that unlike the iPad the Hurricane is meant to be used in only two orientations. This did not seem to hamper the use of the tablet.

Up to six cards (what running apps are called on webOS) can be shown on the screen at a time, with a pinch gesture enabling a greater or fewer number. This allows a variety of real-time, dynamically updated information to be available at a glance, simply by keeping open, say, a weather app, a Twitter client, an RSS reader, and the native Calendar, Email, and Messaging apps. Forget a handful of hard-coded widgets—the ability to show so many standard apps at once provides the same experience without the overhead and with much greater flexibility. Notably, the same webOS swipe gesture for closing applications works as expected, with a twist—but we won’t ruin the surprise in this review.

During our week of using the Hurricane (while getting very little sleep), we found that other than the need to make calls (and even that’s possible with Skype), the Hurricane could replace every other mobile device that you use. You won’t want to, however–HP is allowing up to three webOS devices to share the same Palm Profile, which backs up local data and configuration options and provides for Synergy support across devices. This means that no matter whether I was using my Palm Prime or my Hurricane, I had access to the same information and apps, all synced and up-to-date. HP plans to support even more cross-device capabilities in a future webOS update, such as saving game states on one device and restarting at the same point on another.

Battery life is another Hurricane strength. Running the screen in standard mode, the tablet can last a full 10 hours on a single charge, while using the transreflective capabilities of the Pixel QI screen can stretch battery life a few more hours. Even more exciting, I ran the experiment of using the Hurricane exclusively in reflective mode. By minimizing use of 3G and wifi, I was able to squeeze out a remarkable 20 hours of use, making the Hurricane a real competitor to dedicated ebook readers. Realistic real-life numbers would seem to be anywhere between 10 and 20 hours, which is a significant achievement on the part of HP’s engineers and gives Apple something to shoot for with the iPad 2.

Content

HP has built strong relationships with a variety of content providers, including Barnes & Noble for ebooks (http://hp.barnesandnoble.com/ebooks/), Amazon for music and video purchases, and Rhapsody for music downloads and streaming (currently running as a dedicated app on HP TouchSmart PCs), and Netflix for streaming movies and TV. With strong apps supporting each content type, the Hurricane is second-to-none when it comes to providing for anyone’s content needs.

In addition, unlike Apple, HP has no vested interest in selling content and is therefore entirely agnostic in terms of where users get their content. The HP ebook reader software, for example, supports all of the popular industry standards, including ePub and PDF, and HP has indicated that it will create no restrictions on content formats and sources. The same goes for Flash, which has since improved dramatically on mobile devices and continues to be important in service up Internet video. Needless to say, running Flash on the Hurricane is a pleasant experience. With Hulu’s recent announcement of a paid subscription service for mobile devices, the Hurricane is a content lover’s dream device.

Applications

With just over 8,000 applications, the HP Palm App Catalog still lags the competition in sheer numbers. However, while Apple’s App Store has over 250,000 applications and the Android Market has just crossed the 100,000 app threshold, the App Catalog proves the adage that quality is more important than quantity. While the Hurricane has access to fewer apps, all of the important mainstream developers are now supporting the platform. The Prime’s success has helped, along with HP’s muscle, and while there are some long-tail apps still unavailable for webOS, the vast majority of users will be able to find everything they need.

One very impressive area where the Hurricane shines is in its pen input. HP put some serious effort into lining up developer support for this capability, and it shows. The most notable inclusion is the native note-taking application, simply called Notes, that supports the pen and creates a special type of data, called “digital ink,” that is compatible with the format used in Microsoft’s Windows 7. Notes taken on the Hurricane are therefore compatible with applications like Microsoft OneNote, and HP has provided a convenient import tool that sucks ink off the Hurricane and squirts it into OneNote pages. It’s an impressive capability that makes the Hurricane even more attractive as a productivity device.

As with content, HP has taken a hands-off approach in building out the open development platform that Palm created. The webOS 2.0 SDK based on HTML, CSS, and Javascript now supports all important APIs, and the hybrid SDK/PDK, which allows for mixing C/C++ code with Javascript, enables powerful applications that remain within the webOS development framework. In addition, developers can bypass the official App Catalog review process and distribute applications via the Web, providing developers with greater freedom to make a wider variety of apps.

With the impressive sales volume of the Prime and, we’re sure, of the Hurricane and other webOS devices, developers now see webOS as a viable and important platform. In addition, its openness is contributing to more and more developers specifically leaving Apple’s iOS and building applications for webOS.

Conclusion

The Hurricane demonstrates that HP knew exactly what it was doing when it purchased Palm. The combination of HP’s scale, supply chain, and financial strength and Palm’s webOS and design philosophies has resulted in a device that takes mobile computing to a new level. It’s as good for consuming multimedia as any other device on the market, and with its pen and digital ink support, the Hurricane is great for students, salespeople, and anyone else who needs to take ad hoc notes and create drawings on the fly. It is, in short, as productive as it is fun, a combination that Apple has yet to accomplish with the iPad.

Apple might have made the first modern tablet running a mobile, touch-based OS, but the HP Hurricane has perfected it. Run, don’t walk, to your nearest retail outlet (given HP’s wealth of distribution channels, you’ll have a number of options), and buy one. If you already own a Palm Prime, then you’ll find the Hurricane to be the perfect companion device. If you don’t have a Prime, then get one of those, too.

The Hurricane goes on sale on October 18 January 24 in the US, and on October 25 February 14 worldwide. Pricing starts at $449 for the 16GB, non-3G version and tops out at $779 for the 64GB version with Sprint 3G and WiMax support. Sprint has yet to release pricing for Hurricane data plans, but they are expected to be competitive with AT&T’s plans for the iPad. WiMax support will likely mimic the $10/month up charge on the Palm Prime and HTC Evo. HP plans to introduce a number of accessories for the Hurricane, including Bluetooth keyboards and mice.

(Update: I’ve updated this little piece of prediction to account for changes since the HP acquisition of Palm closed and with the publishing of some new information. I’ve also declined to change the name from the codename “Hurricane” to PalmPad, just because I love the former and can’t stand the latter.)

Comments

  1. Very clever post. Enjoyed reading it. Let’s hope your outlook is actually realistic and not rosy. Regardless, this will be fun to refer back to once it’s all said and done.

  2. Wow. What an excellent article!

  3. TeckieGirl says:

    This was very well thought out and I hope it comes thru…or even better than expected. Palms fans should not expect any thing less. AWESOME!

  4. Your strike-out date change and pie-in-sky use of anything but plastic seems a bit too optimistic for HP … but those of us enjoying webOS can always dream.

Trackbacks

  1. [...] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Mark Coppock, Drew Burton. Drew Burton said: PLEASE come true! RT @aboutpalmpre: Flash forward: a short review of the @HP #Hurricane, the first #webOS #tablet: http://bit.ly/9hhIkL [...]

  2. [...] have confirmed that HP Personal Systems Group leader Todd Bradley told HP employees yesterday that project “Hurricane,” HP’s internal codename for the webOS tablet project, is real and will bear fruit in Q1 of 2011. [...]

  3. [...] This post was mentioned on Twitter by David Johnson, AboutwebOS. AboutwebOS said: @rahulsood You're right, and I think something like this would better fit the billing: http://tinyurl.com/22p2xbg :-) [...]

  4. [...] general design aesthetic in a table format running webOS. Something like I speculate about in my HP Hurricane flash forward, for example. Mix in some of these as well, and I think you’ve got something that will attract [...]

  5. [...] But ultimately, I don’t really care what they call it, as long as it looks something like this. [...]

  6. [...] an app like this is really best suited for the larger tablet format, and of course the HP Hurricane PalmPad is still set for release in Q1 2011. Also, HP has plenty of resources to go around, and making an [...]

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