Chris Nuttall HP TouchPad is untouchable for now

While the media were not allowed to reach out and actually touch HP’s TouchPad at its unveiling in San Francisco on Wednesday, there was an opportunity to see some close-up demos (see video below) after the unveiling and to handle the new Veer and Pre3 smartphones.

My impressions were that this was a strong competitor in the power of its interface and hardware to the iPad, but its summer launch and comparative lack of apps may not put it in touching distance of the iPad or Android devices appearing months earlier.

HP appeared to tease developers in announcing that webOS would be extended to the PC, while giving no concrete details. But if their apps can appear on phones, tablets, printers and PCs made by the number-one PC maker, that does make webOS an attractive platform to pursue, so the lure may work in providing the TouchPad with a more substantial app store.

There is also the possibility of synergy between devices – HP demonstrated how text messages and calls sent to a Veer or Pre 3 could be seen or taken on the tablet and web links could be shared over Bluetooth when devices are in proximity. I also saw wireless printing to an HP printer.

HP was a little hazy about whether these kind of features would be extended to working with non-HP devices. It may want to preserve their exclusivity, but that could put some consumers off.

The interface is impressive in the way it builds on that of the webOS of the Palm Pre. You can flick through cards of apps in the same way and fling them off the top of the screen when you want to close them.

Relevant apps and items can also be stacked – Android’s Honeycomb tablet interface also uses stacks – so an email and a related web page can be automatically grouped.

The eReader capabilities were impressive, especially for reading magazines, and the TouchPad presented photos and videos in an attractive viewer, including not just those locally stored, but also thumbnails of media in the cloud – such as a photo on your Facebook account.

Different panes in the email client could be flicked through at the same time in a demo that resembled pulling the lever on a one-armed bandit and the animation was also impressive on message notifications, which could be flicked through with a finger.

The hardware is a match for its rivals. The screen is the same size as the iPad at 9.7-inches, it has the same resolution and the device weighs the same at around 1.5 pounds. A single 1.3Mp webcam for video calls has been added, along with stereo speakers with high-quality audio from HP’s Beats technology, 16 or 32Gb of storage and a dual-core processor for faster performance.

3G and 4G versions of the TouchPad will appear later than the summer launch of the Wi-Fi only versions and we have no details on price yet, with or without carrier subsidies.

Consumers may be prepared to wait now they know what to expect from this promising device, but, like a young man’s fancy in the spring, I suspect many’s thoughts will to turn to love for the iPad 2 when it appears in March or April.