Android on My TouchPad

It’s been almost a year since I bought an HP TouchPad for $99. Since then it’s been sitting on my desk as an occasional digital picture frame and clock. If you don’t know what the TouchPad is, it is a tablet that was released in 2011 to compete with the iPad. Like the iPad it has a 10″ screen, a touch interface, web browser, apps, etc. It runs on a platform called WebOS which was developed by Palm (remember those?) for its line of phones and then modified to work on a tablet. The WebOS is notable for its ability to run multiple applications, its “card based” application switcher, and the fact that all of its apps are written using web technologies which theoretically makes them easier and cheaper to create and maintain.

The TouchPad was released in August 2011 at the same capacity and price points as an iPad – 16 GB for $500, 32 GB for $600, and 64 GB for $700 for WiFi models.While the TouchPad was promising, it was no match for the iPad which was thinner, faster, and had a much larger and established application ecosystem. As a result sales were poor. The device itself isn’t too bad – HP put great effort into providing an inviting, arguably Apple-like experience; everything from the packaging to the documentation was near the quality of its biggest competitor. The software was actually the worst part. Though it was technically version 3, the WebOS, due to its web technology nature, was excruciatingly slow. Applications took far longer to load than on an iPad and often felt sluggish. The ability to multitask was also hampered by the fact that the device ran out of memory quickly and told users that they had to close applications to open more. Not the best user experience.

Had the TouchPad been around longer, sales may have picked up, but HP decided only 49 days after its release to wash their hands of it. The TouchPad was put on an unprecedented “fire sale” designed to clear out inventory quickly. The 16 GB model was discounted 80% and sold for a mere $99.  Regardless of the quality of the device or its software, a $100 tablet with a 10″ screen was unimaginable and could not be passed up. At that price HP was losing hundreds of dollars on each device meaning it was a price point that wouldn’t be offered again for a long time by any company. I immediately started researching where I could get one and even waited in Black Friday style lines outside of BestBuy to pick one up. I was eventually able to get my hands on a 16 GB model.

As I said before, I have used it as a photo frame and a clock for the past year and it’s been great. The photo app integrates nicely with Facebook and can display a slideshow of all of my latest photos. Looks great on my desk. As for its other functions – Facebook, web browsing, music – its software was just too slow. I bought it knowing that someone would eventually hack something better onto it, and it didn’t take them long. Various versions of Android have been running on it for a while now. They’ve finally been able to run the almost latest version (4.0 Ice Cream Sandwich) and I decided to bite. Installing Android would give me the opportunity to modernize my TouchPad, install newer and better apps, and get a bit more acquainted with Android than I have been in the past.

Before I get into my experience, a quick note about Android. Android is an operating system maintained by Google as an open source piece of software. After each major release, Google puts the source code online for anyone to download and modify. As such, a large “hacking” community has developed which is the entire reason that I can run it on a TouchPad. Someone who is interested takes the source code, throws it on a device, and figures out what works and what doesn’t. They slowly fix things like graphics, sound, and video until the whole OS works. Part of the reason for this community is because it often takes months or even a year for Android device owners to receive software updates because they have to wait for each manufacturer to update their devices. Often times “hacked” or “unofficial” versions of Android can be installed on their devices much sooner.

One of the groups that hacks Android is the Cyanogen Mod team and they’ve done a really great job with it. It is available for a bunch of devices including the TouchPad. Installation was relatively easy: just install the Palm development software so you can connect to the TouchPad, download the latest Cyanogen Mod and some installer files, and run the installer. It creates a dual boot setup that allows me to boot into the existing WebOS or Android. It even includes an additional tool that makes upgrades easy and straightforward. The process is a little more involved than your standard software upgrade, requiring terminal input and scrolling lines of linux boot commands across the screen, so I wouldn’t recommend the process to my parents, but if you are a nerd or just adventurous and can follow directions, it’s pretty straightforward.

After about a half hour of installing, I had Android 4.0 running on my TouchPad complete with wireless networking, Bluetooth, graphics acceleration, sound, and microphone. The only thing that doesn’t work is the camera but that doesn’t matter to me. I’ve spent the last week or so installing applications, widgets, and my personal favorite, live wallpapers. Live wallpapers are basically screen savers that can run behind your home screen. The are a complete novelty and eat up battery life by the mouthful but they are one of my favorite parts of Android. I setup one of my home screens with a bunch of widgets – Facebook, weather, music, GMail, news – so that I can have a quick overview of what’s going on and I have a gentle live wallpaper running under it.

I must say that I’m happy with it so far. The version of Android that is installed is very true to the clean, basic Google experience with no sluggish themes or crapware included. The Cyanogen Mod team even adds additional configuration options to allow you to customize it beyond a stock Android experience. Performance is far better than under Web OS, not as fast as my iPad, but not much slower than many of the other Android tablets that I’ve seen. As for the software, Android is still not my favorite platform, but it is definitely much more usable than it was in the past. I still don’t like it’s reliance on the “back button” to navigate through and between applications and I still believe that the iOS has higher quality applications, but I like the fact that I can customize and tinker with it. I’ve been using my Google Music account to stream music and that has been nice as well. In half an hour I’ve been able to breath new life into a piece of technology that was dying on my desk. Not too bad.

If you have a TouchPad and are interested in upgrading it to Android, I suggest following the guide here. I installed the Palm SDK from the Palm website because I couldn’t get the NovaCom installer to work. Note that you don’t need Virtual Box and can skip directly to downloading the SDK. I also installed the latest nightly build of Ice Cream Sandwich (Android 4.0) instead of the the RC build or the experimental Jellybean (Android 4.1) build.

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