How to install Android on the HP TouchPad

If you were lucky enough to get your hands on a cheap HP TouchPad a few months ago – or even if you paid full price – you’ve probably been waiting for a way to install Android on it. Now the CyanogenMod team, perhaps the web’s most respected Android hacking group, has released its alpha Android build for the device.

In this feature we’ll tell you what to expect, what works and what doesn’t, and – if you’re feeling brave – how to install it yourself.

Android on the TouchPad

The TouchPad hardware is more than capable of running Android. With its 1.2GHz dual-core Snapdragon CPU, it performs similarly to the Tegra 2-based tablets we’ve seen from the likes of Asus and Samsung. In the Quadrant benchmark we found a TouchPad running CyanogenMod’s alpha Android release scored 2,187, while the Samsung Galaxy Tab 10.1 with stock system software got 2,200.

The CyanogenMod Android build includes a few interface tweaks and features not normally found on stock Android devices, such as improved gesture support and an incognito browsing mode. But it lacks some of the aesthetic elegance of a dedicated Android tablet. Since source code for Android 3 (Honeycomb) hasn’t been made publicly available, this release of CyanogenMod (version 7.1) is based on Android 2.3 (Gingerbread), an older version of the OS originally designed for smartphones. For the future, the team plans to port Google’s forthcoming tablet-friendly Android 4 (Ice Cream Sandwich) to the TouchPad, but that probably won’t be with us for many months.

Android on the TouchPad therefore looks and feels a bit like using an outsized phone; and in fact all the phone and SMS apps and settings are still present in this alpha release, though of course they’re not functional. Since the TouchPad only has a single physical button, the CyanogenMod port adds soft buttons for Home, Back, Search and other features at the bottom of the screen, just like we’re used to seeing on Honeycomb tablets. In practice it’s a neat and usable solution.

Overall, while the CyanogenMod front-end is perhaps not as slick as Honeycomb, the TouchPad makes a perfectly good Android tablet.

What works, and what doesn’t

CyanogenMod 7.1 for the TouchPad is currently an alpha release, and bugs are to be expected. In our case we’ve found the operating system seems mostly stable, but a few times it’s failed to wake up from sleep, requiring us to restart the device. We’ve also found that our Wi-Fi connection cuts out intermittently, forcing us to disable and re-enable networking to regain connectivity.

Otherwise, though, hardware support is pretty solid, with the multitouch screen, accelerometers and Bluetooth networking all present and correct. GPU acceleration isn’t quite there yet, though: animations and scrolling can be very slightly jerky.

The biggest feature still lacking is the camera: with this build you can’t take photos or capture video. Then again, since the TouchPad’s camera faces forwards, it’s of limited use anyway.

There’s also no GPS, of course, since the TouchPad lacks GPS hardware. As there’s no SD card slot either, the internal 16GB or 32GB of internal storage is mounted as a virtual SD card. 2GB of this becomes the Android system partition; the rest you can fill with apps and media. WebOS remains functional too, so you can easily boot back into the TouchPad’s native environment if you wish.

We haven’t yet had a chance to test battery performance, but so far a single charge has been ample for two days of irregular browsing and playing with apps, and the team says it’s working to improve power management for the final release.

We tested a range of Android apps on the TouchPad, with both phone and tablet interfaces, and everything seemed to work fine – even system software such as replacement keyboards, and tools such as screenshot utilities that require root access. As we’ve noted above, graphics-heavy games and apps aren’t perfectly smooth, but they’re still perfectly usable.

The only real problem we hit was some apps refusing to install from the Android Market because they didn’t recognise the hardware: see below for more details on this issue, and possible ways round it.

In all, the CyanogenMod alpha release is clearly a work in progress, but it’s already usable for most tablet tasks – so long as you can live with the odd quirk or bit of flakiness. Based on what we’ve seen so far, there’s every reason to expect the final release will turn the TouchPad into a fully functional Android device.

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