It seems every company is debuting some kind of touch device lately -- Microsoft now has its Milan table and Apple has its iPhone -- but HP was first to market with its HP TouchSmart IQ770. The TouchSmart is operated with a single finger and is designed to form the centre of a bustling family's living space.
We're guessing that the HP design team have seen Short Circuit a few times -- the TouchSmart resembles "Number 5" in several ways, with its squat little body and craning, head-like LCD monitor.
The TouchSmart is roughly the same size as the Apple iMac, but with the main CPU housing kept in a separate unit at the base of the machine. There is a real attention to detail with this PC which includes side mounted volume buttons and a slot at the base to poke an HP photo printer such as the A510 through.
It's built tough, with the LCD attached firmly to the base. The hinge mechanism is reinforced steel which means it will take a few knocks, but also makes the PC hard to move due to its monstrous 17kg (approx.) weight.
The PC is designed to be operated by touch, and includes two optical sensors at the top of the screen to track your finger. The advantage of this is it's cheaper than resistive or capacitive designs, according to HP designers, and that you don't need a special stylus. The 19-inch widescreen is very clear and bright, and being a touchscreen it does get quite smudgy, but it's not noticeable -- despite the fact that the screen has a high gloss coating.
This is a fully-specified entertainment PC, and includes all the features you'd want, including: a digital HD tuner, remote control, card reader, and camcorder-friendly, front-mounted RCA and FireWire points.
The PC boots into HP's own SmartCenter application, which integrates with Vista Media Center. As it's designed as a family PC, one of the main applications on the landing page is a note-taking/calendar application called SmartCalendar. In it you can write notes on "stickies" with your fingers or the stylus, and move them around the screen or onto the calendar itself for other family members to read. You can also leave voice messages with the built-in microphone. The application works as it should, even if it's not as intuitive as it could be -- for example, to listen to a voice message you have to click three different icons instead of simply clicking the message itself.
Despite all the graphical niceties, this is still a Windows Vista PC -- with all the compatibility and instability problems that entails. For example, we were able to crash IE7 just by having five tabs open. But then again, IE7 is pretty unstable at the best of times.
To deliver a full "experience", the PC also comes with a wireless keyboard and mouse. The mouse has a laser sensor instead of the regular optical one so it can be used on shiny surfaces such as bench tops.
Using Vista through touch is a very intuitive experience, and dragging and dropping is great fun -- though we did notice that there was occasionally some lag when dragging. The sensors don't always track your finger correctly, so it can also be difficult to activate some of the smaller icons.
Touch computing is a good idea, especially in an environment where it can double as a TV. In a kitchen it could be used to research recipes or do some IM chat. Once you've gotten used to the experience it's hard to get back into the old keyboard and mouse mode.
The peripherals, though, are a mixed bunch. The keyboard is pretty terrible, and is quite cramped. It's very easy to hit the Caps Lock key as it's twice as big as the Shift key, for example. The keyboard is also poorly labelled -- there's no "@" symbol, even though "Shift-2" still works, but there is no apostrophe key at all. The last straw is that this machine is designed to be used in a living room or kitchen. Spill any liquid on this keyboard and you'll kill it -- there is no waterproofing. At least it docks neatly underneath the TouchSmart. The remote and mouse, on the other hand, are quite good.
The TouchSmart is quite a decent performer, and its dual-core AMD processor and 2GB of RAM help it chew through most tasks. When confronted with our PCMark05 benchmark, it put in a decent effort of 4079 marks. Not great when compared to other desktops of the same price, but this is no ordinary desktop at that.
As this is a multimedia machine, we tested the TouchSmart with some music and TV watching. MP3 tracks from the bombastic Killers sounded a little lost on the HP TouchSmart speakers, but listening to the integrated digital tuner the folk rock of the Mountain Goats sounded clear and intimate.
The digital TV tuner worked very well, though changing channels via touch on the Media Center interface was a little fiddly. There are dedicated channel buttons on the right edge of the screen, however.
Despite some quirks, this is a great device, and will submit to most of the rigours of a busy household. The price may at first seem high, but give most people 30 seconds with the TouchSmart and they'll fall in love.