July 24, 2008

Your Fingers Will Want to Do the Walking With HP TouchSmart

By Edward C. Baig

We all walk up to a computer screen from time to time and touch it to accomplish some task. Think ATM or airport kiosk. But that's pretty rare at home. We're commonly seated with a keyboard and mouse.

Hewlett-Packard hopes to get you out of your chair with the TouchSmart IQ506 I've been testing. You can still use a mouse or keyboard with this handsome all-in-one desktop PC. But you're also supposed to get your paw prints all over it -- often while standing up. The idea is to use your fingers to rummage through your music collection, pore through pictures, watch videos or peek at your calendar.

HP is pushing TouchSmart as a family-central, living room or bedroom PC. You can record audio memos or use your finger to scribble an on-screen note: "Remember to buy milk."

The IQ506 is the more aesthetically pleasing new version of hardware HP launched more than a year-and-a-half ago. And HP's improved software builds on the touch capabilities of Microsoft's Windows Vista operating system.

For now, that only takes you so far. You'll have to wait for the upcoming Windows 7 operating system to take advantage of the multitouch-type smarts popularized by the iPhone. There's no two-finger pinching gesture, for example, that would let you enlarge a picture.

Such quibbles aside, I had a positive experience with the new TouchSmart. A closer look:

*Design. HP compares the design of the new TouchSmart with, of all things, a messenger bag. I don't quite see the similarity, but the silver-trimmed black PC is nice looking in its own right. It's pretty thin overall and smaller than its predecessor. That's despite having a generous 22-inch-wide display, compared with 19 inches before. The machine has an ambient light to illuminate the keyboard, or, as HP marketers stress, "set a mood." Anything to take your mind off Vista, I suppose.

Set-up was simple. I had to plug in only a single power cable.

This isn't the most powerful PC you can buy for the money, but it's pretty well-loaded. My $1,499 test version has a TV tuner, Media Center remote control, integrated webcam, DVD burner, 500-megabyte hard drive, 4 gigabytes of RAM and an Intel Core 2 Duo processor. A $1,299 model lacks the TV tuner, has a slower processor and smaller, 320-MB hard drive.

Both models have Wi-Fi, Bluetooth and an ample supply of ports and connectors, including a memory card reader. And both come with a wireless keyboard and mouse, for the many times you'll be engaged in more typical computing activities. Of course, if all you're looking to do is replace a standard desktop computer, the TouchSmart may not be your smartest choice.

*Finger-computing. HP does make touch computing accessible. Two rows of icons, or "tiles," form the basic design. Tapping one of the larger tiles in the top row lets you open a suite of programs, representing music, photo, videos, notes and calendar programs. Such tiles are dynamic, so the pictures on the front of them constantly change.

You can also tap the smaller tiles in the bottom row to open other programs: a weather "gadget," clock, solitaire game and more. If you use one of these programs frequently, you can drag its tile to the top row.

You can drag or change the position of any tile in a row and flick your finger to scroll faster.

In the music application, you can rifle through album covers or drag songs onto a playlist with your fingers. You can arrange it so album covers appear in a grid or display as a fan. (You can similarly use this fan or grid view for photos and videos.)

Continue finger-tapping to display lists of songs and ultimately play them. I was impressed with the quality of the stereo speakers on the computer, though the music did hiccup a couple of times.

Among the few simple editing tools, you can rotate and crop pictures using your fingers in the photos application, or upload pictures to HP-owned Snapfish to order prints.

And you can easily dispatch whatever you shoot with the webcam to YouTube.

A few more nits: The touch sensitivity wasn't always as smooth as I would like. The interface could be a tad more intuitive in places.

And though you can also use your fingers as a mouse alternative inside the Internet Explorer browser, I found surfing with a mouse a lot easier, if only because I've been conditioned that way.

You're by no means wedded to the touch interface. Tapping an on-screen button brings up the regular Vista desktop at any time.

The HP TouchSmart is a fine PC that can still get better. It just needs a little more touching up.

E-mail: [email protected] (c) Copyright 2008 USA TODAY, a division of Gannett Co. Inc. <>