HP TouchSmart IQ506 Review

Thursday Sep 25th 2008 by Eric Grevstad
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Touch and Go

The next generation of this product is going to be terrific.
-- HardwareCentral review of HP TouchSmart IQ770, February 23, 2007

Yeah, we know, we're all thinking it, so we might as well say the word and get it out of the way: iMac iMac iMac.

More like next year's iMac, actually, since Apple hasn't yet brought the iPhone's multi-touch LCD technology to the desktop as Internet gossipers predict. That makes the HP TouchSmart IQ506 and slightly less fancy IQ504 unique -- 22-inch widescreen monitors with not only built-in Core 2 Duo PCs but touch screens you can use to launch applications and flip through photos, videos, and music albums and playlists with a tap or flick of a finger.

The all-in-one design, a wireless keyboard and mouse, and 802.11b/g/pre-n WiFi plus Bluetooth make setup as simple as plugging in a single power cable -- unless you want to use the built-in TV tuner/personal video recorder or don't have a wireless router for Web access, in which case you'll add a coax or Ethernet cable, respectively. (You'll want to keep the AC cable on the floor, by the way; it's connected to a huge, heavy notebook-style power brick.)

The TouchSmart isn't perfect. Our opinion of the touch-screen interface swings to and fro but averages maybe two-thirds great, one-third gimmick. And though its 4GB of memory, 500GB hard disk, and Windows Vista Home Premium 64-Bit Edition are more than enough for multimedia and productivity work, the HP isn't intended for high-speed gaming.

And $1,500? That's not bad, but it isn't a bargain, either. Why, it's the same price as a smaller-screened, smaller-hard-drive, half-the-memory, no-TV-tuner, no-touch-screen iMac.

Uh, wait a minute. Maybe HP has something here.

Lean Into It

It's not as slim and chic as the Apple desktop, but the IQ506 is considerably trimmer than last year's first-generation TouchSmart IQ770; the PC is now built into the back of the display instead of a clunky monitor base. Adjusting the angle of the prop-up easel stand adjusts the monitor's tilt (between 10 and 40 degrees), though there's no height adjustment or swivel other than moving the 24-pound computer.

The TouchSmart is strikingly handsome, with transparent plastic feet to better show off what HP calls the piano-black bezel and espresso-toned side panels. The computer itself measures 18 by 21 by 3 inches, which translates to a living-room, dorm-room, or den footprint of about 21 by 9 inches counting the easel but not counting the keyboard and mouse, although you can stash those items under the PC when not in use.

Matte and glossy black, respectively, adorn the wireless keyboard and mouse. The latter is a standard scroll-wheel laser mouse, with no browser Back button or other programmable buttons. The keyboard is much more impressive -- an elegantly low-profile (three-quarter inch thick) slice with a first-class if notebooky typing feel. HP even announced at presstime it'll offer it separately to other PC users, dubbed the Wireless Elite keyboard and priced at $60.

The keyboard and mouse use four AAA and two AA batteries, respectively. We were pleased to see that both input devices worked fine as soon as we fired up the PC, with none of the out-of-sync angst or pushing tiny connection buttons we sometimes get with wireless peripherals.

You won't find fancy multimedia buttons on the keyboard, but you will find controls for audio volume and mute (duplicated on the TouchSmart's right side). The built-in 4-watt stereo speakers are predictably short on booming bass, but more than adequate for music and movies even at high volume.

Pretty Much a Sealed Box

An addendum to the user manual details the screwdriver surgery needed to access the IQ's two SO-DIMM memory sockets and SATA hard drive, but we doubt most users will ever try. It'd take still more spelunking to find the Intel Core 2 Duo T5850 processor -- a mobile dual-core CPU clocked at 2.16GHz with 2MB of Level 2 cache.

The choice of a 35-watt laptop processor helps keep the computer cool and quiet. Apart from music and DVDs, the HP's loudest sound is the background breeze from a cooling fan; it's pretty much audible only in an otherwise silent room.

Another designed-for-notebooks component, Nvidia's GeForce 9300M GS with 256MB of dedicated memory, eight processor cores, and DirectX 10 and HD video support, handles the system's graphics. Four gigabytes of DDR2/667 memory; a 500GB, 7,200-rpm Seagate Barracuda hard drive; and a slot-loading DVD±RW drive from TSSTcorp round out the primary hardware.

Again, all of the above are crammed into a compact, monitor-piggybacked casing: The GeForce card is a PCI Express x16 (version 1.0) MXM module, while the WiFi adapter and AverMedia NTSC analog/ATSC over-the-air HD TV tuner fill the Pegatron motherboard's two PCIe x1 mini slots and two 2GB memory modules provide the system's maximum of 4GB.

While no match for a fire-breathing game PC or workstation, the IQ506's specs give it the edge in value over the $1,300 TouchSmart IQ504. That model makes do with a 2.0GHz Core 2 Duo T5750 processor, a 320GB hard disk, and the Intel GM965 Express chipset's Graphics Media Accelerator X3100 integrated graphics, and lacks the TV tuner found in its upscale cousin.

You've noticed that, considering the HP's home-entertainment credentials, there's an obvious omission: Neither model offers a Blu-ray drive for playing HD movies, burning home-video discs, or competing with the small but growing number of Blu-ray home-theater PCs such as Sony's Vaio LV PC/TV.

While we were wrapping up this review, however, HP unveiled a super-deluxe TouchSmart IQ816, which offers a combo Blu-ray player and CD/DVD burner (not, alas, a Blu-ray writer); CPU and GPU upgrades; and a superior 25.5-inch, 1,920 by 1,200-pixel screen for a rather more daunting $2,100. Along with a tamer 25.5-incher priced at $1,900, the wall-mountable PC is slated to reach retailers on October 12, 2008.

A Screen Worth Seeing

Even if it's upstaged by next month's model, the IQ506's 22-inch display is admirable -- bright, sharp (1,680 by 1,050 resolution), and excellent with vivid colors and subtle skin tones alike. HP claims a rapid refresh time of 5 milliseconds.

You're more likely to leave the backlight brightness on full blast, TV-style, rather than adjust it as you do with a laptop, but the screen proved almost as readable at brightness level 1 as it did at level 10.

As with last year's IQ770, the TouchSmart's screen isn't built around a digitizer and special stylus as most Tablet PCs are. Instead, an invisible infrared grid detects a finger, capped pen, or any other pointer coming within a millimeter or so of the glass panel over the LCD. (It clicked like a Geiger counter when our fluffy-tailed cat took his usual walk between keyboard and monitor.)

Obviously, HP doesn't expect you to use the touch screen as your sole input device; there's a mouse, keyboard, and Windows Media Center remote control in the box. Even with practice, we judged the screen too clumsy for everyday mouse replacement, despite equivalents such as holding your finger against the screen for a moment to right-click or swiping with two fingers to scroll in the counterintuitive fashion of Windows Tablet PC Edition's "pen flicks."

The touch screen is OK for tapping most dialog-box buttons or Web-page links, and terrific with HP's provided TouchSmart programs (more on them in a sec) and the enlarged scrolling-and-selecting interface of Windows Media Center. Trying to pick menu items or small icons in regular Windows applications, however, will leave you wishing you had smaller fingers or longer nails.

The Grand Tour

The HP's power button is located on its right side, along with the DVD±RW drive, audio controls, a FireWire port, and a slot for SD/MMC/xD/MS memory cards. At the left, you'll find two USB 2.0 ports, line-in and headphone jacks, and a switch for a lamp on the TouchSmart's underside that dimly illuminates the keyboard in a dark room.

Removing a rear panel reveals three more USB ports (a sixth, on the bottom edge, holds the preinstalled 2.4GHz keyboard and mouse receiver), along with Ethernet, SPDIF digital audio, and analog line-in and line-out audio ports.

S-Video and coaxial cable connectors serve the TV tuner, which uses Windows Media Center for viewing and recording shows and perusing a program guide. Like most PC tuners these days, it can connect to a cable box but is limited to free over-the-air (antenna instead of cable) HD programming, which ranges from a good choice of local stations to a trackless void depending on where you live.

Getting the Job Done

Benchmark-wise, the TouchSmart rates a 4.0 on Vista's 5.9-point Windows Experience scale, Aero desktop graphics being the low point with CPU and hard disk ratings of 5.0 and 5.9, respectively. Subjectively, the IQ506 feels fast enough for anything short of serious gaming, launching programs promptly and performing operations with no waiting.

The HP rolled to a PCMark Vantage score of 3,506 and CrystalMark 2004R3 number of 92,794.

It crashed in 3DMark Vantage's Performance-level benchmark but posted an Entry-level score of E2218, and rendered Cinebench R10's sample scene in 3 minutes and 17 seconds with both CPU cores on the case. A tough DirectX 9 game simulator, Gun Metal 2, ran at 23 frames per second at 1,280 by 1,024 resolution with 4X antialiasing.

But the point (no pun intended) of the TouchSmart is neither its speed nor its functionality as a regular Vista PC. It's the TouchSmart interface that launches with a push of a button on the front bezel, and special applications that launch with one tap instead of a mouse-like two, to give you a whole new, hands-on desktop experience.

The main screen presents two customizable rows of icons or program shortcuts: a upper row of large tiles (which you can resize by stretching or compressing with two fingers) for favorite applications, and a set of smaller tiles for programs you don't use quite as often.

Not only is the bottom row copied straight from Mac OS X, but both rows work like the iPhone: Swiping a finger left or right scrolls horizontally through the tiles, while tapping one launches its application. You can promote or demote a title by dragging it from one row to the other, or drag icons to arrange them in a different order.

Play, pause, and previous/next controls at top right let you enjoy music while you work. Tapping a Windows icon at top left switches from TouchSmart to the regular Vista desktop. (Annoyance: Since TouchSmart takes over the entire screen, it also turns off the "keep taskbar on top of other windows" option so you lose the Windows taskbar.)

Some tiles resemble Vista Sidebar gadgets, such as a local weather forecast and a clock that shows up to three time zones. There's a browser that works like a subset of Internet Explorer with no history list or multiple-window support; it's meant mostly for keeping an eye on a favorite Web page to see if it changes rather than for replacing Firefox. An RSS feeder keeps you abreast of new content on other sites.

Photos and Playlists

Families that use the IQ506 as a kitchen, living-room, or entryway hub will like TouchSmart Notes, which lets users post typed or handwritten notes and reminders in various colors and styles.

Frankly it's a chore to write bulletin-board posts longhand -- the program uses the on-screen keyboard and handwriting-recognition area of the Windows Tablet PC input panel, so you'll need either very careful fingerwork or some kind of stylus. Much more convenient is the ability to record and play back voice notes.

Similar scrawl-or-type input is available for TouchSmart Calendar, which lets you see a daily, weekly, monthly, or yearly view and tap to add schedule items or appointments. The program supports all-day (e.g., birthday or holiday) as well as specific-time events, with alarms and recurring appointments available.

The truly essential TouchSmart programs handle video clips, music, and photos. The first lets you record videos with the built-in webcam and, in a handy shortcut, post them to YouTube. Bundled CyberLink YouCam software copies videos to a CD or DVD, decorating them with cartoon borders and effects if you like, and of course the webcam serves for video chat or instant messaging as well.

TouchSmart Music shows either your Windows Media (MP3, WMA, WAV) or iTunes (M4P, M4A) music library -- but not both -- in a grid arrangement, or shows albums off in a fan- or peacock-tail-like arc that you can browse by swiping left or right.

Just as fun is tapping an album so it opens alongside a playlist panel. You can then drag albums or tracks into playlists holding up to 500 songs in a far easier fashion than Windows Media Player.

TouchSmart Photo shows your digital camera shots arranged by folder or date, with the same nifty choice of grid pattern or fan view. Pick a photo, and you can perform some basic image editing -- crop by dragging the corners of the image to suit, rotate, fix red-eye, or apply automatic contrast and brightness adjustment -- or revert to the original.

You can also print photos, watch a slide show, or upload them to HP's Snapfish online service to print albums, T-shirts, mugs, and other novelties.

The rest of the IQ504's preinstalled software is unexceptional, although HP gets a nod for reducing its usual consumer-PC preload of wasteware -- the tacky LiveTangent game service is still there, but the only other commercials are for online services and Snapfish.

CyberLink DVD Suite Deluxe and Power2Go join Microsoft Works and the trial version of Symantec's Norton Internet Security 2008. The HP also refers you to Windows Media Center instead of providing a redundant application for the TV tuner and programming time-shifter; the big-buttoned Media Center interface works fine with the touch screen as well as with the remote provided for control from the couch.

Bottom Line

So what do we think of the TouchSmart, other than bracing ourselves for flames from Apple fans understandably outraged by its combination of iMac, iPhone, and OS X influences?

We think it fulfills the promise of last year's bulkier, less capable version, with touch technology you're likely to use almost daily instead of playing with for a few weeks before giving up on it in favor of the keyboard and mouse. We wish the 25.5-inch model cost less. We like it a lot.

We're even impressed by its marketing. We were all set to make a headline out of Joan Jett's rock anthem "Do You Wanna Touch (Me There)," figuring it would be too risqué for HP, but the song blares loud and clear from the TouchSmart Web site.

This article was first published on HardwareCentral.com.

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