The HP TouchSmart 600 shows how getting an early jump on unproven technology can pay off. HP was first to market with a touch-based all-in-one PC more than two years ago. Now that Windows 7 has spurred almost every major desktop vendor toward multitouch, HP has the advantage of years of real market feedback to help refine the TouchSmart 600. The result, while still not perfect, is the best implementation of touch input we’ve seen so far in an all-in-one. Also to HP’s credit (and likely Sony’s chagrin), even if the TouchSmart 600 had no touch capability, by incorporating all of the features we’ve loved in Sony’s Vaio LV line, HP has matched Sony in crafting a robust standalone home entertainment device. This $1,599, 23.5-inch all-in-one won’t be for everyone, but those willing to find room for the TouchSmart A600, cooks especially, will be rewarded with an innovative, feature-rich all-in-one.
On the outside the TouchSmart 600 doesn’t look that different from HP’s previous all-in-one, the TouchSmart IQ816. It has the same glossy black plastic exterior, with graceful curves down its side. It’s not quite as design-forward as the iMac, but it’s as visually appealing, if not more so, than new all-in-ones from Gateway and Sony.
What HP’s design lacked in its earlier version was an easy means to mount it on the wall. Sony made a big push last year to position its LV series all-in-ones as living room-ready devices, which had both the hardware and the design elements to match. Clearly taking a page from Sony’s guidebook, HP has made the TouchSmart fully VESA-mount compliant. Simply unscrew a panel on the back and then unscrew the stand to reveal the wall-mount inputs.
HP has also borrowed from Sony’s shrewd connectivity features, and taken them one step further. HP has added not only an HDMI input with a dedicated button for switching input signals, but also a set of composite video and audio ports as well. That means you can connect multiple external video sources to the TouchSmart, such as game consoles, a cable box, or HD cameras, and switch between them and your Windows desktop seamlessly. Sadly, but not surprisingly given the regulatory implications, you can’t get Windows to talk to those devices, which means your DVR options are restricted to the built-in hybrid TV tuner. Sony’s all-in-one has the same limitation.
Along with the inputs for external video sources, the TouchSmart A600 comes with a slot-loading Blu-ray drive, as well as touch-driven Hulu and Netflix interfaces into its new touch software carousel (more on that in a minute). All of these features would be meaningless without decent screen and audio quality to back them up, and for the most part the TouchSmart 600 delivers. The audio ouput is easily the strongest we’ve seen from an all-in-one this year, mostly because it’s loud enough to fill a room. We noticed some pixel noise in the HD video from the 23.5-inch 1,920 x 1,080 display, but not enough to be distracting, especially if you’re watching from a distance.
While HP has clearly borrowed from Sony in its wall-mounting and video input capabilities, the software designed for its touch interface is unique and just as compelling. We won’t go over every feature in HP’s custom-made application carousel, but you’ll find the usual collection of painting, note taking, and other apps. But four new additions to HP’s touch-screen arsenal set it apart, three from choosing partners wisely, and the fourth the product of its own development.
The three partner programs provide straightforward interfaces with Hulu, Netflix, and Twitter via the TouchSmart software carousel. We asked HP about a possible Facebook interface and received a vague nondenial. Even without Facebook, accessing streaming content from Hulu and Netflix are smart, obvious choices to add to the home entertainment-oriented TouchSmart 600. Of course you could simply get to those services via a standard browser window, but making them touch-friendly actually makes them easier to use, especially if you put the TouchSmart in a place in your home where you might walk up and use it.
Your kitchen may be the most obvious place for many of you to install a PC you might walk up to, at least provided you have the counter space. If you do bring it into your kitchen, you’ll be able to take advantage of one of the TouchSmart 600′s best features. Scroll along the TouchSmart’s application carousel and you’ll find the Recipe Box program, which gives you the best tool we’ve seen for organizing recipes you find from the Internet.
Recipe Box has a built-in browser window from which you can navigate to, and bookmark, any Web site. Once you find a recipe online, the Recipe Box software can scrape it, and then format it properly onto a touch-friendly form, neatly isolating ingredients and instructions. You can then use Recipe Box’s built-in voice recognition and text-to-speech software to verbally command the TouchSmart to read the recipe back to you out loud, step-by-step.
We found the scraping capability worked with more sites than not, with a few notable exceptions. We were able to pull recipes down from Epicurious, Food Network, Martha Stewart, and About with no transcription errors and mostly perfect formatting. We had no luck at Food and Wine Magazine and Cook’s Country, however. You can enter recipes manually, and also edit and add notes to recipes you pull down automatically, but the capability to grab and organize recipes from the Web in such a highly intuitive manner will surely appeal to Web-inclined chefs.
The voice-recognition and text-to-speech capabilities are more of a work in progress. Standing a foot, and then 5 feet away from the TouchSmart, we had luck on our first try speaking commands like “Beginning,” “Back,” and “Continue,” to advance the text-to-speak function through each recipe. Voice-recognition training software can help you improve accuracy, but we found the TouchSmart had trouble recognizing our voice when we stood off at an angle. It also sometimes took a few tries before it responded to our commands, and it also wouldn’t recognize voices other that of your reviewer. A Bluetooth headset (not included) can let you command Recipe Box from longer distances.
As promising as we find HP’s new touch programs, Recipe Box in particular, we found the touch interface unresponsive at times, and the main touch software carousel can be slow to load. The lag time is similar to what we found with Gateway’s first Windows 7-based touch all-in-one, the One ZX6810-01. As long as you’re patient with the touch response and willing to suffer a few repeated finger movements, the experience is for the most part fine, but it’s clear that there’s still room for the technology to improve.
We were also pleasantly surprised by the HP’s power consumption. To a certain extent that goes in-hand with its slow performance, and especially next to the hyper-efficient, faster iMac, Windows all-in-ones have room to improve. But $22.37 on the year in power cost puts the TouchSmart 600 among efficient company. Next to some of HP’s desktops, which have been terrible power hogs, the TouchSmart 600 is a marked improvement.
Finally, HP’s service and support for its systems lines up with what we expect from a major PC vendor. You get a year of parts and labor coverage standard, along with 24-7 toll-free phone service. HP’s Web site has all manner of support features as well, including support chat and the capability to fix your system remotely. You might also appreciate the numerous video tutorials included with the system to help you navigate the new touch software.