HP's touchscreen PC: Radical or redundant?

A battery of benchmarks is all very well. But when it comes to a PC that attempts to unceremoniously defenestrate the tried and tested mouse 'n keyboard interface, there's no substitute for seat time.

And HP 's brave new IQ770 touchscreen system is one such system. In the interests of science and the human condition, therefore, an IQ770 was installed in the Tech.co.uk family kitchen. We have lived and breathed the touchscreen experience for several weeks. And we now bring you our conclusions.

Single-box solution

For the uninitiated, the IQ770 is a single-box PC designed to be a communal media and internet PC for all the family. Think of it as a one stop digital shop for internet, TV, radio, movies, music and general entertainment.

Processing punch is provided by AMD's Turion dual-core mobile chip in TL-52 1.6GHz trim. As for graphics, Nvidia's GeForce Go 7600 is on hand, while storage takes the form of a 320GB hard disk. Oh, and there's 2GB of system memory.

Rounding out the media centre spec list is a multi-format DVD burner with HP's disk-printing Lightscribe tech and both analogue and DVB-T TV tuners.

But the really interesting bit is the 19-inch touch-enabled LCD panel. Cleverly, HP has implemented touch functionality courtesy of a battery of IR sensors around the screen bezel. There's no film or mesh covering the surface and distorting image quality.

Intriguingly, thanks to the IR sensors, it isn't actually necessary to touch the surface of the screen to register an input gesture. You need only prod the air just above the screen. Well, that's the theory, anyway.

Anywho, to give you something to poke at, HP preinstalls the IQ770 with a suite of touch-optimised applications. A calendar and organiser-come-virtual noteboard application and a photo management app head the list. And the whole thing is tied together by SmartCenter, a touch-optimised menu system integrated into Vista's Media Center alternative interface.

Of course, Windows Vista isn't designed for finger control. So, HP has also provided applets which, again on paper, reconfigure the Windows Vista interface in general and applications like Internet Explorer in particular for easier manual manipulation. Think bigger buttons and larger fonts and you'll get the idea.

Great, but does it work?

That's the IQ770 in a nutshell. But is it any good? Well, at first it's a pretty funky experience - the touch interface is both responsive and accurate.

Application-wise, SmartCalendar is probably the showcase example. It's a digital work surface which combines virtual post-it notes (of the small squares of coloured paper variety) with a calendar and organiser.

The notes can be made of typed text, your own hand-scrawled hieroglyphics, voice recordings or any combination thereof you fancy. Following which you can splatter them across the virtual work surface at your whim.

Pretty quickly, however, you begin to bump up against the limitations of the application. Part of the problem is unrealistic expectations of what a really modern touchscreen interface might be capable of. The obvious temptation is to envisage a fancy arm-flapping big screen interface as seen in the movie Minority Report.

More recently, the Apple iPhone has recalibrated real-world expectations regarding touch interfaces. In that context, the IQ770 seems rather rudimentary.

After a few days of exposure to the IQ770, for instance, we longed to use a two-finger gesture to expand or contract those fixed-sized notes in Smart Calendar. Or to prod at a webpage and have the interface intuitively know that we wanted to zoom in on a part of the page. If you've seen the BumpTop desktop interface demoed at TedTalk earlier this year, you'll know what we're talking about.

Finger on the future

It's all rather unfair, of course, but what the IQ770 really does is give a glimpse of what's possible and leaves you desperately wanting more. The longer you use it, the less satisfying it is. There's also no getting away from the fact that Windows Vista simply wasn't designed for touch control.

Worse than that, however, is its rather pitiful all-round performance. The general flakiness and resource-intensiveness of Windows Vista is no doubt partly to blame. But painful lagginess, glacial application load and boot times and the fairly frequent errors, hangs and stalls really spoil the experience. Having the audio driver bail out on a desktop PC is a mild annoyance. But on a device that's standing in for your kitchen TV, it's a serious pain.

Indeed, why HP didn't use an Intel Core 2 processor is rather baffling. The applications the system is designed to run are actually pretty demanding and the AMD mobile hardware it's based on simply isn't up to the job.

And the fact that the IR remote control units appear to be unable to function correctly in a room soaked in lots of natural light (like many kitchens!) only makes matters worse.

All of which may leave you thinking we didn't like the IQ770. That's not actually the case. It's a very attractive machine and an awfully welcome effort at a new interface paradigm. It's just not ready for the prime time. We await the second generation device with optimism!

Read our HP Touchsmart review

The original launch report

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