HP TouchSmart 600 Review: TouchSmart Software and Performance

December 7, 2009 by J.R. Nelson Reads (12,314)


Software
Of course, as we talked about in the video, the real draw, or at least intended draw, of the TouchSmart computers is the extensive redrawn user interface that HP includes on every model.  Unfortunately, the custom interface is almost entirely a letdown that in fact drags the TouchSmart down to a level it doesn’t really deserve.  This is the third generation of HP’s touch line of computers, and easily the most refined in terms of what’s generally available on the market today.  Still, it feels as if this latest revision is something of a step back in terms of usability and speed.

Before we get to what’s different, let’s talk about what’s still the same.  The interface looks similar, with a large row of tiles taking up most of the screen and a small row of icons along the bottom.  Users can move applications between the rows depending on which software they use the most often.  To make things a little more confusing, each application has different modes – when tiled at the top, it can be interacted with in the ribbon, or tapped to go full-screen.  When full-screen, you can go back to the tiled interface and keep content (like a webpage in the browser).  Activating a program from the bottom row of tiles, however, opens it maximized and if you want to switch to another application, even just to quickly check something, it closes out whatever you were doing with zero warning.  That means that if you have a number of webpages open (which the browser calls pages instead of tabs) and then switch and go back, you lose all of the pages you had open.  It’s an unfortunate and confusing choice, especially since the computer ships with the browser in the bottom row – how will most users be able to tell the difference in the way the software behaves?

 

There is a notes application that lets you draw, type, and record audio and video quips to leave information for other users in your household.  It’s basic but functional, though the multitouch-resizing can be flaky.  A weather widget gives you the temperature and basic weather information, the aforementioned lighting color switch, software for playing back video clips, DVDs and music.  All of these are optimized for touch, with the music app pretty successful – you can flip through your music in a CoverFlow-esque interface and pull tracks to the side with your finger in order to create playlists.  A mini-player at the top of the screen provides access to basic multimedia controls when using other apps in the tile stream.

 

Welcome additions to the basic music app, however, are Pandrora and Rhapsody.  Pandora is the celebrated free streaming internet radio that arose from the former Music Genome Project.  Both of these work well, but HP hidden them in a secondary menu of the music player, leading me to believe that a lot of users will probably never see them.

 

Let’s look at some of the new stuff included with the revised software, though.  The most celebrated and talked about new apps are additions by Hulu, Twitter and Netflix.  There’s also a remarkably useful new recipe app.  Hulu is disappointing.  It’s just a rebadge of the pre-existing Hulu Desktop software.  It isn’t optimized for the TouchSmart, it doesn’t take up the entirety of the screen.  It isn’t finger-friendly, either; instead of being able to intuitively drag things around and navigate menus like the rest of the software, you are forced to use your finger like a mouse.  It’s irritating. 

 

Twitter is more successful; it’s a basic client that allows you to post new tweets as well as flick through a page of those posted by those you follow.  One interesting take is when you click on the icons for your followers: it pops usericons up for everyone in the list in the same arching wheel that album covers use in the music application.  Unfortunately, performance is something of an issue, here – while flicking through them is easy enough, sometimes it’s smooth and other times it’s slow as a dog, with the wheel scrolling for a good thirty seconds after your finger left the screen.  Given the underlying hardware, these performance issues are simply unacceptable.

Netflix is the breakout application of the entire suite.  While you can only use it to browse and stream videos from your instant queue (you’ll have to load up a browser to add to it, unfortunately and bizarrely), it works fantastically well.  The arching wheel is back, but performance is flawless, with the icons spinning smoothly across the screen.  Touching an icon brings up information about the movie or TV show or the option to play it.  Once play is hit, videos load up quickly and easily, gracefully degrading based on your connection speed.  Navigating through the video is incredibly easy; tapping the screen brings up a timeline, with a small rectangular scrubber that you can drag to move wherever in the movie you wish.  Once you pick a new spot, the video reloads quickly.  It’s really a well-done piece of software, and probably my favorite of the whole lot.

Netflix may be the best performing, but the most interesting award goes to the RecipeBox application.  Designed for use when the TouchSmart is in or near your kitchen, the RecipeBox can store all of your favorite recipes in a database categorized by type of meal – whether appetizer, dinner or dessert.  Directions are on one side, while ingredients are on the other.  HP decided to put the ingredients list in script and on faux-notebook styled paper, which is an unfortunate design choice that makes them harder to read.  It would be better to leave them in the same font as the rest of the application.  If you go through the Windows 7 voice training (helping the OS to learn how you speak) you can issue voice commands that let you navigate the recipes hands free – so if your hands are covered in flour or dough, you don’t have to muss up the screen.  By far the best part of the app comes in the way you add new recipes.  You can go to your favorite website that lists recipes (on a whim, we tried it with Food Network), load up a recipe and hit a button on the app.  It scrapes the website for the information, loads directions in one pane and ingredients in the other.  All you have to do is categorize it and add in how long it takes to cook.  It could use a little more work and refinement, but it’s a pretty slick app overall; it’s easily the best “kitchen computer” sort of software we’ve used to date.

Some of the other new apps don’t fare nearly as well.  The LiveTV application is pretty slow and like the browser, has some confusing behavior.  Launching it from the bottom row means that if you switch to a new application, you have to retune the channel every time you switch back, which takes forever.  Watching it tiled is nice, but it’s hard to navigate, and importing program guide information from the internet failed for me, leaving a list of all black channels with names like CATV12 (Windows Media Center worked on the first try; yet another reason not to bother with the TouchSmart media software).  Canvas is, as far as I can tell, completely useless.  The software seems to exist solely as a multitouch technology demo.  There’s already a Photos app that works very well, with additions like tagging, photo enhancement, viewing photos by tag, date, folder, etc.  Canvas instead lets you spin things around with your fingers!  If you add too many pictures, which is very easy since all it takes it a tap or two at the bottom of the screen, it becomes pointlessly slow, taking over a minute to add the pictures and arrange them, then lagging significantly behind your finger when you draw on the screen. 

In the end, the negatives seem to outweigh the positives in terms of the new interface.  HP wanted to make the tiles interactive (in the last revision, you tapped a tile to dive-in whenever you wanted to interact), but in so doing they killed the easy-to-navigate aspect of the computer.  Now, in order to flip between tiles, you can only touch the outside border.  It’s slow and aggravating and does nothing so much as accentuate the ergonomic difficulties posed by using a touch surface that’s perpendicular to the way your arm and wrist are carried. HP includes a helpful reviewer’s video on the TouchSmart wherein a demonstrator shows how the product is used; in the clip they consistently drag their finger slowly across the top of the screen.  Doing this for any extended period of time would just be painful.  In addition to being hard to navigate, it’s slow, too.  Additionally, while HP adds a utility for adding new Windows programs to the UI, so you don’t have to drop out into Windows just to launch a new program, it doesn’t work properly.  Ideally, it’s supposed to scan everything in the Programs menu and give you the option to add it, but instead half of the programs are missing, and it adds relatively useless options (for a touchscreen) such as Windows PowerShell.  The only other option is to add a discrete path directly to the program’s executable on the hard drive.  You can’t browse to it via a folder tree, either; you have to know what it is and type it into the dialog box.  Can you imagine doing this?  Or walking a parent through it? 

Unlike most modern touchscreen interfaces—including Windows itself!—that have implemented kinetic scrolling (where you can scroll and things keep scrolling until it peters out or you touch the screen to stop) the TouchSmart UI requires you to drag every inch of movement out of the display.  As a result, moving from one end of the tile stream to the other. Takes. Forever.  The stream isn’t infinite – so if you have a lot of applications on it, and want to move from say, Twitter on one end to Netflix on the other, you have to scroll for some time in order to reach it.  HP offers up a “flicking” motion where you quickly swipe the border of a tile, but it doesn’t work all the time, and even when it does, it only moves two tiles.  It still takes a long time to navigate to anything.  As a result, while more powerful, the interface almost feels like a full step backward in terms of UI evolution.  Another issue pops up when you try and change the brightness of the display.  While there are ten backlight settings, there are 100 gradations that you have to go through in order to modify it, with the level dropping every ten.  If you use the side buttons to do it, it’s pretty quick; if you use the keyboard buttons instead, it takes an unacceptably long time.

Performance
Inside of the TouchSmart 600 is a mobile Intel Core 2 Duo CPU.  In this case it’s running at 2.13GHz, which while not the speediest processor Intel offers, is more than enough to take care of most of the things you can reasonably expect the TouchSmart to do.  It’s backed up by an NVIDIA GeForce GT230 graphics card.  While the GPU won’t be getting you the latest games at full resolution, I was able to play Dragon Age: Origins at 1920×1080 and low details, while getting a framerate between 25 and 30 frames per second.  That’s not too bad for a computer not intended for gaming.

wPrime CPU performance comparison results (lower scores mean better performance):

Desktop Time to complete wPrime 32M
Dell Studio Slim (Intel Core 2 Quad Q8200 @ 2.33GHz) 16.301s
Dell Studio One 19 (Intel Pentium Dual Core E5200 @ 2.5GHz) 30.999s
Dell Studio Hybrid (Core 2 Duo T8100 @ 2.10GHz) 35.582s
Lenovo A600 All-in-one (Core 2 Duo P7450 @ 2.13GHz) 37.363s
HP TouchSmart 600 (Intel Core 2 Duo P7450 @ 2.13GHz) 38.393s

PCMark05 overall general performance comparison results (higher scores mean better performance):

Desktop PCMark05 Score
Dell Studio Slim (Intel Core 2 Quad Q8200 @ 2.33GHz) 6887 PCMarks
Lenovo A600 All-in-one (Core 2 Duo P7450 @ 2.13GHz) 5589 PCMarks
Dell Studio One 19 (Intel Pentium Dual Core E5200 @ 2.5GHz) 5433 PCMarks
HP TouchSmart IQ506 (Core 2 Duo T5850 @ 2.16 GHz) 5189 PCMarks
HP TouchSmart 600 (Intel Core 2 Duo P7450 @ 2.13GHz) 5173 PCMarks
Dell Studio Hybrid (Core 2 Duo T8100 @ 2.10GHz) 4305 PCMarks

The desktop hard drive helps to flesh out the performance of the machine, meaning that it will boot up more quickly and launch programs faster than a slow or smaller hard drive might. 

Power, Heat and Noise
Despite the 23-inch display and touchscreen, the TouchSmart 600 manages to be relatively power efficient.  With the backlight turned low and at idle, the machine manages to pull down around 47 watts of electricity.  Keep in mind that that includes both a display and computer.  Pushing the display brighter and stressing the system results in a power draw of around 105 watts.  Gaming alone at full brightness ended up using around 100. 

We’ve had issues with some of HP’s larger displays in the past that put out an exorbitant amount of heat; fortunately, that’s not really a problem with the 600.  You can feel a noticeable amount of heat through the top vents, but the screen itself doesn’t get very warm.  Similarly, while there is some noise, it’s not much.  You’ll hear it in an absolutely silent room, but otherwise, it’s not really noticeable.

Conclusion
In the end, the HP TouchSmart 600 is something of a walking contradiction.  It has a great design, with sleek, uncluttered features and refined aesthetic married to sufficiently strong, if not overly powerful, hardware.  As nice as the hardware and touchscreen are, however, the custom UI is a letdown.  The interface is a mix of both weak and strong applications, but the sheer annoyance and irritating means of navigating said interface means that some people are just as likely to disable the interface as actively use it.  It feels like the systems were rushed out to market; between this and other glaring issues like leaving the Microsoft Touch Pack out of the TouchSmart UI entirely, there are definitely quirks that need to be worked out. 

Still, I feel pretty comfortable in recommending the TouchSmart for purchase.  Even though the UI is still a bit of a mess, it’s software that can be easily updated, and it doesn’t change the fact that using multitouch in Windows 7 can be a fun experience.  The design is still nice, the hardware is still capable, and the keyboard is fantastic.  If you’re like for an all-in-one with multitouch capabilities, the HP should definitely be on your list.  If you’re buying it because of the HP interface, however, well…go try it out before you spend the cash.

Pros

  • Multitouch interface
  • Sleek design
  • Great Netflix, RecipeBox apps
  • Fantastic keyboard

Cons

  • Custom UI hard to navigate
  • Can’t disable auto-loading dock
  • Hard to carry system around


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