TouchSmart feels right at home
Seattle Times staff columnist
Tech journalists always write about the PC moving into the living room, so I thought I'd give it a try.
On the day Windows Vista launched, I borrowed the most advanced Vista machine available, Hewlett-Packard's TouchSmart IQ770, and swapped it for our television. It came highly recommended. I was at a press reception with Bill Gates, just after the TouchSmart was unveiled, when he said, "There are places in my house where that's what I want."
I don't know how it's going over in Medina, but after two months I can say the system's definitely bleeding edge. My family has the cuts to prove it.
Midway through the test, my first-grader was begging me to bring the TV back. But that was before she found out you can draw pictures on the touch-sensitive screen. She's also learned how to reboot a Media Center PC when the TV playback gets fritzy.
To be fair, the TouchSmart wasn't designed for the living room. HP was trying to create a "kitchen computer" that could serve as both a media center and a command console for families, with a simple calendar, message center and photo display, plus a built-in TV and digital video recorder.
The importance of the TouchSmart goes beyond the kitchen, though. So far it's the only mainstream PC really taking advantage of new features in Vista that were supposed to enable a new generation of computers that are easier to use and function more like consumer electronics.
It's long past time for PC makers to offer more choices than laptops and boxy desktops. Computers are getting cheaper and more reliable, but the hardware isn't evolving fast enough to keep up with the way computing is spreading through the house and changing entertainment and communication. The manufacturers are competing so ferociously on price, they can't afford to invest much developing something new.
Meanwhile Apple is proving that some people, at least, are willing to pay a premium for a quality system, even if it doesn't look like a traditional computer. Last quarter Mac sales were up 30 percent, according to research firm IDC.
That's why I'm reluctant to trash the TouchSmart. It has kinks to be worked out, but at least HP is trying to push the envelope.
The big question is whether the company will continue improving the system even if it doesn't fly off the shelves.
I'm not the only one asking. Charlie Owen, an evangelist with Microsoft's Media Center group, said it's going to take a long-term effort by computer makers to make the living-room PC finally take off.
"I love seeing the innovation that things like the TouchSmart bring to the marketplace," he said. "I would really like for somebody to do a follow-up or a couple of follow-ups — they seem to put these great things out there, but there's not a version 2 or a version 3."
It may be a different story with the TouchSmart. HP is "really excited about this product category," Product Manager Garrett Gargan told me. "We have lots of ideas about where we want to take this. We believe in it a lot."
What about the funky design? "That is something we're also evaluating," he said.
The TouchSmart is unusual. I think it looks like Darth Vader's iMac. It's an all-in-one machine with a 19-inch wide-screen monitor that moves up and down on a black and silver chassis. Below the monitor is a flat box containing all the hardware, including a dual-core AMD processor, 320-gigabyte hard drive, DVD burner and TV tuners that receive both cable and over-the-air signals.
HP designed the chassis to accommodate a printer, which can sit on top of the processor and behind the monitor, according to Julie McDonald, marketing manager for HP's design group.
The HP folks said the $1,800 system is selling so well that it was out of stock as of last Friday.
We've enjoyed the system, especially the Media Center features. The screen's a little small for a living-room TV, but the program guide and video recorder work well, and they don't have TiVo's monthly fees.
It comes with a wireless keyboard and mouse, but I wasn't excited about the productivity stuff. Vista's security settings prevented me from using my office's remote e-mail system until the system was upgraded.
Despite their frustrations with the system, my wife and daughter loved using the system to display photos and play music. Now that I'm getting ready to send it back to HP, my wife said she'd like me to connect some kind of Media Center to our regular TV.
If you can afford it, the TouchSmart might be nice to have in a big suburban kitchen, a dorm room, a den or even an office. But it still has a few rough edges.
One day we found the system had woken itself up only to display an ominous blue-screen message: "A problem has been detected and Windows has been shut down to prevent damage to your computer — BAD_POOL_CALLER."
The screen reported a crash dump of physical memory and advised us to "contact your system admin or technical support group for further assistance."
I turned it off and on again, and everything was just fine. But the last thing we need is a computer that takes a crash dump in the living room.
Brier Dudley's column appears Mondays. Reach him at 206-515-5687 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Copyright © 2007 The Seattle Times Company