The TouchSmart series is the vanguard of touch on the desktop, pre-dating even Surface by years.
Yet, despite the extra lead time, HP has still failed to deliver an immersive touch experience; its TouchSmart UI is still suffering from poor multi-touch capability and lagginess, issues that we highlighted two years ago.
Part of this is hardware; HP's choice to go infrared for the touch technology means that the screen can sometimes get confused by having more than one finger on the screen at once. The rest, though, is entirely down to the software. We've mentioned Windows' deficiencies when it comes to touch interfaces before (something Windows 8 will hopefully address), so usually it comes down to the vendors to bridge this gap. What you get is everything from a token effort to bundled software, to a full-blown interface. HP's actually done all three here, although TouchSmart 4.0, its interface, leaves a lot to be desired.
The TouchSmart UI now has a desktop: an area where you can drag post-it notes, magnets (the HP term for widgets), songs, photos and add graffiti to. It's analogous to iOS and Android homescreens, with multiple homescreens to swipe through — although there's no indicator to let you know what screen you're on.
In addition, you can pin items to this desktop, so no matter what screen you swipe to, they stay visible. You can remove magnets that you add to the desktop, or playback songs or albums from the desktop, but rather ridiculously, you can't edit or resize post-it notes, or zoom and rotate photos or graffiti; you have to go into individual applications to do this (and even then the photo editing application seems to lack the ability to zoom). The default size chosen for desktop elements is quite small, too, and this — in combination with the lack of ability to move multiple items at once — makes the TouchSmart's desktop nowhere near as intuitive as it could be.
The lack of video hardware acceleration further detracts from the experience, with the interface often slowing down and exhibiting lag, something unacceptable these days when even smartphones can do it.
Although HP has failed to live up to the TouchSmart promise in many regards, once you get into the software it can be fun: browsing photos; drawing; playing back movies and music; making notes from text, drawings, video or audio; and making slideshows of photos with music.
The custom apps for web interfaces are a nice touch, with eBay, Twitter and Facebook all receiving makeovers to better suit fingers than mouse, although it does greatly slow down all proceedings; keyboard and mouse are just better suited for doing things quickly. HP has also included something called "Recipe Box", which is exactly what it sounds like, bringing us one step closer to the kitchen PC. Tragically, there appears to be no ability to enter your own recipes or download more, and the current selection is quite meagre.
Also bundled in there is R.U.S.E.; specifically, a multi-touch version of the game, although we were unable to play it to see just how much touch contributed to the experience, due to Ubisoft's Ubi.com account servers being down. As usual, DRM only hurts the paying customer.
The only other application of note (outside of the useful Office 2010 Starter Edition) is that HP has managed to cram in its own app store, under the slightly less litigious name of "Apps Center". It's a little sad at this stage with only nine apps, four of which have been provided by HP.
Our TouchSmart arrived with a previous-generation Core i7 — an 870 clocked at 2.93GHz, to be precise. It was no slouch, however, as it was also equipped with 8GB RAM, an ATI Radeon HD 5570, a 2TB hard drive, Bluetooth and 802.11n. An Avermedia H323 allows you to get TV on your PC if you're that way inclined, and the included Windows Media remote helps to complete the package. A wireless keyboard and mouse are also included if you're inclined to use the more traditional form of input, meaning that HP has all bases covered.
The screen itself is IPS-based, a significant step forward for the TouchSmart series. It's 23-inches and runs at 1920x1080, making it ideal for HD movies.
On the left sits two USB ports, headphone and microphone jacks, an SD/MS/MMC/MC card-reader and a volume-rocker and mute-button. The right is home to a Blu-ray drive, while a compartment in the rear of the screen hides four USB ports, gigabit Ethernet and 5.1 sound.
HP also managed to squeeze Beats Audio tech into the TouchSmart, which — while not earth-shattering — does deliver a fuller tone to the audio, specifically enhancing the bass and mid-tones and giving more punch to the bottom-end.
Two things stand out immediately in terms of physical changes to the TouchSmart: the ability to convert it into a near tabletop form-factor; and the ability to tilt the webcam to compensate for the near-horizontal change. It certainly opens up the potential for the TouchSmart to be a more creative experience, although sadly the quality of the software and the infrared touchscreen aren't up to the task.
Performance and verdict
The TouchSmart does well on the performance side, clocking 7429 in 3DMark06 and 9624 in PCMark05, meaning that it should be capable of almost everything you throw at it (although no doubt ArmA II will still prove to be a sticking point). At the very least, it's a competent desktop that can game, with the added ability of touch.
The TouchSmart 610 sadly fails to make touch more than the novelty that it's historically been on the desktop. While innovations like the near-flat orientation of the screen and touch-specific versions of websites are appreciated, a heck of a lot more will need to be done to make the touch aspect of the TouchSmart more compelling.