HP’s TouchSmart experience

Touch screens have mostly been limited to business-minded Tablet PCs. But HP's TouchSmart tx2 gets props for bringing touch to the masses. This hybrid notebook lifts HP's desktop experience from its TouchSmart IQ506 and drops it into a smallish package–small in that it has a 12.1-inch screen; but it's a little on the big-boned side, and too heavy to be truly portable, as most laptops with this size screen would be. Size and slow performance are the only drawbacks to HP's otherwise reasonably smart design.

The biggest deal about the tx2: It's a fully-functional touch-screen tablet. The screen recognizes multitouch gestures (zooming in and out) within some basic Windows areas. It's not a perfect implementation–and it doesn't work across everything in Windows–but it works as advertised with or without the stylus.

Second, the 1280-by-800-pixel display is sufficiently bright. Its glossy coating makes it fairly easy to see both indoors and out, despite a little glare; this stands in contrast to most other tablet PCs I've seen, which have some sort of no-nonsense matte coating. Of course, there is one issue to using a glossy multitouch screen: smudge city. If the CSI team dusts the screen, I'd be busted. To make matters a little worse, the display is a tad grainy compared with standard notebooks that you'll likely see next to the tx2 on store shelves.

The tx2 starts at US$1000; our test machine had a 2.4-GHz AMD Turion X2 Ultra Dual-Core Mobile Processor ZM-86, 4GB of RAM, and a relatively meager 64MB ATI Radeon HD 3200 GPU, a configuration that sells for about $1573. That combination of parts resulted in a score of 68 on our WorldBench 6 tests–but also presents a bit of a bind for the tx2. While the 12.1-inch screen makes the tx2 a perfect candidate for ultraportable status, the total package also packs on the weight. Tipping the scales at 4.3 pounds, it's a bit too bulky and falls in with all-purpose laptops. A score of 68, while not great, is slightly below average among ultraportable machines. In the all-purpose category, though, that's bottom-of-the barrel performance.

So how does this model do otherwise? Fairly well, in my hands-on evaluation. The keyboard's buttons have just the right amount of spacing, as well as give for when you start typing away. And I really dig the settings shortcut button next to the screen: It is probably the handiest button on the laptop, besides the power toggle. A quick tap and every major setting you'd likely fiddle with on your PC is in one handy window.

However, the size of the notebook means a small keyboard where sacrifices must be made. Notably, the function keys get short shrift. Shrunken down to pygmy size, these little buttons also host second functions. Every notebook does that to some degree, so it's not a huge shocker, but there are so many functions crammed along the top, it takes some doing to find and relearn the commands you want. One thing that's easy to locate, however, is the recessed mousepad: Little dips lead your hand to the controls, and it is plenty responsive.

I found the touch screen laser-accurate when pressing the stylus to the screen, but it gets a little more finicky when you use your fingers. If, like me, you have goon-sized digits, you'll have to stick with the pen, change the screen settings to allow for larger icons and whatnot, or just be extremely careful with where you point your finger. But the important thing is that you're getting a screen of reasonable size that recognizes your multitouch throughout its windows. By using the familiar pinching motions you've learned to use on iPhones, you can quickly resize desktop icons or zoom into images. There's even a full digitizer–just eject the well-weighted digital pen and you're ready to write.

Tablet design is a very tricky thing to get straight. Take the swing hinge that allows the screen to rotate into a tablet form. It holds firm and keeps the screen in place, but it won't work well on a bus or plane (any bump and, if you're trying to use the tx2 like a normal notebook, the screen will go bouncing around). Also, since this is a slightly beefy tablet, this kind of machine isn't exactly ideal for one-handed use. But the layout of the tablet is definitely helpful: The settings button–just above the multimedia shortcut and screen rotation keys–works very well, and a fingerprint scanner lies near the touch screen.

As for the rest of the layout, it's a little underwhelming, but to be expected: three USB 2.0 ports, and slots–one each–for VGA-out, PC Express/34, and a 5-in-one flash-card, as well as modem and ethernet jacks. The eight-cell battery that came with our test unit bulges out beneath the tx2 and props up the machine for a better typing tilt. You also get an integrated Webcam and mic (as well as two headphone and one mic jack jutting out from below the mousepad). And you get both wireless 802.11 a/b/g/n and Bluetooth connectivity. Craftsmanship seems solid enough, although the machine did make the occasional creak. Guess I'm a little too heavy-handed.

Two tiny grilles sit below the monitor promising Altec Lansing SRS Premium Sound. However, I found the audio far from premium: Without any semblance of a good bottom end, you get reproduction that's decent but a little tinny. Not terrible, but other all-purpose notebooks fare much better in tests.

It's interesting how HP incorporates its TouchSmart media software into a laptop. It duplicates just about everything that Media Center already does in Vista, but adds on a reasonably finger-friendly interface. Music, for example, gets an Apple iTunes-like Cover Flow-ish treatment fanned out across your screen. Pick an album and drag it into your queue. I only wish it were possible to take as much advantage of this multitouch display in other applications. But I know that's a pipe dream for now.

Other useful software touches: The HP Advisor unobtrusively keeps an eye out for trouble and breaks it down with a easy-to-digest interface. MS Works comes preinstalled; following closely on its heels: bloatware. Wild Tangent games sit on your system as do Flash ads for Slingbox. Really? I have to delete ads from my new notebook now? I know that sometimes trial software and shareware piggyback on new PCs, but straight-up video ads are a bit much.

As far as Tablet PCs go, the HP TouchSmart tx2 gets enough right to warrant a look. This media-friendly tablet tries to take the TouchSmart desktop experience on the road, but at this point the size of the device and the software's limitations mean its touch capabilities are more a gimmick than a useful addition.

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