Sometimes When We Touch

My heavily-biased review of the HP Touchsmart tm2 Tablet PC

touchsmarttm2.jpgI’ve wanted to get a Tablet PC for years; in fact, thanks to the internet, I can tell you exactly when I started jonesing for one in earnest. Apparently, it was November 11, 2002, when I read this Penny Arcade entry and realized that it was actually possible for real humans to draw directly on a magic screen with millions of colors and infinite storage and a way to instantly undo any mistakes.

They’ve always been out of my price range, though, and I never could rationalize getting an expensive new computer instead of a $10 pad of drawing paper and some colored pencils. And I was certain that Apple would eventually release one — a real one, not a third-party mod that charged $1700 to take away your keyboard, so I could wait a few years. This year there was finally a perfect storm of incentives: first Apple let me down and made it clear they just weren’t into they stylus in that way, and a decent-powered tablet finally broke the $1000 price barrier. So I decided to take the leap, defect from OS X, and order a HP TouchSmart tm2.

Spoiler alert: I ended up returning it. I couldn’t find a demo model in a store, so I had to order one to try it in person; being able to get some hands-on time with one would’ve saved me and HP both a lot of time, money, and effort. That Mobile Tech Review site has a lengthy review and three great video reviews of the computer, but they’re comparing the machine to other Tablet PCs, and they’ve already gotten used to the quirks of tablets and Windows laptops in general. (Plus, even video reviews as exhaustive as the ones they made can’t give you a perfect idea of what it’s like to actually use one).

I’d been hoping to find a review of the computer written by someone with closer to my background — a longtime Mac devotee and amateur artist wanting to take a stab at drawing on the computer but too cheap to shell out for a Cintiq. Hopefully, this will give more info to anybody else who’s in the same boat. For the record, the specs of my machine, straight from the order form:

  • Intel(R)Core(TM)2 Duo SU7300 (1.30GHz, 800MHz FSB) w/512MB ATI Mobility Radeon(TM) HD 4550 Graphics
  • 4GB DDR3 System Memory (2 Dimm)
  • 500GB 7200RPM SATA Hard Drive
  • 12.1″ diagonal WXGA High-Definition HP LED Widescreen (1280×800) with Integrated Touch-screen

Pros

  • Price: As I mentioned, the only reason I finally took the plunge was that HP had finally broken the $1000 price barrier. And with their rebate and free upgrade deals (2GB to 4GB of memory was free, as was the 250GB to 500GB hard drive upgrade), I was able to get a decent-spec machine for right at a thousand bucks.
  • Build Quality: The last Windows laptop I had before making The Switch was a Dell Inspiron that was a huge hunk of black plastic that ran at about 1000 degrees, had fans that sounded like jet engines, and seemed vaguely as if it’d been smuggled out of the former Soviet Union. I’ve had that impression of Windows machines ever since, so it was a nice surprise to see the brushed aluminum and comfortable keyboard and nice rounded corners of this one.
  • Battery Life: I didn’t think to do an actual timing test, but it wouldn’t surprise me to find out that the exaggerated claims of battery life (HP quotes 9.75 hours) common to laptop manufacturers turned out to be true here. The first thing I did is try to power cycle the battery, and I had a hell of a time getting it to run out of juice.
  • Tenperature and Noise: Unlike my ancient Inspiron laptop, this machine was dead silent no matter what I ran on it. I think I heard the fan come on once, and even then I could only tell because I was listening for it. And unlike every Apple laptop I’ve owned, the HP never got hotter than “pleasantly lukewarm.”
  • Netflix: HP ships a TouchSmart suite of multitouch-enabled programs in addition to the OS; I’m assuming it’s the same one that comes with their desktop models. It includes a webcam client, music player, photo viewer, simple painting and note-taking programs, Twitter client, Hulu desktop, and a Netflix Instant Watch player. Most of them were unremarkable, but the Netflix player was excellent. It’s the nicest I’ve seen, and seeing as how I’ve somehow gotten eight devices that all have their own flavors of Netflix player and I’ve tried them all, that’s saying something. You could swipe a finger to scroll through your queue, tap to get details on movies and start playing, scrub through the movie relatively efficiently with your fingers — it’s as nice an experience as all the claims about touch-enabled computes want you to believe.
  • Handwriting Recognition: It’s apparently common knowledge that Microsoft poured tons of money into their TabletPC initiative and it mostly failed, but when you try handwriting on a Windows PC, you can definitely see where all the money went. (And on the flip side, you can plug a tablet into OS X and try Apple’s “Ink” input to get a clear picture of just how much they’ve given up on the stylus). A little window pops up pretty much anywhere that accepts text input, and it’s attractive and more importantly, eerily accurate. I was looking for excuses to keep playing with it, to the point where I was even enjoying filling out web forms.
  • Windows 7: On top of the handwriting recognition, Windows 7 in general seems to be tablet- and touch-friendly, or at least more than I’d expected it to be. It could be just the Mojave effect, and it just looks better because Vista was such a disappointment, but Windows 7 overall strikes a decent balance between a real, grown-up operating system; and a necessary evil for backwards compatibility. I’ve already gone on about how much I like Windows Media Center, and the stand-out piece of software on the Tablet was Microsoft OneNote, a thoroughly well-designed program that’s actually kind of fun to use.
  • Kitchen Sink Mentality: I’d been in the Mac world for so long that I’d forgotten how much PC manufacturers let you configure a machine. Instead of Jonathan Ive and Steve Jobs’s vision of The Only True and Proper Ports Necessary For a Computing Device, you get whatever the hell HP decides to throw on there. The tm2 has an HDMI port that I probably never would’ve used, but still appreciated it was there. And the options were so fast and furious and cheap that I just tossed them on during the order — do I really need a fingerprint scanner? Nope, but what the hell, it’s only 25 bucks!

Cons

  • Flaky Driver Support: This will no doubt get improved over time, but the out-of-the-box experience with the tm2 was a big hassle. There were several things that just plain didn’t work, the most annoying being that the tablet had absolutely no pressure sensitivity. (Which is the main appeal of a Wacom tablet, of course). It’s a common problem, and there are suggestions on the extremely helpful TabletPCReview.com forum, but none of the workarounds worked for me, and there was nothing on HP’s support site that helped, either.
  • ATM-quality Touch Support: Having an affordable tablet that accepts touch and stylus support is the main draw of the tm2, but the touch recognition seemed a little half-baked. It was a lot like using an older ATM: several touches required to get something to register, swipes would go completely unrecognized half the time, and a general lack of responsiveness throughout. I’m not sure if it’s a hardware or a software issue, but after having seen the iPhone in action for the past couple of years, I imagine it’s both. For better or worse, iPhone OS was designed specifically for touch input, so every time you touch or drag on the screen, you get an immediate response.
  • Touchpad: In addition to the screen, the tm2 has a real laptop-style keyboard, and a touchpad that also supports multi-touch gestures. At least, in theory. Again, it would frequently fail to recognize a gesture, or interpret right-clicks that I hadn’t intended, or just not detect that I’d tried to move the mouse.
  • My Big Meaty Hands: Related to all the issues I had with touch sensitivity: there’s supposedly some kind of “hand detection” going on with the tablet, so it can distinguish my hand resting on the screen from the pen I’m using to draw on the screen. But in my short experience with it, it failed more often than not. I couldn’t use any piece of software for more than a minute without inadvertently causing a line to be drawn across the screen, or a big black smudge obscuring the drawing. There’s a way to switch it to accept pen input only, but it struck me as an unnecessary hassle for something that promised to “just work.”
  • Weight: The tm2 is a little over four and a half pounds, so it’s by no means “heavy,” but it’s just heavy enough to be inconvenient. My dreams of lounging Roman-style on the couch while propping the thing up with one hand were dashed as soon as I realized there was no real comfortable angle to hold the thing while drawing. And it’s not just the weight, but the weight distribution. The whole thing feels off balance because of…
  • The Hump: The battery, unlike those of Apple laptops, is easily removable. Also unlike those of Apple laptops, the battery on the tm2 is huge. If you can set the thing down on a table, the hump actually provides a nice tilt that makes it easier to draw, at least in one preferred orientation. But holding it, my experience was that it just made it impossible to find a comfortable position.
  • Screen Angles: With the iPad, Apple’s been making a big deal about its IPS display for wider viewing angles. I didn’t get what all the fuss was about until I tried the tm2. Looking at the screen dead-on, it’s got a reasonably good picture. But tilt your head or move the device (again, while trying to hold it in your lap, for example) and the display gets grainy, the colors washed out. Making a laptop with a base price of $900 is difficult for a reason.
  • No Optical Drive: Like a netbook, the tm2 doesn’t come with an optical drive, I’m assuming for weight and price reasons. (You can use an external USB drive, and HP offers one as an add-on). This obviously makes installing software difficult — I installed SketchBook Pro over the network from the drive on my desktop machine, and it worked although it took twice as long as it would normally. (I’d dread installing something that spans multiple discs, like the Adobe Creative Suite). As digital downloads get more prevalent, that’ll be less of an issue, but we’re not quite there yet. What worried me more was that I couldn’t make a backup or recovery disc. HP includes recovery software, but it refuses to work with anything other than an external USB drive. The tm2 ships with a recovery partition, but even in 2010 and working for a company that sells digital downloads, the prospect of being without a physical boot disc made me nervous.
  • No Accelerometer: The screen on the tm2 flips up and rotates easily to switch between laptop and slate modes. Every time you do so, though, you have to press a button to cycle through all the available screen orientations. Even worse, the button is at the right side of the screen, so every time I held it vertically, I’d inadvertently hit the button and have to cycle through everything again. The iPhone is proof that the accelerometer doesn’t fix everything (have you ever tried reading something on the iPhone while in bed?) but it’d be a nice start.
  • Bloatware: That TouchSmart Suite that I mentioned earlier had cool stuff like Netflix, but a lot of useless crap as well. (Including two astoundingly lousy touch-enabled games). It’s unavoidable with Windows, no doubt, and it helps keep the cost down. But I had to spend my first night with a new computer just uninstalling software. Also weird is the inclusion of Hulu Desktop: however you feel about Hulu’s business practices, there’s no denying that the desktop software is really slick and well-designed. But it’s well-designed for remote controls. For fingers, there’s an awful lot of stuff that just plain doesn’t work.
  • CPU: CPU speed is becoming less and less of an issue, especially with dual cores and on a machine with a separate GPU and ample memory. Plus, the tm2’s low voltage CPU is a big part of why it has such great battery life and low heat. But still, it felt wrong buying a brand new machine in 2010 that only had 1.3 GHz.

Push

Or, as videogame review sites used to describe it: REVIEWER’S TILT! This is the part where my bias shows through, so it’d be unfair to describe it as a straight-up “con.” Your mileage may vary.

  • Build Quality: I mentioned this as a “pro,” because the machine itself (minus the battery) is solid. But it’s still functional instead of genuinely sleek; it’s hard to look at it and just get excited about using the machine. Like, for instance, the feeling I get whenever I see the new unibody MacBook Pros scattered about the office. Or for that matter, even the HP Envy. Granted, there’s only so thin they can go with a Wacom tablet built into the screen.
  • That Damn Etching: The lid and half the handrest are covered with this etched pattern that I kept hoping would grow on me but never did. It’s that unnecessarily swirly flourish that covered every VH1 ad and concert poster or website about website design five to ten years ago. I tried to intellectualize it as a minor complaint, but I just couldn’t help looking at the thing and thinking that it already looked a little dated now; what was it going to look like in five years?
  • Windows 7: I marked it as a “pro” up above, and if all things were equal, it would remain a “pro.” But I’ve got OS X software I want or need to keep using. Some of it is just personal preference like NetNewsWire or Tweetie, and I could probably find a decent Windows equivalent. But I may be one of the only people with a legitimate personal license for Photoshop and Illustrator, and I’ve got the Mac versions. I briefly considered going rogue and trying to turn the thing into a Hackintosh, but even if it weren’t a little ethically shady, I didn’t like the idea of being stuck with a broken laptop and no recovery disc (see “No optical drive” above).
  • It’s Not a Mac: And finally, it has to be said: I’m a Mac guy. Yes, it’s largely personal preference, and yes, I’ve got no doubt that a big part of why I don’t like using Windows is just a matter of my getting accustomed to OS X for almost a decade. But that’s not all of it. I’m still using a four-year-old MacBook Pro — to be fair, an entirely different class of machine than the tm2, even without the “Apple tax” — and it’s showing no signs of stopping. The industrial design is excellent, it feels lighter and thinner than it really is, the touchpad is smooth and responsive, and it runs everything I want to throw at it with no problem. My only complaints are the ridiculously excessive heat and low battery life. Apart from that, it’s not just marketing speak; Apple stuff “just works.”

A New Hope

And that last bit is what has me convinced that I’m doomed never to be able to buy an affordably-priced computer again; I’ve been spoiled by the Mac. Assuming the reports about the iPad are true (and based on what I’ve seen of the iPhone, I can totally believe that they’re true), Apple’s attention to detail is going to pay off. You can do a component-by-component comparison and find a tablet that’s got more features or more power, but the appeal of these devices is more than their individual components. When I got the tm2, I’d imagined that in addition to the art side of things, I’d be able to use it for all the stuff I wanted an iPad for: reading books and comics, watching movies, and browsing the web. But I quickly realized that it was a little too heavy and took too long to boot up for that to be convenient, the touch screen was too sketchy for that to be enjoyable, and the available software was designed with touch input as an afterthought.

It’s there that you see how Apple’s obsessive control over everything pays off. They’re not going to release a touchscreen unless it’s super-responsive. They’re not going to release a casual computer that takes a long time to boot up (or more accurately, that needs to be shut down as frequently as a laptop). And Jobs’s compulsion about making everything thinner and with fewer buttons seems slightly less obsessive when you start thinking of the thing as an electronic magazine.

I can still hold out hope that Apple and Wacom start to play nice and there’s a future version of the iPad that works like a portable Cintiq. Until then, I’ll be fine with the old Intuos 2 I got off ebay a few years ago and have allowed to collect dust ever since. Or that $10 pad of paper.

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