Every "home of the future" I have ever visited—and I've been in a lot of them—features a family messaging center designed to replace paper calendars, notes, and other messy communication tools with a slick electronic device. The Hewlett-Packard (HPQ) TouchSmart IQ770 is the latest stab at creating this reality. But don't throw away your Post-It notes just yet.
The $1,795 TouchSmart is by far the most elegant all-in-one PC design I've seen from anyone other than Apple (AAPL). It has the specs of a high-end PC and features a 19-in. widescreen, touch-sensitive display. Its height and viewing angle are easily adjustable. A wireless keyboard hides under the unit when not in use. The TouchSmart is equipped with tuners for both standard and digital TV broadcasts. The fact that it makes a nice high-definition TV takes some of the sting out of the price.
The kitchen is the communications hub of most homes, and this PC would spiff up any kitchen. If the software were as good as the hardware, I might find a way to squeeze a TouchSmart into my own.
Missing the Point
I think the main reason families have communicated by sticking notes to the refrigerator is that the fridge is one place in the house everyone goes, and if you leave a note there, it's unlikely to be overlooked. The TouchSmart replicates this phenomenon in software via something called the SmartCenter, a sort of customizable home page. Its three main features are a local weather forecast, a photo-editing program (whose prominence seems to reflect the importance of photo printing to HP's business more than any consumer need), and the family calendar.
The calendar is the information center—and the biggest disappointment of the TouchSmart. One way to interact with it is to leave a note, which is simple enough. You take a slip of virtual paper, compose the note by typing or writing on the screen with either the stylus or a fingertip, and choose a user or "everyone" as its destination. Although it uses sticky notes as a visual metaphor, SmartCenter misses the point. Notes stuck to the fridge work because they are in your face. Here you have to open the calendar program and tell it who you are before you see your messages.
Calendar entries, which are separate from notes, don't integrate with the Microsoft (MSFT) Outlook calendar or any other schedule. That's unfortunate, because I'd want the business trip that I enter in Outlook or Google (GOOG) Calendar to appear automatically in SmartCenter's calendar. And although you can make an entry visible to everyone, there's no way to indicate who it belongs to.
SmartCenter is built on Microsoft's Media Center software, which in turn is built on top of Windows Vista, making for a somewhat shaky structure. HP wisely put a button just below the display that "instantly" brings up the SmartCenter. Even on this powerful system, however, it took a painful 10 seconds for the SmartCenter to launch when I pushed the button while working in Windows.
The TouchSmart has one innovation that works well. Most touch screens use a touch-sensitive plastic film that impairs image sharpness. HP uses an array of optical sensors around the screen edge. This leaves the screen cleaner, and it seems more precise.
I still believe there's room for a home information-and-entertainment center of this sort, but to reach a mass market, the system has to be smaller, cheaper, and above all simpler. This application calls for a software platform other than Windows—a nimbler and quicker one with fewer capabilities and greater ease of use. In the end, the TouchSmart is just too much of a good thing.