But the point (no pun intended) of the TouchSmart is neither its speed nor its functionality as a regular Vista PC. It's the TouchSmart interface that launches with a push of a button on the front bezel, and special applications that launch with one tap instead of a mouse-like two, to give you a whole new, hands-on desktop experience.
The main screen presents two customizable rows of icons or program shortcuts: a upper row of large tiles (which you can resize by stretching or compressing with two fingers) for favorite applications, and a set of smaller tiles for programs you don't use quite as often.
Not only is the bottom row copied straight from Mac OS X, but both rows work like the iPhone: Swiping a finger left or right scrolls horizontally through the tiles, while tapping one launches its application. You can promote or demote a title by dragging it from one row to the other, or drag icons to arrange them in a different order.
Play, pause, and previous/next controls at top right let you enjoy music while you work. Tapping a Windows icon at top left switches from TouchSmart to the regular Vista desktop. (Annoyance: Since TouchSmart takes over the entire screen, it also turns off the "keep taskbar on top of other windows" option so you lose the Windows taskbar.)
Some tiles resemble Vista Sidebar gadgets, such as a local weather forecast and a clock that shows up to three time zones. There's a browser that works like a subset of Internet Explorer with no history list or multiple-window support; it's meant mostly for keeping an eye on a favorite Web page to see if it changes rather than for replacing Firefox. An RSS feeder keeps you abreast of new content on other sites.
Families that use the IQ506 as a kitchen, living-room, or entryway hub will like TouchSmart Notes, which lets users post typed or handwritten notes and reminders in various colors and styles.
Frankly it's a chore to write bulletin-board posts longhand -- the program uses the on-screen keyboard and handwriting-recognition area of the Windows Tablet PC input panel, so you'll need either very careful fingerwork or some kind of stylus. Much more convenient is the ability to record and play back voice notes.
Similar scrawl-or-type input is available for TouchSmart Calendar, which lets you see a daily, weekly, monthly, or yearly view and tap to add schedule items or appointments. The program supports all-day (e.g., birthday or holiday) as well as specific-time events, with alarms and recurring appointments available.
The truly essential TouchSmart programs handle video clips, music, and photos. The first lets you record videos with the built-in webcam and, in a handy shortcut, post them to YouTube. Bundled CyberLink YouCam software copies videos to a CD or DVD, decorating them with cartoon borders and effects if you like, and of course the webcam serves for video chat or instant messaging as well.
TouchSmart Music shows either your Windows Media (MP3, WMA, WAV) or iTunes (M4P, M4A) music library -- but not both -- in a grid arrangement, or shows albums off in a fan- or peacock-tail-like arc that you can browse by swiping left or right.
Just as fun is tapping an album so it opens alongside a playlist panel. You can then drag albums or tracks into playlists holding up to 500 songs in a far easier fashion than Windows Media Player.
TouchSmart Photo shows your digital camera shots arranged by folder or date, with the same nifty choice of grid pattern or fan view. Pick a photo, and you can perform some basic image editing -- crop by dragging the corners of the image to suit, rotate, fix red-eye, or apply automatic contrast and brightness adjustment -- or revert to the original.
You can also print photos, watch a slide show, or upload them to HP's Snapfish online service to print albums, T-shirts, mugs, and other novelties.
The rest of the IQ504's preinstalled software is unexceptional, although HP gets a nod for reducing its usual consumer-PC preload of wasteware -- the tacky LiveTangent game service is still there, but the only other commercials are for online services and Snapfish.
CyberLink DVD Suite Deluxe and Power2Go join Microsoft Works and the trial version of Symantec's Norton Internet Security 2008. The HP also refers you to Windows Media Center instead of providing a redundant application for the TV tuner and programming time-shifter; the big-buttoned Media Center interface works fine with the touch screen as well as with the remote provided for control from the couch.
So what do we think of the TouchSmart, other than bracing ourselves for flames from Apple fans understandably outraged by its combination of iMac, iPhone, and OS X influences?
We think it fulfills the promise of last year's bulkier, less capable version, with touch technology you're likely to use almost daily instead of playing with for a few weeks before giving up on it in favor of the keyboard and mouse. We wish the 25.5-inch model cost less. We like it a lot.
We're even impressed by its marketing. We were all set to make a headline out of Joan Jett's rock anthem "Do You Wanna Touch (Me There)," figuring it would be too risqué for HP, but the song blares loud and clear from the TouchSmart Web site.
This article was first published on HardwareCentral.com.