KELLNER: Vista gives TouchSmart fits and starts

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Few things can be more disappointing than the expectation that something will be far better than it turns out. I’m afraid to say this is my experience with the Hewlett-Packard TouchSmart IQ506t, which, for just under $1,600, is positioned as an all-in-one computer for the home user.

The basics seem clear enough: A 22-inch LCD display fronts a complete, Intel Core 2 Duo processor running at 2.16 gigahertz. There’s 4 gigabytes of RAM, double the basic RAM of most home PCs, and a 500 GB hard disk drive, along with a pair of built-in TV tuners, one analog and one digital, and a personal video recorder. Stereo speakers are housed just below the LCD, and the sound is quite expansive. If you want to have a video chat with your cousin in Killarney, the webcam is built right in, along with a microphone.

As a multimedia device, the TouchSmart is rather attractive: Using nothing more than a pair of “rabbit ears,” I tuned in a bunch of high-definition, digital TV signals, including the Washington and Baltimore NBC affiliates. The pictures from the Beijing Olympics were as sharp on this display as they were on my 42-inch big screen downstairs, which is hooked up to Verizon FiOS. Impressive.

The kicker on this computer is the “TouchSmart” part, a combination of a touchscreen computer and applications that take advantage of it. My test unit had a nice, low-profile wireless keyboard and wireless mouse, but the idea of “TouchSmart” is to use your finger to navigate through menus and a selected range of applications, letting your fingers do the talking.

Among the applications for which hand controls are preferred are a music player, a photo album display and a note-taking app that lets you write notes with your finger. These function quite nicely, and are rather intuitive to learn and use.

The appeal, I guess, is to not only rely on a keyboard, but also make the multimedia aspect of the computer more user-friendly. It works, to a point: I like flipping through a selection of pictures or music pieces, and it’s as easy to double-tap an icon as it is to double-click with a mouse.

Perhaps there are people who don’t like mousing all that much. But to today’s tech user - texting on a cell phone, using a tiny keyboard, and typing their way through the day at a keyboard - given all that, is using a finger all that appealing? Especially when, with the computer turned off, fingerprints are very visible on the screen.

So what’s not to like? In a word: Vista. In three words: Microsoft Windows Vista. For the first time in my experience with this current version of Microsoft’s operating system, Vista turns out to be an impediment when using the computer, one that is unavoidable. My sense is that the many features of the TouchSmart computer won’t work under Windows XP, so one is stuck with the Vista software.

Previously, I’ve not had too many problems with Vista. Here, however, the security protections of the operating system are a bit of an impediment to using the computer. Internet surfing with Microsoft’s Internet Explorer, for example, is torture: The constant interruption of security warnings is just a bother.

There also seems to be something in this machine that makes even 4 GB of memory seem too little. Try to work while having the TV tuner on, write a report and surf the Internet, and you start hitting a wall. It shouldn’t be this way. There’s something that’s taking a lot of overhead in the system, and I’m guessing it’s Vista.

Many of these problems likely can be overcome with a lot of sweat and dedication, but, frankly, the idea of a simple home computer, especially one with a touch-sensitive interface, shouldn’t call for that level of tinkering. Out of the box, it should work as breezily as advertised.

This is especially true, I think, in a world where Apple Computer’s iMac is a challenging competitor. No, the iMac doesn’t have a touch-sensitive interface, and a TV tuner isn’t a built-in, but the multimedia features of the iMac are without peer. Factor in iTunes and Apple’s Front Row multimedia control software - which can be operated with a tucks-in-your-palm remote - and adding an external TV tuner isn’t a big hassle.

At that point, then, you’re relatively equal between the two systems with one key difference: The Mac doesn’t choke up at odd moments. The system software and applications work, and even with 2 GB of RAM, the iMac dances around the fits and starts of the TouchSmart computer. Oh, and you can reposition the iMac to have its webcam take a better shot of you; the HP webcam can’t be easily repositioned because of the way the display is set up, in an easel-like configuration.

But hope springs eternal, and if any company can make this work better, I’d place my money on Hewlett-Packard. Though Vista seems to present plenty of challenges, this computer, out of the box, delivers a great deal. If you have the patience, it might well be a winning home system. Turbo-charged Type As, however, may want to chew on a Valium first.

What’s got your goat? E-mail mkellner@washington times.com.

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