In most homes, the kitchen is the center of family organization, the place where people mark calendars with choir practices, office parties and first dates, and post notes and family photos on cork boards and refrigerator doors.
For many years, the computer industry has tried to build a “kitchen computer” or “kitchen software” for regular computers, to replace the refrigerator door and the wall calendar as the planning and notification centers for the household. All of these attempts have failed.
Now, Hewlett-Packard Co. is trying again. This week, I tested the HP TouchSmart PC, a unique computer that H-P hopes your family will use in your kitchen or family room to get organized — digitally. This computer, due out Jan. 30, is an expensive — $1,799 — machine with an unusual design. It’s meant to be used like a walk-up kiosk, perched on a kitchen counter, with users selecting functions by tapping large icons on a touch-sensitive screen.
But, after a week of use in my own kitchen, I concluded that even a computer as cleverly designed as this one isn’t likely to replace Post-it notes and paper calendars. It does have some cool functions, including a built-in TV, a gorgeous screen and a very nice photo-software program, but these may not be enough to justify the price and the space it takes up in the kitchen.
The $1,799 HP TouchSmart PC, www.hp.com.
The TouchSmart PC is a handsome, futuristic machine that looks more like something from Apple or Sony than from H-P. Instead of a regular screen and computer tower, it consists of a touch-enabled, 19″ monitor that folds out from a two-piece stand designed to house the computer’s guts and sit on a countertop.
The stand’s base serves as a hideaway bay for an included wireless keyboard, and its back side is made to hold a small H-P photo printer, which isn’t included. A wireless mouse can be tucked beside the base and a stylus pops up from the top left edge of the monitor. This PC also uses touch-specific software programs for calendaring, leaving notes and editing and organizing photos. It can connect to the Internet wirelessly or via a wired connection.
This machine is an attention-grabbing addition to a kitchen, the kind of thing that would fit in a design magazine. But, to win over families, the TouchSmart must overcome the obstacles that foiled earlier attempts at kitchen computers.
First, using a computer to input and display schedules and messages, while it works well in the office, has been slower and more cumbersome than just jotting things down on paper in a kitchen. Second, unless a digital kitchen calendar system can automatically synchronize with family members’ office calendars in programs like Outlook, it isn’t solving the biggest problem of coordinating family calendars: business trips and events, which are marked on work computers, are hard to incorporate into family schedules.
Finally, the expensive H-P machine must compete with cheaper computers already used in the kitchen: laptops that are used there temporarily, but which also travel to other rooms, or outside the house.
Another issue with H-P’s approach is the touch screen. While it’s cool-looking and convenient to be able to do walk-up tasks without a keyboard, how often will people pull out the keyboard to do things like, say, ordering movie tickets or booking flights? If they do this a lot, and the computer is perched on a counter with little depth and no place to sit, the experience could be annoying.
In my kitchen, I’m fortunate to have an island, so the HP TouchSmart PC seemed well-suited there, claiming a large hunk of counter space. I set up the TouchSmart PC in less than five minutes, though I didn’t use its TV functionality, which might be a boon in some kitchens.
Though I don’t have the typical family household, my two roommates were more than willing to use the TouchSmart PC for a week, adding appointments to the calendar, leaving digital notes, playing games of mahjong made more fun with the touch screen and looking up recipes online.
After a day, we were spoiled by the bright colors and walk-up functionality of the LCD touch screen. There’s something satisfying about quickly making a selection with your finger, causing a cool ripple effect to circle out from wherever the screen was touched. The screen withstood damp fingers and food smudges, and can be wiped down with a moist towel.
A Home button on the monitor’s frame opens the HP SmartCenter, designed with giant icons and extra-large text. This screen can display up to 12 personalized shortcuts; by default, the three largest shortcut icons are HP SmartCalendar, HP Photosmart Touch and your local weather, updated via Weather.com.
HP SmartCalendar was consistently slow to open. It includes a virtual bulletin board for digital Post-it notes and a basic calendar. Notes can be written using the stylus, an on-screen keyboard, the real keyboard or just your finger, and they can be left for specified people. You can also leave audio messages.
The calendar in SmartCalendar was a disappointment. It doesn’t synchronize with other calendars without going through Windows Vista Calendar, a program in the regular section of the PC, nor does it synchronize with Microsoft Outlook calendars. Annoyingly, SmartCalendar has no way of differentiating one family member’s appointments from another at a glance. And if you forget an appointment while the TouchSmart PC is in hibernation mode, your only hope of being reminded is a pea-size light beneath the LCD screen that will glow if a reminder was set with the appointment.
None of the calendar appointments or notes can be made private, so if you have a personal doctor’s appointment or a surprise birthday party, you’re out of luck.
In HP Photosmart Touch, I opened folders filled with my digital photos and easily skimmed through them. Editing, such as red-eye removal, cropping and rotating, can easily be done with your finger, though specifically marking a red eye in need of fixing was best done using TouchSmart’s wireless mouse.
If you have an a510- or a610-series HP Photosmart printer, it will fit snugly onto the back of your TouchSmart, and printed photos will drop down onto your keyboard through a slot below the LCD screen.
But when it came to basic organizing and practical use, the TouchSmart was lacking. One of my roommates prided himself on writing an old-fashioned paper reminder in less time than it took to open HP SmartCalendar. And the calendar’s inability to distinguish between personal appointments at a glance grew frustrating. A video camera is embedded in the screen’s frame, but I couldn’t figure out how to get it working, even after troubleshooting with H-P. The company blamed this on the new Vista operating system, and said it will work eventually.
H-P is definitely on to something with its TouchSmart PC, but too many of its faults made me keenly aware that this was the company’s first attempt at the product. Its unwieldy shape and size will be a turn-off for potential buyers. The TouchSmart’s touch screen is a treat, but for practical matters you’ll do best to stick to old-fashioned methods of family organization.
–Edited by Walter S. Mossberg
- Email: MossbergSolution@wsj.com