The greatest student laptop ever? No, but it's close

Summary:It's quite possible this is the best contender in the ultimate student laptop race. With the sheer awesome technology packed into it, what is the one thing holding it back? Article

Alright, so I'm getting quite a few things wrong this week. Now is the time to admit to yet another failing - touch technology. I once, relatively recently, branded it to be the most evil technology on the planet and up until this week would have defended that to the grave. An awful lot can change in the course of a week, mind you.

Take this one. And I quote:

"I’ve used many-a-touchscreen device, including the iPhone and the Microsoft Surface table. The Surface table, granted, isn’t bad to use. It’s fast, responsive, and works well using high-powered applications as it sucks out the power of the GPU."

Before I spend half of the post writing about the touch capabilities, I'll run through a few of the more essential items on the checklist. The HP TouchSmart tx2, one of the contenders in the race of the best student laptop I have ever used has:

  • 2.2Ghz AMD Turion X2 64: dual core and supports 64-bit technology;
  • 12.1" high definition, multi-touch enabled, tablet PC with 180° degree screen;
  • ATI Radeon HD 3200 graphics, 320GB hard drive, 3GB RAM memory;
  • Lightscribe enabled DVD-RW, wireless a/b/g and n supported;
  • Integrated fingerprint reader, more hotkeys than you can cope with, and a wealth of connector ports available (including 3 USB ports and a removable media center remote)

I won't be too geeky - if you want to read the full specs, head on over to Amazon.

The leaking of the Microsoft Touch Pack which was supposed to demonstrate the sheer awesomeness of multi-touch technology in Windows 7 got me in stitches. I downloaded it, installed it after a few attempts, of which, hat tip goes to my colleague, Ed Bott, for helping me out in form of a handy tweet. (I was smashed at the time, but got it working through sheer determination).

Oh yeah, this will automatically play in HD so go full-screen because it looks awesome.

But there is so much more to this device than just touch (albeit it probably is the striking feature).

The battery lasts at most 2 hours 15 minutes, but with wireless turned on that gets halved. Still, it is plenty of time to run through a lecture or two, and comes with a spare battery in the box. The battery charger is around 3-4 metres in length and surprisingly lightweight; considering my old laptop charger was so heavy it felt like it was made of depleted uranium.

I still haven't quite got used to the touch technology yet; so much so that on my other laptop which has no touch capabilities whatsoever, it takes me a while to realise you have to use the scratchpad alone, otherwise you're just smudging greasy fingerprints onto a screen and nothing else.

Handwriting is absolutely fantastic and I've used this more than the finger touch capabilities. For those who aren't a fan of wiping their screen every few minutes to remove the strawberry jam, WD-40, the wide range of bodily fluids or milkshake, the digital pen is going to be your best friend. You get a more precise feeling using it. Your cursor follows it around and allows you to use the touch without actually touching it. This isn't new though, so I won't keep going on about it.

But the handwriting is a dream. If you are sat in a lecture theatre and just fancy writing for once, flip the screen and use it as a tablet. Because the touch screen picks up only fingers, you can rest one side of your hand on the screen and write as you ordinarily would on paper without it making too much of a mess where you are writing. Again, it's far from perfect but not bad for a developing technology. But...

With a hotkey on the right hand side of the screen which rotates the display from portrait to landscape and vice-versa, it feels brilliant to read from. Sure, a Kindle may cost significantly less than this device, the battery will last longer, and the screen is easier to read from, but it's certainly a novelty to have a tablet device which displays an e-book on.

Something I noticed after using the laptop in "laptop mode" is the imbalance; when using it on a desk, it is fine but when you're sat cross legged on a sofa in the library, because the screen is much heavier than the keyboard panel, you might notice it close to toppling backwards. But, if you're typing away, the weight of your hands on each side of the scratchpad holds it down. It's worth mentioning anyway.

Considering the screen is multi-touch, you forget simple pleasures of typing on screen. It really isn't very easy because no matter how hard you try, the finger calibration will never be perfect, so it's very much like using a bigger version of an iPhone or an iPod touch to write with. Still, typing on screen isn't too bad - and when you want to write a capital letter, yes you can hold down the virtual Shift key and press another virtual key. Maybe this is what multi-touch was invented for: consistent typing from a standard keyboard to a virtual one?

So, after using this fantastic new laptop over the weekend, I'll throw in my expert opinion.

Pro's before hos

  • The integrated webcam and microphone will never be as higher quality as dedicated webcams or microphones, but they both excel themselves. The webcam supports more features than the Microsoft LifeCam software, similar to the Apple application which adds backgrounds, effects and styles to your pictures.
  • Hidden inside is a mini infrared Media Center remote which lets you control Windows Media Center from a distance. When you open your laptop normally, keyboard in front of the screen, this picks up the infrared from the remote. But when when rotate the screen 180° degrees away from the keyboard, the infrared still works. Whether the infrared is built into both sides or just the screen, I don't know, but this shows attention to detail in ergonomics of the design of this device.
  • Having an integrated fingerprint reader is really useful especially in a university environment. A lot of people will want to play and screw around with your tablet once your back is turned, but this way it stays much more secure than that of password power. Plus, the hardware has significantly improved since my old laptop, meaning you can literally flick your finger against the reader and it'll let you in; no multiple attempts with this laptop.
  • Considering there's only one hinge, the screen barely wobbles and stays fixed so even when you are frantically tipping out the final few words to your essay, the screen won't bounce around or wobble too much, even if you shake it furiously.

Con's-ecotaleophobia

  • The scratchpad gets some taking-used to because it isn't the most conventional of scratchpads. Instead of having a dedicated shiny pad which feels springy to some extent, it is streamline with the outer-casing with circular inverted bumps a millimetre apart. I can only describe it as "a bit strange" to use, but it's nothing out of the ordinary.
  • The screen isn't crystal clear but I suspect this is due to the layers of the screen itself. The resolution is excellent but because the screen needs a protective layer for the touch capabilities, it is obvious when viewing predominantly white background pictures or applications.
  • Cleaning the screen can be a pain in the arse; you'll end up tapping all kinds of things and confusing your computer a bit. The only really effective way of doing it is whilst your computer is locked or turned off.
  • There is no eraser on the digital pen which is a bit of a shame, but nit-picking if anything. In some touch devices the digital pen allows you to write with ink on the screen, flip the pen over and erase out as if you would with an ordinary pencil. But as all ink applications have an eraser function anyway, it just means an extra second out of your life choosing the option.
  • The location of the hard drive activity light isn't the wisest of choices. It's located on the bottom-left of the screen, rather than on the panel of the keyboard. Because of this, no matter which way you rotate the screen, you're stuck with a constant flashing and therefore distraction. Not great for when you're watching videos, but if you are tucked up in bed, you can hide it using the duvet like I do.

But, no matter how much I want to love every ounce of this laptop, it isn't the perfect, ultimate student laptop. The simple fact of the matter is, is that touch is still very much a non-commodity and more of a rich-man's feature than anything else. It doesn't offer anything too special and the cost alone would deter most people. A £750 (around $1,200 I reckon) is a lot for a laptop, but going back a few years, this would be an ideal price.

But we're about to head into the biggest depression since all those bankers threw themselves out of windows. Can you really part with this much money for a laptop which you probably won't make the most out of?

Topics: Hardware, Laptops, Mobility

About

Zack Whittaker writes for ZDNet, CNET, and CBS News. He is based in New York City.

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