HP TouchSmart 520-1070 Review

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HP TouchSmart 520-1070

“It’s the base model of this all-in-one that swoops in from the night sky to save our luxury-priced 520 from itself.”
  • Robust build quality
  • Excellent 1080p display
  • Great sound quality
  • Well-designed touch software
  • Expensive as tested
  • Poor discrete graphics performance
  • No HDMI out

All-in-one computers aren’t often looked upon fondly by geeks, but they’re a segment of traditional desktop computers that’s gaining attention while old-fashioned towers fall out of the spotlight.

The reasons for this are not hard to understand. All-in-one PCs are far more attractive and also easier to manage. Most of them ask that you do nothing more than plug in the power and go. You can connect to your peripherals and the Internet via Wi-Fi. Desktops can do the same, of course – but features like Wi-Fi cards are often an additional option with sometimes spotty reception.

Touchscreens are another defining feature of many products in this segment. Certainly it’s a defining feature of the TouchSmart 520 – so much so that it’s part of the brand. HP was one of the first to pioneer luxurious, slim all-in-one computers with touchscreen displays, and the company hasn’t let off the gas pedal.

Late last year, we reviewed the HP TouchSmart 610 and generally liked it, but found that it was expensive enough to be impractical for some buyers. The HP TouchSmart 520 seems intended to create a package that’s a little more palatable without losing high-end features or performance.

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The least expensive version, called the 520z, is powered by AMD Fusion processors and starts at $799. Our review unit is the most expensive Intel-powered version which starts at $899.99 with a Core i3 processor and integrated graphics. We received several upgrades including a Core i7-2600S processor, 8GB of RAM and Radeon HD6450 graphics, not to mention a 2TB hard drive and a Blu-ray/DVD combo optical drive.

With all of these options accounted for, the TouchSmart 520 rings in at $1,540. Suddenly it’s in the same territory as the TouchSmart 610 and 620, which may complicate matters.

Beefy plastics

The TouchSmart 520 costs less than the 610 and 620, but it looks a bit more expensive thanks to a base that is made from heavy plastic and metal, and coated in gray-silver paint. You won’t find a “magic hinge” here, which means that you can’t slide the entire display forward for easy touch use – but you can still tilt it forward and back slightly. The 30-degree range of motion available will be acceptable for many users.

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Matte plastic surrounds the display and the rear of the PC. It’s a good choice. None of the plastic appears cheap and fingerprints are easily thwarted. Our only aesthetic complaint is the strip of silver plastic that borders the entire display, including the top. There’s nothing wrong with the quality of the material, but the way it’s used suggests that the trim should be metallic. Using plastic seems wrong, like discovering the wooden floors in a home are in fact painted vinyl.

Still missing HDMI out

Connectivity options are significant. On the left side of the computer you’ll find two USB 3.0 ports, a SD card reader and individual headphone and microphone jacks. Around back there are five additional USB 2.0 ports, Ethernet, and several audio ports including a subwoofer out. On the right side you’ll find HDMI in. Our model also had a cable jack for input to the computer’s TV tuner.

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The only major omission is HDMI out. We get it — this is primarily meant to be a computer that you’ll be connecting sources to, not one that will be used as a source. But people don’t always use products like engineers plan, and the lack of HDMI cuts off a lot of options. For example, you’ll never be able to use this computer with an external display.

Feel free to touch

Touch this PC’s display and you’ll find an experience that’s identical to that found on other TouchSmart computers. A quick press of your finger can quickly access icons and menu items, and while drop-down menus and other smaller interface elements can be a pain to manipulate, the overall experience is as good as you’ll find on a computer running Windows 7.

With that said, you will in truth use the touch functionality less than you anticipate. It’s just not convenient to wave your arms around at a display when you can use a keyboard and mouse instead. Fortunately, the peripherals included with the TouchSmart 520 are more than adequate. We found ourselves leaning back and browsing the Web thanks to the light, wireless keyboard and wireless mouse. Key feel is poor and the mouse only has two buttons, but no one is buying this laptop for serious productivity.

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A remote control also came with our review unit. It’s designed to work with Windows Media Center and, as with the touchscreen, it works as well as Windows allows. The remote only shines when used in conjunction with a DVD/Blu-ray or the TV Tuner. In those situations it stops being a nice extra and starts to feel like a necessity.

Optimized for movies

All TouchSmart 520 models come with a 23-inch display offering full 1080p resolution. It’s covered in a glossy coat that only reinforces the computer’s already obvious focus on media content rather that productivity. Trying to type for more than a few minutes at a time can be difficult because of glare. We also noticed that fine text appears a tad blurry.

Watching a high-resolution movie quickly redeems any qualms about the gloss. Even 720p content stretched across the display looks fabulous — true 1080p content is extremely sharp. Like the TouchSmart 610, this computer is built to double as a TV. Black levels are deep, contrast is high and colors “pop” in a way that’s only made possible by a high-quality glossy panel.

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The Beats Audio branded audio system is also up for use as a TV replacement. As usual, the lack of proper stereo staging does take some depth from your experience, but everything else is impressive. Maximum volume is more than enough to fill a bedroom or office and there’s enough bass to acknowledge lows in music, though it’s still far from delivering any real umph.

Essential Software

One advantage that has helped HP stand out from other touch screen all-in-ones is the special touch-centered software designed for the TouchSmart line. We saw the last incarnation of this in the 610 and liked it. This computer shipped with a new version and it’s even better.

hp-touchsmart-520-1070-review-right-sideThe main advantage is integration into the Windows desktop environment. Previously, HP’s touch interface took over the entire display. It was as if you had two separate desktops on the same machine. With this redesign HP now converts your desktop into a more touch-friendly version. All of your desktop icons turn in to big, fat buttons, yet the Windows taskbar remains available. Also available are the Post-it notes and touch-friendly apps that were previously a part of the suite.

HP manages to overcome most of the traditional shortcomings of Windows multi-touch support with this interface, but it’s still not perfect. There is some lag, particularly when scrolling.

Otherwise, the bundled software is ho-hum and often self-serving. One pre-installed shortcut directs users towards HP Games while another steers you towards a site about webOS. It’s a scatter-shot approach that indicates someone at HP still doesn’t understand that a product consumers pay for isn’t an advertising platform.

Laptop performance

Our review unit arrived with the fastest processor available on this computer, the Core i7-2600S. You might think that “S” stands for “sport” or “special” or some other performance-enhancing term, but in fact it stands for efficiency. This component has a maximum power draw of 65 watts, which is much lower than the 95-watt draw of a normal Core i7-2600.

To cut through the mumbo-jumbo, this means that the processor is built to be used in smaller, slimmer systems without the cooling necessary to handle a full-blown Core i7. In exchange, it’s slower.

This shows in the base clock speed, which is just 2.8 GHz compared to the 3.4 GHz of a standard Core i7-2600. We noticed this disadvantage instantly in SiSoft Sandra’s Procssor Arithmetic benchmark, where the TouchSmart 520 managed a combined score of 83.53 GOPS. That’s far below the score of 123.58 GOPS managed by the Maingear Vybe and only slightly quicker than what you’d receive from a quad-core laptop processor like the Core i7-2630QM.

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7-Zip returned a result of 16,670, which once again is far lower than a normal desktop system and just slightly quicker than a modern Intel quad-core laptop processor.

More general testing with PCMark 7 provided a score of 2,539. This is even further below what you’d receive from a high-end tower desktop, and just a bit better than a quick laptop with a mechanical hard drive.

Using 3DMark 06 to test the graphics resulted in a score of 4,087. That is about on par with what Intel integrated normally provides. At least the Radeon supports DirectX 11, which means we were able to run 3DMark 11. It returned a score of 553. These tests indicate that the TouchSmart 520 can handle new 3D games only at low detail settings.

Of course, buyers should keep in mind that you generally won’t find better performance from any other all-in-ones. Sony’s L Series, for example, doesn’t even bother with desktop parts and instead skips straight to the same Intel processors found in modern laptops.

Conclusion

It’s not unusual for manufactures to send us a high-end model to represent their product. Unfortunately, in doing so they sometimes price themselves out of competition. That’s what has happened here.

As configured, the HP TouchSmart 520 is difficult to justify. If you’re going to spend $1,500 on an all-in-one you might as well spring for the TouchSmart 610 or 620. In addition, spending so much to upgrade an all-in-one doesn’t make sense. If gaming or processor performance is a priority you need to buy a tower PC.

It’s the base model of this all-in-one that swoops in from the night sky to save our luxury-priced 520 from itself. Currently Amazon is shifting that version of $788. Yes, it has a Pentium processor, 4GB of RAM and integrated graphics, but who cares? That’s perfectly adequate for the kind of usage this sort of product receives – and you still receive the same software, the same awesome display and the same build quality.

Highs:

  • Robust build quality
  • Excellent 1080p display
  • Great sound quality
  • Well-designed touch software

Lows:

  • Expensive as tested
  • Poor discrete graphics performance
  • No HDMI out

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