Sunday, October 17, 2010

HP Touchsmart TM2 TabletPC review

12" LCD screen, 1.3 Ghz ULV i5 CPU, 4G RAM, 600G HDD, ATI 5450. This baby is packed.

So I bought this little baby recently to compliment my current workflow. Before the purchase, I was pretty much desk-bound for the entire process because I both sketch and paint digitally, directly on computer. The stationary nature of my work usually meant being physically worn out as well as mentally exhausted. Sitting in front of your desk for 5~10 hours straight isn't your typical dream job.

For the longest time, I've been looking for a TabletPC (With Wacom Penabled technology) suitable for use as my mobile workstation. Up until early this year, the only available option that is affordable was HP's notorious Touchsmart TX series with AMD processors. They got extremely hot, and the battery-life was nonexistent. Not to mention the abysmal performance mobile AMD processors provided.

HP has smartened up switching to the Intel's new ULV (Ultra Low Voltage) processors when they rolled out the new TM2 series. Now it's faster, but with much lower power usage. I'll talk more on this later.

So was this tablet PC worth my purchase? Keep on reading to find out.

Before ordering...
I didn't quite know what to expect from this little tablet laptop. The reviews on the internet were pretty much by non-artists and they did not understand the artist aspect of things. They approached the whole reviewing process as they would with any other typical laptops. All the reviews lacked certain information I was hoping to find. I was left to imagine those aspects and functionality. For most part, though, the machine seemed capable. I was a little skeptical of the CPU due to its low clockage, but the RAM was spacious, HDD generous, and the graphics chip seemed fast enough. Apparently you can run most of modern games on this laptop at mid to low settings and I can confirm that. At least with Civ5 which ran quite fine for me.

Anyways, as soon as I hit 'order' button on the internet, the laptop came to my door within 24 hours. One of the benefits of living in Korea.

As soon as I received my unit, I began testing on the various aspects of the laptop and eventually I came with a number of pros and cons. I'll talk about my final impressions after the bullet points.

  • Powerful machine. The CPU, RAM and GPU combination is powerful enough to give many desktop machines run for its money. You wouldn't expect much from a 1.3 Ghz CPU, but the laptop was capable of smooth stylus drawing on Photoshop at 10000x8000 resolution. You will have to do few things to make the machine rolling this smooth, but I'll talk about that in Cons section.

  • Fairly good GPU to game on. You can find videos of people running modern PC games on TM2 machines, and I'd say that's a good indicator. I'm able to run Civ5 without much problems on it.

  • Thin and sleek design. The brushed aluminium plate with etchings on it looks quite nice. One of the reasons I bought TM2 instead of HP Elitebook which is lighter, thinner and more powerful (also costs more). By no means TM2 is fatter, except for the battery compartment. Overall the design is quite a sight to behold. It has a nice combination of minimalist and artistic design choices.

  • No DVD drive. This is actually a pros for me. I haven't used the DVD drive on my desktop in years, and the Bluray drive that came with my Vaio laptop hasn't been used for just as long. If they can rid of extra weight by removing DVD drive, all the better for me. Cool people flashboot for reinstalling OS nowadays anyway.

  • Battery life. This is the place Intel's new ULV core shines in. Compared to most of laptops out these days which clocks at 1~2 hrs on battery in real life (unlike 4~5 hours they claim), this laptop does quite much better by lasting up to 3 hours, and maybe 4 if you're really conservative. But this is still a far cry from 6.5 hours they advertise for TM2 series...

  • Long power cable. It doesn't sound like much, but for tablet PC's, it actually matters. The cable, including the power brick attachment, is almost at 5 meters.  I think this is the longest power cable on a laptop I ever seen. Pretty handy when you want to sit in the bed and browse web or draw.

  • Price. The price listed on HP's website for highest end model of TM2 is just under $1,000 USD. Nuff said. Just few years ago, $999 was the price for low-end laptops... Now you can buy high-end performance for the same price.

  • Capability. This is the all-in-one package for any artists who wanted a desktop alternative to all their digital art needs. I don't think any other companies have come this far in terms of satisfying many of the criteria that was required for an art-oriented laptop... Unless they can satisfy all of the cons I'll be listing below.

  • God awful stylus. There are many things wrong with the stylus and few things right. There are so many wrong in the list this bullet point requires numbered list in itself.
  1. Inaccurate tracking. The magnet inside the default stylus is an utter crap. almost 50% of the time the tracking will be off by about 1cm, and that's pretty hideous. Also the tracking in not uniform, meaning sometimes the tracking will be inaccurate because it's falling behind, or it'll be inaccurate because it races past your pen. It's like having Starship Enterprise entering warp at random at random places on the monitor. This really breaks the 'illusion' of drawing directly on the monitor.
  2. Nearly useless eraser. Eraser on the default stylus has this 'springy' feel to it and it depresses if you press on it. It would be fine if the pressure sensitivity corresponded correctly to the movement of the depression, but unfortunately the eraser has a huge dead-zone and the tablet starts recognizing the eraser pressure at totally random strength. From the slightest press, to full 100%, there's virtually no middle-ground, and it's impossible for you to have a control over it.
  3. Only 1 side-button. It's critical to anyone out there who's used to Wacom's 2-button stylus. Also the button is at an awkward height, so half the time you'll be searching for the button with your finger. This is aggravated by the fact that the stylus has a...
  4. Tube-style design. Remember Apple's hockey puck mouse? Yeah. You'll be spinning around your stylus other half the time, thus wasting all of your time by forcing you to spin your stylus around and searching up and down for that stupid ass button which has no bump on it to make it tactilely visible.
  • Solution. Buy a stylus from Wacom vendors. Note that Graphire/Intuos/Bamboo and recent versions of Cintiq stylus WILL NOT work on a tablet PC. They have a different magnet housed inside the pen. Follow this link for further details: Any stylus with product code starting with 'UP' should work with Wacom Penabled TabletPC. I bought the Cintiq 18SX stylus and everything's working fine now, except few minor issue still persisting with tracking. It's a lot better now, though.

  • Terrible LCD panel. This is really bad news for people wanting to use TM2 as an art platform. The screen is quite much better than the old TX screens as the new one has no grains, but still quite bad due to its horrendous viewing-angle. You probably have about 3 degrees of your screen looking perfect, and the rest are pretty much unwatchable. You can still do good amount of sketches on it, but I wouldn't trust a single color on that screen. From what I can tell, the panel can only express 8m color instead of typical 16m colors on a typical desktop monitor. It produced dithering effects upon painting gradients. Another bad news.

  • No front-facing buttons. Another serious bummer for artists. No programmable buttons on the screen bazel means you're forced to manually click through the menus via Wacom stylus, meaning added time to your actual drawing process. I can't have any of that so I bought this (below):
Being sold in Korea only, AFAIK.
  • A USB mini-joypad being sold in Korea. It has a fold-able design so I can carry it around easily with me and the laptop. You can use Joy2Key program to translate button inputs into hotkey functions. It's actually small enough to hold it in one hand so I use this in my left hand to access the usual functions such as brush resizing, zoom in/out, quick save and full-screen.

  • Touchscreen. It doesn't work, period. You better not be expecting iPhone quality touch-inputs on this thing. It's simply clumsy, difficult to be accurate, and just is not responsive. The problem is compounded by the fact that touchscreen turns itself off when you don't use it for a while and you have to pound on your screen to get it to work again. This actually happens very often and quite annoying. You can goto USB device settings to disable auto-sleep function to keep your touchscreen responsive, but then you'll be clicking things around with your palm while using the Wacom stylus. Something you don't want to deal with. I just use my stylus to surf and do stuff now.

  • Poorly built. The power button for this laptop is on the side, with a DSlite-style slider power button. The bad part is, the plastic (which is supposed to be the power button) moves around like a Lego head in an empty Lego bucket. IT DOES NOT FEEL GOOD. It's also a nail-breaker to turn the thing on. You have to pull on it quite hard to make it work. Also on few parts of the keyboard bazel, when you press on them with your finger, it depresses like something isn't quite nailed on. Feels bad, man. The overall machine feels quite solid, but few stuff like this makes the whole thing feel cheap.

  • Weight issues. It has a terrible center of weight, with battery compartment being the heaviest. It will NOT sit still on your lap, and most likely will fall on its back if you open up the screen more than 90 degrees of angle. It's fine on a flat, smooth desk surfaces, but none of that will help when you want to use the machine over a blanket, while on the toilet, and etc. You'll have to press it down with your non-writing hand to keep it from falling. Also it's wayyyy to heavy for any practical on-the-arm use. With battery, the laptop goes over 2.1kg in weight. That's not ideal if you want to hold the machine with your hand and draw on it. You'll most likely be forced to find a surface to lay the laptop on for any reasonable use. Anytime I can find wired power for my TM2, I just take the battery out and put it aside. Even without the battery, TM2 is pushing the limits of what is a reasonable weight for a TabletPC.

  • Crapwares everywhere. Remember when I said above this machine is quite powerful? Well, not with all the crapware that comes with the laptop. When I checked the number of processes on my first run, I saw 95 processes. 95 freaking processes. I had to delete nearly all of the HP related softwares, bundle softwares and other crap that came with it, ultimately settling at around 55 processes. This isn't so much a problem as minor inconvenience, though. Nonetheless, you'll have to delete all these crapwares to get your laptop running smooth, and at top performance.

  • Gets hot under load. I thought Intel's new ULV core would practically make this a non-issue, but I was wrong. It'll still gets fairly hot under load and the machine has a teeny-weeny exhaust on the side. I worry for this laptop's future, but for now, it's a minor problem. It's mostly only problem when you're in bed, under the blanket and the laptop is on a easily heatable surface, like (duh) a blanket. It stays pretty cool on a wooden or glass desk.

HP Touchsmart TM2 series is the newest and the best entry to the tablet PC market, though that's not saying much as most Tablet PC's are pretty crap (Thus the reason I haven't bought one until now). This one shines in terms of performance, usability and affordability, especially considering most Tablet PC's are well over $1000USD.

Despite TM2's many faults, most of them are easily mend-able by few extra purchases. Too bad the screen is not replaceable, though. That's the only glaring weakness I see as being critical. I think it was very well worth the purchase and I see myself using this laptop for quite some time - sketching stuff both at home and on my travels, or even for casual computing.