Families spend more and more time in front of computer screens these days, so having an all-in-one PC in the living room is a great way for everyone to enjoy their computer time together.
The 23-inch full HD screen of the HP TouchSmart 520 is ideal for showing movies and TV shows. There's also enough grunt under the hood for the parents to get on with their work when the kids have gone to bed.
The 1080uk version we reviewed came packing an Intel Core i5 processor, 4GB of RAM and a generous 1.5TB hard drive. It is available now for £849 from the HP Store.
Design and build quality
Rather than being comprised of a separate tower and monitor, all-in-one PCs are simply one main unit, with a keyboard and mouse hanging around if you need them. This means that your computer takes up less space in your room and could be mistaken for just a humble TV. That makes them a great choice for a living room.
Although it saves space by not having a separate tower, the TouchSmart 520 certainly doesn't qualify as small. It has a width of 580mm and a height of 457mm so you're still going to have to be careful where you put this thing.
If you've got no available space on your coffee table and you don't fancy plonking it on that lovely Davenport in the corner, you can anchor the TouchSmart 520 to one of your walls. Be aware though that at 11.7kg, you're going to have to double-check the structural integrity of your walls before you break out the drill. If your house is mostly constructed from plasterboard, we suggest you put the powertools down.
The TouchSmart 520 isn't exactly what you'd call ugly, but it's hardly going to turn any heads when you invite the Joneses round for a Créme de Menthe and a Ferrero Rocher. A thick matte black plastic bezel surrounds the 23-inch screen and it sits on a grey metal stand. Around the back is a large shell of black plastic with various ridges and holes for the fans and speakers.
It's a rather dull design and we're a little disappointed that HP hasn't pushed the boat out and brought us something snazzier. After all, these machines are designed to be enjoyed in full view in a living room, not hidden away in a dusty old study. If design is on your mind, the sleek aluminium curves of Apple's iMac will be more your style.
Thankfully though, the whole thing seems well put together. We found minimal bending and creaking from the plastic when we gave it a good squeeze, so we're pretty sure it could put up with the abuse offered by an average 6 year-old. For a few minutes, anyway.
If you don't want the constant torment of using a mouse with those nightmarish buttons, you'll be pleased to know that the 23-inch screen is of the multi-touch variety. You can go about your business by jabbing randomly at the glass like some sort of mad woodpecker.
We were keen to use a touchscreen with Windows -- most are found on tablets and phones with touch-specific operating systems -- but we were sadly disappointed by the experience. The screen was often unable to accurately distinguish where we were touching, selecting items that were 10mm either side of where we placed our finger.
It was fine when prodding at large icons or dragging windows around. But when we wanted to minimise a window or click on a small link, it proved to be so irritating that we quickly resorted to the mouse. Using the on-screen keyboard to type was nothing short of nightmarish. It quickly became apparent that the standard Windows 7 interface isn't the best for a touchscreen.
To help alleviate this problem, HP has created software called Magic Canvas. It's essentially one long desktop that you swipe through. With this, you can dump photos, videos and documents and write little notes with your finger. The large icons make the touchscreen infinitely more bearable and it provides a fun, fuss-free hub that will appeal to families wanting something easy and accessible to keep the kids amused.
The is one glaring problem with a touchscreen monitor, however. Once you've spent a while navigating around, browsing a few websites and organising your videos, when you eventually settle down to watch a film, you'll immediately be appalled at all the greasy fingerprints you've left behind. If you have kids who like nothing more than to run their excited hands over a big screen after munching through some cake, you'd best keep a cloth to hand if you don't want to watch your movies through a thick film of grease.
The screen itself has a 1,920x1,080-pixel resolution so it's perfectly capable of playing back all the high-definition content you've stored on the 1.5TB hard drive. It's bright and does a fair job of displaying colours. The display is definitely not the most vivid so you'll still want to stick to your big TV for your favourite films, but it'll mostly do the job well.
There's a built-in TV card too so you can hook it up to an external aerial if you can't stand missing an episode of Neighbours.
Keyboard and mouse
The TouchSmart 520 comes with a wireless keyboard and mouse for those times when the touchscreen just won't cut it. The keyboard is pretty sleek, offering an easy type and a classic design that fits the matte black of the computer. It's slim enough to be easily slotted away on top of some books -- or down the side of a sofa cushion -- when you're not using it.
The shiny plastic casing on the mouse feels unpleasantly rattly and cheap and exudes about as much class as Lindsay Lohan in court. We'd heartily recommend you immediately dispose of it and buy something more tasteful like the Microsoft Arc mouse.
The TouchSmart 520 comes with Dr Dre-endorsed Beats Audio so you'd be right to expect some boom from it. It's certainly got power and if you're just wanting to watch a few TV shows and the odd casual movie, the built-in speakers will do the job fine.
Although the Beats Audio boosts the low end, you're going to have to hook it up to a proper surround-sound speaker set with a sub woofer if you want to feel totally immersed in your films.
Stuck inside that thick black shell is an Intel Core i5-2390T processor running at 2.70GHz, paired up with 4GB of RAM. Those specs aren't exactly mind-blowing but they should be enough for most web, video and music challenges.
The Geekbench benchmark tool drew an admirable score of 8,092, which just beats the 2011 iMac's score of 7,890 -- a machine that also sports a Core i5 chip running at 2.7GHz. On the PCMark05 test, it received a score of 8,868, comparable with higher-end laptops.
The TouchSmart 520 handled general computing tasks easily and didn't show any signs of slowing, even when we launched a full multi-tasking attack of multi-tabbed browsing and various programmes opening at once. It will be perfectly happy in its natural habitat as a family computer tackling video playback, web browsing and office tasks. There's also enough power to touch up those holiday snaps -- just don't ask it to do too much with high-resolution photos and videos.
The computer doesn't come with a dedicated graphics card but instead uses the built-in Intel HD graphics. On the 3DMark06 benchmark test -- which rates how well a machine can handle the polygons in 3D gaming -- it gave a score of 3,992. That isn't enough to properly tackle demanding recent titles.
We loaded up Dirt 3 and found an average rate of 12 frames per second while playing at full screen. When we reduced the resolution to 1,600x900 pixels and lowered the detail, that rose to about 20fps, which still isn't quite enough to properly enjoy such a high-paced game.
When we donned our drill arm and diving helmet in BioShock 2, we were given a frame rate of between 18 and 24fps. That was just about playable, but it was noticeably laggy in places.
If gaming is to be one of the main functions of your computer then the TouchSmart 520 won't be for you -- the graphics power it does have will lend a hand with video playback but it isn't enough for proper 3D gaming unless you really dial the settings down.
The HP TouchSmart 520 doesn't have the cutting-edge looks to match an ultra-stylish living room, but its high-definition touchscreen will keep the kids happy and it offers enough power for the grown-ups to tackle their office work too.