Next-generation desktops point to a touch-driven future

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HP's Sprout and Dell's conceptual Smart Desk show how touch-driven work surfaces can breathe new life into the desktop form factor.

Every major new computing form factor inevitably spawns punditry claiming that the previous incumbent is 'dead'. Desktop PCs, for example, have been written off regularly ever since notebooks became both powerful and properly portable towards the end of the 1990s. Now tablets and smartphones apparently spell the end for notebooks. And so it goes on. Presumably wearables and cyborg-style embeddables will someday render the smartphone old hat.

Desktop PC shipments have certainly declined in recent years, as sales of portable computers have taken off:

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Image: Statista

However, most form factors have one or more core use cases that allow them to persist once their market sector has matured. For desktops, the combination of large screen(s), comfortable keyboard-and-mouse input, plus powerful and often upgradable components retains appeal for those wanting to do serious content creation, product design, financial or scientific analysis, or gaming.

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A recent desktop PC evolution, following Apple's lead with the iMac, is the all-in-one (AIO) computer: all the major Windows PC manufacturers (Lenovo, HP, Dell) now offer big-screen AIO systems — some of them touch-enabled. However, navigating a desktop OS on a big vertically oriented touchscreen is a recipe for 'gorilla arm', which is why the most recent developments, spearheaded by HP, seek to blend the best of the desktop experience with the best of the tablet experience, with some intriguing extras thrown in.

HP Sprout

HP''s Sprout is an 'immersive computing' platform that's the first product to emerge from the company's Blended Reality ecosystem, which will in due course also include MultiJet Fusion 3D printers.

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Image: HP

The Sprout comprises four main elements: an all-in-one Windows 8.1 PC with a 23-inch 1080p touchscreen; a rear-mounted Sprout Illuminator scanning/DLP projection system; a capacitive 20-point Touch Mat that hosts a 20-inch Illuminator-projected touchscreen; and an HP Workspace platform that integrates with Windows 8.1 and enables dual-screen collaborative content creation, editing and consumption.

The Touch Mat and projected screen is where you capture, edit and manipulate content in the HP Workspace, and the AIO PC's screen is where you view it within applications. Objects are transferred between the screens with very natural-feeling sweeps — 'gorilla arm' is avoided because most of the touch input happens on the horizontally oriented Touch Mat.

You can also display the Windows 8 Start screen and virtual keyboard on the Touch Mat and your current application on the PC's screen — an arrangement that finally makes sense of the Windows 8.x Start screen. The Touch Mat is tough, wipe-clean and scratch-resistant, and impressively responsive. It also attaches magnetically to the host AIO PC, and so is easily removed and replaced by a conventional keyboard and mouse combo if required.

The host AIO PC is powered by Intel's Core i7-4790S processor running at 3.2-4GHz, backed by 8GB of DDR3-1600 RAM and 1TB of SSD/HDD hybrid storage (8GB of flash cache). The GPU is Nvidia's GeForce GT 745A with 2GB of dedicated DDR3 video RAM. Wireless connectivity is 802.11a/b/g/n wi-fi and Bluetooth 4.0. The Sprout Illuminator contains an Intel RealSense 3D Camera, a DLP projector, a 14.6-megapixel camera and an LED desk lamp.

HP offers three of its own applications to take advantage of the Sprout's unique features: Create, Capture and Collaborate. There's also an SDK and a Sprout Marketplace for third-party applications, which currently include Atomix's Virtual DJ, Crayola DJ, Crayola Draw & Sing, Fuse for Families, Dreamworks Animation Story Producer and GestureWorks Gameplay.

The Sprout has been available in the US since November 2014 at $1,899.99. It can now be preordered in the UK from HP's online store and certain retail locations, and will be on sale in select Dixons and John Lewis stores from 26 February. The cost for UK buyers is £1,899 (inc. VAT, or £1,582.50 ex. VAT).

I had some hands-on time with the Sprout at HP's UK launch event last week, and found it a fascinating desktop computing development that brings touch input into the mix in a very successful way. Integrated 2D/3D scanning and collaboration features make it highly suitable for use by graphic artists, product designers and adventurous 'prosumers', as well as in education and certain vertical markets (architect practices, or any kind of product showroom for example).

There are, of course, areas where the Sprout offering could be improved. It's not cheap, for example (especially in the UK), and more third-party support would be welcome, particularly from vendors of professional creative software like Adobe. Also, given that plenty of people already own powerful AIO PCs, it'd be nice to able to retrofit a Sprout Illuminator and a Touch Mat to your existing computer and download the HP Workspace platform.

Dell Smart Desk

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Image: Dell

HP isn't the only leading desktop PC vendor thinking along these lines. Not to be outdone, Dell unveiled its conceptual Smart Desk in November last year. Yet to appear as a finished product, the Smart Desk couples a large (5K) screen PC with a horizontal touch-sensitive work surface that can be driven by fingers, stylus or other 'totems' such as a ruler or a compass-like circular object for use with Google Maps. To exploit the work surface/PC platform, Dell talks of "plug-ins to key ISV applications" (Dell's promotional image clearly shows Adobe Photoshop, for example).

Outlook

Neither HP's Sprout nor Dell's Smart Desk are going to propel desktop sales back to 1990s levels, but both show how a mature form factor can get a shot in the arm by incorporating new usage modes. Cheaper ways to achieve similar ends may come about through tighter integration between existing tablet technology and large-screen desktops — something we can envisage Apple exploring, in particular.

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