Dell and HP, HP and Dell. The United States' two biggest computer hardware manufacturers, and two of the world's top three, have tended to match each other step for step, so it's no surprise that Dell's recently released SX2210T was quickly followed by a Compaq L2105tm from its closest rival. Measuring 21.5 inches each, with 1920 x 1080 resolution, 1,000:1 contrast ratio, and optical multitouch technology under their chunky bezels, these two models represent the biggest mainstream push for touchscreen computing yet. Functionally identical to standard monitors, they offer the added benefit of letting you input your heart's urges and desires using swipes, gestures and flicks, and we've plucked one of each panel to see how this all plays out for ourselves. Join us after the break, won't you?
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Dell SX2210T versus HP L2105tm

Dell

SX2210T

Pros

  • Gorgeous design and pleasing picture quality
  • Solid stand and well thought out control scheme
  • Webcam, stereo mics and USB hub add value

Cons

  • Limited tilt and no swivel or height adjustment
  • Touch functionality doesn't justify price premium
  • Issues with both test units raise QA concerns
Summary

HP Compaq

L2105tm

Pros

  • Affordable entry into multitouch world
  • Speakers and stylus caddy come built in
  • Great positional versatility

Cons

  • Requires high degree of calibration
  • Touchscreen adds little real world value
  • Extra glossy display doesn't match externals
Summary



Since the two monitors use the exact same optical multitouch technology, what we hope to achieve here will be somewhat unorthodox. On the one hand, we'll use both to try and determine whether multitouch is worth it, and on the other, we'll pit them against each other in order to find out whose execution of the hardware around the multitouch interface is better. We've broken things down for you by category, assigning a winner for each, though quite naturally you can always hurry along to the wrap-up where we'll dish our opinion on the all-important and heavily pressing questions set out above. So let's dive in already.

Multitouch

So, the headline feature. The sinker or swimmer, the riser or faller, the coup de grace or the graceless cretin. The optical part of this multitouch display explains the way it functions -- a CMOS sensor, or tiny camera to the rest of us, is located in each of the top corners of the monitor panel, and the user's attempts at interfacing through touch are merely the two-dimensional mapping of his finger(s) in the space immediately in front of the screen. The good thing about this is that you don't have to touch the screen itself to get it to register your finger inputs, the bad thing about it is that you get no feedback or response when, inevitably, you do touch the screen. Additionally, you're pretty much forbidden from hovering over icons with your finger, because if it strays too close, the cameras might pick it up and register a click where you did not intend one.

We found the on-screen keyboard provided by Microsoft's Windows 7 easy and responsive in use, and so long as we never strayed into any sophisticated mousing techniques, our desktop and browser navigation also flowed with few hitches. In fact, we consider the one-finger scrolling of webpages to be the one genuinely useful everyday feature that we really would love to have on all our machines. On the other hand, integrating the touch technology into the bezel means that it protrudes an extra centimeter or two ahead of the display itself, making it pretty tough to position your finger over things like the Close button on maximized windows or the miniscule tab that will bring up the keyboard. This is to some extent ameliorated by HP's inclusion of a stylus (with a slot for it built into the monitor's body), but we'd rather see the OS take care of these issues.


Overall, this force-field approach to gathering input data is unintuitive to use, but with some acclimation time you can make it work. The major issue for us is that when a person, particularly a modern touchscreen smartphone-bred one, sees a big screen that invites "touch," his mental acuities are focused on physical contact and it's irksome to have so much touching going on with so little direct feedback.

What we can conclude is that the stalwart keyboard and mouse aren't going anywhere anytime soon. Multitouch, whether on laptops or desktops, remains a pale shadow of its input elders, particularly when compared in terms of responsiveness, ease and logicality of use, and celerity of feedback. Which is not to say it doesn't have a role to play in the future of personal computers. While we cannot see it replacing the traditional tools of the trade, we can certainly envisage scenarios where a touchscreen would complement them rather nicely. There's no law that says you have to use either a monitor's touchscreen capacities or the old school combo, and we'd say having the full set of options is no bad thing. Another positive, if digressive, conclusion to draw from our time is that yes, a netbook (Lenovo S10-2) can drive a 1920 x 1080 resolution pretty nicely, and even power through multitouch zooming, so long as it's used with patience and understanding.

Monitor head-to-head


Unboxing and setup


HP wins this one by default. The first Dell display we received suffered from a stuck red pixel, lamentably located slap bang in the middle of the screen, while the second seemed to have issues with the webcam, which we couldn't activate. We'll put those problems down to just getting flawed review units, and doubt similar unpleasantness will be encountered in the retail packages. Speaking of which, both companies ensconce their hardware with a reassuring excess of soft foam, and both provide the necessary cables for a quick and painless installation. Whether you'll have one, on the other hand, is a separate issue. We couldn't get the touchscreen functionality running on our desktop Windows 7 computer regardless of what we tried, whereas our humble netbook loaded with the same OS recognized the Dell's added capabilities after we installed the Next Window drivers for it. Since the HP model uses the same optical technology, it was no surprise that we didn't need to perform any extra steps when we plugged it in. Notably though, the HP's default brightness and contrast settings were both way too high and some adjustments were required on that front, whereas the Dell was pumping out a great picture straight out of the box. We still give both monitors high marks for a straightforward and manual-free setup, though the mystery of why our desktop wouldn't play nice with either of them remains. One additional note of import is that you'll need a spare powered USB port on your computer for the touch input data to flow into.

Style


You'd be lying to yourself if you said you didn't care about how a monitor looks. Frankly, with so much convergence around similar standards and resolutions, the one true distinguishing factor between monitors nowadays is exactly how they look. In terms of design and appearance, the Dell wins in a landslide. We particularly like the tapering transition on the side of the monitor between its dark front and creamy white back panel -- its sumptuous curvature makes the whole monitor seems slimmer than it really is, and grants it the sort of elegance that gets people commenting with approval. We should know, the few outsiders passing through the Engadget mansion noted the Dell's pretty exterior without fail. HP, on the other hand, appears somewhat confused about what it wants to achieve. The angular straight lines and bulky swiveling stand make allusions toward the serious, buttoned-up, and professional user, which are all but destroyed by the extra-glossy display. We still don't know what focus group decided that the consumer end of the market prefers its electronics in super-shiny glossy flavor, but there's certainly a clash of styles on the HP which even in the absence of the prettier Dell would be somewhat jarring and unappealing.

Usability

Draw. The Dell's on-screen configuration menu is controlled by four side-mounted buttons which are helpfully accompanied by explicatory icons alongside each one so that you never have to wonder or guess what each button press will do. The HP moves these keys to the middle of the panel, which we found harder to access, although we appreciate that such a design is ambidextrous whereas Dell's is only convenient for right-handers. HP's big advantage on paper is in its stand, which swivels left and right, and also seems to have a greater vertical tilt range than Dell's. The benefit of this is debatable though, as in order to turn the monitor laterally, you have to hold the base down with your other hand, which essentially requires just as much effort as rotating the base itself. HP also throws in a set of speakers on its panel, which we found clear, but also pretty quiet even on their maximum setting. Certainly nothing to rely on in the long term, but a helpful extra if you're in a pinch. Dell's retaliation is in the form of a plenty useful webcam with stereo microphones around it, and an integrated USB hub.

Construction

A clear win for Dell. HP's monitor is clad in thick matte plastic throughout, and unfortunately feels like it. Some of the joints where two parts come together are not altogether smooth and in spite of its bulky appearance, the whole monitor does not feel as sturdy as perhaps it should. These are small maladies, however, which could be easily overlooked if it wasn't for Dell's excellent execution. The SX2210T's body is still made out of molded plastic, but somehow it feels a lot more luxurious and reassuring. Its stand also made a real impression on us -- made out of steel, it anchors the monitor in place and keeps it extremely stable on a desk, while the curved gap in the middle of it, seemingly an aesthetic element, acts as a neat cable tidy.

Wrap-up

Little details such as the above, getting the monitor's center of gravity just right, and ensuring a smooth and unerring exterior, are why we developed a strong preference for the Dell over the HP. Don't get us wrong, the HP aims at a broader audience with its added speakers, stylus, tilting and swiveling stand, and more universal OSD controls, but we just can't look past the fact that Dell gets right the things we care about. If you're a lefty, or someone who must have integrated speakers with his multitouch, perhaps HP fits the bill better. Our impression is that we thoroughly enjoyed using the Dell, whereas the HP was merely satisfactory.

On the multitouch front, regrettably little has changed over the past nine months. It's still a gimmick of sorts, and getting accustomed to the idiosyncrasies of the optical interface hardly seems worth the effort given the marginal advantages you can derive from it. Still, in some niche circumstances, such as running a HTPC of some flavor, we can definitely see why you might prefer ditching the keyboard and mouse, and in those cases -- aside from minor niggles and the odd unregistered tap -- you'll probably be quite happy you did it. It also functions as a pleasant occasional complement to regular old button mashing, but we reckon we'll be sticking with our tired but trusty board-based and rodent-inspired peripherals for now.

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Dell SX2210T vs. HP L2105tm: optical multitouch head-to-head review