We live in the future: my new touchscreen media center (+ video demo!)

By on Feb 14th

Ariel demonstrates her new story-viewing machine. Yay, stories!

We recently ran a story about getting rid of your TV, but today I'm going to talk about going the other way: after a decade of not having a screen in our living room, I finally decided I was sick of watching movies on a laptop. This is the story of how we got a TV, but how it's a crazy futuristic touchscreen media center that cost less than many widescreen TVs.

When the iPads came out a couple years ago, I remember looking at one and thinking "Hmm, you know what I want for our living room? Something like this only TV-sized and with good speakers, that I can mount on the wall. Then we could use it as both a stereo and a TV!"

See, after over a decade of not having a TV in our house, my family has reached a place where we only consume media via the internet. Rhapsody is our radio, and all our tv and movies come from a combo of Hulu + Amazon Prime & Instant Watch + Netflix Instant + YouTube. Really, I just want a big iPad to hang on the wall and bring me my stories!

Using a laptop worked fine, but our geighbor has a nice TV and we go over there to watch Glee once a week and I've slowly realized that you know what? I work on a laptop all day, and sometimes I just want to sit on a fucking couch and watch some shit! An enormous iPad on the wall would be just perfect: it's a computer, but not a computer. It's got a touchy screen (no need for stupid remotes or keyboards/mice flapping around) and is nice and compact.

This dream seemed like one of those "someday" wishes: the technology would get there eventually, but for now I would just have to sit and wish. Little did I know that DUH, the technology was already there and it wasn't even that expensive — only a bit more than an iPad, really.

The device in question? A 23" HP Touchsmart 520 mounted on the wall. Total cost for the computer and the wall-mount: about $850 (which is to say about the same price as some 40" televisions — which are ONLY televisions and don't have touchscreens or the entire internet at your command).

The set-up was relatively straight-forward, although we brought in our friend Jason, who has magical A/V nerdery skills to help us because neither Andreas nor I can be trusted with power tools. (Hey: we know our skills, and we know our blind spots.) Here's how we did it:

STEP 1: PICK LOCATION

We decided to mount the screen on the wall that is the least visible when you enter the room. After a decade of not having a screen in our living room, both Andreas and I were pretty committed to NOT feeling like the room suddenly revolved around the Black Screen Of Electronic Distractions. The way the living room is set up, when you enter you don't see the screen at all.

The wall had been used as a place to display my 11th grade acrylic masterpiece, "Gay Peary." This isn't our current configuration (we replaced the pink chair with a loveseat) but gives you an idea of the spot:

new tv spot

STEP 2: PREPARE COMPUTER

Before we went any further, I spent a couple hours setting up the new computer. As many of you know, most PCs come out of the box dripping with bloatware, and the Touchsmart 520 is no exception. So, the night before we were going to mount the computer on the wall, I sat down in front of it and did this stuff:

  • uninstalled some crap programs
  • installed 47 recommended Windows updates
  • set up Microsoft Security Essentials
  • installed Chrome
  • added my core media bookmarks logged in: Rhapsody, Amazon, Hulu, Netflix

Then I toyed with the included HP Touchsmart Magic Canvas application, a touch-friendly desktop replacement application that I thought would be really fucking stupid that turned out to actually be pretty awesome for touchscreen computers that are going to be used without a keyboard and mouse. It basically runs on top of Microsoft Windows, and turns your computer screen into a sometime that feels more like a mobile phone screen. This promo vid is CHEEZE, but gets the point across:

I set it so that the Carousel was just my media bookmarks, so that getting to, say, Rhapsody would be a one tap process.

STEP 3: ATTACH MOUNT TO WALL

We got an articulated wall mount (VideoSecu LCD LED TV Wall Mount Full Motion with Swivel Articulating Arm for 23-37) so that the screen could either be tucked flat against the wall, or easily pulled out at movie watching. Jason spent some time testing to make sure the stud he was attaching the mount to was really, REALLY solid — and he bought a mount that was weight tested for much heavier than we needed. With a toddler in the house, god only knows what could happen.

Wall mount!

STEP 4: PREP COMPUTER FOR MOUNTING

Thankfully, HP provides a handy-dandy step-by-step tutorial for this process, which still managed to freak me out a bit because it included taking off the back of the machine, removing the base, and not breaking anything. Jason was a pro, though:

Taking off the computer's base

Off came the computer's base, so it was essentially just a big flat panel screen.

Putting it all back together

STEP 5: ATTACH COMPUTER TO MOUNT

TA-DA!This was actually the easiest step: a couple screws and VOILA. Suddenly there was a sweet-ass touchscreen media center on the wall.

Since the computer is an all-in-one with everything built in (wifi antenna, speakers, all of it), there's really only the one butt-ugly cord dangling down. (We've got schemes for hiding it, but that'll have to be a future post.)

The built-in speakers are HP's Beats Audio, which sounds pretty solid. I mean, is this a throbbing subwoofer with melt-your-face bass? No, but we live in a condo with thin walls and realistically: we can't bump that loud anyway. (Even more realistically, despite being retired ravers, we don't tend to bump that loud any more regardless.) The audio is crisp and solid and thumpy enough for our purposes, but also did great when we curled up to watch Downton Abbey.

Although we have the Touchsmart's wireless mouse and keyboard on a shelf near-by if we need them, the touchscreen is pretty well equipped at doing what you need. It's one tap to open a on-screen keyboard, and you can even hand write words that gets translated to on-screen text. It feels pretty fancy. Here's me doing a little demo for y'all:

(The first minute or so is fuzzy, but then it snaps into better focus.)

In closing, this solution is working great for us. It's not perfect (no remote, sometimes it's hard to hit smaller screen targets like the X to close Chrome tabs) but it's working out really well for us and it's so nice to be able to plop on the couch and just watch some stories. YAY, STORIES!