Review: HP Touchstone 2 Audio Dock 24
We don't get to review many accessories these days, for reasons that are fairly obvious: nobody makes or sells webOS devices, so why would anybody make accessories for those devices? It's a hard life for the accessory-wanting HP TouchPad, HP Veer, or HP Pre3 owner. But just because they aren't available doesn't mean accessories don't exist. For example, there's the Touchstone bluetooth audio dock, a never sold and never announced successor to the original Touchstone that incorporated Bluetooth audio streaming into the charging mix. At least a few have landed out in the wild, but they're exceedingly rare. You know, like the HP TouchPad Go. We've managed to get our hands on one such example of the HP Touchstone 2 Audio Dock, and it's partly what we expected, and partly not.
As with the TouchPad Go review, we're going to preface this with a note that what we have here is assumed to be a preproduction unit and may not represent a complete picture of how this device was intended to look and behave once released. We have no reason to believe it is not as intended, but we cannot compare its perforamance with another example of the same model, nor would we expect HP to provide support in the event that it is not behaving as designed.
The Touchstone 2. What does it have in common with the original Touchstone charging puck? An inductive charging coil, magnets for aligning and securing the device, and a Micro USB port. That's pretty much the basics of the original Touchstone, though this new version goes in a less subtle and elegant direction with a bigger and bolder design and includes Bluetooth and an audio-out port. It's the next generation of Touchstone, and HP's definitely left their mark on it.
The first Touchstone could be summed up easily: an angled black puck with a hole for the USB port on the back, a suctioning ring on the bottom, and a chrome Palm logo on the top, all swaddled in black soft touch coating. The Touchstone 2 is a different story. The shape is more complicated, with a rounded square base the size of the original Touchstone, and then a bracket-style holder for the phone that sticks up about five degrees from vertical and then pitches back forty-five degrees an inch later. The design puts your phone up higher and at a steeper angle than the old Touchstone could.
The sides and front are wrapped in a metallic gray painted hard plastic, while the back 'inside' of the bracket is a glossy black (thankfully to be rarely touched) and the top where you set down your phone is a glossy black barely concave circle ringed with a matte black squircle. It's a strange mish-mash of materials that seems flashy yet somehow works. The bottom of the charger features a black rubber pad with an inset HP logo, while a flush Micro USB port and audio-out jack sit on the back edge of the base.
That base brings our first point of contention with the Touchstone 2: It's black rubber, not the "inspired by gecko" stick-to-any-flat-surface-but-not-adhesive suction material from the original Touchstone. There's nothing holding this Touchstone to your desk, nightstand, or office window like before. To add insult to this injury, despite taking up more volumetric space, the new Touchstone is lighter than the old one, making it all to easy to pick it up along with your phone. Thankfully it'll be tethered down by at least a Micro USB cable, but it's still hardly the same stick it and forget it level of friendly as the old Touchstone.
The new design is at least more friendly to the HP Pre3. The shiny circle on the top is slightly smaller than the top of the old Touchstone, but it's also less concave. This forms better to the less-rounded back of the Pre3 and makes for a more assertive grab when setting the phone down. The flip side of that coin is that phones like the Veer and older Pre phones don't latch on as well to the new Touchstone as the old. It's just the same, as they can't pair up with the Bluetooth receiver anyway. There is a gripe to be had about the new better-grabbing magnetic top: the hard uncoated plastic scratches very easily, and that shows all too well on the inexplicably glossy center circle.
As mentioned earlier, the Touchstone 2 packs a Bluetooth receiver and audio-out jack, but it only works with the Pre3. That's thanks to the magic of the communication coil, which is what also enables Touch-to-Share with the TouchPad. The Veer has the same communication coil, but HP never got around to releasing an update to enable it before pulling the plug on webOS devices. So unless you have a Pre3, the Touchstone 2 isn't for you.
That radio is activated when you slap down a Pre3 for charging and the communication coil is recognized. There's some extra special mojo going on between the two devices; our Pre3 and the Touchstone 2 automatically paired without any input from us. It shows up in Bluetooth preferences as TouchStone 2 Audio Dock (capitalized Stone, for real). The Bluetooth receiver is smart enough not to waste the time and effort turning itself on if an audio cable is not plugged in. The automatic pairing mojo goes further, as setting down a Pre3 with Bluetooth turned off will actually prompt you to turn it on so pairing can happen. This behavior is exactly the same as you get with a TouchPad and Pre3 attempting Touch-to-Share, and we're glad to see it as pleasantly thought-out for something traditionally as dumb as a charger. The Touchstone 2 and Pre3 stay paired up even after taking the phone off the charger, though once you wander out of range they won't reconnect until you put the phone on the Touchstone.
It seems that for every "we like this", the Touchstone 2 throws a roadblock up in our way of giving it a stamp of approval. Bluetooth pairing is smart, seamless, and easy. Audio quality is not great. We plugged the Touchstone 2 directly into our office stereo system and the resulting audio it pumped out was muddy and seriously lacking in bass. We get outstanding results from the same stereo when plugged into our computer, and pretty decent sound straight from the Pre3's audio jack. That the one added feature of the Touchstone 2 stumbles here is not a good thing. We could blame it on the fact that what we have here is not a production device, but when it comes to transmitting the audio it should be a relatively straight-forward affair: audio comes in via Bluetooth and is transmitted back out through the 3.5mm stereo jack. There's not a lot of thinking and optimizing that has to go on there - and this is from a company that had enjoyed a long and profitable relationship with the audio wizards at Beats Audio.
The Touchstone 2's audio feature only supports music and videos - phone calls answered while on the Touchstone 2 are sent to speakerphone and not to your attached speakers. Which is all well and good, we guess, considering that phone calls are of such low bitrate you'd really get to hear how crappy the audio really is when sent to decent speakers.
When it comes to enhancing the capabilities of something as basic as a charger, the Touchstone 2 Audio Dock takes a step in the right direction by adding Bluetooth audio streaming support and no-fuss automatic pairing. But it's hobbled by the middling audio quality, material choices, and the disappointing omission of a stick-anywhere base. The original Touchstone was sold at a huge profit by Palm, debuting at $40 with a bill of materials at around $10. We would have hoped that the Touchstone 2 would have either bumped the old version down in price and taken the $40 spot or replaced the older-though-still-perfectly-functional model all together. You know, if it'd ever been announced or released. But after having used one, we're not so sure we'd want one as it is after using the old model for nearly three years now. With a few tweaks the Touchstone 2 could have been a solid step forward for wireless webOS device charging, but instead it's a solution that feels like something HP would have produced - it works, but it's lost the spirit of the original.