My Preferred Approach to Touch on a Computer

With Windows 8 now finally released, there comes a new generation of hardware with a strong emphasis on the input device – the fingers. Touch as we know and love today has been around in common perception since the release of the first iPhone which was in 2007. The first smartphone like phone was actually released in 1994 by IBM, the IBM Simon. Based on todays standards you can imagine this wasn’t a device one would call “a beauty”. In fact, the Wikipedia page lists the form factor as “brick”. From a current point of view you probably wouldn’t want to use and play around with such a type of touch interface.

As tech-savvy people know, the two commonly used types of touch input techniques are:

  • Resistive
  • Capacitive

Resistive is the one that allows you to use the device with gloves but otherwise is in a disadvantage to capacitive touch screens, used in todays smartphones and tablets. It is not as accurate because you need more force to cause an effect. This is due to the fact that the touch is detected by two electrically resistive layers with a small gap between them. In order to trigger an action they have to be connected by pressure. Capacitive touch screens, on the other hand, consist of an insulator (the glass) and a conductor (some fancy chemicals). Since the human skin is also a conductor this closes the circuit and a touch input is made – without any pressure needed. See Wikipedia for more detailled information about these techniques and also some other types of touch input methods.

With the advent of the new OS from Redmond we’ll see more and more PCs with touch enabled capacitive screens. Microsoft continues to showcase these devices in their keynotes, as seen recently on their Build 2012 conference (video timecode is 18:40). Steve Ballmer even utilized a 82″ inch screen as part of his demonstration, as well as various notebooks, tablets and phones, all of them equipped with a touchscreen.

For me this raises the question: Do I want a computer with a touchscreen? I’m not quite sure, yet – but I have a strong tendency to No. Well, don’t I like touch enabled devices? Yes, I do! In fact, I’m currently writing these lines on my iPad. I love it. It’s probably the best purchase I made this year – and I did buy a lot of tech stuff. However, having touch on a notebook screen or a computer seems to me just a waste of money (similar to 3D). For the most common use of a computer I simply don’t see why I would want to touch the screen.

First thing, it is tiresome. Especially when you’re sitting at your desk working with a big display. In this case you would have to lift your arm almost 90 degrees and stretch it to reach the monitor. Imagine you own a 27″ video screen and constantly have to reach from the corner on the left to the corner on the right and then right back. This is uncomfortable, takes time and makes working with the computer not just a workout but also ineffective. With the notebook on the lap this is easier, no doubt, but still not ideal.

The second thing, which, to me, would be equally annoying, are the finger prints on the screen (probably even worse). Yeah, you can clean them, I know. But I can’t just take a 27″ inch screen into one hand and wipe it with the sleeve of my other arm as I can very easily do with my iPad. On a notebook I’d be scared to damage the hinges or break the display in two if I clean it the way I do my iPad. Up until now I haven’t seen a single consumer notebook that gave me the impression it’s sturdy enough to survive some tough wipes with the sleeve on my arm as probably any well built tablet would.

So how would I like to see touch on the computer? Do I even want touch on a computer? Yeah, with a big touchpad and an operating system that uses this touchpad not just as a pointing device but also implements gestures that can be performed in it (and by that I don’t mean just scrolling pages in a browser). It’s about moving windows, managing desktops and switching between applications, all with touch gestures. Does that sound familiar to you? This is the way Mac OS currently works.

With a touchpad you’re just as fast in pointing as with a mouse. Not as precise as with a mouse if 100% precision is needed, but good enough to do most work (precondition: the touchpad is as big as a CD, only as a square). I only connect a mouse to play games. Just recently, I was on the road with my Mac and the batteries on my touchpad died. Since that came unexpected I had no replacements with me. Luckily I could grab hold of a mouse but somehow I was lost at using the Mac without my touch device. I know how to move around in the OS the same way I do with the touchpad, it is just not as fluent and fast which made me give up working (and instead played some Diablo 3).

As written earlier, it is the window management, the switch from one workspace to the next with a swipe, figuratively throwing an application window from one workspace to another with some swift moves of my wrist and fingers. This is fun! Scrolling large sites in the browser with two fingers just works everywhere on the trackpad if there’s enough room for two fingers. They can even be apart some space, e.g. you can scroll using your pinky and index finger. Swipe right to go back to the previous page or swipe the other direction to get that site back (I’d definitively like to see that on iOS). Fun! Easy! With the hand resting on the table and the screen staying clean.

This is comfortable and efficient. It works great on a desktop operating system without forcing a touch interface on everybody’s desk. It might be that the Metro interface works as well with trackpads as Mac OS does, but I highly doubt this is the case for the traditional Windows desktop. Since this is where I bring home the bacon it must be efficient and (close to – when referring to Windows) pleasant to use.

There are situations where a touch enabled computer might come in handy, I admit that, but I dont’t see this as the common scenario for a laptop or PC. Having a small computer around on business trips to do work and showcasing stats or other materials might be one. Small laptops usually mean small touchpads and this could make a touch screen attractive if the OS and the applications are tailored towards this use case. If not, I’d rather invest my money on Apple’s current approach.

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