Touchscreens add nothing to laptop usefulness

27 Comments

do-not-touchIt’s time to get out my asbestos coveralls because the touchscreen faithful always appear with their flamethrowers when I broach the “touchscreen in laptops” subject.  This is a hot topic currently as almost every day we see rumors that “netbook X” will be appearing with a touchscreen Real Soon Now (RSN).  The recent announcement of the HP TouchSmart TX2 with a 12-inch multi-touch capable screen has many excited about the consumer notebook space with touchscreen capabilities.  I’m here to tell you to stand down, touch capability on laptops adds nothing in my view.

Those of you anxiously awaiting a netbook or laptop with touch capabilities stick with me a bit before you write me off.  By way of background I have been using touchscreen devices probably more than most folks.  I started with them way back in the days of the first PDAs from Palm and others and five years ago I used a Sony U70 for my main computer.  The Sony U was probably the first Windows-based PC with a touchscreen.

I am the first to admit that the touchscreen added a tremendous level of usability to those devices and why I jumped on the touchscreen bandwagon before most.  So why am I telling you now that touch adds nothing (or very little) to notebooks?  It’s a simple matter of usability.

Every device I have used over the years that had good touch benefits had one thing in common- they were handheld devices.  They were small gadgets that were used totally in the hand which put the touch interface where the hands rested naturally.  That is common sense that the primary interface must lie right where the hands are if that interface is operated by touch.

This simple fact is why the iPhone revolutionized the touch interface which started the buzz in this area.  Sure the iPhone has an interface designed from the ground up to be used by touch and this plays a big role but I believe that if the iPhone was a bigger device not used in the hands then it wouldn’t have made the big impact that it has.

I have used laptops with touchscreens for a good while and while it’s cool to be able to touch the screen to make stuff happen it’s pure fluff.  I find that after an initial “gee-whiz” period of tapping the screen I stop touching the screen at all and go back to using the keyboard and pointers like I do on notebooks without touch.

Why?  Because it’s not natural to be touching the screen on a laptop.  It’s uncomfortable to do and more importantly it forces the user to remove their hand(s) from where they rest normally.  This breaks up the natural flow of things and like I said it’s actually uncomfortable to do.  That’s why I find myself not touching the screen after a short bit and so having the touch interface soon adds nothing to me.

I am the first to admit that some laptops can benefit from touch interfaces.  Convertible notebooks like the HP TX2 I mentioned have screens that can swivel around forming a slate format.  This provides a more useful environment for using a touch interface because in this form the device is being used in the hands.  It gets back to that handheld thing I mentioned.  In slate mode these gadgets are sitting in the hands which are naturally over the screen.  See what I mean?

Even slate form laptops must have a customized UI that is designed to take special advantage of touch.  If touch is simply put on top of a standard UI the user quickly finds that very little benefit is being gained by touch.  That’s what will happen with netbooks and other notebooks with touch added if the interface isn’t designed to be manipulated mostly by touch.

This is what Laptop Magazine discovered when they reviewed the HP TX2.  Even though this is a multi-touch screen they found trying to use it in laptop mode was not comfortable:

The touch experience needs work. Aside from the fact that reaching above the keyboard to touch the display wasn’t always comfortable or useful, the display itself wasn’t impressively responsive. For instance, when we used two fingers to zoom in and out of Web pages in Internet Explorer 8, the page looked jerky while resizing, and the response was delayed.

The two key points they discovered are just what I am saying here- it’s uncomfortable to use a touch screen on a laptop and the interface must be specially designed for touch, not just another layer on top of the standard non-touch interface.  Just adding a touchscreen to a laptop is not the panacea that some are crying for.

This is why I am comfortable predicting that netbooks that will start appearing next year with touchscreens are not going to be the Next Big Thing (NBT) that some are predicting.  They will be cool and “new” for a while and then folks will begin realizing that they are not comfortable to use and don’t add much if anything to the user experience.  I’m just saying.

Some of you may be thinking that given my recent accolades to the multi-touch system Apple put into the new MacBooks that I am being inconsistent.  Before you start throwing the “fanboy” term around I will tell you my good impressions of that multi-touch system in the new Macs is very consistent with what I am saying in this article.

I was as surprised as anyone with how useful I found the multi-touch trackpad system in the new Macs to be.  It shouldn’t be a surprise though, the fact is this system works because the trackpad sits right where the hands rest on the laptop.  The same principle applies here, it’s comfortable to use and fits in the natural flow of usage that I have mentioned.  It isn’t a contradiction with what I’ve said here, it actually supports it.

The other benefit to putting the multi-touch interface in the trackpad over putting it in the screen is that it doesn’t impact the screen appearance.  One of the biggest complaints that I have heard consistently about screens with resistive touch interfaces is that the layer of touch gear causes the screen to be washed out.  That matches my own experience and I’m pretty confident that if cheap netbooks start appearing with touchscreens they will suffer from the same effect.

I am sure that some folks will find netbooks with touchscreens to be the cat’s meow.  The one consistent thing about mobile tech is how personal it is and there will always be those that like something such as touch netbooks.  I think that those folks will be in the minority and most will find what I am saying to be the way it is.

To sum up, touchscreens on handheld devices add value and are more likely to be used.  Touchscreens on notebooks however are uncomfortable to use and add little if any value.  That’s my take on it.


27 Comments

Laptop gadgets

I think Some gadgets are available in Market through with we can Turn our Common laptop into Screen Touch laptop.

Sara

I agree with you. I’m all for the touch interface; it’s more intuitive, natural, easy to use, and even faster than invariably scrolling with a trackpad to go from A to B (on the screen). With touch, one tap of my hand goes from the center of the screen to the far right corner, where my GNOME Menu is (I run Ubuntu Linux on my X61 Tablet). But I don’t have a trackpad on my tablet; blessedly, it has only the trackpoint, and I find the trackpoint, in laptop mode, to be more effective than touch. It doesn’t take my hands away from where they are–this is where I especially agree with you. I also agree of the potential usefulness of touch in a trackpad–it doesn’t make the screen dirty at the least, and the screen has all the benefits of a laptop screen without a touch digitizer. However, I have lived with the trackpad almost all of my nineteen years, but in the past few months of using the trackpoint, I’ve found the trackpoint to be infinitely superior. But I suppose that’s a different argument.

But I do want to see touch in more devices, and perhaps it’d just be better for everyone if every laptop and netbook had convertible tablet functionality, so a touch screen could be in every device… :)

Pete_L

Touchcreen laptops/netbooks? Not on my life. Can you imagine all those distracting greasy fingerprints?

Smartboard touchscreens… now that’s a real sensible use of touchscreen technology: ideal for teaching, large-format, back-projected touchscreens that have carefully thought out add-on tools for the Windows GUI.

borax99 (Alain C.)

I find I have to agree with James, and I have a fair bit of experience with touchscreens, from the original Newton and the Mp2K, through the Casio E100, then the P1610 and currently the HP TX 2508CA. When I do use the latter as a tablet, I almost exclusively use the active digitizer, which is way more precise and therefore easier to use.

Unfortunately, I have been *shocked* to discover that I am almost always using the HP in full-on laptop mode. I thought I was a dedicated Tableteer, but I have had to re-evaluate lately.

I think ultimately that (a) everyone is different and will find different ways to use different technologies and (b) for me, the most critical aspect of a Tablet/touch device is size & weight in hand. I find the HP is just too darned awkward to use as a tablet for extended periods of time. The ultimate device for me would be the size, shape and weight of the P1610 with an active digitizer, and preferably with a 1024×600 res. screen (tired eyes) …

Don’t get me wrong, the HP is a blast to use, and it is extremely unlikely that I would ever buy a laptop without tablet capabilities, it’s just that I now feel the price premium is a bit too steep (except for the HP models, which in spite of their obvious limitations, are a steal)…

Anyway, thanks for opening up this can of worms, James, thought-provoking and useful blogging as always !

Gavin Miller

@Preston

Is it a Tablet PC though? I agree with James that on a fixed screen laptop, touch is not really much use and awkward to use. Inking is very difficult for example.

A nice big multitouch touchpad is a better proposition.

@Gordon

I’m sure you’ll still be in the compo, opinions are allowed here! ;-)

bluespapa

I sometimes set up a Toshiba tablet or my Samsung Q1 to project in my classes, sometimes to mark things with a pen exclusively, sometimes with in laptop mode with the former, and with the latter I use a bluetooth keyboard and mouse.

Invariably I end up reaching for stylus to mark up something, and it’s bloody awkward in laptop mode, and doing so on the Q1 requires that I’ve set up the screen resolution so the flat screen matches the big screen. Bloody awkward, but useful, and better than I could have worked it with a mouse or touch pad.

Even so, I’d never buy a laptop that has touch without also having a way to work in slate mode.

Preston McAfee

I use the touchscreen for teaching. The great thing about a touchscreen is I can draw a diagram in real time, but unlike a chalkboard, I can have a blank graph to draw on, or I can annotate a list. But the really terrific thing is that I can then print the day’s slides with the in-class annotation and distribute to the students. It is like powerpoint combined with a chalkboard.

It is the only use I make of the touchscreen but it is enough to insure one of my laptops is a touchscreen.

GoodThings2Life

Wow, talk about opening a can of worms, lol.

I am going to start by saying after reading the lengthy post, I opted to skip all the comments on this one, lol.

My response to the article is short and sweet though… I agree that in the case of a standard laptop, touch is pretty pointless and for pretty much the same reasons as you describe.

Of course…

That’s not the same, however, as saying it’s worthless altogether. I love Tablet PC’s with and without touch, and I think I always will. But it’s more about the size and the form factor. Holding my hand behind a laptop or standard display while I smudge it up with my finger is pretty counter productive, but being in slate mode and having touch available for quick navigation and editing and manipulation is fantastic.

In fact, just today I was looking at the HTC Shift again. I love my Dell Latitude E6400, but I deeply miss my Tablet PC at work and want something very portable but pen/finger friendly to carry around. It would definitely fit the need since I’m already used to both Tablet and Windows Mobile form factors.

ArchiMark

Think you’re point James about touch on netbooks is well taken…

From my experience, convertible TabletPC design is the best for touchscreens or a slate design…

However, having had several touchscreen laptops in the past, it can be nice to have, but as you say, it’s less useful than when on the other designs.

Offbeatmammal

I’m with JK on this for a laptop format device – while I sometimes feel touch is handy (so would love to see if for, say, when I’m using the laptop – of a desktop – as a media center) most of the time when you have a keyboard and mouse that’s a better option.

When I would love to see touch enabled on a notebook is when it’s a convertible …. if I get used to touching in Tablet mode I get really grumpy if I can’t touch when I go back to Laptop mode!

Smaller screen devices – netbooks and phones – really do work well with touch (as long as it’s finger not stylus)

That said it’s going to be interesting to see what (multi-)touch brings in future generations of Windows and OSX… having played with Surface (Microsofts big-arse iPod Touch!) in the right situation it works really well

James Kendrick

Gordon, I’m sorry you feel so strongly about this, it’s what I predicted. I did not write off Tablet PCs, my article said time and again that slate forms are great with touch screens.

I too have used numerous notebooks with touchscreens and that experience is the basis of this article based on my actual experiences.

I am the first to state time and again that these are my opinions and that there will always be those that feel differently about a given technology or device. I do feel that slapping a cheap touchscreen, and they will have to be cheap, on netbooks will not buy much for most users. That’s what I am trying to get across.

I am not a fanboy, but I do appreciate good tech that works. I call it like I see it and that’s what I will continue to do.

I’m glad that you like notebooks with touch screens. Always use what works for you but don’t feel that everyone should like what you like. I don’t.

Gordon Cahill

This will get my out of the Magic Givaway for sure but here goes….

For the last five years you’ve been arguing against statements like this when it comes to tabet PC’s. It’s just like the old “I can type faster than I can write” argument. And frankly, like that argument, yours is also rubbish. It’s nothing more than a rash genralisation written with no real experience with the devices at all. If this was another site broadly stating that the tablet pc has failed, doesn’t suit most users and shouldn’t be tried etc, you’d be all over it like a rash. Well you’ve just done the same thing. Just because YOU, with NO experience with these devices, doesn’t get it doesn’t mean that the tech doesn’t work and isn’t usefull. It just means YOU don’t get it.

I too have been using touchscreens for well over a decade. I’ve had multiple palm devices, treos, ipaqs, iphones, the origonal Cassiopea a Sony UX and various tablets. But I’ve also spent a year with a TX2000 and a year before that with a TX1000. It’s a different thing on a large screen and can’t be compared to a small screen device. And using the touch screen has become second nature to me. And I find it annoying that other machines don’t have a touch screen. I’m constantly trying to use the touch screen on my MiniNote, if only it actually had one.

Now I’m quite happy to accept that a majority of people who carry a mouse with their laptop everywhere, will never use, need or get the touchscreen. That’s fine it’s called choice and you’re welcome to make yours as long as you don’t make incorrect, broad generalisations about mine. I’m also willing to note that there will be some really cheap and poorly performing attempts at touchscreens and these may be best avoided.

And although not a mobile device your argument would also include the HP touchsmart PC, which reviewers have pretty much praised as a touch device.

The simple fact is that like the tablet, some will get it and some will not and it may probably be in the minority (although I’ll bet there are many time more happy touchscreen users ot ther than tablet owners within the next 12 months). But for you to write it off without any real experience or substantial time using it is simply narrow minded. “I am sure that some folks will find netbooks with touchscreens to be the cat’s meow. The one consistent thing about mobile tech is how personal it is and there will always be those that like something such as touch netbooks. I think that those folks will be in the minority and most will find what I am saying to be the way it is.” Not only have you contradicted you entire argument here you’ve also tried to make a decision for everyone else without encouraging them to try the technology and make up their own minds.

I’m worried that now you’ve become a Mac fanboy that your writing is going to become more and more slanted away from innovative tech just because it’s not immediately popular. Based on some of your recent stuff it’s certainly feels like it’s heading that way.

Gordon

SiteCharts

I agree that the touchscreen in non-convertible notebooks is just a gimmick.
If you can convert it into slate mode … then it is great.

MiniMage

I’m still in love with Tablet PCs, but a non-convertible laptop with a touch screen is not going to work for me. I hope that it works for some. I hope it does well, as long as it doesn’t get in the way of Tablet PC improvements and availability.

Roger

Coming from my perspective as a developer who writes for vertical markets (e.g. the lab market), I can tell you that touch screens on laptops are extremely useful. A properly designed touch interface for instrument operation is much more ergonomic and efficient than fumbling with a mouse or touchpad with gloved hands. There are many such vertical markets; perhaps the total volume is not enough to influence the manufacturers, but it is not insignificant.

Ozone

James… I think you’re right on. I’ve had palm sized touch devices for a long time, and now use a tablet along with my Mac desktops. Guess how often I actually use my tablet in “pen mode”? That’s right – hardly ever. It IS useful when I teach or am in a long meeting and need to take notes, but on a regular, consistent basis, a laptop is a laptop.

Practicality aside, what I would have really wanted is a convertible Palm Foleo – instant on, quick notes – THAT would have been cool!

Joe

I have a Dell XT, with the same capacitive touchscreen as the HP tx2. I wasn’t sure if I really needed the touchscreen or not (I originally considered a 2710 or 2730p), but now that I have it I can’t do without it, and not just in slate mode.

Using the Grab and Drag extension for Firefox along with the Vista “flicks” capability means that I never use anything else for scrolling anymore. Its just so much easier to do it on the screen. And this is something thats only made possible by the capacitive touch (it’d need way too much pressure with resistive touch).

That being said, I do find multitouch absolutely useless though I hope when its integrated into the whole OS like in Windows 7 it’ll be more useful. I have my doubts though.

quixote

Touching a laptop screen is a whole-arm motion. Precision movements, which is what you’re trying to do when touching a screen, require keeping the whole arm steady and are uncomfortable, tiring, and relatively difficult. (The phrase, “Duh!” comes to mind. What ARE they thinking?)

Movements requiring precise finger coordination are never done with the arms extended (when people have a choice), whether it’s painting, writing, mousing, or tuba playing.

Stuatr Jones

I think that touchscreens on laptops aren’t revolutionary, but they can be useful. On my “MultiTouch” Lenovo X61 Tablet, I constantly finding myself tapping on a window to gain it’s focus. Like, if someone instant messages me, I can lift my hand off the keyboard for a split second, tap the window, then go right back down to the home row and punch out a message. It’s also useful for OK boxes and closing programs. Touchscreen’s are in no way life changing, but if there’s a $50-100 difference between touch screen and non-touch screen, then I would ante up the money for the convince.

mike

I have all ways liked the idea of a tablet PC. Earlier this year I bought a TC1100. I don’t use it all that much but I have fun. I’m not really sure that I will use it a lot. Am awaiting a new Acer Aspire One. Then it will be a chance to compare. I do like the TC1100 for a lot of different reasons.

Mike

Ken

I don’t think much for the touch computers. I think it is inherently necessary for a hand held; but not practical for a laptop or desktop.
It might go with the notebooks that flat the screen up right over the keyboard, where you use it like a pad of paper. But, with the keyboard and mouse right there, it does not seem necessary.
On a laptop, the screen is not in the correct position for good access to the touch screen.
At church we have kiosks for checking in kids in the kids ministries, and the screens are touch screens. I hardly ever see anyone use the touch screens. Perhaps we’re so used to the keyboard and mouse; but perhaps it is just too awkward to use the touch screen.

Sherry

I have the TX2500, and you are right. I love having the slate mode, and I use it a lot. The active digitizer and tablet capabilities are useful. The touchscreen not so much. Occassionally it helps to just touch and close a program, but that’s about it.

What I do want is a netbook with a swivel screen slate mode, 9-10″ screen and tablet capabilities. I want a digitizer that is precise and responsive enough to write with. Or, even a slate mode an adequate digitizer. It also has to be cheap enough.

AlexH

My opinion is that james and vm-01 are correct in their reasoning. Laptops shape as we currently know, would have little if any benefits from acquiring a touch screen. Yet there are times when writing a document I need to annotate in some graph, statistic, or pictures, this might not be often but there is a need for it. In anyway like james always says different needs for different folks. Keep up the good work.

vm-01

I really don’t want to fall into your bait JK but I can’t stand idly on this one.

For one thing let me paraphrase you and say that laptops are very personal devices. Just because you don’t get any benefit from touch doesn’t mean I don’t. It’s the same thing that happens with discrete graphics on laptops, some people find it useless others indispensable.

I personally don’t miss touch on 15 inch laptops but when I go to 10 inches I find myself confusingly touching the screen all the time. Of course nothing happens but for some reason I keep expecting something to happen. So I’m all for touch screens.

Anyone know of a good solderless way of getting touch on a “normal” laptop?

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