It’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.