During Microsoft’s Windows 8 launch event, the company paraded a variety of flashy new devices in front of us, and almost all of them featured a touchscreen. We’ve known for a while that Microsoft built Windows 8 optimized for touchscreens, but it was at this moment that I realized the next Windows PC I buy will have one — and I’m not sure that’s good news.
Touchscreens are brilliant. We wouldn’t have decent tablets, big screen smartphones, or cool interactive tools in museums without them. I use touchscreens everyday, and I couldn’t imagine not doing so.
However, I don’t use a touchscreen on my laptop. To be fair, my laptop doesn’t have one to use, but that’s because it doesn’t really belong. There is a lovely touchpad where I can make time-saving gestures, and it’s conveniently located below the keyboard. You know, where my fingers naturally fall.
I’m not against touchscreens as a rule, that is, except when they’re mounted vertically in front of me, ready to get covered in fingerprints, make my arms ache, or wobble about when I prod them. When they do any of these things, I’ll just go back to using the touchpad as usual, and question why I bothered to touch the screen in the first place. And unlike my phone and tablet, it’s not that easy to give the screen a quick buff up on my sleeve either.
Touchscreen laptops = 3D
Computers with a touchscreen come across as being a bit, well, gimmicky. Sales of laptops are falling, but sales of dedicated touchscreen devices, such as tablets and smartphones, are rising. Is it not just a ploy to try to restart the PC market by combining what’s cool with a struggling product? When Hollywood decided piracy was killing ticket sales at the theater, it introduced 3D to lure us back to the box office. It got off to an average start, but has trailed off now that people are realizing it’s a bit of rubbish, especially at home. Plus, like 3D equipment and software, touchscreen computer hardware comes with a higher price.
Others have also expressed concerns. The late Steve Jobs said “touchscreens don’t want to be vertical,” and described them as “ergonomically terrible.” Adrian Covert at Gizmodo dismissed them as “an ergonomic nightmare,” while Rob Enderle, on these very pages, wrote that a large, multi-touch touchpad — not the screen — was “a critical element” to making Windows 8 enjoyable to use.
The effectiveness of a touchscreen comes down to how you can hold it. Obviously, tablets work; and hybrids work because you can detach the keyboard. Plus, unusual devices, such as the Dell XPS 12 with its rotating screen, work too (in theory). All of these touchscreen devices work because you can hold them like a book, magazine, or a newspaper, providing versatility along with a proven method of control.
Laptops usually sit on the desk at arm’s length where you’ll have to stretch even further to reach the screen — something that’ll be even harder to do with a touchscreen desktop PC. They also have a proven method of control built-in — the mouse, trackpad ,and keyboard — which you’ll also find on all new Windows 8 machines. It’s almost as if Microsoft and its hardware partners have no faith in touch-driven computers.
Traditional control methods look quicker
Intel did some research into the public’s response to touchscreen laptops earlier this year, and published this video afterwards. Apparently, 77-percent of those interviewed touched the screen of the laptop while using Windows 8, despite being able to use more traditional methods. Leaving aside the results, which could be skewed by the novelty factor of a touchscreen laptop, at no point in the video did touching the screen look faster, more comfortable, or more accurate than using a good touchpad.
Windows 8 looks really exciting, but I’ve been told that extensive use on a non-touch laptop is frustrating because the OS is always encouraging you to touch the screen. This is not only bad news for anyone upgrading an older laptop, but also for people who work more efficiently using the trackpad and keyboard.
I’m looking forward to spending time with a Windows 8 touchscreen laptop, but I remain skeptical as to whether the act of touching the screen to do things will be nothing more than a quickly dismissed fad.