Touch on laptops is a bonus, not a key feature

Every once in a while the BetaNews writers have differing opinions when it comes to certain topics. Case in point: my colleague Joe Wilcox just wrote a story which may lead you to believe that touch is an essential feature for Windows laptops. That could not be further from the truth. As a long-time Windows (and Windows 8 user) there wasn’t a single moment when I felt the need to poke the screen. And I’m sure that many fellow users would agree.

Joe cites NPD’s Stephen Baker in saying that “Touch appears to be coming into its own as a core feature in the Windows ecosystem”. That’s a bit like saying “Stickers appear to be coming into their own as a core feature on laptops’ palm rests”. Touch doesn’t have to be included (nor do the stickers), and here is why.

The hypothesis behind touch being a key feature on laptops — because that’s what Baker was practically referring to when he made that statement (NPD doesn’t take into account Surface which counts as tablets, and desktop PCs with touch are very, very rare) — is that users would poke the screen repeatedly on a frequent basis. And I’m not seeing that happen.

Here is what I said on Google+, when replying to Joe’s post that linked to the said story (the student reference is made in relation to the back-to-school sales, but applies to Windows users in general as well):

I think touch will make no difference for laptop buyers. It’s a bonus, but not an essential feature. Analysts might make it so [portray it as a feature], but I disagree as a long-time Windows/Windows 8 user. They’re likely smoking something.

There is data [I am referring to the stats from this story by my colleague Wayne Williams] which points out that the vast majority of Windows 8 users don’t even open Modern UI apps, so they don’t use the UI [user interface] most of the time. Which makes touch on laptops a gimmick.

Touch, as a way of using computers, does not lend itself well to productivity work where input precision is involved. Students working with touch will tap on the screen to swipe between apps, open apps and, generally speaking, replace some mouse actions with gestures.

Why am I mentioning this? Well, because where you need to use a cursor — text, cells, whatever — touch will get in the way due to its lack of precision. This is not a problem for those used to content consumption apps on other platforms, but Windows users, and especially students, expect to use the platform to do work/business stuff.

As an engineering student, I was forced (though I did not mind that) into using Windows because almost all the software that I needed for school was only compatible with Windows (bar AutoCAD which works on Macs too). And it required fast and precise input on my end in order to get something done in a timely manner and correctly as well. As a non-student, I feel the same way in every app that I work with. Furthermore…

Right [replying to a comment Joe made about touch not being enough]. Tablets are designed with touch in mind, whereas on laptops it’s an afterthought. It’s like slapping makeup on a 30-year old to make that person look like a teen, instead of finding a teen in the first place [movie reference]. Likely not the most inspired analogy, but you [referring to Joe, again] of all people get the gist.

I’m not suggesting that at one point touch will not be an essential feature on laptops, but to get there computer [legacy] apps would have to be designed with touch in mind, which right now they are not. Also, Windows as an ecosystem would need to have killer touch-optimized apps, something which I’m really not seeing now.

I think OEMs offer touch because they are uninspired. A properly made touchpad would work miles better than a touchscreen on a laptop right now.

That said, there is another reason why touchscreen laptops sell increasingly better. And it’s not touch. They’re just nicer looking, nicer built and generally nicer to handle than non-touch laptops. That’s what I see right now. Something changed with the transition towards touch in laptop design, and it did so for the better.

A couple of the first comments, as I write this story, from Joe’s piece echo my point of view.

Commenter johnusa says:

I hate touch as it will never be as precise and accurate as a mouse cursor.
I also hate touch screen desktop monitors as they cause pain and suffering as the user’s arm must always be extended to touch the screen and soon your arm will get tired and get sore.
Who needs this pain.

And David King agrees:

Agree I never want to use touch on a laptop or desktop. The keyboard and mouse work perfectly.

Our own Brian Fagioli silently agreed as well by detailing his usage scenario for touch:

I love touch on a laptop. On the Lenovo Yoga 11s and Chromebook Pixel, I mostly use the trackpad but sometimes I like to reach out and interact with touch too. Its nice to have the option.

Here’s what my colleague Alan Buckingham told me earlier, when referring to Aspire M5:

This laptop has touch and I never use it.
Why would I want to touch my laptop screen when I have a keyboard and wireless mouse?
Then I just end up cleaning off yet another screen.

There is also something to be said about Apple’s way with touch and how Windows 8 (and, soon, Windows 8.1) users could benefit from it. The fruit company doesn’t do touchscreens with its Mac lineup mostly because it doesn’t need to do touchscreens with its Mac lineup. Why? The reason is simple. OS X is designed to be touch-friendly but at a touchpad level. The OS makes great use of gestures which work brilliantly on a MacBook’s touchpad or the Magic Trackpad (basically a touchpad for desktops — iMacs and Mac Pros). This, on OS X, renders touchscreens irrelevant right now.

Similarly, the same gesture-friendly functionality could be implemented, through proper drivers and operating system support, in Windows 8 and, going forward, Windows 8.1. Based on my experience with a number of touchscreen-enabled laptops, OEMs don’t seem to get this right. Or they just don’t see it as a priority mostly because a brilliant touchpad is way harder to market than a mediocre touchscreen.

There are also some medical aspects to take into consideration, as commenter johnusa points out. Here’s what I said when Wayne raised the matter of touchscreen PCs, in group chat (the quote below is from his story):

I share the same view [PCs don’t need touch now]. Touch is confusing because you have to reach out and then retract your arms in order to fully use it. I think we find it most convenient when the movement of our arms is done on the same level most of the time. Think about it, we move our left or right arm to the side to reach for the mouse and one stays on the keyboard at all times. It’s natural to do so, it’s habit. Now, with touchscreen PCs, we have to raise the left or right arm to do stuff, which I find tiresome in the long run.

And I am not alone in suggesting that touch can be (somewhat) damaging for one’s health, in the long run. It’s not ergonomically sound, according to medical experts, to poke the screen and use devices in such a manner that makes this possible (you can check out this link and this link for further explanation). The main issue that I’ve experienced while using touchscreen laptops is the fatigue that I developed in the arm used to touch the display. Developing numbness/fatigue in my arm is something that I wish to avoid, and I’m sure you do too. For me, this is more of a problem encountered with laptops rather than smartphones and tablets, which I can handle better for such inputs.

I am not suggesting that the future of touch on laptops (and PCs in general) is non-existent. The problem with touch right now is that it’s ahead of the curve for the PC user experience. The technology matters most, and by implication is relevant, if users can make the best of it, mostly through software. Until developers decide that touch should be a priority for legacy apps, poking the screen is nothing more than a whim or bonus for the majority of Windows users used to working with a mouse or touchpad to navigate through most apps (I am sure that there are folks out there who still/will continue to use the keyboard for such actions). And it may take a while before that changes.

Photo Credit: bloomua/Shutterstock


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