Techworld

Do touch screens belong on PCs? A debate

Our editors argue about efficiency, ease of use, gunky screens and 'gorilla arm'

With Windows 8, Microsoft is bringing touch-screen interaction from tablets and smartphones to traditional PCs. Many Windows 8 ultrabooks and tablet/laptop hybrids include touch, and some desktop computers do as well.

Apple, on the other hand, has steadfastly maintained that users don't want touch screens on traditional computers; it confines multi-touch gestures for its laptops and desktops to trackpads and mice.

So is touch on traditional computers the wave of the future, or another misbegotten Microsoft interface mistake, like Clippy?

Computerworld contributing editor Preston Gralla and reviews editor Barbara Krasnoff have both used touch-screen laptops running Windows 8, but they came away with very different opinions about the usefulness of this approach. Check out their arguments, then weigh in with your own opinion in the comments, below.

Ready, set, fight!

Preston Gralla: I'm a big fan of touch interfaces -- with two iPads, a pair of Android tablets, three Nooks, two Kindles and a passel of Android, iOS and Windows Phone 8 smartphones, I have to be. But touch makes sense on those devices. It makes no sense on the desktops, notebooks and ultrabooks that we're seeing from PC makers.

It takes more time to use touch. It's often harder to navigate with touch. It's a productivity-killer. Preston Gralla

Since the early days of Windows 8 previews, I've been using a Windows 8 tablet essentially as a notebook by standing it up vertically on a base station and connecting a keyboard and mouse to it. From the beginning, I forced myself to use touch as well as the keyboard and mouse.

But over time, even though I've constantly reminded myself to use touch, I've used it less and less. Why? It takes more time to use touch. It's often harder to navigate with touch. It's a productivity-killer. It's just plain annoying.

Try to do something simple like browse through your hard disk using File Explorer or open a file in Microsoft Office using touch. It's immeasurably more difficult, frustrating, and time-consuming than simply tapping a key or two, or making fine movements and clicks with a mouse.

Barbara Krasnoff: When I first saw the touch-screen computers being shown during the introduction of Windows 8, I was a little leery myself. Like you, I'm a longtime desktop/laptop user, and I'm extremely keyboard-centric (perhaps because I cut my first computer-user teeth on DOS systems).

However, I took a touch-capable ultrabook (an Acer Aspire S7) to CES this year, and while I typed away, I found myself using the touch screen rather than the mouse a lot more than I thought I would. It was a quicker and, quite honestly, more intuitive way to select a new tab, push an onscreen button or even place the cursor. And it was much easier for me than using the touchpad on the keyboard -- even when I was working in the Desktop interface (which was most of the time).

I admit that sometimes I had to go to the mouse for more detailed movements -- as when I needed to drop the cursor between two letters within a word -- but for the most part, pointing and touching (rather than pointing and clicking) became the norm.

I found myself using the touch screen rather than the mouse a lot more than I thought I would. Barbara Krasnoff

PG: Every time you move your hand from your keyboard, mouse or touchpad to your screen you're interrupting your workflow and train of thought. You're spending far more time on simple tasks than you need to.

BK: How long has it been since moving your hand from your keyboard was an interruption? We've been using mice for a long time, but I remember when many computer users preferred to memorize long lists of keyboard shortcuts rather than have to move a hand from the keyboard to the mouse and back again.

As for the touchpad, I've always found it a less-than-useful replacement for a mouse. While long use has allowed me to reach for a mouse without having to look for it (partly because my hand can fit itself to the form factor), a touchpad means I have to move my hand off the keypad itself and readapt to a small, highly inconvenient square below the keyboard.

In addition, most touchpads are so sensitive that I am constantly moving the cursor to a place where I don't want it to be, or accidentally opening/closing tabs or applications. Talk about workflow interruptions! Touchpads are my enemy as far as that's concerned.

Which is why I found using a touch screen so handy during CES. Rather than have to grope for the touchpad every time I needed to access the cursor, I could just touch the image I was looking at without pulling my gaze from the screen; I then replaced my hand on the keyboard and continued working.

It felt natural to just point to what I wanted to do -- and do it. Barbara Krasnoff

In fact, I found the touch screen to be more accurate and faster than a touchpad. It felt natural to just point to what I wanted to do -- and do it. While my hand did leave the keyboard, it didn't travel any further than it would for a mouse. It took me a lot less time to become accustomed to the touch display than it did to touchpads when I started using those.

PG: Maybe it comes down to a matter of personal taste. When I use a touchpad, my hands don't leave the keyboard; the touchpad is right there where my fingers naturally linger. Having to reach out, tap something, and then return my hand to the keyboard takes too much time and breaks my concentration.

And there's the gunk factor as well. With touch, you're putting oils and fingerprints on the screen that make it harder to read.

BK: I concede the problem of oils and fingerprints. I talked to a couple of vendors about that during CES, and the best answer I got was a rather sheepish "We're working on it." On the other hand, I only felt the need to clean the screen of my Acer Aspire S7 once during four days of very intense use, so the problem isn't as bad as all that.

PG: So far we've been discussing touch screens on notebooks and hybrid devices. On desktops, things get worse. When you use a desktop, the screen is at arm's length. You're forced to lean forward, reach and glide your finger across the screen while it's an arm's length away from you. It's awkward, difficult to do, and just plain painful. The pain you'll experience if you do this enough even has a name: gorilla arm.

BK: I am not going to disagree with you about desktops. If you're using your desktop for office work, there is absolutely no reason for a touch screen.

The only thing I will point out is that many of the touch-screen desktops coming out are all-in-ones that are pointed at a consumer audience, and a lot of the applications being presented for those machines are kid-friendly stuff, such as painting apps, games where kids can touch and move objects, and so on. But unless you're a parent, an educator or a creative artist who wants to literally "draw" onscreen, I agree that touch screens are not really useful for desktop systems.

You'll find that you'll pay a $100 premium for the touch screen. Preston Gralla

PG: I'm glad to see that we agree about touch on desktops -- it's pointless and a non-starter. But if you find it easier to use touch on a laptop, then by all means you should do it.

You'll pay for it, of course. First off, manufacturers are only placing touch on their most expensive equipment, so to get touch you'll likely have to buy a higher-end system than you really need. And if you price out the same piece of hardware (such as the Sony Vaio T Series 13 Ultrabook), one with a touch screen and one without, you'll find that you'll pay a $100 premium for the touch screen.

Is touch worth $100 to me? Certainly not. My guess is that it won't be worth it to many others, either.

BK: Well, sure -- like all bleeding-edge technologies, it's going to cost more at first. The first Kindle e-ink reader cost about $400 in 2007, the next generation was down to about $260 in 2009, and the current Kindle Paperwhite e-ink reader costs $119 -- and that's expensive compared to some of the other e-readers out there.

Similarly, these are the first touch-screen Windows 8 systems available; give it a few months and watch the price go down.

I think the question isn't so much whether touch screens will suddenly take off, but whether they will prove useful enough on laptops that they slowly become as ubiquitous as touchpads or other forms of input. And that may depend not only on the price of Windows 8-based systems, but whether Apple eventually decides (as it finally decided with the iPad Mini) that resistance to this particular new tech trend is futile.

What's your take? Add your thoughts to the reader comments below.

Preston Gralla is a contributing editor for Computerworld.com and the author of more than 45 books, including Windows 8 Hacks (O'Reilly, 2012).

Barbara Krasnoff is reviews editor at Computerworld. When she isn't either editing or reviewing, she blogs at The Interesting Bits ... and Bytes; you can also follow her on Twitter ( @BarbaraKrasnoff).

Read more about pcs in Computerworld's PCs Topic Center.

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