The last few years have seen the rise of touchscreens in our most personal gadgets: smartphones and tablets. This technology seems particularly fit for the two mentioned types of electronics. Before smartphones had big touchscreens we had to deal with small screens and hardware keyboards that took a large area of the front of the phone. At first I didn’t believe replacing a good tactile keyboard is going to be worth it in screen real estate, but look at RIM now and its Blackberry phone layout and you’ll see why I was very wrong.
Tablets in their new slate form factor (not the convertible tablet from early 2000’s) can’t even be conceived without a touchscreen. It was the sensible thing to do if you were to build a slim and light device that could replace an ultraportable laptop as a media consumption device, and Apple did it first with the iPad. Early 2013, during CES, Intel announced the requirements for the second generation ultrabooks and they do include a mandatory touchscreen. The reason implied by Intel is that this way we can prevent user confusion (lame excuse, if you ask me), but nonetheless it means later this year pretty much every laptop out there will come with a touchscreen.
This made me think about where we’re headed with display technologies and the inherent increase of touch enabled devices. In the next paragraphs I’m going to try and analyse the need of replacing current tech with a touch enabled one on various devices we’re using in everyday life. As always, I’d like to hear your own opinion on this, so if you have something to say please do so in the comments form at the end of this article.
Touch on smartphones
First smartphones had really small screens (think 2 to 2.4″) and larger keyboards beneath the screen. It was obvious (for some) that screens had to get larger in order to allow for better apps. We didn’t have 5 or 6 inch smartphones (some call them phablets) like we do today so throwing away that hardware keyboard was the only option. I didn’t like it, and I wasn’t the only one, as a lot of my friends in the tech industry believed it’s a step back. We did like the larger screens of the first Windows Mobile PDAs, but it was awkward to use a stylus instead of a very good Blackberry style keyboard. Plus you needed two hands.
That was solved later on with even larger screens and better apps and interfaces optimized for touch. Now we can’t even imagine a smartphone being anything else than a large front screen with one or several buttons below it. Maybe the next step in smartphone tech will be wearable displays, Google glasses or brain implants, but it’s clear that for now touchscreens are the only way we’re going to interact with a touchscreen (don’t get me started on that whole voice control thing…).
Touch on tablets
This is probably the most obvious choice for a slate tablet. If you want a slim and light device with a relatively large screen then you have to do without a keyboard. The user interface has to be able to cope with touch only interactions, but that’s hardly a problem with iOS and Android today. Even the new Windows 8 operating system seems to work best with touch, not with a keyboard and mouse, as it did until this version. So I’m not going to argue more about touch on tablets as there’s nothing to argue about.
Touchscreen on laptops
As I said at the beginning of this article, touch laptops will become the norm since Intel’s guidelines for 2013 ultrabooks include a mandatory touchscreen. That’s not the best choice by my count for several reasons. First, adding a touchscreen means increased power consumption, a thicker screen lid, a glossy surface which adds reflections and it’s a fingerprint magnet, plus it affects viewing angles, contrast and luminosity. These are big tradeoffs for me, especially since I don’t find touch on laptops being the best solution.
Why? Because touching a screen placed at a few dozen inches from your eyes means having your right arm stretched out in the air all the time. Fatigue is going to settle in a few minutes if you’re touching the screen a lot to navigate. Think of how annoying is to take your hand from the keyboard when typing just to reach for the mouse at the right side of your laptop and add a new hand motion to the equation. Your workflow will be heavily affected by having to constantly move your hand from between the keyboard to the mouse and the screen.
Plus your screen will always be dirty, which I hate more than anything else. For me having a touch screen on a notebook is not just useless, but also annoying and will drive prices of portables up.
Touchscreen on a desktop/AiO
Imagine what I said before about laptops and add a few more inches, as you’ll be standing further away from a larger screen than you would with a laptop. Your arm will be completely stretched out in the air and hanging. Fatigue will settle even faster. You’ll have to constantly move your chair closer or further away from the screen. Why? Because you can’t work standing too close to the screen as you won’t be able to focus the entire area of the image displayed (you can’t even in normal situations, but it’s easier to move your eyes than moving your head).
You might think that all the new 27″ All-in-Ones showcased at CES solve this problem by using a tilt and swivel mechanism with allows you to adjust the screen from vertical to an almost horizontal position, but you’ll also have to move the entire screen on your desk as you’ll need to be close to it when it’s laying flat and further away when it’s sitting vertically as a non-touch monitor.
Touchscreens in a car
The new Tesla Model S is an impressive electric car, but it uses a huge 19 inch touchscreen monitor as dashboad, without any kind of buttons. We all know that when driving your eyes must be on the road all the time, even the slightest distraction can be fatal, especially when cruising at highway speeds. With a touchscreen, where buttons layout and function change with every screen and menu you’re into, there’s a need to look directly at the screen to see where that button you need to press is placed, so you’re taking your eyes from the road with pretty much every interaction.
With normal dashboards fitted with large knobs and buttons at some point you learn their placement and can perform important tasks without looking at them. Safety should be the biggest concern when driving, anything else should come second.
Touch enabled cameras
This is the latest trend with compact digital cameras: adding a touchscreen and getting rid of all the buttons. Personally I don’t see a problem here with consumer cameras, but when it comes to professional DSLRs I think that photographers want lots of buttons to have access to important settings faster. Browsing through menus is not faster, but allows for larger screens and less buttons which translates in smaller camera bodies. Plus you can’t replace all the buttons, and I’m thinking here about the shutter button, which must be half pressed to focus and then pressed all the way down to take a picture. You can’t just do that with virtual buttons which offer no tactile feedback.
Touchscreens on large screen TVs
What? “They want to do that?” I hear you say? Well, I’ve heard about such a prototype showcased at CES 2013. I’m not saying LG is going to push this tech to market, but depending on user feedback I don’t think we should throw this idea completely off the table. You should discard it because it’s pretty dumb. Walking to/from your sofa to touch the screen is not going to win any usability awards. Maybe you’ll lose some weight in the process, but it makes no practical sense whatsoever.
So there you have it, touch has its place in some of the devices we’re using, but it’s not meant for every type of product. I just hope people realize that and manufacturers will focus on things that make sense from a practical point of view. It’s easy for someone to tell me “just don’t buy that touch thing if you don’t like it”, but look at where laptops are headed and it’s clear that sometimes you don’t have a choice (or you have poor alternatives to choose from). This is not a desperate cry for help, at least not just yet.