Ask LH: Why Would I Want A Touchscreen PC?

Dear Lifehacker, All of a sudden, it seems like there are touchscreen PCs everywhere. I’ve even seen monitors and all-in-one desktops touting their “built for touch” features. While I like the touchscreen on my tablet, I’m not sure what the point is on a laptop or desktop. What advantages do these new touchscreen PCs really offer? Signed, Torn about Touch

Dear Torn,

Depending on who you talk to, touchscreen computers are either the natural evolution of the PC or the dumbest idea ever. On one side you have Microsoft and Intel touting the latest Windows 8 touchscreen PCs, and on the other you have people quoting Apple’s Steve Jobs and Tim Cook about touch not belonging on laptops or vertical displays. So who’s right?

Well, no one, really. As with deciding on any other computer feature — for example, display size or processor — choosing to have a touchscreen or not is a matter of preference and your needs.

Let’s take a look at the pros and cons of touchscreens on a computer so you can make up your own mind about them.

Touchscreens Are A Quicker, More Intuitive Way to Interact with Your Computer

Using a touchscreen to interact with your PC is faster, easier, and maybe even more fun than using a mouse or trackpad. And while we love using keyboard shortcuts to work faster on our computers, you have to learn and remember them.

Tapping and swiping on a touchscreen, on the other hand, is more intuitive since you are interacting directly and immediately with the elements on the screen. If you use trackpad multitouch gestures, or you have a tablet or smartphone, working with a PC touchscreen feels just as natural and fluid. Picture: Intel Free Press/Flickr

If you have a touchscreen PC with pen (stylus) input, you can write or draw naturally on the screen. The pen input panel on Windows 8 and Windows 7 is remarkably smart at translating your handwriting into text, so if you’re faster at handwriting than you are at typing, using a stylus can be a time saver. (Writing has also been shown to help us learn and remember more than typing on a keyboard.)

One of the commonest criticisms about touchscreen PCs is that programs and desktop windows are hard to use with touch. The close button, scrollbars and other navigational elements are small and hard to accurately hit. Windows 8 has changed that with things such as the Explorer ribbon creating a more touch-optimised interface in desktop mode and its new full-screen apps. Desktop programs like Microsoft Office are even pretty touch-friendly. And with those that aren’t, you can easily zoom in and use gestures to make working with a Windows 8 touchscreen PC at least as easy as using a tablet (or you could use a stylus and tap very accurately on the screen).

Why You Might Not Want a Touchscreen On Your PC

All that said, a touchscreen PC might not be for everyone. Some things you need to consider include:

More smears on your screen: Greasy, scummy smears are the bane of every smartphone and tablet user. It’s no different when you’re constantly touching a PC screen. Getting out the microfibre cloth more often is a hassle, but this alone isn’t a dealbreaker for most of us.

The so-called Gorilla arm: Gorilla arm is a term describing the tired arms users get after reaching out and touching a screen for a long time. That issue has been cited by many as a reason why touchscreens will not replace traditional screens. Picture: Bob Familiar/Flickr

If you’re continually holding up your arm to point at a vertical display, it’s going to hurt eventually. However, you’re probably not going to be perpetually holding up your arm. If you’re using a touchscreen desktop PC or monitor, you might tap and swipe, then switch to the keyboard and mouse, and then back to the screen. Touchscreen laptops and hybrid tablet/laptops (with screens that can detach from the keyboard or swivel into tablet mode) can be positioned closer and at angles that are more comfortable, which makes this whole “Gorilla arm” argument moot, as ZDNet’s Ed Bott argues.

Added thickness: Touchscreen panels are usually thicker than non-touch ones — especially if the touch panel has an active digitiser for pen support. CNN argues that the hybrid laptop/tablet will never work because of the size issue: “The Surface Pro is more than half an inch thick and weighs two pounds. That’s fine for a laptop. For a tablet, it’s borderline obese.” The added thickness, however, is negligible (a few millimetres, maybe) unless you need the absolute thinnest device possible.

Possibly shorter battery life: Touchscreens require more power. Laptop Magazine compared a couple of touchscreen laptops with their non-touch counterparts (same model and size) and found that the non-touch laptops lasted over an hour longer. This is definitely something to keep in mind if you need as much battery life as possible for your next laptop (check the battery life ratings for both the touchscreen laptop and the non-touch model if available).

Cost: Finally, the biggest disadvantage of touch screen PCs is the added cost. Touchscreen PCs cost more than their non-touch counterparts. The difference can be several hundred dollars, with pen-enabled touchscreens costing the most.

Touchscreen PCs Are Probably the Future

There has been a lot of backlash in the media about these newer touchscreen PCs and how they are doomed to failure. However, most of that really isn’t about touch as a user interface at all, but rather Windows 8 and the bad rap it’s getting for its radical interface redesign. Before Windows 8, people criticised tablet PCs (which have been around for over a decade) because they were thick, heavy and expensive. Those barriers are gone now.

Like it or not, touchscreen PCs are becoming the norm. Windows 8’s new interface was developed primarily for touch. Intel has also changed its laptop partner requirements so that all future ultrabooks (with Haswell processors) will have to sport a touchscreen.

Keep in mind that the touchscreen is really just another way to interact with your PC. You still have your keyboard and your mouse (or trackpad) when you want them, and you can use the touchscreen as little or as much as you want.

If the added cost of the touchscreen and the possible battery life hit don’t matter much to you, you don’t have anything to lose — and you might very well enjoy that touchscreen as much as you do the one on your tablet.


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