Touchscreen Tech, Windows 7, Tablet PCs

OSNews takes a look at the technology powering the latest generation of touchscreen personal computers. Have the stars finally aligned to give the touch interface the combination of price, precision, sensitivity, and software support to make it attractive to the mainstream PC buyer? And if so, what does that mean for the elusive Tablet PC? We take a look at a Dell Studio One, which is powered by NextWindow’s optical touch screen technology. (With video)

Touchscreens are not new technology. In fact, they’re older than the Personal Computer, and the first PC to come with a touchscreen was the HP-150 in the early eighties. They are widely used in mobile, industrial, and commercial environments, because they work very well for push-button-type interfaces that allow for simple data entry to be done quickly. Just about every computer vendor you can think of has developed a touchscreen PC at some point, but they’ve never really caught on. Truth is, for a desktop or lab-based computer, the keyboard and the various pointing devices we’ve come to use are just more efficient for typical personal computer work.

The poster child for the inability for touchscreens to make an impact in the PC world has got to be the elusive Tablet PC. A laptop-sized computer with a touch interface has been on the geek radar for a long time, and companies have been making them, but they have never taken off, in part because their low production runs have kept the prices high and in part because low-cost touchscreen tech (hardware and software) was never quite as good as consumers wanted it to be.

Mobile computing devices have proven to be a robust laboratory for the development of useable and convenient touch screen interfaces, and the rapid proliferation of mobile phones and information appliances with ever-larger touchscreens is both making people comfortable with them and driving the production cost down. Apple’s success with the iPhone and the rumors that it will be releasing a Tablet PC are reinvigorating the touchscreen market both by setting a high bar for usability and generating buzz.

There’s little to indicate that Apple has any intention of releasing a desktop computer with touch, but Microsoft, always an enthusiastic backer of Tablets, has been making touch-enabled version of its operating system for a while, and Windows 7 has more support for touch than previous versions. A touchscreen seems to add at least $200 to the price of a monitor, so it’s still only feasible in the realm of the higher-end personal computers, but it’s inexpensive enough to be accessible to most computer users who would want it. So we arrive at the big question? Who would want it, and why?

One thing’s for sure, if you do want a touchscreen, there’s never been a better time. The Dell Studio One costs $1024, which is expensive for a PC, but not necessarily for a sleek all-in-one. The similarly-spec’ed iMac costs $1199. NextWindow’s optical touchscreen tech has many advantages over the older touchscreens you may have used in the past, not least of which is support for multi-touch and the pinch-and-pan capabilities you may have experienced with the iPhone.

A picture’s worth a thousand words, and it would be hard for me to describe using the touchscreen, so I’ve made a video. Please excuse the stammering and low production values.

MPEG4 / H.264 “.mp4” (Windows / Mac) |
Ogg Theora & Vorbis “.ogv” (Linux) |
Vimeo Version

(Kroc: If video is not playing in Firefox, try Vimeo, I’ve been having severe problems making an OGG file that actually works)

I can only think of one very good reason to buy a touchscreen PC today, and that would be a computer meant for frequent “stand up” use. For example, a kitchen or wall-mounted PC in a home, or a computer in a conference room at an office that would be used to quickly change something, like page through an email or a recipe or select a song to play, or advance a Powerpoint slide without having to sit down at a desk. I actually wanted to install a wall-mounted touchscreen PC in my house to control music, home automation, and make some cool looking home monitoring-type default screen with weather and family calendar and other information. Ultimately, I decided that it was cheaper and more convenient to just use a regular cheapo PC for all this, and just put a monitor and keyboard on the counter in the kitchen. I decided that “stand up” use was more of a fantasy, and that I’d want it for “sit down” use far more.

And as a highly addicted iPhone user who spends at least an hour a day reading RSS feeds or Twitter or Facebook, or email, or eBooks on my small iPhone screen, I can see that I would appreciate a larger form factor iPhone/iTouch, but I don’t think I would pay more than $300 for one.

In both these cases, for both the desktop and tablet-based touchscreens, I don’t think my conclusions are uncommon. And though the vibrant mobile market is causing prices to be pushed down and user interface innovations to trickle up, I don’t think we’re quite there. Touch screens, outside of the mobile applications, will continue to be a niche for at least a few more years. What will it take to turn the corner? When $330 netbooks have touchscreens to help them compete against $300 netbooks that don’t, then they’ll become ubiquitous.

I can tell you what I’m waiting for: a 10″ tablet less than 2cm thick that can either be carried around like a Kindle for reading and light productivity use, or placed in a charger/bracket on a desktop and used with a Bluetooth Keyboard and mouse, and the whole assembly can be packed up in a small laptop case. When I can buy one of these for $500-600, then I’ll know the future has arrived.


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