After the success of touch phones like the iPhone, an increasing number of PC makers are slowly introducing touch-enabled devices. So is it time to throw out the mouse and keyboard?
In January 2007, two devices using touch interface were introduced to the public. One was a PC, the other a phone. Today, one is restricted to a niche segment, the other has transformed the entire cell-phone industry. One is the HP Touchsmart PC, the other is the Apple iPhone.
It’s a stark contrast. Few PCs have touch capability unlike cell-phones where it has become a coveted feature – the iPhone was followed by string of devices, collectively dubbed the iClones or ‘iPhone killers’.
So, why have PC manufacturers shied away from this seemingly addictive technology? For one, attempts in the past have failed to take off in a big way. Tablet PCs (high-end laptops, with a distinctive swivelling screen) manufactured by the likes of Toshiba, Lenovo, Dell, and HP feature touch screens. But companies manage to sell only about 150-200 units per quarter, according to Diptarup Chakraborti, principal research analyst, Gartner India.
In the PC segment, the major player currently is HP. The TouchSmart series is a stylish all-in-one PC. It is a high-end performer boasting great specs in terms of processor, memory, and multimedia. The monitor, of course, is touch enabled. But with a price tag of about Rs90,000 it’s clearly meant for the enthusiasts.
The new Asus EEE Top ET1602, which launched in India last month retails at almost half the price, Rs44,000. What you lose in the bargain is the high-performance specs, but you can easily use the PC for basic functions like editing office documents, browsing the internet, and playing movies. You can also mount this PC on your wall. However, for performing such functions, ET1602 is indeed too expensive.
In short, you are basically forking out extra money for the touch-screen interface. So, does it make a meaningful difference to user experience?
We tried out the ET1602 to find out. The ET1602 is an all-in-one PC, and though not as stylish as HP Touchsmarts, it definitely will draw attention. It uses Windows XP as opposed to Vista in HP.
Almost immediately you realise that having a touch interface by itself is not enough. It has to be applied in a way that truly makes a difference. Even in cell-phones, touch screens were around much before the iPhone. But the difference between a normal and touch phone was just a matter of pressing the screen with a stylus instead of a button. The iPhone’s software transformed the way you accessed data on the phone: Whether it was the sweeping thumb gesture to browse through photographs, or using two fingers to zoom in and out of a webpage.
Back to the ET1602, the ability to tap a link on a webpage with your finger instead of using the mouse isn’t a transformational change (in fact, it’s a bit cumbersome). In the absence of software that takes advantage of touch interface, you are simply not compelled to lean forward from your chair and reach out for the screen – you might as well use the conveniently placed keyboard or mouse instead. We found it difficult to click links on web pages which used small fonts and even normal desktop icons on Windows XP.
No wonder, both HP and Asus have developed custom interfaces of their own. The Asus ET1602, for example, starts in what is called the Easy Mode. You can access your basic applications (from your web browser to office applications and also some games) from the Easy Mode screen. The large icons help and its much easier to tap on using your fingers. But you see a real difference in an application called theS Eee Memo which is used for leaving virtual post-its on the screen. Once you start it, the post-its come in four colours. You can scribble the note using the stylus (which tucks in neatly under the keyboard). As Vinay Shetty, country manager, components, Asus, points out, “such a feature is very handy if the PC is mounted on a kitchen wall.” Once done, the post-its can be picked up using your finger and dropped into the dust-bin on the screen.
But get out of the Easy Mode and try using normal applications, the experience immediately becomes ordinary. The experience is similar for the HP Touchsmart series. Here’s what one reviewer at Gizmodo (gizmodo.com), a popular gadget review website, had to say about his experience with the Touchsmart iQ506: “…while the touchscreen works well within the interface, trying to control the rest of Vista can be maddening. Buttons and icons in Vista are too small for finger taps on the screen, resulting in hitting the wrong button, or not hitting anything at all. I basically gave up on navigating Vista with the touchscreen after the first 30 minutes.”
The bottom line as Diptarup Chakraborti of Gartner puts it, “Current way of using PC doesn’t aid touch. Touch screen works beautifully you are playing games, making phone calls using Skype… basically whenever you are doing minimal typing. Plus, it’s a cool thing to show off. But if you use your PC to type a lot, touch screen becomes more uncomfortable.”
It’s telling that despite the iPhone’s success, Apple is silent when it comes to introducing touch interface on its PCs. But other manufacturers are optimistic: “Even when the mouse was introduced more than 20 years ago, there weren’t any application to take advantage of the device. All games were keyboard-based,” says Vinay Shetty of Asus. Admitting that touch may not replace input devices like keyboard and mouse since every user has different requirement, Rajiev Grover, director, consumer products, personal systems group, HP said, “once touch becomes enabled in more devices, programs that take advantage of it will also emerge. Everything from fun apps such as putting together an animated jigsaw puzzle to mimicking the turning of a page when scrolling through a web site could be fun. Therefore the concept of ‘Touch’ has only one way to go and that is upwards.”
For now at least, look beyond touch to get the best bang for your buck.