S, hee I am, typing thefrst few jwords ofthis blopost usng Undow’s on-sreen keboard caabiluties, jus asI might ifI were usng m iPad…
[Translation, typed on a proper keyboard: So, here I am, typing the first few words of this blog post using Windows’ on-screen keyboard capabilities, just as I might if I were using my iPad…]
Need I say any more?
When HP offered to lend me some personal computer equipment to review, I was very keen to get my hands on a touch-screen capable monitor so that I could test the Windows Touch capabilities in Windows 7. I have to say that I was sadly disappointed. Not with the monitor – it’s clear, crisp, bright, worked with Windows straight out of the box (although there were some driver issues… more on that in a moment), was supplied with ICM profiles for accurate colour management – in short, it does everything I expect a display to… but Windows is not designed for touch. Sorry Microsoft, I love the fact that Windows has become ubiquitous; I love the fact that it has touch screen capabilities for apps that can exploit it; but I really believe we’re on the cusp of a revolution in human-computer interaction (on the same scale as WIMP was in the 1980s/90s), and Windows is just not ready…
Allow me to explain…
Windows is a general purpose operating system. At its core is Windows NT – an operating system kernel that dates back to the early-mid 1990s and has served us well. In recent years, we’ve seen an increasing emphasis on componentisation of Windows and, despite there being umpteen different editions of Windows 7, Windows Touch is a core capability for most of them – there is no more “Tablet PC Edition”. Ask me a couple of years back if Windows should be split into consumer and business editions and my response would have been a vehement “no” – but ask me now if it needs to be redesigned to embrace new computing paradigms and the answer is a definite “yes”. One example of operating system functionality that currently appears to be held together with sticking plaster is Windows Touch.
Despite what Ballmer says, this is not about “big buttons” – sure, big buttons might help in some scenarios but Mark Sumimoto perfectly describes the problem when he says:
The problem with touch on Windows 7 […] is that it reads round finger presses as pinpoint cursor clicks. When your finger touches an area, Windows reads it as a tiny cursor click. That unavoidably leads to accuracy problems
By contrast, iOS, Android, webOS, and every other touch-optimized OS reads finger presses as circular areas, more comparable to your actual fingertip surface. That€™s why even my fat fingers can manipulate things on those tiny screens. When my finger engulfs a button, it registers as me pressing that button, just like a physical button. By contrast, on a Windows touchscreen PC, that same situation could register the touch outside the button. Hence, making buttons bigger than fingertips could address this symptom, but it doesn€™t fix the underlying problem. Furthermore, you can’t ‘big button’ the Internet.”
The Windows Touch Pack gives some great examples of the types of application that can be created to exploit the touch capabilities but touch really needs to be promoted to become a first class citizen within the operating system (incidentally, that’s not just a Windows issue – I also believe it’s something that’s lacking from Mac OS X and desktop variants of Linux).
The monitor I tested was an HP 2310ti – 23 inches of HD loveliness capable of working at up to 1920x1080px @60Hz. The display seems pretty good to me, with a good viewing angle (+/-160 degrees), 40,000:1 contrast ratio and a typical response time of 3ms (Based on HP’s figures, not verified in my test). Power consumption is cited as typically 47W and maximum of 56W although the 2W standby is a little disappointing in this day and age. My other criticism was that there are a lot of connectors to hook up with separate audio, video (VGA or DVI), USB, and power – surely there is scope for some consolidation here?
I did have some software issues as, after Windows Plug and Play (PnP) had detected the new hardware, it was still using the monitor.sys driver as a Generic PnP adapter (with the full-screen resolution available) and I found that the supplied instructions to install HP’s own drivers were inaccurate (indeed, the installer did not work correctly on my x64 system.) Eventually, I installed the correct driver by telling Windows exactly where to find HP_2310t.inf, after which it correctly recognised the monitor. Frankly, this shouldn’t be necessary and I expect better from a major OEM (although this is not an isolated incident with HP device drivers on 64-bit Windows).
As for touch drivers, these are provided for Windows XP (I didn’t test them) but are not required for Windows Vista or Windows 7. HP also provides an adjustment pattern utility for analogue connections (VGA) but I was connected using DVI, so that was not tested. There was no evidence of any Mac OS software although I had no problems using it connected to a Mac either (albeit as a dumb monitor without touch input capabilities).
In short, with a list price of £209+VAT, it’s not hugely expensive (but not cheap either) but the device driver installation could be improved and I would have been perfectly happy if HP hadn’t asked for it back!
So, what was it actually like, using a touchscreen monitor?
Some people (indeed, I think Steve Jobs may have been one of them…) have been reported as saying that touch is not a suitable interface for a desktop computer as it’s uncomfortable to reach forward. They may have a point but, just as I need to adjust my posture for a notebook PC, I did something similar for touch on a desktop. Standing (or using a high chair/stool), with the monitor angled to slope backwards, it was a really comfortable experience – and my children love being able to interact with the computer using touch.
The main problems I found were with the software. I’ve already written that Windows Touch was a disappointment, so here are some examples:
- Touching user interface elements was imprecise and, at times, very difficult.
- It took me a while to work out how to right-click. Eventually, I got there, but it shouldn’t need me to Google basic functionality like this!
- The onscreen keyboard is obtrusive – it doesn’t seem to appear/disappear when required and, although it can float, or be docked, it seemed to always be in the way until I increased the screen resolution, after which the user interface elements are too small. It couldn’t keep up with my typing either – I’m no touch typist, but Windows made a right mess (as can be seen at the head of this post), whereas I can type reasonably well on my iPad’s soft keyboard.
- At the extreme edges (typically the right) of the screen, I found I couldn’t touch pixels (e.g. a scroll bar) because the screen bevel was preventing physical access and so my fingers were not registered.
- UAC prompts that invoke a secure desktop required a physical keyboard as the software keyboard was unavailable!
On a more positive note, because I was using a multi-touch display, I could also use a pen as a stylus (e.g. for those hard-to-reach points at the extreme edge of the screen).
It’s also possible to adjust the size of screen elements within the display properties (but some of them then become almost too big). And increasing the DPI can help too (certainly with ClearType) – although some applications based on Adobe Flash (e.g. TweetDeck) seemed a little fuzzy afterwards.
There are also several Control Panel applets that can be used to adjust the touch experience:
- Pen and Touch includes a variety of settings
- Tablet PC can be used to calibrate the display
- Display can be used to adjust the resolution, DPI, etc.
The distribution of these settings across so many applets indicates that Touch is very much an afterthought in Windows 7, rather than designed into the overall user experience as it is for Windows Phone 7.
Touch is an increasingly important means of interacting with our devices and devices such as the HP 2310ti Widescreen LCD Touchscreen Monitor are a great way to make use of existing PC assets. Sadly, Windows Touch is not yet ready for mainstream use and is only really suitable for applications that have been written specifically for touch. Even so, this is one area of functionality where Windows leads the competition (who currently don’t have any touch capabilities) and I look forward to seeing the improvements in future versions of Windows.