Touch-screen notebooks are nothing new, especially in the realm of handheld smartphones and PDAs, but due to disappointing hardware and the lack of OS support, they've remained a small market niche for business notebooks and desktop systems.
Until now. "That's changing," says Jennifer Colgrove, director of display technologies at DisplaySearch, an analysis firm. "2010 will be the year of touch." The reason? Windows 7.
Windows 7 not only offers increased stability, better performance and a sharper appearance, it's the first mainstream operating system that supports touch screens from the ground up. Rather than adding in touch software piece by piece, as was the case with Windows XP and earlier efforts, Windows 7 can operate as a touch system at all levels of the OS. The result is smoother and more reliable response.
Spurred on by the release of Windows 7 and new hardware, Colgrove forecasts that the number of touch notebooks sold could rise from today's 2 to 3 percent of the market to as much as 10 percent in 2015. More to the point, she sees them going from exclusively business systems to those that consumers buy as well.
How touch works
On the hardware side, the secret to adding touch is the digitizer, a translucent grid array that sits on top of a notebook's LCD display. In the past, the initial resistive digitizers, which worked by using pressure to make two sheets of material touch, weren't reliable enough, required too much pressure and could only handle a single input at a time.
By contrast, today's capacitive digitizers work when the user disturbs an electromagnetic field on the screen's surface with a finger or specialized stylus pen. They respond to the lightest of touches and can handle several inputs at once, which means you can use complex gestures, like those supported by Apple's iPhone. Want to enlarge an image? Pull your thumb and forefinger apart. Need to rotate it? Pivot your forefinger around your thumb.
Capacitive digitizers also make for more accurate handwriting recognition. Though character recognition is still not perfect, it has improved enough that most users can successfully enter Web addresses and write lists and words or short phrases.
(For those who like to look into the future, there's a new digitizer technology coming that could replace expensive capacitive electronics with an infrared or optical sensor at each corner of the screen. Like a burglar alarm, it's activated when the beam is broken. It's already used on HP's TouchSmart line of desktop PCs and touch-enabled large-screen monitors -- the next step is to make these sensors small, light and rugged enough for notebooks.)
Unfortunately, touch doesn't come cheap. Especially for systems with displays larger than those meant for a handheld, touch can add a couple of hundred dollars to the cost of the computer. As touch-screen sales volumes rise, however, prices will drop, predicts DisplaySearch's Colgrove.
In the meantime, the first round of Win 7 touch machines has arrived. In this review, I look at three: Fujitsu's LifeBook T4410, HP's TouchSmart tx2z and Lenovo's ThinkPad T400s.
How we tested
To see how these systems measure up, I tried out each display with my finger, pen or both. Forgoing the keyboard and touchpad, I visited a number of Web sites, moved windows around, manipulated images, played games and -- despite being artistically challenged -- doodled.
I also measured, weighed and examined each unit, and followed that with an intense workout with the PassMark PerformanceTest 7.0 benchmark. The test stresses every component and provides an overall score. Finally, I gauged each system's Wi-Fi range in a typical office setting and ran each battery down while listening to an Internet radio station.