Like many kids, my 2-year-old son can run circles around you on an iPad. He learned to unlock the screen before he learned to conjugate verbs, and nowadays he can turn it on, find Netflix or a game, and keep himself occupied forever, or at least for a merciful 40 minutes. (Email me here to tell me what a terrible parent I am.)
Computers, though, flummox him. He’s especially confused by pointing devices—I’ve tried to teach him about the relationship between his fingers on the track pad and the pointer on the screen, but he’s too innocent of the ways of the world to understand such mysticism. So when I plop him down in front of YouTube on my MacBook while my wife and I try to enjoy a lovely dinner—see that email address above—he always gets confused when a video ends. He reaches for the screen and repeatedly taps to get a new clip to play. It’s pretty funny, actually. And then he whines for me to help him, which is kind of annoying.
But of course, my kid is totally right. Why doesn’t the MacBook screen respond to his touch? In the couple of years since my son was born, nearly every screen that we interact with has become touch-enabled. Your phone, tablet, Kindle, GPS, car radio, and maybe even your fridge—you can tap that. But not your computer. Or, more specifically, not your Mac.
Last fall Microsoft released Windows 8, which brings touch capabilities to the ubiquitous PC operating system. This year PC makers are putting out dozens of touch-enabled Windows 8 laptops and desktops. Or consider Google’s new Chromebook Pixel, which has a brilliant high-definition display screen that responds to touch. At $1,299, the Pixel is a high-end machine, but what’s most interesting about touch screens is that they’re quickly becoming a standard feature even on low- and mid-range machines. The Asus VivoBook, an 11-inch touch-screen laptop, sells for under $500. The HP Pavilion TouchSmart goes for $649.* When you get to machines classified as “ultrabooks”—the thin and light PCs that are meant to compete with Apple’s MacBook Air—it’s hard to find any that don’t have touch screens. The Acer Aspire S7, the Asus Zenbook Prime Touch, and the Samsung Series 7 Chronos—which go for around $1,100—can all be touched. You’ll spend around the same for a Mac, but if you touch its screen, all you’ll get are smudges.
I should note that the new touch PCs don’t dispense with track pads or mice; you’ll spend most of your time controlling them through those traditional means. But they also allow you to touch—if my son tapped a YouTube clip on the Pixel’s screen, the video would start playing, and I’d be able to continue eating dinner in peace.
The rise of touch-enabled computers raises two questions. First, what’s the point: Do you really need to be able to touch your computer’s screen rather than use a track pad or mouse? And second, why is Apple—the firm that has done more to stoke our collective touch-screen fervor than any other—apparently holding out against touch on its computers?
To answer the first question: Yes, a touch screen on a PC can be useful. Over the past few months I’ve used a few touch-enabled Windows 8 PCs, and during the last week I’ve been playing with a Chromebook Pixel that Google sent me to review. I’ve found their touch screens to be handy—the screen complements the keyboard and the track pad quite naturally, making for one more way to get your computer to do your bidding. I wouldn’t go so far as to say you need a touch screen on your PC. Touching the screen doesn’t allow you to do anything you couldn’t do on a nontouch PC. But like other high-end laptop features—a backlit keyboard, a slot for an SD card, a high-definition display—a touch screen is a nice thing to have.