Monday, 6 July 2015

Do You Need A Touchscreen?

Do You Need A Touchscreen?

Is a touchscreen monitor or a laptop with a touchscreen really useful? Roland Waddilove looks at the hardware and the software

Smartphones that did away with the keyboard and just used a touchscreen interface have led to a revolution in handheld devices, but the technology has spread to PCs too. Microsoft has been pushing the technology for a long time, with support is built into Windows 8. Touchscreens are becoming increasingly popular (at least with manufacturers, if not users), and it’s likely that your next laptop computer or desktop PC monitor will be touch enabled. Is this a passing fad like 3D TV that few people really want, or is it a useful feature of modern computers? Let’s take a look at the hardware and software you need to ditch the keyboard and mouse.

Touchscreen Computers

The success of tablets and smartphones with touchscreens has inspired PC manufacturers to come up with some unusual designs that incorporate touchscreens. Some models, for example, have tear-off screens that separate from the keyboard, and then you can continue working by using the screen like a handheld tablet.

A perfect example of this is the Microsoft Surface, but it’s not the only one. Microsoft is still selling the older Surface 2 and Surface Pro 2, but although you could save a bit of money over the latest versions, you’re much better off with a Surface 3 or, better still, the Surface Pro 3, which has an improved specification, a more modern design and can cope better with the latest software.

A Surface 3 costs £419, but you’ll want to add the optional keyboard that doubles up as a cover when travelling. It adds £110 to the price, making it £529 in total, which isn’t bad for such a lightweight, ultra thin and portable laptop. Microsoft likes to call the Surface a tablet, but anything that runs Windows and has a keyboard and screen is surely a laptop.

The specifications are reasonable and a whole lot better than older Surface models. The solid-state disk is a 64GB, which is just about the smallest size you want for running Windows 8 or 10. The screen is 10.8 inches a and 1920 x 1280 pixels, and there’s an Intel Atom x7 processor.

If you want a top-quality, touchscreen, ultra light laptop and you have the money, the Surface Pro 3 is a good choice. Including the optional keyboard/cover, it costs £749 for the lowest specification. This has an 12” 2160 x 1440 touchscreen, 64GB of solid-state storage, 4GB of RAM and an Intel Core i3 processor. A top-of-therange model with twice the RAM, four times the storage and an Intel Core i7 processor costs £1,239 with the cover.

While Microsoft has opted for a tear-off touchscreen, Lenovo has taken a different design route with the Yoga 3 Pro. The screen doesn’t just open up in a clamshell design; it keeps going and folds flat against the back of the keyboard. This enables the device to be used as either a laptop or a tablet.

The Yoga 3 Pro has what Lenovo calls a watchband hinge, and the company (and Ashton Kutcher – you must have seen the ads) claims it’s the world’s thinnest convertible laptop at just 12.88mm thick. Compared to modern tablets, though, it is quite thick with the screen folded back, but even so, it’s thinner than the original iPad, although it is a bit heavier. The base model is priced at £999 and has an Intel Core M-70 processor, a 13.3” 3200 x 1800 screen, 8GB RAM and a 256GB SSD.

The Asus Transformer Book T300 Chi is different again. This laptop/tablet hybrid in some ways is like a Microsoft Surface, because it has a tear-off screen, but it has a real laptop-style keyboard. With the keyboard attached to the touchscreen, you would think it was a standard ultra-thin Windows laptop, but pull off the screen and it works like a regular Windows tablet. The base specification is an Intel Core M processor, 4GM RAM, 12.5” HD screen, 128GB solid-state disk, and it weighs 1.4kg (screen and keyboard). Shop around and you can get one for as little as £700, which is quite cheap for a hybrid.

Go to the laptop section of the HP website and filter by touchscreen, and there’s a huge range – 19 models in fact. Many of them are standard laptops, some are ultra thin and light, some can rotate the screen right the way around and so on. There’s a wide variety of touchscreen laptops ranging from the HP Pavilion x2 Detachable Laptop 32GB priced at just £199, up to the HP Omen 15-5000na Gaming Laptop costing £1,399. Other manufacturers like Dell also have touchscreen laptops in their range.

It isn’t just laptops that have touchscreens: the next time you buy a monitor for your desktop PC, it will probably be a touchscreen. Every monitor manufacturer (Acer, Dell, Hanns.G, Iiyama, ViewSonic and others) produces touchscreens. They come in all sizes from 23” desktop monitors costing around £150, up to the 80” monster Sharp PN-L802B that’s over £9,200.

Touch-enabled Software

Microsoft clearly thought that touchscreen computing was the future, and it overhauled Windows 7 and redesigned it for touch. Windows 8, with its touch-friendly Start screen, has not turned out to be one of Microsoft’s best ideas, and few people love it. Many just put up with it and have learned to live with it, but a significant number of people just don’t like it.

If you have a Surface or other Windows tablet and no keyboard, Windows 8 is okay, and it works reasonably well with touch. If you can avoid the desktop, which isn’t easy, and you can stay with Modern Interface (Metro) apps bundled with Windows 8 or downloaded from the store, then it’s fine. Swiping left and right to browse Start screen apps, pulling the charms bar in from the right and the app switcher from the left all work well with touch.

One of the problems with touchscreen PCs and laptops is that unless they’re firmly held or supported, they wobble in a disconcerting way when you prod and poke them. When using a touchscreen tablet, the screen is held in one hand and you tap with the other, or you rest it on your knee. This is fine, and the screen is solid, but try tapping a 23” monitor near the top, or a laptop screen, and it makes it wobble. The only way to stop this is to hold it. You don’t want to be holding your 23” desktop monitor as you use it, though. Some of the laptops and hybrids fold over, have a stand or make an upside down V shape, and these are much better for touch.

Touch works all the time and if you’re using Windows desktop applications with a touchscreen laptop or desktop, quite often the interface elements are just too small. HD screens on 15” laptops have tiny menus and buttons. Although they can be used with touch, you have to be so accurate that it becomes irritating. If you want to use desktop software with a touchscreen, it’s best to reduce the resolution so interface elements are much bigger and use larger buttons, menus and so on.

Some desktop software is designed for touch, such as Microsoft Office. This is hardly surprising, because it sells both the Surface and Office. Few other software developers have done anything special to accommodate fat stubby fingers poking the screen. Right at the top of the window to the left of the title is a tiny button, which is almost too small to touch, to switch Word into touch mode. This makes icons in the ribbon slightly bigger and changes the spacing between them so they’re easier to tap.

Unfortunately, the effort Microsoft has put into making this a touch-enabled app is minimal. Go beyond the obvious buttons in the ribbon, and standard Windows dialogue boxes appear that are awkward to use with a finger, so touch is actually poorly integrated.

Fresh Paint

Paint has been in Windows since the early days, and as with all desktop software, it can be used on a touchscreen, but the buttons and menus just aren’t designed for fingers. It’s an awkward experience, so Microsoft has created a modern Windows 8 version for touchscreens called Fresh Paint. This free app is a different type of paint program, with the focus on natural paints and brushes.

Pulling down from the top of the screen displays an artist’s palette, via which you can select and mix paints in a natural way. You can tap on a paint pot and then paint on the palette, tap another colour and apply paint over the top to mix them. The resulting paint can then be applied to the canvas. This means you don’t get solid colours picked from a computer generated colour palette, but natural ones created by mixing paints.

Tap a colour and a paint brush, and when you swipe across the screen with a finger, it’s like brush strokes with wet paint. A quick light stroke and only a little paint is applied, but you can go over it again to apply more paint. There are two sets of paint brushes to choose from, and each contains a variety of thick and thin brushes. There are also set of coloured pencils and coloured crayons. Anyone with a bit of artistic talent will love this touch-enabled paint app.

Spending Tracker

Spending Tracker is a tool for tracking where your money is being spent each month. Excel, with its large collection of functions, will do a far better job of course, but it is not particularly touch friendly. Spending Tracker works well on a touchscreen, and the controls are easy to use and obvious in their function. It’s like a simple finance app for tablet users, but you can use it on your PC or laptop with a touchscreen.

The app has two categories, expenses and income, and subcategories are used to organise the various types of incoming and outgoing money, such as household bills, car and fuel bills, entertainment, eating out and so on. Some text input is required, so an on-screen keyboard is displayed, but some information can be entered in true touch style. For example, tap a category and up pops a list of them, from which you tap to select. When entering the date for a transaction, the day is like a slot machine, in that you flick a finger to spin the days to the one you want, and a numeric keypad is displayed when entering an amount.

It’s a handy touchscreen app that works well on a tablet. On a laptop or desktop PC you can use a mixture of touch and keyboard, tapping where it’s easier and typing when input is required.

App Radio

TuneIn Radio is excellent on Android and iOS devices, but many people have found that the Windows version has a lot of problems. There are plenty of five-star reviews, but almost as many one-star ones too. If you want to turn your PC into a streaming internet radio player, get App Radio, which is brilliant and amazingly simple. In fact, there are almost no controls at all.

Start App Radio and it presents radio stations as tiles on the screen. The stations are organised into groups like Pop, Rock, News, Dance, Classic, Souls and Jazz, Oldies and so on. Nine are featured as tiles in each group, and tapping the group title reveals the rest. There are hundreds in some groups, and there are thousands of radio stations altogether in the app.

The stations are all represented as tiles with the station logo on, and you just tap a tile and it starts playing within a couple of seconds. It could not be simpler, and it works perfectly. A little panel on the left opens when a station is playing with one button to mark it as a favourite, one to stop it and a volume control. That’s it, but what more do you need? If you have Windows 8 on a PC, laptop or tablet, you should get this app, because it works great with touch.


There are several good photo editors that work well with touchscreens, and Microsoft’s Photos app bundled with Windows 8 is one of them. A lot of people have tried Adobe Photoshop Express, perhaps thinking it might be similar to the desktop app, but its score in the Windows App Store isn’t brilliant, at 3.5. Two photo editing apps you should definitely look at are KVADPhoto+ and Fotor. Because they’re free, you could install both.

KVADPhoto+ enables you to browse the photos in the Pictures folder and load one for editing. Along the bottom are the various categories of tools and effects, which includes frames, filters, effects, sketch, text, adjustment and so on. Each of these has multiple options. Some of the items are locked, and you need to upgrade to the Pro version to use them, but there are things you can do in the free app. There are over 20 free filters, for example, and many more if you upgrade, and over 20 frames with dozens more available for purchase.

All the controls are easy to use with a finger, because it’s aimed at tablet users, although it runs fine on desktop and laptop PCs with or without touchscreens. You tap a thumbnail to apply a filter, effect or frame, drag a slider to adjust the brightness, contrast or saturation and so on. The enhanced photo can be saved at the original size or one of several smaller ones.

An interesting feature of the app is that as you enhance the photo, every step is saved in an actions list. This list can then be saved so you can load another photo and click one button to apply all the actions you used previously. You can build up a library of actions if you want. This is a good free photo editor, and the Pro upgrade extends the features even further.


This is another brilliantly simple touchscreen app for Windows 8 PCs, laptops and tablets. It does just one thing, which is to turn your PC, tablet or phone into a television. All the Freeview channels are available, live (well, almost: TVCatchup is about 20 seconds behind live TV).

There’s a list of TV channels on the left, and you can flick through them with your finger and tap one to start it playing (after a short advert). There’s a useful information panel about the current programme that’s playing. Pull up from the bottom, and there is a full-screen button to remove the channel list and programme info. It’s simple, it works, and no mouse is needed, although you can use one if you want.

Freee Movies

Netflix has a great app for watching the latest movies and television shows, but there are other sources of movies that work well on touchscreens too. Freee Movies for example, is a free app with no subscription that provides access to full movies on YouTube. The legality of full movies on YouTube is questionable, but the app has been approved and is in the Windows Store, so surely both Microsoft and Google must know about it. Perhaps they turn a blind eye and just quietly ignore it.

Freee Movies displays movie categories such as adventure, comedy, crime, action, science fiction, musical, romance, western and so on. Tap a category, and the movies are shown as tiles. There’s nothing new, and most of the content is made up of old movies and B movies. Low budget, second rate movies are common, but occasionally there are some reasonably good ones that are worth watching again, like The Good, The Bad And The Ugly, Cyborg 2, Hellraiser and others.

The quality of the movies varies, and some are poor, but others are okay. The app itself is easy to navigate, with categories and movie tiles to tap, and simple play, pause and stop buttons to control playback.


Does anyone read ebooks on a desktop computer? It’s possible of course, but this type of application is best suited to those hybrid laptop/tablet devices that have detachable screens. Then you can sit on your sofa or in bed and read ebooks on the screen.

There are several ebook readers in the Windows Store, and Kindle is the obvious one to go for, but curiously it has an uninspiring score of 3.0. Nook, from Barnes & Noble, is rated more highly and it has a great interface that works well on touchscreens. You can sign in with a Microsoft account, such as email, but you need to add a credit card to it, even if you only want to download free ebooks.

There are thousands of books to choose from, which are organised into numerous categories like humour, history, romance, teens, poetry, biography and so on. Select a category, and you can view them sorted by name, price, best selling and age. There are lots of free books you can download, plenty of classics and the very latest from top authors.


There are lots of games in the Windows store and many of them are excellent. Playing them with a touchscreen desktop PC or laptop is not always ideal, though, and there are problems. One problem is screen wobble. Fast action games may require a lot of tapping, swiping and other actions, so the monitor or laptop screen sometimes wobbles around in an irritating manner. Games designed for touch controls work best with laptop/tablet hybrids that you can hold in your hand or rest on your lap. This gives them the stability you need.

Slower games are less problematic than fast action ones, and something like chess, for example, would present no issues for touch, because you spend 99% of your time thinking and only 1% actually interacting with the game.

Another issue is that a mouse and keyboard offers more precise and accurate control of the game. Again this is mainly for fast action games where precise and accurate control is needed. However, even with a board game like chess, if you have a mouse next to you, it’s often easier to use it than to point and tap on the screen.

Playing Crossy Road, for example, is actually easier using the keyboard than a touchscreen. It’s a very simple game that’s a sort of cross between the classic arcade game Frogger and Flappy bird. You have to cross busy roads, rivers and railway tracks, avoiding the cars and trains. Tapping the screen make the character you control hop forwards and mostly you do want to go forwards. Turning left or right is easier with the keyboard than the screen, but if you’re playing on your lap with a Surface or something similar, it’s still a lot of fun.

Games like Angry Birds are perfect for touchscreens, because the controls are so simple. Tap and pull back the bird, let go, and off it flies, hopefully to knock down the structure in front of it. There are several official variations of the game and several clones, such as Monkey Sling Free.

Cut The Rope 2 is another great game that works well on touchscreens because of its simplicity. It features Om Nom, a little green creature that must be fed sweets dangling on ropes. A swipe is all it takes to cut the rope, and the sweet falls. It is not quite that simple, of course. Indeed, this is a physics puzzler that will frustrate and entertain you at the same time. The graphics are cartoon-like and the game is free and fun to play.

Tiny Troopers is a war game in which you control troops and have to complete missions like killing all enemy soldiers, keeping journalists safe, destroying all enemy buildings and so on. The instructions tell you to left- or right-click, but tapping and twofinger tapping works too if you have a touchscreen. This is an excellent game with nice graphics and animation. It’s more cartoon action than real action, which makes it even more entertaining.

Some games are just plain weird with a PC or laptop, such as Asphalt 8: Airborne. It’s an excellent game, but the touch interface is really designed for a tablet, where you can grip the left and right edge with your hands and use your thumbs to press controls on the left and right sides of the screen. It doesn’t really feel right gripping a 23” monitor by the edges with arms stretched out or even a 15” laptop. It works, but it just isn’t natural. There are other control options, including the keyboard, though, and it’s well worth downloading if you have Windows 8.