You've got the touch...or have you?

The touch all-in-one PC is still gracing our shelves, but it's never really made sense.

The introduction of Windows 7 brought a rash of all-in-one PCs that were touch-enabled. In the post-iPhone rush, Windows partners wanted to get in on the new hotness that was touch.

HP actually got there first, shipping its TouchSmart computers on Vista, presenting an interesting overlay that was promising. It set the tone for things to come, but despite many revisions of its TouchSmart software, it never managed to go beyond promising.

Windows 7 never delivered on the touch promise either. The handwriting recognition was great, but it was already there in Vista. There were tweaks to help larger fingers hit smaller interface elements, particularly when it came to the task bar, but the access wasn't universal: just try resizing a window with your finger. No, Windows 7 was just a typical Windows OS with some touch features grafted on, just like Vista was and XP before that. It's stuff that makes a good tech demo, but can't really be used long term. Touch has never been a first-class citizen with Windows.

So when PC makers started combining touch with the vertical screens in their all-in-ones, it was received as a novelty. An attempt to ride the touch wave, rather than actually provide a good computing experience. The concept itself has long been seen as impractical, and still is, thanks to a concept called "gorilla arm". It also didn't help that vendors tended to use optical technology to pick up touch inputs, limiting the simultaneous touch points to two, and even then the screen could get confused.

Things were watered down further by the software experience. Vendors bundled some Microsoft touch apps, excitedly showing off a fish pond you could flick, while somehow shoehorning in their own half-baked overlay that either got in the way more than it helped, or simply wasn't flexible enough to do everything you wanted to do. As pure computers the machines ended up being fine, but touch was nothing beyond a gimmick.

There was, and still is, the shared delusion among vendors that people want a kitchen PC. Recipe applications always seem to be bundled with these things, yet they usually only have a few recipes in them, don't get updated and don't make new recipe or ingredient entry easy. The kitchen PC battle was lost long ago; what field does exist belongs to the iPad and looking up recipes online — but still Windows touch all-in-ones persist.

It also doesn't make terribly much sense to put touch in the kitchen. Take baking a cake: swiping across the monitor with flour, sugar, cocoa powder, baking powder and vanilla extract on your hands isn't exactly great for the screen, and a pain to clean. A Kinect-style system that required little physical interaction would make more sense, and minimise cleaning.

It's not just the kitchen the touch PC has been awkwardly jammed into; they've also been sold as media centres with TV tuners. Perhaps I'm the minority, but I don't particularly want to watch a movie on my large screen only to notice fingerprint smears everywhere whenever a dark scene is played. It's obvious on my daily commute that many people are happy enough to watch movies on their tablets on the way to work; however, I'd argue a tablet screen is a heck of a lot easier to clear of fingerprints before watching a video than a 27-inch all-in-one.

Certainly, we can see where such a set-up in commercial applications may make sense; interactions are brief, and constrained to limited, specific tasks. At the consumer end, though, it's a fruitless endeavour, and why Microsoft never really pitched Surface to the home user.

So after all that we've gone through, and all that we've learned, we now come to Windows 8, and the merry-go-round starts again. I've already seen one set of touchscreen all-in-ones where the consumer preview was loaded on as a promise of the future; never mind that you can't buy them like that now.

Unlike previous Windows versions, numero ocho is built from the ground up with touch in mind; a good start. It looks like it may have a chance to mark some territory in the tablet space, and I have no doubt will bleed features into smartphones. Microsoft has a long history of wanting Windows everywhere whether it makes sense or not, and for the first time that gambit might actually work. There's even some pretty stringent guidelines for Windows 8 certification that will ensure as pleasant an experience as possible. We will no doubt see some fascinating laptop/tablet hybrids that make the most of the dual-experience offered by Windows 8.

But don't for a second think it makes any more sense to cram it into a large touch all-in-one with a vertical screen.

Tags:
Computers
About the author

Craig was sucked into the endless vortex of tech at an early age, only to be spat back out babbling things like "phase-locked-loop crystal oscillators!". Mostly this receives a pat on the head from the listener, followed closely by a question about what laptop they should buy.

 

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