Touch screens that consumers didn't touch

Touch-screen notebooks and their ilk have been around awhile, yet none have had any widespread consumer appeal. Will they take off this time around?

Erica Ogg Former Staff writer, CNET News
Erica Ogg is a CNET News reporter who covers Apple, HP, Dell, and other PC makers, as well as the consumer electronics industry. She's also one of the hosts of CNET News' Daily Podcast. In her non-work life, she's a history geek, a loyal Dodgers fan, and a mac-and-cheese connoisseur.
Erica Ogg
4 min read

When Windows 7 is unleashed this fall with more gesture-recognition built directly into the operating system, more PC makers are planning on taking advantage.

While touch-screen desktops are gaining popularity, there haven't been many consumer-friendly touch-screen notebooks yet. But that will change soon. Last week Sony said it plans to release a touch-screen Vaio notebook this fall, and Hewlett-Packard and Asus did so earlier this year.

But the question is whether there's a need for touch screens when it comes to portables like notebooks. Adding touch to desktops, like HP, Dell, Asus, and others have done, appears to be gaining some momentum and boosting the faltering desktop market.

The first time
If a Vaio touch-screen notebook were to strike a chord with consumers, it would be the first time. There have been plenty of touch-screen notebooks that convert into tablets released over the years, and almost all of them have been purchased by the IT departments of large companies, police departments, the military, and more recently, hospitals.

There are several reasons they haven't really taken off with consumers: they're very expensive, heavy, and there's a dearth of good consumer software with touch applications.

Last year, according to IDC, just 1 percent of the notebook market, or 1.4 million units, were touch-screen notebooks. By the end of this year it will actually shrink to .6 percent, and by 2010, be at .7 percent. That means IDC isn't expecting Windows 7 to drastically alter the landscape of the touch-screen notebook market.

So why is this idea being revived? History doesn't suggest consumers will flock to this, though touch screens are far more popular in smaller devices like smartphones and portable media players now. It's feasible that the success of the iPhone and the G1 could translate to a computing experience that requires two hands and a physical keyboard.

What could be going on is just some experimentation, or "toe-dipping," as IDC analyst Richard Shim put it. And while it could be handy for some applications, like just pressing a play button on screen for music or video, there's just not a lot of software out there yet to make it worth the extra cost.

"You can see some apps that could be convenient, but I think right now there isn't enough software to really create a flourishing touch-screen market, let alone touch-screen notebooks," Shim said. Desktops make sense because they're much larger and stationary, and are being used more as communal PCs. "With notebooks it's a more personal device...and if you have a touch pad sitting there (near they keyboard), why wouldn't you use it?" Plus, there's that pesky habit you have to break yourself of: the instinct not to touch your screen.

So, herewith are some of the variations that PC makers have already come up with, with varying degrees of success.

NEC Versa LitePad

NEC Versa LitePad
The first crop of slate-style tablet PCs released in 2002 from Fujitsu, Motion Computing, and ViewSonic--despite being truly flat--were too big and heavy to represent any real break from the tried-and-true notebook design. But the NEC Versa LitePad really looked like a pad of paper with PC functionality. In fact, the LitePad is almost identical in size to a small spiral-bound notebook and weighed only 2.2 pounds, but it cost $2,399 when it was released in 2003.

HP trimode tablet PC

HP Compaq Tablet PC TC1000
The HP Compaq Tablet PC TC1000 squeezed three computers into one back in 2002. It was a small, light, slate-style tablet PC, with a great stylus, but it also had a snap-on keyboard to make it a thin-and-light notebook. Unfortunately, the battery life was just three hours. But it also came with a dock so it could transform into a desktop as well. It started at $1,699, but was mostly meant for enterprise customers.

Panasonic Toughbook 29

Panasonic Toughbook 29
Another twist on the touch screen in a notebook came from with the idea of a detachable touch screen. The Panasonic Toughbook 29 came with the option of a separate, portable touch screen that could be used up to 300 feet away. Panasonic's fully rugged line of Toughbooks are designed to take some spectacular abuse at the hands of military, construction foremen, public utility employees, and even consumers. But they never gained a foothold with regular folks.

HP Touchmart TX2

HP Touchsmart TX2
HP released the first made-for-consumers multitouch notebook late last year, but it hasn't made any sort of dent in the popularity of touch screens. It's a 12.1-inch convertible tablet that has the iPhone-like ability to scroll, zoom, flick, and drag and drop by using your fingers on the screen. It does have a more reasonable price tag below $1,200.

Asus Eee PC T91
A Netbook and convertible tablet, the touch-screen Eee PC could be the future of touch-screen PCs.

Asus Eee PC T91

Just recently released, the T91 has a custom interface, which offers big finger-friendly icons for launching apps. And, despite the new hardware and software, Asus kept the price low at $499. The price--and easy portability--will be key in convincing consumers to buy into touch screens.

We've so far left out the biggest X-factor when it comes to consumer computing: Apple. The company has been rumored to be launching a touch-screen tablet computer either this September or early next year. With a sharp focus on consumer appeal and trends, Apple has a history of creating market share where it was mostly nonexistent before, such as with the iPod. A full-size Apple tablet, if done well, could stimulate a lot of interest in this category.