Netbooks and touch screens: A good marriage?

Pared-down, Internet-optimized notebooks are positioned to be outfitted with touch screens, according to some reports. Are consumers going to bite?

Don Reisinger
CNET contributor Don Reisinger is a technology columnist who has covered everything from HDTVs to computers to Flowbee Haircut Systems. Besides his work with CNET, Don's work has been featured in a variety of other publications including PC World and a host of Ziff-Davis publications.
Don Reisinger
3 min read

Netbooks are helping boost the PC market as it continues to slide with the economy, but it's only a matter of time before something precipitates a market upturn.

Thanks to the announcement of the Archos 9 PC Tablet on Wednesday, there's even more evidence helping fuel speculation that touch screens can transform the Netbook experience from basic computing into multitouch bliss.

CNET News Poll

The magic touch?
Would you buy a Netbook with a touch screen?

Definitely. That'd rock.
Not a chance. A touch screen would ruin the Netbook experience
I wouldn't buy a Netbook, regardless.

View results

Touch screens are undoubtedly popular in the mobile market, but they have yet to break through in the computing space. Will they be as revolutionary for PCs as they have thus far been for smartphones?

Some Netbooks already have a touch screen. At the Demo conference this year, CNET's Rafe Needleman got an early preview of Always Innovating's Touch Book. It sports a detachable keyboard, runs Linux, and features 10 to 15 hours of battery life. The product will retail for $299 without the keyboard, or $399 with a keyboard, when it ships later this month.

Asus also offers a Netbook with a touch screen, called the Eee PC T91. It delivers the touch technology through its TouchSuite software. It runs Windows XP, has a 9-inch display, and enables up to five hours of battery life.

Without a doubt, there are some advantages to a touch-screen Netbook. For one, it's more intuitive. Users can simply drag their fingers around the display, making tasks simpler.

Just a few years ago, touch technology was practically nonexistent in the smartphone space. Most folks didn't consider it an option. And then, with the help of the iPhone's instant popularity, using touch-screen technology practically became a requirement for any company wanting to perform relatively well in the mobile-phone space.

Some might believe that the technology is a fad, but based on my experience with touch-screen mobile devices, it's anything but.

The Always Innovating Netbook is one of possibly many Netbooks to sport touch screens. Rafe Needleman/CNET

Since Netbooks are more similar to smartphones than full-fledged notebooks, the Netbook market might experience a similar touch-screen boom. Netbooks simply aren't powerful enough to provide a full computing experience. They are designed to give you access to e-mail, the Web, and some basic productivity elements to tag along while you're on-the-go. A touch screen might fit well with that aim.

Or maybe not. After you stick your hand into that bag of chips and touch your Netbook's display, it will get smudged. And since some Netbooks might not even come with a keyboard, it would be extremely difficult to type out a long e-mail or a Word document with the touch-screen display. Unless some drastic changes are made to virtual-keyboard technology, typing on a touch-screen-equipped Netbook might be more trouble than it's worth.

We also can't forget that although Windows 7 will be more touch-friendly, Windows developers have yet to fully capture the technology. Since there are so few touch-enabled products on the market, most developers have decided against creating applications for touch screens. So if a Netbook sports a touch display, most programs will still require the tried-and-true keyboard and mouse combination.

Worst of all, Microsoft is offering touch technology only in Windows 7 Home Premium, Professional, and Ultimate editors. Windows 7 Starter edition--the version of the software Microsoft is pushing on Netbook makers--won't have touch technology included.

Perhaps that's why Acer's recent announcement of an Android-based Netbook is so important. The technology is built for touch screens, and the Android Marketplace sports a slew of apps that work beautifully with touch technology. That might be Google's "in." And it could be the platform to popularize touch screens in the Netbook space.

But the only way for touch-screen Netbooks to really become popular, naturally, is if consumers buy them. Do you plan to buy a Netbook with a touch screen, or stick with a keyboard-equipped laptop? Let us know in the poll above and in the comments below.

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