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Pros and cons of a touch-screen Mac tablet

A Piper Jaffray analyst says Apple might be planning on bringing a touch-screen Mac tablet to store shelves next year. But is a touch screen the best idea?

Piper Jaffray analyst Gene Munster thinks that Apple might release a tablet next year.

"Between indications from our component contacts in Asia, recent patents relating to multitouch sensitivity for more complex computing devices, comments from Tim Cook on the April 22 conference call, and Apple's acquisition of P.A. Semi along with other recent chip-related hires, it is increasingly clear that Apple is investing more in its mobile-computing franchise," Munster wrote to clients.

Munster believes that the tablet will feature a touch-screen display measuring between 7 inches and 10 inches. The tablet would have software resembling the iPhone's operating system.

Apple has remained tight-lipped, as usual, about work on such a product. But if the company offers a tablet, would its touch screen be a hindrance? It's too early to tell, naturally, but here are my initial thoughts.

Some pros

Assuming that the tablet would function very similarly to the iPhone, I think that there are a few upsides to owning such a device.

The tablet's touch screen would provide an intuitive experience. I'd be able to swipe my finger across the screen to flip through pictures. The pinch feature would allow me to zoom in and out whenever I need to get a better view. And moving around the screen would take just a few movements of my finger. It would easily best a mouse.

Apple would probably ditch the keyboard and mouse, at least for the device's primary functionality. It would have a relatively small footprint. If you wanted to tote the tablet around or simply save some room on your desk, that'd theoretically be no problem.

The tablet's touch screen would also likely reduce the time it takes to perform basic tasks like opening a new program. With a mouse, you need to take control of the pointer, drag it to an icon, and then click on that icon to open an application. A touch screen, by contrast, requires you only to move your finger to the icon and tap it to open the program.

Some cons

While a touch screen offers some obvious benefits, it isn't necessarily ideal.

Since fingers typically get oily, smudging would be a major concern with an Apple tablet. As with the iPhone, keeping the device's screen smudge-free would be practically impossible. On the iPhone, it's not such a big problem, since the display is relatively small, and you typically won't spend extended amounts of time working on it. But having to constantly rub down a display of 7 to 10 inches with a soft cloth to get work done would get annoying quickly.

The lack of a keyboard, in addition, would seemingly make a tablet practically impossible to use at a desk, and it wouldn't be as easy to hold as an iPhone.

Time will tell how Apple would address those issues--perhaps an external keyboard for the desktop, such as the one that came with the Apple Newton, would do the trick.

Product designers have been grappling with this touch-screen dilemma for years. They've found that arms feel sore and cramped--hence the term "gorilla arm"--after prolonged use of a touch-screen device that users hold up to perform basic movements.

If Apple installs the iPhone OS on the tablet, we can safely assume that the device will sport a virtual keyboard. Although I could deal with typing difficulties on the iPhone, since it doesn't require much typing to begin with, having that kind of inconsistency would be unacceptable on a tablet. It would turn the device into an expensive iPod Touch.

The bottom line

Determining the viability of a Mac tablet isn't so easy; time will tell whether one is even released. There would undoubtedly be some benefits to having a touch screen. But there would also be some pitfalls that would need to be dealt with before it became a must-have product.

So I'll leave it to you. Would a touch screen work on a new computer from Apple? Let's hear your thoughts in the comments.

Check out Don's Digital Home podcast, Twitter stream, and FriendFeed.