Touchscreens aren't new to PCs, but until recently they've been relegated to pricey convertible tablets for business, and to a lesser extent to slates--tablets without keyboards--used in niche markets (though I hear Apple is hoping to change that with some new device). Thanks to touchscreen smartphones, however, consumers have become accustomed to touch interfaces. And with the arrival of Windows 7, which has support for touch baked-in, more PC companies are starting to release touchscreen laptops, and even netbooks, for the masses.
For the past few weeks I've been testing out one of these relatively inexpensive touchscreen laptops, the Satellite U505 Touch, which has a 13.3-inch display. The model I tested, the Satellite U505-S2980-T, came with a 2.2GHz Intel Core 2 Duo T6600, 4GB of memory, a 500GB hard drive and a DVD burner. Like most computer companies, Toshiba just updated its laptop lines to include Intel's new Core i3 and Core i5 processors. With the touchscreen, the U505 now starts at $924 with a 2.13GHz Core i3-330M, 2GB of memory, 250GB hard drive and slot-loading DVD burner. The U505 is one of two touchscreen Satellites. The other, the Satellite M505, has a 14-inch display and starts at about $900 with the touchscreen and the same specs (though Toshiba is currently offering a free upgrade to 3GB). Both models are available with older processors and without the touchscreen, which adds about $200 to $225 to the system's price.
Despite its "mainstream" price, the Satellite U505 has a sturdy feel to it. I liked the dark brown, textured case, which looks and feels a bit like leather (though it isn't) and doesn't pick up finger smudges like the glossy lids on many laptops. The U505 also has a slot-loading DVD drive and a better-than-average set of speakers. But there were a few issues as well. In particular, I had trouble with the small multi-touch touchpad, which is so sensitive (in the default settings) that it kept trying to click, scroll and zoom in and out of windows when I brushed across it while typing. When I set the touchpad sensitivity to "low" and disabled some of the other features, things worked more smoothly, but it took some work to find all these settings. In addition the Satellite U500 series is bulky for a 13-inch laptop. It is about 1.2 inches thick and weighs about 4.8 pounds. By comparison, the Satellite T100, which also has a 13-inch display but uses Intel ultra low-voltage chips and lacks an internal optical drive, is less than an inch thick and weighs 3.9 pounds.
The Satellite U505 is based on N-trig's DuoSense capacitive touch technology, which works with both multi-touch and pen input. The display was accurate and responsive but, as Apple has demonstrated with the iPhone and now the iPad, it's the software that really determines whether touch is good or just gimmicky.
Toshiba includes a pair of LifeSpace applications designed for touch. The first, Bulletin Board, is exactly what it sounds like, a place where you can "pin" collections of information and files. You can create multiple boards (for different family members, for example), customize them a bit, and add gadgets such as labels, Post-Its, calendars and to-do lists. These are pretty basic. For example, you can't add appointments to the calendar, and none of these sync with Outlook or Google. Similarly you can drag-and-drop files such as photos onto boards, but many of them--Microsoft Office files, Web pages, videos--are simply shortcuts that open in separate applications. The second tool, Reel Time, is a utility that maintains a history of everything that you do. You can flick through the timeline to quickly find the Web page you visited yesterday or the album you played last week, and you can filter the results by application or by type (Everything, Documents, Photos or Videos). It's a simple, but useful trick. The Satellite U505 also has a dock with large, touch-friendly buttons for controlling the Webcam. Finally like most touchscreen PCs, the Satellite U505 comes with Microsoft's free Touch Pack for Windows 7, a set of applets that show-off the touch capabilities, but won't make you any more productive.
In general, this is the case with most touch applications I've tried including those of HP's TouchSmart 300, an update to its touchscreen all-in-one that added Windows 7 and a several new TouchSmart applications. HP has arguably done a better job here than just about any computer maker to date and the touch applets for Hulu, Netflix, Twitter, Rhapsody, and HP's own Recipe Box are all well-designed gadgets. But I've yet to come across the killer app for touch. In fact, touch tends to be most useful not for specialized applications, but as a complement to typical tasks such as scrolling through Web pages, reading e-mail and managing photos.
With or without a killer application, it's clear that touch is coming to a lot more mobile devices and at lower prices. The Apple iPad will be followed by consumer slates from the likes of Asus, Dell, HP and MSI. And Asus, HP and Lenovo all announced new touchscreen netbooks at the Consumer Electronics Show earlier this month. After nearly a decade of failed experiments, perhaps this is the year that touch takes off.