To touch or not to touch: That is the Windows 8 question

To touch or not to touch: That is the Windows 8 question

Summary: The next time someone complains that Windows 8 touchscreens give you "gorilla arm," you have my permission to stomp on them like that ape in the old American Tourister commercials. The reality is that touchscreens work great on modern laptops, and you might even be able to retrofit touch support on your old trackpad.

TOPICS: PCs, Hardware, Windows 8

I never, ever want to hear the phrase "gorilla arm" again.

It is, perhaps, the stupidest argument one could possibly marshal against a modern computing device that offers multiple input modes.


And yet here it is, in Scientific American no less, under David Pogue's by-line:

Why Touch Screens Will Not Take Over

Why personal computers still need the keyboard and mouse, despite Microsoft's best efforts to kill them off

When Windows 7 came out, offering a touch mode for the first time, I spent a few weeks living with a couple of touch-screen PCs. It was a miserable experience. Part of the problem was that the targets—buttons, scroll bars and menus that were originally designed for a tiny arrow cursor—were too small for fat human fingers.

The other problem was the tingling ache that came from extending my right arm to manipulate that screen for hours, an affliction that has earned the nickname of gorilla arm. Some experts say gorilla arm is what killed touch computing during its first wave in the early 1980s.

First of all, seeing this non-scientific nonsense in Scientific American just makes me want to Hulk-smash something or put the magazine's editors in a cage with that gorilla from the 1970s-era luggage commercials.

No, the article does not refer to a single scientific paper documenting the physiological damage you're likely to suffer from touchscreens. And yes, he even snuck in a reference to "Microsoft as a giant copying machine." Well played, Mr. Pogue.

But can we talk about the substance of this argument, please?

Microsoft is not trying to "kill off" the mouse and keyboard. Touch is an addition to your input options, not a replacement. That is the whole point of Windows 8.

The "gorilla arm" thesis is based on the physical difficulty of reaching up at shoulder height to a screen on a desktop, 18-24 inches from your body. Yes, let us concede that for desktop PCs the mouse and keyboard are still the best, most accurate input devices and touchscreens are inferior. You don't want to fill in an Excel spreadsheet by reaching across your desktop to a 27-inch monitor. (That's why your desktop PC still has a keyboard and a mouse.)

But desktop PCs are a small minority of the PC market today. They represent an even smaller percentage if you factor in tablets and convertible devices.

"Gorilla arm" is a non-issue with laptop form factors. Especially when said laptop is, you know, in your lap as you sit in the living room with one eye on the TV and the other on the notebook screen, live-tweeting a football game. It's irrelevant when your notebook is sitting on a coffee shop table as you work and sip a double tall cappuccino. You will not feel like a gorilla if your notebook is on an airplane tray table as you cruise along at 33,000 feet.

The physical distance between the keyboard and the screen in all of those configurations is a matter of a few inches. And in many of those arrangements, the screen is actually closer than the keyboard. It's almost as if evolution made us more suited for this sort of navigation than the gorillas in our distant ancestral past.

And let's also talk about the other strawman in that excerpt: "buttons, scroll bars and menus that were originally designed for a tiny arrow cursor." That was certainly a valid criticism of Windows 7, but it does not apply to Windows 8, with its big, touch-friendly tiles and a set of interface conventions that were designed for touchscreens. Yes, I was disappointed by touchscreen PCs running Windows 7, too. Why are we talking about that in 2013?

Having used Windows 8 on three touch-enabled laptops over the past few months, let me assure you: It is fun, easy, and fast to use one or more fingers for navigation. I guarantee you will find it much, much easier to scroll through a web page or zoom in on an illustration by flicking or swiping on the screen than by using the trackpad for the same operations.

Want to have some fun? Let someone use a touchscreen laptop for a while, and then switch them back to one that doesn't have touch capabilities. Guaranteed: Within minutes, they will try to reach up and swipe or pinch the screen. Why? Because that gesture is so easy and natural.

So what do you do if you don't have a touchscreen laptop? Let's ask Mr. Pogue, who penned this bit of wisdom back in summer of 2011, about some other company's products:

Touch-screen computers don’t work. There, I said it. Spending the day with your arm outstretched, manipulating tiny controls on a vertical surface is awkward and exhausting. The ache you feel later is not-so-affectionately known as Gorilla Arm.

Sound familiar? You know what's coming next:

Apple has built what it considers a better solution, a horizontal multitouch surface. That’s the trackpad of its laptops, and the top surface of its current mouse.

In Lion, there are iPad-like multitouch gestures. Pinch four fingers to open Launchpad. Twist two to rotate. Swipe up with three fingers to open Mission Control, a clickable constellation of thumbnails that show all open programs and windows. And so on.

Wow. If only Windows 8 laptops had similar features.

Oh wait. They do.

A couple months ago, shortly after Windows 8 debuted, I bought a $499 touchscreen-equipped ASUS X202E with Windows 8 preinstalled. My expectations were low, but I was pleasantly surprised that this little device turned out to be a fast, solidly built PC with a great touchscreen. And hey! It has a touchpad that mimics the Windows 8 swipe gestures. So if my poor simian arms are too tired to reach the screen I can swipe in from the right edge of the trackpad to make the charms bar appear, or swipe from the left edge to switch between running apps, or swipe down from the top of the touchpad to reveal the App bar in a Windows 8 app.

Here's what the control applet looks like, with a nice little animation to show you exactly how the gestures work:


I also have a Dell XPS 12 here (review coming up soon). That's the one with the screen that flips in a hinge so the machine can shift on the fly from PC to tablet. Guess what? Its touchpad supports the full range of Windows 8 gestures. So you can choose between touching the screen, swiping and tapping the trackpad, or using the keyboard. 


Apparently, support for OS-native gestures is awesome when Apple does it, but it's not even worth mentioning when Windows 8 gestures (none of them copied from OS X or iOS, I hasten to add) appear on Windows hardware. Maybe I'll write a letter to the editor of the Scientific American.

What about my year-old ASUS UX31E Ultrabook, which doesn't have a touchscreen? I still love this machine, mostly for its 1600x900 display and super light weight. So imagine my delight when I checked the ASUS website today and found a slew of Windows 8 drivers, including a new touchpad driver that offers the same gesture-based functionality as on newer ASUS hardware. Big props to ASUS for publicly supporting a new OS on existing hardware.

Alas, Samsung doesn't offer any updates for my wife's Series 9 Ultrabook, which is 14 months old. But a tip from Kurt Shintaku turned up compatible touchpad drivers for this device, which is also now enabled for gesture support.

And even if you can't find a driver to modernize your old touchpad, chances are you can find an external mouse or touchpad with support for Windows 8 gestures or a keyboard with dedicated Windows 8 keys. I've been testing an assortment of these devices from both Microsoft and Logitech and will have some reviews and recommendations coming up shortly.

The bottom line for me is that touch feels like just another natural form of input. The idea that touch support should be limited to one class of devices, which can't also use a keyboard or mouse, seems downright bizarre.

Maybe some people just need to allow their thinking to ... evolve.

Topics: PCs, Hardware, Windows 8

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  • Worse...

    You don't need to touch the scrollbars in Windows 7 to scroll. He could have also upped the Windows DPI to 125% or 150% to alleviate the "small element" issue. Did this guy even attempt to create a neutral test?

    No wonder this guy had a miserable experience. He did it all to himself.
    The one and only, Cylon Centurion
    • Also touch on the desktop isn't all that bad either...

      ... But I have yet to see a company produce an ergonomic touch screen that bends at the base and at the back of the monitor so that I could position it in front of me, exactly like a laptop's screen.

      I think I've seen only one AiO that can do this, as well as collapse flat to produce a table computer.
      The one and only, Cylon Centurion
      • The one and only, Cylon Centurion ..I'll take two burgers...two cokes ....

        two onion rings

        that will $12.95......and drive to yhe pick up window..........thanks you....and have a nice day

        yah right touch on a desktop.....who cleans the finger prints off the screen.......
        Over and Out
        • After all that trolling,

          you come up with finger prints? Please...
          The one and only, Cylon Centurion
          • The one and only, Cylon Centurion...come on who are you kidding

            Do you really think you can be more productive when you have to REACH across your desk to touch a screen to accomplish any type of function as compared to using a mouse?.....thats just plain silly.

            Do you think you can type faster on a tablet than a person using a regular key board can?.....NOT ever going to happen.

            Tablets & phones are toys for personal use and desktops & laptops are for business. You can build all the toy apps into the Tablets you want BUT they'll never replace a full fledged appt that you find on the Desktop/laptop.

            If I'm doing something important I'm doing it at my desk not sitting in a bar or at the beach or ridding in a car or sitting in Star Bucks...........People grade everything you send out in the business world I sure hope your aware of that........................

            Productivity is the name of the game and you can't reach the same level on a tablet as you can on a desktop now can you?

            the point I made about always cleaning a monitor because no wants to always cleaning it is a valid desktop monitor hardly ever -ever needs cleaning....but if I'm touching it all day long it would, now wouldn't it?

            and again just how long do you really think are going to put up with having to reach across their desktop to complete tasks before they say BS to this? Touch screens only work in restaurants and fast foods because of the nature of the business.

            It doesn't make sense to try and make the touch screen work for all business applications just because you can implement the tech knowledge.
            Over and Out
          • Reach across my desk?

            Buddy, my screens sit right in front of me. They're no more than half an arm's length away.

            And if your monitor hardly ever needs cleaning, what's your secret to keeping dust off of it? I'd like to know because I clean mine weekly...
            The one and only, Cylon Centurion
          • I clean my screen about 1x a week.

            Singapore Sam, I use my touch screen continually on my laptop and find about once a week I clean it and then it's fine again. if that would wear you out, then definitely stay away from a touchscreen. When i am scrolling text or moving across my window, I LOVE the touchscreen. I would never go back. But then again that's what makes life interesting, different people like different things.
        • your argument is invalid

          Who cleans the fingerprints off your tablet or smartphone? I'm guessing your mum
          • A phone or a tablet screen

            is much smaller than a normal computer screen. It is much easier to clean greasy fingerprints from such a small screen. I have had to tell my 3-year-old grandson innumerable times to keep his fingers off my laptop screen. If a laptop has a trackpad like my MacBook Pro, why would I want to have greasy fingerprints all over the screen? All screen gestures work with the trackpad. Therefore the screen stays nice and clean.
          • I do ... EVERY NIGHT!

            I do ... EVERY NIGHT!
            M Wagner
      • Look at the Acer T232HL

        I have an Acer T232HL at approximately 45 degree angle on my desktop(the angle can be set anywhere between 30 and 80 degrees). It's not far in front of me, just beyond my keyboard. I only use the keyboard for typing, and I hardly use the mouse, since the monitor is just at the perfect distance.
        • Thanks

          That actually looks pretty nice, and would be a cheaper option than what I'm currently planning to do with my monitor setup...
          The one and only, Cylon Centurion
  • COME ON, ED...

    Touchscreens on Desktops and laptops is like peanut butter and jelly on a steak... I hope you like yours rare!

    This is a solution looking for a problem where there is none.

    All this will serve to do is seal the failure of Windows 8 (assuming it needed any help, as just being a crappy OS seems to be doing the trick all on its own).

    Allowing touch hardware to double the cost of Win 8 hardware over the still available Win 7 surplus hardware is pure stupidity for both Microsoft and its partners.

    With Win 8 sucking, touch adding unnecessary costs, and a much better OS with cheaper hardware still readily available for the choosing, this creates a perfect storm raging against Win 8 adoption.
    • It's neither...

      ... A solution looking for a problem, or a problem looking for a solution.

      Instead, it's natural evolution of technology. The same thing you just said, was said about the mouse when it was first introduced. Look where it is today. Same thing with touch, give it a few years, and it will have found it's spot too.
      The one and only, Cylon Centurion
    • Shortsighted

      I'm left wondering just how you would have reacted to the first mouse as an additional input device years ago. Ed is spot on about how users exposed to touchscreens react when that functionality is taken away. I personally work on both types of systems, and find myself mistakenly poking at and pinching non-touchscreens often. Most websites and programs have submit buttons that are much easier to reach up and press than navigate to with a mouse cursor. With a mouse its common to move the cursor, look for its current location (taking your eyes off the target, and then guiding that cursor to the target before clicking. (This is worse with touchpad). With touchscreens I see target, I poke target.
      • re: Shortsighted

        > I personally work on both types of systems, and
        > find myself mistakenly poking at and pinching non-
        > touchscreens often.

        I personally drive a standard and automatic and find myself mistakenly reaching for the shifter/clutch in the automatic often. What does it mean about the relative merits of same? Absolutely nothing, just like your example.
        none none
      • submit buttons

        Fuzzy ....

        If you set your mouse to 'snap to' the default button, it will be there on the submit button waiting for you ... to just click it. No need to reach for a screen.

        Except for 'reply' forms! But just use 'Tab' and click - you don't even have to take your hands off the keyboard.
    • Sounds like orandy doesn't have a touchscreen laptop...

      Orandy - Just last week I bought one of the exact same computers Ed Bott mentioned above (Asus VivoBook X202E), and honestly, having a touchscreen is a great, additional feature to have. It makes maneuvering around on a computer extraordinarily easy. As an example, instead of going to a start button and then looking through a series or menus and sub-menus to find settings, I swipe in the Charms bar and click on Settings (at the bottom) and then Control Panel (near the top) - done. Mind you, that's not even the easiest way to find what you are looking for on Windows 8 - to search for items on your computer (not just settings but programs, apps, anything), simply click anywhere on the screen that isn't a tile and start typing. Items that match your search will show up on the right by category (and the more your type, the more refined your search gets immediately), and then you select the item you want. Very easy.

      I should note I've played around with the non-touch interface on Windows 8, both in terms of touchpad + click commands and touchpad gesture commands, and THEY work very well too. To close items, put your cursor at the top of the screen (a hand icon comes up) and pull down to the bottom. To see other open items, put your cursor in the upper left corner. To access the Windows 8 start screen from an app or the Windows 7/Vista-like desktop, put your cursor in the lower left. To do double finger scrolling, click on a non-link portion of the page you are on and motion on the touchpad with two fingers. ALL of these functions are easy to do, even if some of them are even easier to do by merely touching the screen. And using a mouse rather than a trackpad probably makes these non-touch features even easier to use on a desktop (and if you have a touchscreen monitor, you still have the touch interface as an alternative).

      I haven't even mentioned the benefits of live tiles for apps that take advantage of them, or the aesthetically pleasing look some of the tiles themselves have, but those are features of Windows 8 too.

      The primary disadvantage of Windows 8 is that apps not optimized for Windows 8, like let's say Google Play, Mozilla Firefox, or Google Chrome, default back to Windows 7/Vista view when you access them through the Windows 8 tile interface. Honestly, that's kind of disappointing after you've accessed various apps that are optimized for the Windows 8 Metro interface.

      If you ask me, Windows 8 is just the next step in the evolution of computers, following up on the evolution of having touch-optimized interfaces on smartphones and tablets. The Windows 8 tiles with live information take the touch-optimized interface another step further.

      P.S. Asus included a cloth with the computer to wipe off the screen.
      • Start Menu in Win 8?!?

        You lost me there when you mentioned about a Start Menu and Sub Menus in Win 8.
        I thought there is no Start Menu in Win 8. Or it could just be my illiteracy of Win 8.

        May be that is Win 8's problem. The illiteracy and that Microsoft does not provide a start up tutorial on how to use the new UI that they have placed over the traditional UI.

        I think I will wait for Win 9. But that is just me.
        • You might want to reread my post again

          Kumaran.pec - I don't know if your comments were in response to my post, but if they were, you might want to reread my comments again. Nowhere did I say that Windows 8 has a start menu. I said Windows 7 has a start menu and Windows 8 has a start screen.