Will Windows 7 have the right touch?

The touch interface has arrived on smartphones, thanks largely to the iPhone. But it hasn't found much mainstream success on the PC despite years of trying.
Written by John Morris, Contributor

The touch interface has arrived on smartphones, thanks largely to the iPhone. But it hasn't found much mainstream success on the PC despite years of trying. The imminent arrival of Windows 7, which has multi-touch support built-in, and a separate Touch Pack with sample apps and games, has rekindled interest in touch computing.

In the past few weeks, Acer, HP, Fujitsu, Lenovo and Toshiba have all announced new laptops and desktops with touchscreens and software optimized for Windows 7. Some of these are updates to systems that already offered more limited touch features; others are entirely new multi-touch models. A few are mainstream laptops, signaling that touch could be ready to break out of its convertible-tablet box and reach a wider audience. Since they are timed for the release of Windows 7 on October 22, only a handful of these new PCs have received full reviews, but here's what to expect.

The Acer Aspire AS5738PG, the company's first multi-touch laptop, is a mainstream laptop with a 15.6-inch multi-touch display (1,366x768). Unlike competitors, Acer isn't offering its own touch interface or applications with the Aspire AS5738PG, Instead it is simply piggy-backing on Windows 7, which means you can use one or two fingers to launch and control applications, move and resize windows, zoom in and out when viewing photos or Web pages, browse through documents and media, and write notes. The $799.99 Aspire AS5738PG-6306 will include 2.2GHz Core 2 Duo T6600, 4GB or memory, ATI Radeon HD 4570 graphics with 512MB, a 320GB hard drive and a DVD drive.

Fujitsu isn't new to touch, and the company is sticking to the script with three convertible tablets for Windows 7, the LifeBook T4410 and T4310, and an updated LifeBook T5010. The T4410 and T4310 both have a 12.1-inch (1280x800) display, but with different specs, while the T5010 has a 13.3-inch display (1280x800). What distinguishes these models is a dual digitizer display, developed by Wacom, which works with both a stylus and as a capacitive multi-touch display. You can fold it flat to scribble notes or leave it open and use one or two fingers to control the system. That flexibility will definitely appeal to certain business users, but it comes at a steep price.

The dual digitizer version of the T5010, which is already available in the U.S. with a free upgrade to Windows 7, starts at $1,859 with a 2.4GHz Core 2 Duo P8400, 1GB of memory, an 80GB hard drive and DVD burner. At a minimum, I'd recommend upgrading to 2GB of memory and a 120GB drive, which brings the system price to just under $2,000. The LifeBook T4410 and T4310 are not yet available in the U.S., but since Fujitsu already offers a different 12.1-inch model here, the LifeBook T2020, odds are the Windows 7 versions will find their way here.

HP also has a new convertible tablet--along with two all-in-one desktops--but it is banking on multi-touch for consumers as well as business. HP's TouchSmart all-in-ones have always included a special touch interface and a suite of consumer applications and games, but the Windows 7 versions, the 20-inch TouchSmart 300 and the 23-inch TouchSmart 600, add multi-touch support and a broader set of apps including touch-enabled versions of Twitter, Hulu, Netflix, and the Rhapsody and Pandora music services. The HP TouchSmart 300-1020, a retail model available starting November 1, is $899.99 with a 2.70GHz AMD Athlon II 235e dual-core processor, 4GB of memory, ATI Radeon HD 3200 integrated graphics, a 500GB hard drive and DVD burner. The HP TouchSmart 600-1050, also a retail model available on October 22, starts at $1,199.99 with a 2.10GHz Intel Core 2 Duo T6500, 4GB of memory, Nvidia GeForce G200 integrated graphics, a 750GB hard drive and DVD burner. On HP's site, the configure-to-order version of the TouchSmart 600 will start at $1,049.99.

The TouchSmart tx2z, previously a run-of-the-mill 12.1-inch (1280x800) tablet, now has the TouchSmart interface and nearly all of the same consumer apps except for RecipeBox. Like the LifeBook T5010 it works in both pen and multi-touch modes, but it uses N-trig's DuoSense display technology. The TouchSmart tx2z, which will be available on October 22 with Windows 7 (you can order it now), starts at $799.99 with a 2.2GHz AMD Turion X2 RM-75 processor, 2GB of memory, ATI Radeon HD 3200 integrated graphics, a 250GB hard drive and a DVD burner. Outside the U.S., the Pavilion dv3, HP's 13.3-inch consumer laptop, is also available with multi-touch.

In addition to these consumer models, HP announced a TouchSmart 9100 Business PC with a 23-inch display, which it is positioning as a "virtual sales assistant" for retail stores, and a multi-touch 42-inch LCD monitor, the HP LD4200tm, for digital signage. The TouchSmart 9100 starts at $1,299 and the HP LD4200tm will be $2,799. Both will be available in December.

Lenovo decided not to wait around for Windows 7 and released its multi-touch systems, the ThinkPad X200 12.1-inch convertible tablet and the ThinkPad T400s 14.1-inch laptop, in September. Both models have capacitive multi-touch displays, but unlike the Fujitsu and HP tablets, neither ThinkPad's display doubles as a digitizer for pen input. (The much-larger ThinkPad W700 workstation comes with a true Wacom digitizer in the palm-rest, however.) Like HP, Lenovo has its own touch interface, called SimpleTap, but it's a bit more utilitarian. SimpleTap is basically a set of tiles that allows you to use finger gestures to adjust hardware settings including turning on or off the wireless radios, ThinkLight and microphone; viewing the Webcam; adjusting the volume or screen brightness; and locking the screen or putting the system to sleep. You can add custom tiles to launch particular apps or documents.

The ThinkPad X200 with the multi-touch display is currently available on Lenovo's site for $1,689 with a 1.40GHz Intel Core 2 Duo SU9400, 2GB of memory, Intel integrated graphics, a 160GB hard drive and 4-cell battery. Lenovo also offers an optional display on the ThinkPad X200 that is very bright (400 nits), and has an anti-reflective layer and a wider viewing angle. This "outdoor viewable" display is not available with multi-touch. The ThinkPad T400s starts at $1,999 with a 2.40GHz Intel Core2 Duo SP9400, 2GB of memory, Intel integrated graphics, a 120GB hard drive, DVD burner and 6-cell battery. The new SimpleTap software will be available for download later this week.

Over the past few weeks, I've had a chance to try out several of these new multi-touch applications. They're nice extras, but I'm not convinced anyone has yet found the killer app to drive broad adoption of multi-touch computing. Still the multi-touch support in Windows 7, and the availability of touch displays on a wider variety of desktops and laptops--and at much lower prices--should do a lot to expose this technology to more users. One clear indication the technology is improving: The HP TouchSmart 600 has already picked up two Editors' Choice awards (PC Magazine and Computer Shopper) and Lenovo's ThinkPad X200 Multi-touch nabbed one (also PC Magazine).

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