Windows 8 Hybrids, Tablets And Laptops (Part 5)

5/7/2013 11:23:16 AM

Touchscreen laptops

When Windows 8 first arrived, complete with its two very distinct personalities, most people thought immediately of tablets as the primary beneficiary and perhaps of Transformer-style hybrid devices next. By contrast, slapping a touchscreen onto a laptop seemed a cobbled together solution, one that wouldn’t really make the best of the radical new Metro interface (as it was called at the time). To put it bluntly, we’d been scarred by our experiences with Windows 7 and touch.

Touchscreen laptops aren’t as flexible as their tablet and hybrid rivals, but they’re comfortable to use on your lap

Touchscreen laptops aren’t as flexible as their tablet and hybrid rivals, but they’re comfortable to use on your lap

But then we used one. More than one. In fact, we used a lot of touchscreen laptops, and it’s no understatement to call the experience something of an awakening. Long before the first proper Windows 8 devices arrived, editor Barry Collins could be heard on the PC Pro podcast singing the praises of an old (and at the time rare) touchscreen laptop onto which he’d crow- barred an early preview of the OS. It just felt natural, and if typing and prodding in unison was such an unexpected treat on that old thing, even with non-optimized touch drivers, surely today’s dedicated touchscreen laptops must be even better to use.

To find out whether this single enhancement makes for a better experience than a tablet paired with a keyboard, we took our selection of touchscreen Windows 8 laptops for a test run, trying them in a variety of environments and uses.


Let’s get one thing straight from the outset: a touchscreen laptop is still very much a laptop first and foremost. If nobody told you that you could prod the screen, you’d probably see nothing unusual about them, with their classy, thin chassis, their day-long batteries and their full-sized keyboards and touchpads. With no complicated mechanisms to get in the way of working comfort, they’re all pretty usable in this mode – certainly more so than the more intricate Windows 8 hybrid designs. In fact, it’s best to view the touchscreen as an added bonus.

However, it’s a very handy bonus to have. We’ve criticized touch monitors in the past, bemoaning the tired arms that inevitably result from reaching out to touch a vertical display, but a laptop screen sits much closer to you than a monitor and we’re only talking about the occasional tap here.

The main beneficiary is the new Start screen, which immediately feels more user-friendly than it does with a mouse. Swiping left and right, and tapping an icon to open an app, you can see what Microsoft was aiming for when it created such a dramatically different interface. Plus, if you can’t find what you’re looking for at any point, you can always type the first few letters of an application’s name as you would with a standard laptop.

Touchscreen laptops improve Windows 8’s usability

Touchscreen laptops improve Windows 8’s usability

We also like swiping in from the edge of the screen to bring up the Charms menu, although we should point out that many new Windows 8 laptops – touchscreen or otherwise are appearing with dedicated Charms keys in the top row of the keyboard. Taking the positive outlook, this means you can easily access any Charms menu, regardless of whether your fingers are resting on the touchpad or the keyboard.

It’s worth emphasizing just how smooth the combination of typing and touch can be. Once you get into the routine of tapping and swiping on the screen, but keeping a hand on the keyboard to search or fill in boxes – no onscreen keyboard necessary – the speed you can pick up will come as a pleasant surprise.

A final strength, and we appreciate this isn’t necessarily the case with all of the devices in this section, is that there’s less pressure on manufacturers to come up with something desperately thin and light. These devices don’t need to convert into a tablet to rival the iPad or the Nexus 10, so a dedicated touchscreen laptop will often have a bit more space around the base for a range of ports and connections, and there’s more room inside for a bigger battery. In short, you’ll get everything you’ve come to expect from a laptop, which can’t always be said of the hybrid devices.


What can’t a touchscreen laptop do? Well, it obviously won’t be as easy to use as a dedicated tablet while you’re standing up, although it’s still possible. Holding the base in one hand and prodding the screen with the other is something you won’t want to do for more than a few minutes, and it quickly reveals those models that boast a good, stiff hinge; prod a laptop that doesn’t and the screen gradually droops backwards.

There are models that work as a stand-in for a tablet a little better than others. For example and we appreciate this may be stretching things a bit – the further the screen tilts back, the easier it is to ignore the keyboard and concentrate on the screen; if a laptop opens all the way back to lie flat, it can be more comfortable to prod on your lap, and the keyboard is still there if its required.

Screen problems

Acer’s Aspire S7 folds flat to give a more tablet-like experience

Acer’s Aspire S7 folds flat to give a more tablet-like experience

The other thing to be aware of is how touchscreens are constructed. Generally, the display sits under a glass layer, which itself sits beneath several additional layers of touch-related technology more layers of glass, along with layers of electrodes. We’re starting to see the electrode layers built into the top sheet of glass on some high-end laptops, but the point is that there will always be extra layers when you’re using a touchscreen, and that can have a detrimental effect on usability in a number of ways.

First, the process of converting your finger prods into electronic input requires processing power, which can have an impact on battery life. The controller technology is getting more efficient by the release, however.

The touch layer also has an effect on the image quality of the display. Touchscreens are often more reflective than their non-touch siblings, which can be annoying under harsh office lighting. We still occasionally see touch layers that add grain to the displayed image, although these are less common than they once were.

On some screens (often on cheaper devices) there’s also a noticeable gap between the touch layer and the LCD panel beneath it, which can cause ghostly double reflections, not to mention the feeling of disconnection you get from prodding a surface that’s suspended very slightly above the graphic you’re attempting to manipulate.

Finally, there’s the price: a touchscreen will always add a premium, although again, this has been coming down as the technology becomes more popular with manufacturers.

These issues aren’t exactly deal-breakers in all fairness, only photo-editing professionals and enthusiasts need weigh up the reduction in picture quality against the benefits touch can bring, and battery life is good on most touchscreen devices. However, they’re worth bearing in mind if you were thinking of opting for a touchscreen over a normal one.

Who wants one?

All in all, it’s a strange group of devices this month. We’re constantly told tablets are the future for consumers – they’re selling by the shipload, and everyone seems to want one – but using a touchscreen laptop for a day makes that seem a rather bold and over-the-top statement.

There’s still nothing to match a laptop for genuine productivity, and these touchscreen models add an extra layer of much-needed logic to Windows 8 that new users may feel is missing with only a mouse and keyboard. For many users, having the novelty of touch added to a familiar device will be the best way to get used to the new environment. And with prices starting as low as $675, it’s tough to find fault.

That said, a touchscreen laptop won’t provide everyone with the best possible Windows 8 experience. It isn’t at all ideal for software that works entirely through touch, so if you can see yourself making extensive use of the slowly growing number of Windows Store apps, you’ll be better off with a tablet or a hybrid.

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