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Fingerprint gunk and arm fatigue: Are touch-screen laptops a good idea?

Apple is reportedly making Macs with a touch screen. Do you want to reach out and touch your laptop?

A hand touches a laptop screen
(Elena Lacey/Washington Post Illustration)

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There was nerd rejoicing at the news that Apple plans to make Mac laptops with touch screens for the first time. Those computers won’t be on the market for a while if Apple goes through with its plans, Bloomberg News reported last week.

Apple’s interest shows the split opinions about touch-screen computers: Some people obsessively love them. But most people ignore them.

The vast majority of laptops sold in the United States — about 80 percent, according to the research firm IDC — are conventional screens.

In the category of higher-priced Windows computers where touch screens are more common, about 29 percent of new laptops sold above $800 have touch screens. That number hasn’t really budged for years, IDC figures show.

But you also know that technology habits are changing. People who got used to swiping smartphones and tablets as toddlers expect to control every screen with their fingers. And in some situations, like if you’re flopped on the sofa scrolling websites, a touch-screen laptop feels natural.

If you’re curious about a touch-screen computer for yourself but not sure whether it is for you, this is your starting point. Here are some questions to ask yourself if you’re considering a touch-screen laptop:

What do you actually need from your computer?

This is the essential question for many new computer buyers. Check out my colleague Chris Velazco’s guide for people considering a new laptop.

Chris advised taking stock of what you regularly do with a computer. Choose one that fits your budget and is best for what you do often — not what you do occasionally.

Keep in mind that touch-screen computers generally cost more, and they might be thicker than similar models with a standard screen.

Chris told me that if you’re not sold on the benefits of a touch-screen computer, you might be happier spending your money on features with a bigger impact on your experience, like more RAM — the working memory that makes your computer feel zippier.

For some people, the extra cost or compromises of a touch-screen laptop might be worth it. For example, if you want to sketch or scribble notes on your computer, Chris said you might want to consider a laptop with a touch screen and a stylus.

Or maybe you don’t need a laptop for that. Chris has published reviews of digital journals like the Kindle Scribe, the reMarkable tablet and iPads.

How much will you use your computer at a desk?

If you mostly use a laptop at a desk or for playing video games, you might not benefit much from having a touch screen.

But if you use your laptop mostly on your actual lap or sprawled on a sofa, that’s where touch-screen laptops can really shine. You’re well within arm’s reach of the screen, can finger swipe through news, click on YouTube links and open files.

Jitesh Ubrani, a research manager at IDC, described the experience of people who try a touch-screen computer and fall hard: “They don’t want to go back,” he said.

Ubrani knows this feeling. At one point, he had a Dell laptop with a conventional screen and a Microsoft Surface laptop with a touch screen. Ubrani said he got used to reaching out to scroll a website with his fingers on his Surface.

He found himself trying to do the same on his Dell and feeling irritated when it didn’t work.

Ubrani said he mostly works at a desk and doesn’t use the touch screen very much. He still finds it a nice option.

How will your body handle it?

You’re not likely to use the touch screen on a laptop all or even most of the time. Still, Thomas Caffrey, an ergonomics and injury management consultant, visibly cringed when I spoke with him about touch-screen computers.

If you use the laptop at a desk, Caffrey said you put strain on your upper body when you reach out and touch a laptop screen. And people who use touch-screen devices while they’re flopped on couches are generally in poor ergonomic positions, he said.

Caffrey also said that if you’re considering a touch screen because you’ve been unhappy using your laptop with a track pad or mouse, consider dialing up the pointer speed.

This setting that controls how quickly your cursor moves across the screen is far too low for most people, he said, and it forces you to do extra movements with your mouse or track pad.

Search your computer settings for something like “mouse pointer speed” or “cursor speed” and turn it up to at least 75 percent of the maximum, Caffrey advised.

Will you be annoyed if websites and apps aren’t designed for touch?

Many websites and computer software are designed to be used with a mouse and not your fingers. That can be frustrating if you want to power through a photo-editing app or tap on details of a winter coat on a touch screen.

Steven Sinofsky, a former Microsoft executive who helped develop the first Surface computer with a touch screen, said that “the drawbacks to having touch are not about touch, but when my favorite application doesn’t work as well when I want to use a particular interaction mode.”

And if you’re finicky about smudges on a screen, Chris said that laptop touch screens tend to be glossier than those on smartphones. That means they may show your fingerprint residue and other dirt more visibly.

Sinofsky said that ideally, computers should give us a choice to interact with them in different ways for different tasks.

“Using a laptop and browsing a web page or photos, then touch is going to be great,” Sinofsky said in an email. “Trying to do a couple of things at once on a laptop then why not use voice? Or want a web story read to you then why not text to speech?”


One tiny win

(Exhausted grumble sound.)

T-Mobile told its wireless customers that a “bad actor” got hands on information such as email addresses, phone numbers and dates of birth tied to 37 million accounts.

If you are a T-Mobile customer, Chris has advice on actions you should consider taking right now. Among them: Change your T-Mobile password and PIN.

If a crook has your email address, date of birth or other info, it can be a gateway to break into your T-Mobile account or try to bust into your other online accounts. While you’re changing your password and PIN, try these steps to upgrade your password and account security.

Chris has more tips for T-Mobile customers: Here’s what to do if you think you’re affected by T-Mobile’s latest data breach.

Brag about YOUR one tiny win! Tell us about an app, gadget or tech trick that made your day a little better. We might feature your advice in a future edition of The Tech Friend.

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