What it is: More PCs are offering touch screens as another input device for controlling a computer.
Microsoft and Apple recently held events where they showcased their future. In the Microsoft world, touch screens are the future where you can treat a PC like a tablet and touch the screen to manipulate items if you wish. Touch screens are successful and necessary on smartphones and tablets because they lack external input devices, but does this work on the larger form factor of PCs?
Microsoft revealed their Surface Studio, all-in-one PC that’s absolutely gorgeous. If you watched Microsoft’s presentation, they clearly emphasized aesthetics, which is something PC manufacturers mostly ignored until Apple started creating computers that actually looked stylish beyond a plain beige box that represented the typical PC.
Best of all, the Surface Studio includes a new input device called a Surface Dial, which you can use on the desk or place directly on the touch screen to get additional options. Here’s the problem. The Surface Studio is geared primarily for graphic artists. If I was a graphics artist, I’d dump my Macintosh and buy a Surface Studio.
Yet what works for graphic artists most likely won’t work for everyone else. Placing the Surface Dial device directly on the larger touch screen of the Surface Studio works beautifully. Placing the Surface Dial on the touch screen of a Surface tablet or Surface Book works less effectively because of the smaller screen real estate.
Even worse is that the Surface Studio’s ability to fold down like a draftsman’s table works perfectly for graphic artists but nobody else. Will people who use a word processor or spreadsheet want to fold the Surface Studio screen down to work? No, because the screen is more convenient to see when it’s vertical. Thus the Surface Studio’s primary advantage for graphic artists is totally irrelevant for nearly everyone else.
The Surface Dial works great for letting graphic artists choose from different menus as they work on the Surface Studio when it’s tilted down. But since word processor, spreadsheet, and browser users won’t likely tilt the Surface Studio screen down at an angle and place the Surface Dial directly on the touch screen, the Surface Dial will mostly be used on the desktop. If you own a Surface tablet or Surface Book, the Surface Dial is one more extra accessory to lug around with you, which means many people won’t bother taking it wherever they take their Surface tablet or Surface Book. If people aren’t taking the Surface Dial with them at all times, they likely won’t use it often. Even if they do take it with them, the smaller touch screens won’t make the Surface Dial as practical to use regularly.
For graphic artists, the Surface Dial is wonderful. If you’re typing a letter in a word processor with the Surface Studio screen vertical, you probably aren’t going to grab the Surface Dial and place it on the touch screen just to access more options. Doing so would be clumsy and slow. The Surface Dial works perfectly only when the Surface Studio screen is tilted down and only when the touch screen is large enough to place the Surface Dial on the touch screen without obscuring anything you’re working on.
So the Surface Studio and the Surface Dial are beautifully optimized for graphic artists but nobody else. Watch to see how Microsoft modifies Microsoft Office to work with the Surface Dial and you’ll see how well the Surface Dial and touch screens work as a general input device. Touch screens work great when they’re flat or at an angle. They don’t work as well when vertical.
When playing games, using a word processor, browsing the Internet, using a spreadsheet, manipulating a database, or writing code, how will most people place the Surface Studio screen? At an angle like a draftsman’s table or vertically like a traditional PC? If they don’t tilt the screen of the Surface Studio at an angle like a draftsman’s table, then using the Surface Dial is clumsier to use. If they do tilt the screen of the Surface Studio at an angle, then doing common computing tasks is clumsier and harder since most computing tasks rely on the keyboard to input data.
If your hands are on a keyboard, taking your hand off the keyboard to reach up to touch the screen takes more effort and time. Graphic artists are already focused on manipulating pictures on the screen so their focus is already on the touch screen. Most common computing tasks are not like graphic artists drawing directly on the screen but rely on the keyboard. To constantly move your hands off the keyboard to touch the screen or grab a Surface Dial to place on the touch screen takes more time than to rely on a traditional mouse or trackpad.
Once again, the Surface Studio touch screen and Surface Dial are optimized for graphic artists already directly manipulating data on the screen, not for most people who manipulate data through the keyboard.
The Surface Dial and touch screen are amazing examples of innovation, but also an example off innovation for a niche market and not for a general market. Apple’s Touch Bar is far less interesting and exciting, yet its general purpose use is far better suited for the majority of computer users.
First of all, the Touch Bar eliminates the useless row of function keys that most people have never used for decades. (The Surface Studio keyboard still retains the row of function keys, making it look like a futuristic computer with an antique bolted on to it.) Second, the Touch Bar adapts to the current software task at hand so it’s optimized for whatever you happen to be doing at the moment.
Initially, the Touch Bar won’t be that useful until programmers modify software to take advantage of it, but the Touch Bar is the future of keyboards because it replaces the row of function keys that belong to an older era. It’s far easier to reach up and touch the Touch Bar than it is to grab the Surface Dial and place it on a touch screen, especially if the touch screen isn’t tilted down at an angle like a draftsman’s table.
The Surface Dial and touch screen is the direction Microsoft is going with input devices. The Touch Bar and trackpad that recognizes pressure and gestures is the direction Apple is going with input devices.
Microsoft’s solution is visually far more interesting, but far less practical for general use. Apple’s solution is kind of boring initially but far more practical for general use.
Just watch how Microsoft adapts Microsoft Office to both the Surface Dial and touch screens and the Touch Bar and you’ll see which type of input device will actually be more useful to the average person.