Touch Gives Desktop PCs New Life

The desktop computer seems to be sliding into oblivion. Last year laptops leaped ahead in unit sales, according to market research firm iSuppli. The only customers still shopping for traditional PCs seemed to be bargain hunters at the very low end of the market, who couldn't find decent laptops with $250 price tags—and power users at the opposite extreme who needed performance no laptop could supply for, say, the latest multiplayer game. But desktops could be poised for at least a modest comeback, in part because designs are finally getting more appetizing. More manufacturers are following Apple's (AAPL) lead in ditching ugly, noisy "minitowers" in favor of all-in-one units inspired by the iMac. And when the Windows 7 operating system arrives later this year, it's likely to attract a fresh look at desktops because the software has touch-control features that simply work better on a big desktop monitor than on a notebook screen. One desktop that does credit to both trends is the Dell (DELL) Studio One 19. Like the Hewlett-Packard (HPQ) TouchSmart PCs, the Studio One hides the guts of the computer behind a touchscreen monitor in a design that is clean, eliminates all cables other than a power cord, and is nearly silent. But with a starting price of just $699, $600 less than the cheapest 22-inch TouchSmart, the stylish Studio One is much more of a mainstream consumer product. While the Studio One is impressive running Windows Vista, it really came into its own when I installed a near-final version of Windows 7, which will be available on Oct. 22. The program's built-in touch features include icons, buttons, and scroll bars large enough for you to hit the right spot with a normal, adult-size finger. Because the touch support is baked into the operating system, programs can automatically take advantage of it without being rewritten. Regardless of whether you're reading a Microsoft Word document, an e-mail message in Outlook, or text on a Web page, the same two-finger stretching or pinching motion will expand or shrink what you're looking at—just as it will a picture in Windows Photo Gallery.

Touch Tech Goes on Camera

Touch software, however, is likely to get a lot more interesting once software developers begin using their imagination to cook up applications for users of multitouch desktop screens. If you've ever watched a TV anchor "conducting" the news in front of a Magic Wall, you get some idea of the potential. HP, for example, has been demonstrating a program that lets you paint on the screen of a TouchSmart using artist's brushes. Microsoft (MSFT) has actually been a bit slow in realizing the potential of touch. It spent several years promoting touch for a type of notebook called the Tablet PC, which required the use of a special pen. These work fine for taking handwritten notes or filling out forms, but desktop touch works better for anything more complicated. The display on even hefty laptops tends to be too small and positioned too low and too close to make using touch comfortable. And notebooks tend to tip over backwards if you press on the screen. What's more, the technology needed in laptops to sense complex gestures and allow the use of fingers instead of a pen is very expensive, especially in larger sizes. Instead of using the screen itself to detect touch, both the TouchSmart and Studio One PCs use an array of cameras built into the frame around the screen to detect hand movements. This optical touch-sensing technology comes from a New Zealand company called NextWindow. The same relatively inexpensive ­technology, which adds around $25 to the bill of materials, is being built into freestanding monitors that could be used with any PC when they hit the market later this year.

No Touch in Apple's Snow Leopard

Beyond all-in-ones, some other PCs are also getting a lot more attractive. Dell now offers the Studio Hybrid, a compact (8.8 x 8.3 x 3 in.) unit available in a range of colors and finishes, starting at $500. The HP Pavilion Slimline is less sexy—it's about twice as big and comes only in basic black—but it can be had for as little as $300. Oddly, Apple, whose iPhone woke us up to the potential of multitouch interfaces, has shown no interest in applying the technology to its laptops or desktops and has added no touch features to the upcoming Snow Leopard version of the Mac OS X software. This creates a rare opportunity for Microsoft and Windows PC makers to lead with a cool and truly useful feature. Look for them to make the most of it.

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What Is Touch?

Want to learn more about the touch features built into Windows 7? Microsoft (MSFT) development engineers explain all the things you can do with touch in the new version of the operating system in a post to the Engineering Windows 7 blog.

To read this post and more about Windows 7, go to

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