Capacitive Touch Screens – A Step Backwards?

Ever since I bought my first PDA (a Palm III) back in the late 90s, I’ve used the kind of touchscreen which needs you to give it a slight press, typically with stylus but a finger will work just fine too.  Apparently these are resistive touchscreens and work by having two thin transparent parallel sheets which are brought together by the press.

Newer mobile phones such as Apple’s iPhone, the Palm Pre, Google’s Nexus One, use capacitive touchscreens which use distortions in electrostatic fields to detect fingers on the surface of the screen.  Frankly, I think they’re a step backwards.

Why? One – you can really only use your finger.  Things like styluses don’t work anymore and, two – the accuracy or resolution is really poor.  Let’s be honest, your finger isn’t exactly the most precise pointing device.  My finger tends to block out the very thing I’m trying to tap on.

The last time I did any finger writing, I was probably about 5 years old.  I then learnt how to hold a pen and write block letters, graduating to joined-up script when I was seven or eight.  Finally, after a couple of decades in adulthood, it’s back to finger painting on a 3″ screen.  Does anyone else think this is wrong?

“But you don’t have to get your stylus out each time now to tap on the screen.  It’s so much more convenient”.  But the problem in the past was not the screen – it was the user interface.  It expected more precise pointing than a finger.  On PalmOS I could very easily start applications with my finger and choose from dropdown menus but editing Excel cells was too challenging.  If you had a modern phone OS with a resistive screen it would work just fine.  And you could have the best of both worlds; finger pointing for basic operation and the stylus for fine work.

“But you can scroll through lists with a flick”.  Yes, you can and it’s great, but I find that too often I select an item instead of scrolling and it’s incredibly irritating when you’ve just dropped an email into completely the wrong folder.  Could we please just have scroll bars back?

“But what about multi-touch?  That’s only available on a capacitive screen.”  True enough, but this is a phone not Microsoft Surface.  I don’t even find the gestures that easy to do one-handed so I’m quite happy to give up multi-touch.

I have tried the Pogostick stylus but it’s not much better.  I still end up stabbing at the screen rather than gently tapping, the resolution or accuracy is no better and the stylus head is pretty big.  HTC appear to be bringing out a capacitive stylus but it’s not yet available in the UK and it’s quite expensive.

My point is that a capacitive screen would be fine on a larger screen, where there’s greater room for bigger buttons and multi-touch with two hands would bring benefts.  But on a small 3″ phone screen,  I needed better accuracy, not worse and I’m fully on-board for a hybrid of finger pointing for dialling and quick selection, but with the finer control of a stylus to select text, edit cells and generally be productive.  A resistive screen can provide this far better than a capacitive screen as far as I can tell.

I think we’ve been sold a dummy.

3 thoughts on “Capacitive Touch Screens – A Step Backwards?

  1. Steve,

    Thanks for the ego-boost. I do have a multi-touch mobile – I currently have a Palm Pre and I had an iPhone before that. I’m just not buying into “capacitive is new and therefore better” because it isn’t. It has pros and it has cons – and for me the cons currently outweigh the pros.



  2. One of the reasons I did not buy a touch-screen smart phone when I shopped for one last week is because I don’t like having to use my fingertips. Give me a stylus any day, or allow me to tap with the point of a fingernail, but don’t make me use my fingertips. It is inefficient and I type very inaccurately that way, not to mention how ugly/greasy/gross the screen gets in a very short time.

  3. Clearly you haven’t used a multi-touch mobile recently. It is the future!

    You sound Old old old.

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