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Touch Laptops: What's Great -- And What's Not

I’m a little embarrassed to admit how much I like the Surface RT. I wasn’t expecting a lot when I ordered it, but after a day of use, I realised this was more than Yet Another Gadget. It might represent a brave new world of laptop design. How can you not love a laptop that lets you touch Zardoz to unlock it?

(I’ll leave the particular unlock gestures I chose to your imagination. Good luck hacking this password, Mitnick!)

Editor’s note: We’ve officially entered the era of touchscreen laptops. Coding Horror’s Jeff Atwood looks at how the first entrants in the field are performing, and where we might go from here.

I have an ultrabook I like, but the more I used the Surface, the more obsolete it seemed, because I couldn’t touch anything on the screen. I found touch interactions on Surface highly complementary to the keyboard. Way more than I would have ever believed, because I lived through the terror that was Pen Computing. If you need precision, you switch to the mouse or touchpad — but given the increasing prevalence of touch-friendly app and web design, that’s not as often as you’d think. Tablets are selling like hotcakes, and every day the world becomes a more touch friendly place, with simpler apps that more people can understand and use on basic tablets. This a good thing. But this also means it is only a matter of time before all laptops must be touch laptops.

I’ve become quite obsessed enamoured with this touch laptop concept. I’ve used the Surface a lot since then. I own two, including the touch and type covers. I also impulsively splurged on a Lenovo Yoga 13, which is a more traditional laptop form factor.

One of the primary criticisms of the Surface RT is that, since it is an ARM based Tegra 3 device, it does not run traditional x86 apps. That’s likely also why it comes with a bundled version of Office 2013. Well, the Yoga 13 resolves that complaint, because it’s a Core i5 Ivy Bridge machine. But there is a cost for this x86 compatibility:

The size comparison isn’t entirely fair, since the Yoga is a 13.3-inch device, and the Surface is a 11.6-inch device. But Surface Pro has x86 internals and is otherwise as identical to the Surface RT as Microsoft could possibly make it, and it’s still 44 per cent larger and 33 per cent heavier. Intel inside comes at a hefty cost in weight, battery life and size.

You do get something for that price though: compatibility with the vast library of x86 apps, and speed. The Yoga 13 is absurdly fast by tablet standards. Its Sunspider score is approximately 150ms, compared to my iPad 4 at 738ms, and the Surface RT at 1036 ms. Five hours of battery life might not seem like such a bad tradeoff for six times the performance.

I like the Yoga 13 a lot, and it is getting deservedly good reviews. Some reviewers think it’s the best Windows 8 laptop available right now. It is a fine replacement for my ultrabook, and as long as you fix the brain-damaged default drive partitioning, scrape off the handful of stickers on it, and uninstall the few pre-installed craplets, it is eminently recommendable. You can also easily upgrade it from 4GB to 8GB of RAM for about $50.

But there were things about the practical use of a touch laptop, subtle things that hadn’t even occurred to me until I tried to sit down and use one for a few hours, that made me pause:

  • The screen bounces when you touch it. Maybe I just have hulk-like finger strength, but touching a thin laptop screen tends to make it bounce back a bit. That’s … exactly what you don’t want in a touch device. I begin to understand why the Surface chose its “fat screen, thin keyboard” design rather than the traditional “thin screen, fat keyboard” of a laptop. You need the inertia on the side you’re touching. The physics of touching a thin, hinged laptop screen are never going to be particularly great. Yes, on the Yoga I can wrap the screen around behind the keyboard, or even prop it up like a tent — but this negates the value of the keyboard which is the biggest part of the touch laptop story! If I wanted a keyboardless tablet, I’d use one of the four I have in the house already. And the UPS guy just delivered a Nexus 10.
  • A giant touchpad makes the keyboard area too large. On a typical laptop, a Texas size touchpad makes sense. On a touch laptop, giant touchpads are problematic because they push the screen even farther away from your hand. This may sound trivial, but it isn’t. A ginormous touchpad makes every touch interaction you have that much more fatiguing to reach. I now see why the Surface opted for a tiny touchpad on its touch and type covers. A touchpad should be a method of last resort on a touch laptop anyway, because touch is more convenient, and if you need true per-pixel precision work, you’ll plug in a mouse. Have I mentioned how convenient it is to have devices that accept standard USB mice, keyboards, drives, and so on? Because it is.
  • Widescreen is good for keyboards, but awkward for tablets. A usable keyboard demands a certain minimum width, so widescreen it is; all touch laptops are going to be widescreen by definition. You get your choice between ultra wide or ultra tall. The default landscape mode works great, but rotating the device and using it in portrait mode makes it super tall. On a widescreen device, portrait orientation becomes a narrow and highly specialised niche. It’s also very rough on lower resolution devices; neither the 1366×768 Surface RT nor the 1600×900 Yoga 13 really offer enough pixels on the narrow side to make portrait mode usable. You’d need a true retina class device to make portrait work in widescreen. I began to see why the iPad was shipped with a 4:3 display and not a 16:9 or 16:10 one, because that arrangement is more flexible on a tablet. I frequently use my iPad 4 in either orientation, but the Yoga and Surface are only useful in landscape mode except under the most rare of circumstances.
  • About 11 inches might be the maximum practical tablet size. Like many observers, I’ve been amused by the race to produce the largest possible phone screen, resulting in 5-inch phablets that are apparently quite popular. But you’ll also note that even the most ardent Apple fans seem to feel that the 7-inch iPad mini is an inherently superior form factor to the 10-inch iPad. I think both groups are fundamentally correct: for a lot of uses, the 3.5-inch phone really is too small, and the 10-inch tablet really is too big. As a corollary to that, I’d say anything larger than the 11.6-inch Surface is far too large to use as a tablet. Attempting to use the 13.3-inch Yoga as a tablet is incredibly awkward, primarily because of the size. Even if the weight and volume were pushed down to imaginary Minority Report levels, I’m not sure I would want a 13.3-inch tablet on my lap or in my hands. There must be a reason the standard letter page size is 8½ × 11 inches, right?
  • All-day computing or 10 hours of battery life. The more devices I own, the more I begin to appreciate those that I can use for 8 to 10 hours before needing to charge them. There is truly something a little magical about that 10 hour battery life number, and I can now understand why Apple seemed to target 9-10 hours of battery life in their initial iPad and iPhone designs. A battery life of 4 to 6 hours is nothing to sneeze at, but … I feel anxiety about carrying the charger around, whether I’ve charged recently or not, and I worry over screen brightness and other battery maximisation techniques. When I can safely go 8 to 10 hours, I figure that even if I use the heck out of the device — as much as any human being reasonably could in a single day — I’ll still safely make it through and I can stick it in a charger before I go to bed.

To appreciate just how extreme portrait mode is on a widescreen tablet, experience it yourself:

This isn’t specific to touch laptops; it’s a concern for all widescreen devices. I have the same problem with the taller iPhone 5. Because I now have to choose between super wide or super tall, it is a less flexible device in practice.

The Yoga 13, if representative of the new wave of Windows 8 laptops, is a clear win even if you have no intention of ever touching your screen: It boots up incredibly fast, in a few seconds. It wakes and sleeps incredibly fast, nearly instantaneously. The display is a high quality IPS model. A rotating screen offers a number of useful modes: presentation, (giant) tablet, standard laptop. Touchpad and keyboard work fine; at the very least, they’re no worse than the typical PC laptop to me. Does the prospect of using Windows 8 frighten and disturb you? No worries, smash Windows+D on your keyboard immediately after booting and pretend you’re using Windows 7.5. Done and done.

It’s a nice laptop. You could do far worse, and many have. In the end, the Yoga 13 is just a nice laptop with a touchscreen slapped on it. But the more I used the Yoga the more I appreciated the subtle design choices of Surface that make it a far better touch laptop. I kept coming back to how much I enjoyed using the Surface as the platonic ideal of what touch laptops should be.

Yes, it is a bummer that the only currently available Surface is ARM based and does not run any traditional Windows apps. It’s easy to look at the x86 performance of the Yoga 13 and assume that Windows on ARM is a cute, temporary throwback to Windows NT on Alpha or MIPS which will never last, and understandably so. Do you see anyone running Windows on Alpha or MIPS CPUs today? But I’m mightily impressed with the Tegra 3 SOC (system-on-a-chip) that runs both the Surface RT and the Nexus 7. Upcoming Tegra releases, all named after superheroes, promise 75 times the performance of Tegra 2 by 2014. I can’t quite determine how much faster Tegra 3 was than Tegra 2, but even if it is “only” 10 times faster by 2014, that’s … amazing.

I think we’re beginning to uncover the edges of a world where lack of x86 compatibility is no longer the kiss of death it used to be. It’s unclear to me that Intel can ever reach equivalent performance per watt with ARM; Intel’s ultra-low-end Celeron 847 is twice as fast as the ARM A15, but it’s also 17 watts TDP. In a land of ARM chips that pull an absolute maximum of 4 watts at peak, slapping Intel Inside will instantly double the size and weight of your device — or halve its battery life, your choice. Intel’s been trying to turn the battleship, but with very limited success so far. Haswell, the successor to the Ivy Bridge CPUs in the Surface Pro and Yoga 13, only gets to 10 watts at idle. And Intel’s long neglected Atom line, thanks to years of institutional crippling to avoid cannibalising Pentium sales, is poorly positioned to compete with ARM today.

Still, I would not blame anyone for waiting on the Surface Pro. A high performance, HD touch laptop in the Surface form factor that runs every x86 app you can throw at it is a potent combination … even if it is 44 per cent larger and 33 per cent heavier.


Coding Horror is operated by Jeff Atwood, of Stack Overflow fame. It’s his personal repository of interesting bits of information acculumated while keeping up with software development.


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