Not a nice touch

Ever since I got my first laptop, I always wondered what kind of people are actually meant to use the ‘tap’ capability built into touchpads.

I remember being stumped at first when I would try to do normal things (on Windows) only to get continuously interrupted by some unexplained drag-and-drop action or accidental click. There was absolutely nothing anywhere evident explaining that ‘tapping’ was a thing I was expected to do, and in fact, was accidentally doing repeatedly. It took me some experimentation to get the gist of the interface and its configuration, and as soon as I understood it better I went and disabled it.

Later when switching (back) to Linux I would encounter the same issue and I’d have to check the synaptics driver man page to figure out the necessary options to add to /etc/X11/xorg.conf to get rid of that questionable ‘feature’. Fortunately, nowadays I can just install the kde-config-touchpad package on Debian and configure everything according to my preferences through a more user-friendly mechanism.

Alas, just like the power button, that laptop’s touchpad buttons were not designed for daily use — thankfully KDE (like Windows) includes a feature to control the pointer with the keyboard.

What touch-based input lacks is intrinsic tactile feedback. Unlike button or key-presses, I cannot feel the action of tapping a touchpad any more than I can feel the action of casually or accidentally sticking my finger on it. A very small amount of pressure counts as a tap, whereas pressing a normal touchpad or mouse button requires a much larger amount, and with good reason; that pressure could be the difference between holding back an embarrassing post and inadvertently submitting it, or (when dragging gestures are enabled) ruining one’s system by dragging half of the Windows system files to the wrong place. Fortunately, most of my experiences in that regard have been of the “cannot drop a folder onto itself” kind.

There is also the issue that not everyone has the common sense to keep their hands clean at all times. Helping other laptop users can be a quite unpleasant experience without a mouse handy — yuck.

And then there are cell phones. Touchscreens are becoming irritatingly common (even in the low-end market) and they are even worse than touchpads in most respects. Sure, you can see what you are going to tap right there, but is that any help against “fat finger” mistakes? Scrolling gestures are a hit or miss action by design, and it is awfully easy to screw up the timing and have the device register it as a tap. These are your time and money in the balance here; you do not want to miss while navigating cell phone menus. And exactly how am I supposed to point other people at some element on the screen without activating it or giving up accuracy and pointing from afar?

In any case, I am pretty sure I do not want to be forced to use a touchscreen-driven phone to call an ambulance.

The obscene joke that is Windows 8 was clearly intended to push OEMs to produce more and more touchscreen-based garbage, as if we needed to merge phone and tablet user interface paradigms with desktop and laptop computers. I could rant some more about Windows 8, but that would take at least a dozen more paragraphs for a worthless tangent. The only thing that matters is that Microsoft will most certainly succeed regardless of the platform’s user experience merits (of which there are basically none compared to Windows 7), simply because of the OEMs and software vendors’ obligation to lick Microsoft’s smelly boots. I can see non-touch monitors becoming increasingly rarer in the future for this reason; I can see the pain for user interface toolkit developers and clients (users) in a few years when everything is required to support touch input — yes, even Wesnoth.

And in this case, mice are not an optimal alternative. I have tried the Windows 8 Release Preview on virtual machines with a mouse and I can safely say I find any other version from 3.0 through Windows 7 to be more efficient for daily use. I guess your mileage may vary after a while, though. Perhaps technologically-challenged kids and elders will learn to use the “modern desktop” faster and better than us veterans?

Not my business anyway — as long as the KDE crowd doesn’t fuck up, that is. Let us all hope Canonical doesn’t fuck up in a similar way too, because everyone likes to imitate Ubuntu nowadays.

My initial experience with computers was through MS-DOS and old-fashioned keyboards. I grew up using standard two-button mice in tandem with more old-fashioned keyboards, and later upgraded my experience with scrolling wheels, and wireless mice. Scrolling wheels are great for web browsing, coding, examining lengthy terminal output buffers, and even drawing, but the cheaper mice out there don’t really last very long, and lint and hair do not really help matters when the design doesn’t include a simple way to access and clean the wheel’s gear.

Wireless mice are apparently a love-it-or-hate-it subject. My current mouse has lasted over a year, it is large enough to work well as a laptop mouse and a desktop mouse, and the battery charge tends to last nearly a month. I bought a couple of rechargeable AA batteries with it and I always keep one fully charged for quick replacement; the mouse only uses one battery at a time. All of my previous mice used two AAA batteries, which lasted significantly less. Their scroll wheels were evidently not designed to last either.

I am pretty sure I will not be buying any touch-based devices for the foreseeable future. My new cell phone is more than enough to keep my patience below nominal levels for a while, at least when using it; I am grateful that the manufacturer was kind enough to include a physical numeric keypad along with two actual call and dismiss buttons.