Making the case for capacitive touch

Last month Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer raised a bit of a ruckus (OK, when does he not) when discussing capacitive touchscreens and how he doesn't believe the iPhone uses them in a way that keeps the phone price economical.

Needless to say, many of you scoffed – nay, you were outraged – over the idea that Windows Mobile still doesn't support capacitive touchscreens simply because it costs too much. (And more than a few of you could care less, and that's OK, too.)

But fear not, loyal reader. We're here today to tell you that we believe capacitive touch is coming to Windows Mobile. We don't expect to see it with Windows Mobile 6.5, but it's probably coming thereafter. Our reasoning, after the break.

There is an argument to be made that we don't even need capacitive touchscreens on Windows phones. HTC has gotten pretty darn good and making the most out of resistive (witness the Touch HD). But here's why we want it: It's next, it's better, and it should have been done a long time ago.

What's the difference?

Anyone who has used an iPhone or iPod Touch (or even the Android-powered HTC G1) for more than 2 seconds knows the night-and-day difference between capacitive and resistive touchscreens. Capacitive just feels more natural. Heck, you don't even have to touch it.

And if you've never experienced a capacitive touchscreen, a quick trip to ye olde Wikipedia makes the technical argument:

Capacitive sensors work based on proximity, and do not have to be directly touched to be triggered. It is a durable technology that is used in a wide range of applications including point-of-sale systems, industrial controls, and public information kiosks. It has a higher clarity than Resistive technology.

Plus it's got that whole multitouch thing going for it, which is nice.

OK, the downside.

(Capacitive) only responds to finger contact and will not work with a gloved hand or pen stylus unless the stylus is conductive and transmits the user's capacitance.

The case for capacitive: Exhibit A

Ballmer never said Microsoft never would support capacitive touchscreens, just that Apple wasn't doing it in a way that Microsoft considered to be economical. And back in January in Barcelona, Spain, our own Dieter Bohn found a Texas Instruments capacitive-screen device running Windows Mobile 6.5. While the WM6.5 OS didn't, doesn't and isn't expected to be able to take advantage of capacitive screens, we were still intrigued. It was the first time we'd seen Windows Mobile and a capacitive screen in the same room.

The case for capacitive: Exhibit B


We recently got wind of a Toshiba roadmap that features the K01, a ... wait for it ... capacitive touchscreen phone slated for late 2009, more likely 2010. It's planned to launch with Windows Mobile 6.5. But, again, why develop a phone with a capacitive touchscreen with an operating system that can't take advantage of it? Now remember that we're expecting Windows Mobile 7 sometime in 2010, and it's even money that we'll get an announcement fairly early in the year.

The case for capacitive: Exhibit C

And the most recent example, albeit another unofficial one. The rumored upcoming refresh to the Zune, Microsoft's portable media player. If the rumored specs pan out, what you're basically looking at is something that very much looks like an HTC Touch Diamond 2, with a capacitive touchscreen, and with a Zune operating system. And given that we're all expecting the Zune OS creep into Windows Mobile, this might be a pretty direct look at the future of the WinMo OS.

The right direction?

At this point, it's all speculation and conjecture on our part. There's been no official statement from Microsoft about what Windows Mobile 7 will look like or if it will support capacitive touchscreens. But we're starting to gain faith that support for capacitive screens is finally coming.

How about you guys? Is capacitive touch still something you even want in your Windows phone?

Phil Nickinson

Phil is the father of two beautiful girls and is the Dad behind Modern Dad. Before that he spent seven years at the helm of Android Central. Before that he spent a decade in a newsroom of a two-time Pulitzer Prize-finalist newspaper. Before that — well, we don't talk much about those days. Subscribe to the Modern Dad newsletter!

  • I must say you winmo guys are loyal years of stagnation and companies trying to hide the god awful windows ui with skins and you guys stick around good luck getting capacitive it took long enough
  • 1. You speak like caveman.
    2. Windows Mobile can do more than any other OS... what do you use?
  • No, I could give a rats arse about capacitive touch screens. You CAN do multi-touch with resistive, and previous versions of WM devices were simply not tuned for finger friendly usage, they were mainly tuned for styluses. I have worked extensively with the G1, iPhone and iPod Touch. I personally own a T-Mo Wing and have also experienced the newer resistive screens on the Touch Pro, Diamond and Treo Pro. I have to say that the experience is different but certainly no less functional for resistive displays versus capacitive, while the capacitive displays loose on the functionality side. If they really want to inovate they should being designing hybrid displays with capacitive and resistive technologies. That is where the sweet spot will be. Best of both worlds.
  • Agrees with the post by Physboy. Check here And we need capacitive why?? Not even the hybrid that Physboy mentioned.
  • Without a capacitive stylus, is it possible to get really precise with a capacitive screen? I thought one of the main reasons WinMo stuck with resistive was because of users in the Asia region requiring precision entry for Asian characters.
  • YES - I WANT IT! the thing i dont like in windows mobile is the unnatural feel to the touchscreen which the iphone has :( if my xperia had capacitave touchscreen it would be the best!! plus i hardly even use the stylus - though i would miss the use of a stylus so - cant there be a capacitive stylus - like u can put a battery inside one or summit?
  • While the capacitive feels great, losing the ability to use a stylus, or being unable to use the device with gloves on, would certainly make a large number of the business users of WinMo users I know stay away from it. The thing it seems a lot of people (like the first poster) forget about, is that there are many WinMo users that started with this back when they were PDAs only, not phones. I still, even having my wonderful Touch Pro, use my Dell Axim x51v for more tasks. Why? Because it has a wonderful 3.8 screen that is far more usable for office tasks than the 2.8 the touch pro has. I think Microsoft should look into the hybrids, but losing the stylus support, and going too extreme in the "big button GUI" will hinder the functionality of the devices from a work perspective. So MS needs to choose, do they chase the iPhone? Or do they simply improve (finally) what they have and stay true to what has made WinMo the powerhouse platform it is today? (Running the latest leaked build of 6.5 from XDA, MS IMHO has done a better job at updating the GUI than HTC has even done)
  • The main issue is accuracy. The current WM UI contains many elements that are too small to reliably interact with using a finger driven capacitive touch screen. WM 6.5 is still an incremental and backwards compatible release in relation to 6.1 so I imagine that even if many controls have been enlarged, there are still enough tiny / fiddly controls that you'll still need a fingernail or a stylus to interact with reliably, neither of which are an option for capacitive touch. Just think of the X in the upper right corner of the screenshots, and the thinness of the title bar.
  • agree w/ Physboy as well, had this arguement w/ my best friend and he clearly stated he wasn't going back to resistive, but what i saw in the stantum videos is clearly emblazoned on my mind, and i think that technology is superior to capacitive, definitely won't have the issues re using gloves or cold weather, but will still retain, sensitivity AND Multitouch.
  • I couldn't care less about capacitive touchscreens coming or not. I don't like that you have to use your finger with them, can't wear gloves, etc. Also they are not as accurate. That's why on the iphone everything touchable (like buttons) has to be so damn big. Also it can't do handwriting and other things that require fine resolution. I think it's a fad that Apple has unfortunately created, but eventually people will realize that it's inferior.
  • So surprised at all the people clinging to the resistance touch screens. The iPhone is the same price as lots of WinMo and other phones with it's capacitive screen. And I don't see how any says the resistance screens are more accurate or better. Maybe with a stylus is it is, but why would anyone want to use a stylus anymore? You have to mash your finger on the screen with a resistance based screen, so it's less accurate. The iPhone and G1 require the lightest touch. After you learn how little it takes you will be clicking microscopic links in the browser and hitting keys with pinpoint accuracy. Using a finger to tap on all the microscopic text on WinMo's today screen is near impossible without getting something you don't want. The new 6.5 OS makes things bigger for better finger touch. Once you get used to using your fingers you will never go back to a stylus. I can see the complaints about gloves, but really how often are you wearing gloves?
  • I would agree with the less accuracy and "mashing" with earlier resistive screens, but my Fuze has a wonderfully sensitive screen that I "barely" have to touch. Clicking links has been brilliantly easy. I actually wear gloves quite often. It isn't always the warmest where I'm at.
  • I am a die hard winmo user, I am a C# developer that enjoys writing applications for the winmo platform. Even I have to say it is funny how anytime you say capacative screens are better, please always revert to the "yea, but you can't wear gloves with it!". It's amazing how people will use the weakest arguments to try to win a debate. The gloves/no sylus point is moot because the key isn't (or shouldn't be at least) "given my current software constraints, how would I accomplish this task", rather the question for the UI designers and developers is "how can I make an interface that adapts". The problem with winmo in it's present and immediate future ( 6.5 (yes, i've been using it for a while now)) incarnation is the interface in general. Why does it take 4 slides and 3 taps to START sending an email? Why does a missed call require me to tap a 10px wide bar at the top of the screen, or slide then tap my way to the missed call log? The answer is because the developers working on it are working within a framework established long before the hardware was as good as it is now, and they refuse to refresh. WinMo is in desperate need of a complete ground-up re-write, adn anyone who disagrees is an un-informed glove wearer.
  • Sure, gloves might not be a huge issue. The issue for me is that I actually do use my stylus. Yeah, yeah you can sit there like some trendy iPhone user saying how outdated it is to use a stylus, but some people actually use their phones for WORK which is something most iPhone users fail to grasp. (Being able to check your email does not a work phone make.) I frequently take handwritten notes with my phone because it's just quicker and easier even though my Touch Pro has a keyboard. As has been mentioned, handwriting recognition is a huge deal for the Asian market as you're not dealing with an alphabet. While that doesn't affect me directly, it's always going to be a big thing for manufacturers like HTC who can't afford to disadvantage their largest market for the sake of a bunch of people who care more about trendy technology fads than productivity.
  • What ever happened to that guy that put WM 6.1 on his iPhone? The youtube video looked like he had it running pretty good with capacitive. Alsom they have stylus that work with capacitive touch, they just cost a pretty penny(stylus pricing wise) for one. There is no reason not to have capacitive touch screens, other than the simple fact it does have it cons, just like resitive. Cost is a huge one, the screens cost 2-3 times as much. Power drain... the screen uses more power than resitive. As well, there are resitive screens that do an excellent job, and with new software being developed with better coding, resitive screens can be nearly as accurate and precise, actually so close that the difference is neglagible.
  • Oh i like this post. In my opinion, the resistive touch screen can be improved to be on par with capacitive touch screens and better. Apple? they are just making it a big thing to have a capacitive touch device to create Apple fan boys! =) annoying Accuracy can be improved by better coding
    Multi touch? yes, you can do it with coding as well
    what else? sensitivity? can be improved with available technology. I think styluses are good! why? look at all the big buttons on an Apple capacitive touch device needs to have. it takes so much space on the screen, making it so hard to display anything else than buttons on the home screen. WinMo Home Screen is informative! if you ask me, an Iphone is a product with no sophistication that serves the needs of a career man. its for kids! for dumb kids who hasn't develop sophistication in their heads, so they need big colourful buttons. Gloves? dude, you are just sour, and say you dun use it all the time? what if you use? your capacitive touch device is nothing but a piece of hardware that doesn't respond.
  • Capacitive touch does not work for me. It was made by someone who does not have long fingernails. Long nails make for a wonderful stylus and its all I use. With my nails long, the capacitive touch is useless. Fingerpads are too broad compared to fingertips for the use of capaciatance screens and just will not work because the fingerpad touches too much of the screen. We need more user/consumer input from women. Have you ever tried to find a tiny phone in a small handbag or try to use a keyboard with slippery or raised keys? Your nails slide right off and its too frustrating. How about reading one of those tiny screens without wearing the glasses you left behind? Don't eliminate options for the consumer by getting envious of another product's success. It leaves other customers out in the cold.