Touchscreens are becoming ubiquitous on smartphones. This will be hastened by the advent of Windows 8 Phone, and the Windows 8 laptop/desktop operating system will increase their popularity on these machines as well.

As my computer clients know, I am not the world’s biggest fan of Apple computers. That opinion used to extend to the iphone as well, but I bought one secondhand recently (a 16gb 3GS) as I thought it was about time I learned how to drive one properly. I only intended it to be a training tool, but within a couple of days it had become my main mobile phone. It’s easy to use, reliable, fast, light, and easy to synch with iTunes.

Great, but it still has the awful drawback I’d noticed every time I’d previously picked one up: the onscreen keyboard is dreadful. I’ve been used to top-end HTC phones. These have an inbuilt stylus that it’s easy to point exactly where you want on the screen. Even better, I’ve always specified a model with an inbuilt “proper” keyboard. Leaving the inbuilt keyboard aside, why is there such a difference between the touchscreens of different devices?

Capacitive Stylus
Capacitive stylus with close-up of point
The answer is that there are two technologies for touchscreens: capacitive and resistive. iPhones use capacitive, HTC use resistive. Neither of these technologies is superior to the other in all respects, so manufacturers may choose either for their products. They work in different ways. The resistive screen works by physical pressure on the screen creating a contact, whereas the capacitive screen works by measuring the conductive properties of what is touching the screen.

This results in big differences in the experience of using the screens. The main differences are as follows;

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Resistive Stylus
Resistive stylus with close-up of point
To summarise, the “feel” of these two technologies can be quite different. Generally speaking, the capacitive screen seems lighter and easier to use until it comes to typing onto an onscreen keyboard, or doing anything else that requires precision at the level of about 5mm or less. That’s when the nightmare can begin. If you’ve been struggling with the iphone, it’s well worth the investment of a few pounds to try a capacitive stylus. Here’s a link to Amazon’s capacitive styluses (stylii?).

You could also buy an external keyboard that works via bluetooth. I bought a cheap one from Amazon but couldn’t get it to connect to anything at all. Maybe I’ll try a more expensive one.

You don’t get a choice of touchscreen technology when you buy a product. You have to have whatever that manufacturer has chosen to use in that product. The obvious bit of advice I can give here is to suggest that you try out the touchscreen of any device you are considering buying. That way you can judge for yourself whether you like it. That’s not always possible, though, as these things are often bought online. So, I’m hoping that alerting you to these two different technologies, and their most salient features, may help in decision-making when buying online.