Windows 10 and the sad state of touch

by Rob Poulter

I've written before about how I feel about trackpads on pretty much anything that isn't made by Apple (spoiler: I hate them), which is why I have mixed feelings about the reports of all the multitouch stuff coming in with Windows 10 (link for an Ars Technica review). On one hand one of the features I really love about OS X is the way in which it handles application switching, which is why it's great to see some of that finally coming to Windows without third party software.

Windows uses Alt-Tab to switch between application windows, which makes it a very clunky way of navigating if you have many windows open (or have applications that treat tabs as windows, like Internet Explorer does). You can use the task bar to switch to previews of windows within an application group, but this means you're switching from using the keyboard to using the mouse, waiting for hover delays before the chooser triggers and so on. OS X uses Cmd-Tab to switch between application groups, which gives focus to all windows for a particular application (which can be undesirable, but there are other ways around this) and makes it much faster for example to switch between a number of browser windows for research and a document editor for work.

To switch between windows of an application, you can either use Cmd-` to cycle through all open windows for that app or you can use a trackpad gesture (or hotkey) to trigger an exposé view of all application windows, making it easy to choose the one you are after. Exposé can also be used to view all open windows regardless of application if you just want to give focus to one window, making it easy to give partial screen space at the front of the of your workspace to windows of different applications.

After using both Windows and OS X for years, I think that Apple has definitely done it the Right Way, with Microsoft slowly adding features to catch up. In Windows 10 it seems like they may have reaches parity on that front: virtual desktops, exposé-like window choosing and decent multi touch shortcuts.

Enter the warts: OEMs (and Microsoft itself). Again, I've written before about the Surface. It has an excellent display, great touch screen technology, nice interaction between the keyboard cover and the rest of the comptuer for changing between tablet use and laptop use. On the other hand the keyboard cover itself is rubbish. They keyboard feels cheap and is not pleasant to type on, and the trackpad is miniscule. The trackpad itself picks up multi-touch events relatively well, but if you have human-sized fingers then anything involving dragging is an exercise in futility. The idea that you can trigger and use events that require more than two fingers is laughable.

The sad part is that the trackpad on the Surface Pro 3 is what I would consider a good example of a Windows laptop trackpad. The vast majority of trackpads that I have used (and I usually have a play with the rows and rows of them when I have a browse through retailers) are inconsistent in even picking up multi-touch events, let alone big enough to perform decent gestures.

The other sad part of this is that even if you install Windows on a computer with a good trackpad (i.e. a Mac, or you use one of Apple's bluetooth trackpads) Apple doesn't provide full functionality with their Windows drivers, and you have to install third party stuff like Trackpad Extra Magic (I haven't actually used this, just read good things about it) in order to get more advanced gestures working.