When I first wrote about Toshiba's new Satellite Pro U500-EZ1311, I was intrigued by the laptop's built-in touch screen. Touch technology is hot right now, and it seemed adventuresome to put a touch-screen display on an everyday laptop computer. The only problem was that I wasn't sure exactly what SMBs -- or anyone else -- would actually use the laptop's touch screen for.
After a couple weeks of living with the machine, I'm still not sure of the answer to that question.
That doesn't mean I didn't like the $999 Satellite Pro U500-EZ1311. In fact, it's a solid machine with good usability and plenty of interesting features, which I will detail in a moment. But after the first few days of obsessively testing and playing with the touch screen capability, I found that I hardly ever touched the screen.
Touch And Go? OK, so that sounds like a bad pun, but it's actually an accurate assessment of the situation. While you can use the touch screen for just about anything you can do with the touchpad or a mouse, in most cases it's harder, not easier, to accomplish tasks that way. At first, I was worried that touching the 13.3-inch screen would push the laptop over onto its back like a stranded turtle. Thankfully, the Satellite Pro U500 is sturdy and balanced enough that never happened. The slick hinges that drop the screen below the level of the unit's base also added to the U500's overall stability. I also worried about smudging the screen with greasy fingers, but that didn't seem to be a problem either.
But I did find it hard to hit the precise point I was aiming for, sometimes having to tap the screen two or three times to get just the right spot. The tiny pointer that indicates touch-screen cursor position doesn't show up until you actually touch the screen, so it can be kind of tough to tell exactly where your fingertip will land -- especially when trying to minimize windows, for example. And touching the wrong spot can have serious unintended consequences that can't always be solved by the Back button.
I did like the touch screen's ability to automatically "grab" a window when touching its top bar, making it relatively easy to reposition windows on the screen without having to hold down a mouse button, for example. But even after weeks of use, I still found myself reaching for the touch pad or the mouse - not the touch screen - when I wanted to move things around on the screen.
I also liked the multi-touch screen's ability to use two-finger gestures to resize windows on the screen (sort of like on an iPhone), which I found particularly useful for zooming in on large pictures using image viewers such as IrfanView. Similarly, the gestures made it easy to resize text in word processing programs like Microsoft Word. But even after weeks of living with the U500, I still had to remind myself that those options were available in addition to the standard mouse and trackpad.
Touch-Enabled Apps Toshiba includes a couple of touch-enabled applications with the U500 that are designed to take advantage of the capability. Toshiba ReelTime and Toshiba Bulletin Board. I tried them, and found that while they're useful for checking out how the touch screen works they're hardly world-class advertisements for touch screens. Besides, both apps work almost as well using traditional input methods instead of touch.
The touch-screen capabilities also have limits on what they can do compared to a mouse or touchpad. You can't slide your finger down to the bottom of the screen to reveal a hidden Windows 7 task bar, for example. And the touch-screen software kept trying to launch the touch-screen soft keyboard, despite the fact that the U500 has a built in physical keyboard. I can't think of any reason anyone would want to use that virtual keyboard on a regular laptop. (Apparently, Windows 7 doesn't know the difference between a tablet and a regular laptop.)