A new Windows laptop with a touch screen is an intriguing proposition. After a couple of days of playing around with my new ASUS Vivobook X202E, I am pretty convinced: there are few obvious challenges, but apart from those, this is clearly the direction our media and information use will be heading in the future.
It is not only about having screen and keyboard and a touchpad as alternative ways of interacting with the same old windows, settings, applications and services. The increased freedom in interaction modalities feels liberating, and having the new (“Metro”) interface and the classic desktop both available is also contributing to the feeling that using a computer is now fundamentally altered. The touch screen is probably just an intermediate step; there are already some systems that come with pattern and movement recognition software that will recognize gestures, and when we are in the millimeter class of precision (see: https://leapmotion.com/), there is nothing stopping developers from coming up with games and utilities that will react to a blink of an eye or wrinkle on a brow. Gestures will feel unnatural in some situations, spoken commands in some others, like mouse, keyboard or touch screen all have their non-optimal use contexts — but all together, all these increasing alteratives will make it more free and more natural to do what we want to do, where-ever we want to do that.
The hybrid interface of Windows 8 is an obvious work-in-progress thing. Sometimes you click something in the Metro tiles and are suddenly taken to the traditional desktop app. Sometimes you will find a Metro-looking UI element stuck in the middle of traditional Windows stuff. It is confusing, to say the least. But I find it exhilarating: finally we have something interesting happening, something new. And it is not obvious what the right solutions to these multiple challenges and problems (of interacting with a plethora of different functionalities, applications and services with multiple different interaction techniques) will be. So: there is going to be interesting times ahead! Already it puts a smile to my face when with a flick of a finger I jump from blog writing to spreadsheet and then into Angry Birds Space, that works beautifully, like many other touch-enabled games that I tested from the Windows Store.
This ASUS laptop itself is also a sort of compromise. If a really optimal, top-of-the-line ultrabook with a fast SSD, touch screen and all the latest bells and whistles costs here perhaps around 1200 euros, this thing was only half of that. The 11,6″ touch screen is fine for me: it is bright, sharp and responsive, even while there is light leaking through from the corners and viewing angles are far from perfect. The processor could be speedier, there could be more memory (there is 4 GB), and the keyboard definitely would profit from backlit keys, but I am not complaining too much. The battery is too small to keep up on the road (it goes for maybe 3-4 hours and cannot be replaced by user), but I will be using this thing in home. The hard drive is larger than your typical SSD (320 GB nominal capacity, divided into two logical drives), but it is of course slower (and makes a bit of noise now and then) as compared to a solid state disk. So, there is one potential upgrade target, if wanted. But reinstalling the OS (and paying for a new licence key, as the preinstalled OEM Windows 8 does not come with a valid, user-accessible product key), all the drivers and all the applications — plus rehearsing all those tweaks and modifications to the OS I have done already — all of that feels too much hassle right now. ASUS has done admirable job in preparing so nice a package to the market in this price. Mechanical construction is solid, keyboard is very good, touchpad also ok, and it is easy to compare this e.g. to Macbook Air, even while I personally would not want to move into using the Mac OS. So, to conclude: small laptop that feels just right for me, right now. An interesting learning and testing environment.