Capacitive vs. Resistive

While I’m trying to figure out how to get screen captures of the Satio for the next part of the review (the graphics chip interferes with Best ScreenSnap and I’m not well versed enough in photography to avoid the awful glare off the screen), I’m going to diverge into some other topics that, while not extremely current, keep drawing my attention.

One of these is the debate on capacitive vs resistive touch screens on mobile phones. The de facto standard in touch for years was resistive. UI designers for touch screen UI’s such as Windows Mobile and UIQ just couldn’t seem to avoid the ‘need’ for a stylus. Then Apple came along and all of a sudden it seems that capacitive technology is a ‘must have’ for phone geeks everywhere, particularly in the US. Anything resistive is roundly criticised with claims that you need to ‘practically hit the button with a hammer’ to paraphrase some idiot.

I doubt very much that anyone who has found this blog will not know the difference but I’ll give a quick explanation for convenience. Capacitive screens work by detecting the small electrical charge that comes off your fingertip. Resistive screens work through the simple mechanism of pressure. At the moment, capacitive screens provide the most ‘intuitive’ experience (depending on your interpretation of intuitive) and if you can feel the glass on your fingertip then you’ll almost certainly get a response out of the hardware. Resistive screens work more on the same principle as physical hardware keys and you need to give them a very slight tap to elicit a response.

In my personal opinion (any iPhone fans reading), I have found the capacitive screens (and the iPhone is the only one I’ve tried, and yes it was the 3GS) to be too sensitive. I have slightly shaky fingers sometimes and more than once I found myself entering the same letter three  times in a row purely by accident. Apparently this is something that can be gotten used to quickly so I’ll give the benefit of the doubt. I do get the suspicion however that those who describe their experience with resistive screens in such a negative light are people who have gotten used to the highly sensitive iPhone screen. In fact, I’m probably expressing the opposite bias right now towards resistive screens.

However, there remains an undeniable physical fact about capacitive screens which means they are probably not the future. They need that electrical charge. This means that you can’t use them with gloves (unless they’re magic gloves) and in order to use them with a stylus a special ‘active’ stylus is required. Multi-touch technology is not possible with current resistive technology though and this is one of the most sought after pieces of functionality in the touchscreen world.

So what is the future then? I saw it at SEE2009, where a company called Stantum had a booth showcasing their ‘Unlimited Multitouch’ technology. I was blown away. They literally have the perfect screen. It’s sensitive, but not too sensitive. It accepts up to 10 touches at once (maybe not enough for some, but that’s a very niche market) and can detect the exact pressure of the touch. And it’s (ostensibly) resistive, so you can use gloved hands, stlyi, cheese, whatever. The most impressive example of this was when the rep handed me a paintbrush and asked me to paint on the screen. It was if the thing was a piece of paper, echoing the depth of the stroke exactly. Mind blowing. But don’t take my word for it, have a look.

The only thing I’m not sure about is the immediate viability of this technology – the rep wouldn’t give me a price and even if he did, I don’t work in supply chain management so I’d have no idea if it was good or not. Who knows when we’ll see it in phones. But I’m looking forward to that day. In the meanwhile, Symbian^3 is going to be introducing support for multi-touch gestures and I’m wondering will Nokia be switching to capacitive for their whole touchscreen line? I think it might offend some users if they know that multi-touch is in Symbian^3 but they buy a device with a resistive screen unknowingly. At the same time, Nokia’s strength is in the global market and if they use capacitive do they have a solution to take care of the input needs of Asian consumers? Do they have the Stantum technology at the ready? Are they planning to release capacitive and resistive models of each device (I imagine that would be a total nightmare logistically). We’ll have to wait and see.

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One Response to Capacitive vs. Resistive

  1. monow says:

    I tried my girlfriend’s Nokia 5800 and I hated this resistive screen. My iPod Touch works much better for me.

    The reason why my girlfriend loves the resistive screen is simply the fact that she has long fingernails 😀

    She would be very disappointed if in future resistive screens deisappear 🙂

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