How To Turn Your Boring Old Laptop Into A Cool Touch Screen Machine

Sure, Windows 8 - Microsoft's new touchscreen operating system - will run just fine on PCs designed for Windows 7. But you won't be able to take advantage of the new touch capabilities the OS enables unless you scrap your existing PC and upgrade to a new computer.

Or maybe not.

At the Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in Las Vegas, a company out of China demonstrated a peripheral that combines a stylus and either a USB or wireless receiver to touch-enable a non-touchscreen LCD monitor or laptop screen.

The technology has made its way to the United States via Shenzhen Yifang Digital Technology Co. Ltd., mercifully shortened to Yifang Digital, whose E Fun brand markets the APEN Touch8 system. Got that?

Discovering the Touch8 digitizer was a happy coincidence. Wandering though CES' maze of booths, you never quite know what you'll find. In the rear of the South Hall, for example, Trojan was handing out thousands of vibrators. So there's that.

Yifang was showing off several versions of the Touch8, including a USB-powered model and one that used wireless technology. According to Eric Ju, an account development manager with the digital pen business unit within Yifang, the company is attempting to license or has already licensed the technology to accessory vendor Targus, which is marketing a very similar device known as the Touch Pen. The Targus Touch Pen costs $99.99 and will be available during the second quarter; the Touch8 will be available this quarter for $79.99. (Update 1/12: Targus claims that they have an exclusive license to the Touch8 technology within the United States, while APEN will sell its product in Japan.)

The Touch8 system, and presumably the Touch Pen as well, both use a receiver that mounts to one side of your screen. A combination of ultrasonic and infrared beams detects the stylus' soft, fuzzy tip, orienting it on the screen. Ju told me that a brief period of "training" the system is required, so the Touch8 learns the boundaries of the available touchscreen real estate. The stylus itself requires power, but it can be used for 500 hours (about 62 days of 8-hour workdays) without replacing the small, watch-sized batteries that power it.

I was able to play around with the Touch8 for several minutes. According to Ju, the system accommodates up to 15.6-inch displays, making the Touch8 suitable for a notebook or a small desktop monitor. The peripheral is magnetically clipped to the side of the notebook, and must be removed and recalibrated every time the notebook is closed. In other words, you'll have to suffer through some inconveniences to eliminate others. 

To its credit, the Touch8 works well at what it does: Enabling "touch." Swiping works fine, and single-touch gestures seemed to work as advertised. True touch hardware, however, is multitouch, and I'm not even sure if holding two stylii together, chopsticks style, would even work. Right now, the Touch8 works best for drawing, swiping and other single-mode uses.

Should you buy one?

Yes, but only if:

  • You're desperate for Windows 8 and touch interaction
  • You're running a small monitor
  • You leave your laptop on your desk
  • You don't mind the absence of multitouch
  • You're willing to spend $100 but not willing to buy a brand new machine
That's a pretty limited use case. But if you really want to use Windows 8 properly, you have to do something. I've used a mouse and keyboard with Windows 8, and while it's navigable, it's also sort of a pain; scrolling "up" to slide your Windows 8 Start screen sideways simply feels awkward. 

 

Pictures by Mark Hachman.