What Is a Touchscreen and How Do They Work?

What does a touchscreen do? Exactly what your fingers tell it

A touchscreen is any display that you interact with by touching it. You'll find touchscreens in many products, including personal electronics and computers, as well as places like kiosks where subway tickets are sold or the checkout counter at a grocery store. Here's a rundown on the basics of how they work and why you might want to pick a touchscreen device over a non-touchscreen option.

Difference Between Resistive vs. Capacitive Touchscreens

There are two kinds of touchscreens: resistive and capacitive. A resistive touchscreen resists the touch of your finger. It requires a stylus or electronic pen or, in some cases, some force from your finger. Brushing your hand across the screen doesn't have any effect. Resistive touchscreens are found in places like the supermarket, where you provide your electronic signature to pay your bill.

In contrast, a capacitive touchscreen is designed to work specifically with a finger touch. Capacitive touchscreens are found in smartphones and tablets, which are the typical display types used in consumer electronics.

How Touchscreens Work

A resistive touchscreen works by having the top of the display that you touch come in contact with an electrically conductive layer underneath it. That layer below always has an electrical current running through it. When the two layers touch, the stream changes and registers your touch.

If you press on these displays with your finger, you can feel that the display bends slightly. That's what makes it work. When you press on the top display at the checkout counter with a pen, it comes in contact with the layer directly underneath it to register your movement.

Sometimes, especially on older displays, you have to press harder for it to register your signature.

Person touching the screen on an iPad.

 Bernhard Lang / Stone / Getty Images

In contrast, capacitive touchscreens don't use pressure as a way to register your touch. Instead, they register touch whenever anything with an electrical current—human hands included—touches them.

The display is made up of tons of tiny wires that are smaller than a human hair. When your hand touches the screen, you complete a circuit that causes the display to register your touch. Touchscreens don't work when you wear regular gloves because the electrical current from your body can't connect with the display.

How Touchscreen Keyboards Work

The virtual keyboard on a touchscreen device works by sending a message to the computer in the device, letting it know exactly where on the display the touch took place. Because the system knows where the buttons are, a letter or symbol appears on the screen.

You don't need a keyboard to register taps in certain places. Launching apps, tapping the Play/Pause button when listening to music, or using the hang-up button when ending a phone call don't require a keyboard.

Touchscreens almost always work reliably, and when they don't, there are basic touchscreen fixes you can use to get up and running.

Why Touchscreens Are Popular

There are several reasons touchscreens are popular. For starters, the screens can be used as both a keyboard and a display screen. Using the same space for multiple purposes means you can have a larger display. For a good example, think about the original Blackberry smartphones. They needed a traditional physical keyboard to work, so the display took up half the device. Fast forward a few years, and the original iPhone increased the screen real estate when it positioned the keyboard within the touchscreen. Users immediately had more room to play games, watch videos, and surf the web.

Another reason for moving to touchscreens is that they last longer. Physical buttons require small parts for them to work. Those parts wear out over time, causing buttons to stick, stop working, or fall off. In contrast, a touchscreen can work for millions of touches.

A touchscreen phone is more likely to break in a fall than a flip phone with buttons; however, when the two phones are cared for and not damaged, a touchscreen has a longer functional life.

Touchscreens are easier to clean than their tactile keyboard counterparts. Have you ever tried cleaning the keyboard of your computer? Wiping the iPhone screen down is much easier.

Why You Might Want a Touchscreen

All the major phone manufacturers have switched to touchscreens. With touchscreen phones, you can run apps, watch videos, and listen to streaming music services such as Pandora and Spotify.

When it comes to computers, the reasons why you should get a touchscreen device are murkier. Not all manufacturers offer a touchscreen computer option, but many do. The biggest reason to opt for a touchscreen model is if you want to use your computer as a tablet. In that case, something like the Microsoft Surface Pro is an excellent choice. The device has all the same functionality as a traditional laptop, plus you can remove the keyboard and use it as a tablet. You also get a super-light device to tote around. 

You'll be surprised at how handy having a touchscreen is. You're not going to use the touchscreen on your laptop as often as the one on your smartphone, but there are situations where using one can streamline what you're doing. For example, when you fill out an online form, tapping on the screen to move to the next field is easier than navigating there using the mouse.

Similarly, you can sign a document with your finger on a touchscreen computer. Signing on the screen is quicker than printing a document, signing it, and scanning it to make it digital again.

Touchscreen computers also come in handy when you're reading a long article. While you're reading, if you want to zoom in on a particular part of the page, a touchscreen allows you to pinch-to-zoom just like you do on your smartphone to get closer to the action.

  • What was the first touchscreen phone?

    The first touchscreen phone was the IBM Simon released in 1992. It included a calculator and even supported email.

  • How do I turn off my touchscreen?

    To disable the touchscreen on Windows, go to the Device Manager and select HID-compliant touch screen > Action > Disable Device. To turn off a Chromebook touchscreen, press Search+Shift+T. You may first need to enable debugging keyboard shortcuts.

  • How do you fix my unresponsive touchscreen?

    If your touchscreen isn't working, restart your device and clean the screen. If your phone gets wet, remove the memory and SIM cards and let them air dry. If you dropped your phone, try tapping the edges of the screen.

  • How do I clean my touchscreen?

    To disinfect your phone, use a mixture of water and white vinegar or isopropyl alcohol, or buy wipes made specifically for electronics.

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