What Is a Touchscreen and How Does It Work?

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

Man using tablet device in a cafe

 Pixabay

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.

The 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 to interact with it or, in some cases, to press with a little force with 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 places like smartphones and tablets, where touch is king. These are the most typical type of displays 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 types of displays with your finger, you can feel that the display bends a bit. 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.

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 minuscule wires that are smaller than a human hair. When your hands touch the screen, they 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 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 of this, 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 was able to increase that 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 similarly 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

When it comes to buying a smartphone, the reason to get a touchscreen is easy to understand. 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, but the keyboard can be removed, and you can use it as a tablet as well. You also get a super-light device that's easy to tote around. 

You'll be surprised at the times having a touchscreen comes in handy. 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, when you need to sign a document, you can sign with your finger on a touchscreen computer. Signing on the screen is better 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. There's something intuitive about using a touchscreen rather than a mouse to scroll down. 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.