What Is a Touchscreen and How Does It Work?

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

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At its core, a touchscreen is any display that you interact with by touching it. You can find touchscreens number of different places, including personal electronics and computers, as well places like kiosks where you might buy a subway ticket or the checkout counter at your local grocery store.

Despite the fact that touchscreens are so prevalent in our lives, most people don’t have any idea how they work.

Since there's no escaping them, here’s a rundown of the basics on how they work and why you might want to pick a touchscreen device over a non-touchscreen option.

What Is The Difference Between A Resistive vs. Capacitive Touchscreen?

Before you can define a touchscreen, you need to know there are two basic kinds of touchscreens out there: Resistive and Capacitive. The easiest way to tell the difference between the two types of displays is that a resistive touchscreen “resists” the touch of your finger, and instead requires you to use something like a stylus or electronic pen to interact with it or to press down with a little force with your finger – just brushing your hand across the screen won't have any effect. You’ll see resistive touchscreen 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 your finger’s touch.

You’ll see capacitive touchscreen places like your smartphone and tablet, where touch is king. These are the most typical type of displays used in consumer electronics.

How Do Touchscreens Work?

A resistive touchscreen works by having the top of the display that you’re touching come in contact with another electrically conductive layer underneath it.

If you press on these types of displays with your finger, you can feel that the display bends a tiny bit. That’s what makes it work. When you press down on the top display at the checkout counter with a pen, then it comes in contact with the layer directly underneath it, registering your movement.

That’s why sometimes, especially on older displays, you have to press down a little harder in order for it to register your signature. That layer below always has an electrical current running through it, when the two layers touch that stream changes, registering your touch.

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 very, very tiny wires (smaller than a human hair!) and when your hands touch the screen they complete a circuit causing the display to register your touch. That's why touchscreens don't work when you have regular gloves on because the electrical current from your body can't connect with the display.

How Do Touchscreen Keyboards work?

The keyboard on your touchscreen device works by sending a message to the computer in your 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.

Of course, it doesn't need to be a keyboard to register taps in certain places. Think launching apps, hitting the play/pause button when listening to music or the hang-up button when ending a phone call.

Why Are Touchscreens So Popular?

There are quite a few things that make touchscreens especially popular. For starters, the screens can be used as both a keyboard and a display screen. Allowing the same space to be used for multiple purposes makes it so that you can have a much larger display. For a good example of this, think about the original Blackberry smartphones.

Since they needed a traditional physical keyboard to work, the display only took up a little over half the device. Fast forward a few years, and the original iPhone was able to increase that screen real estate since it put the keyboard within the touchscreen. That meant you as a user had more room to play games, watch videos, and surf the web.

Another great reason for touchscreens is that they simply last longer. Physical buttons require small parts in order for them to work. Those wear out over time, causing buttons to get stuck, stop working or even fall off. In contrast, a touchscreen can work for millions of touches. While arguably, your touchscreen phone is more likely to break in a fall than an old flip phone with buttons, when cared for in a similar way and not damaged, a touchscreen will have a much longer functional life.

Touchscreens are also much easier to clean than their tactile keyboard counterparts. Have you ever tried cleaning the keyboard of your computer off? Wiping your iPhone screen down is much, much, much easier. And you can do a whole lot more with them than you can with physical buttons.

Why Would You Want a Touchscreen?

When it comes to buying a smartphone, the reason you want a touchscreen is pretty easy to understand. All of the major phone manufacturers have made the switch to touchscreens. Touchscreen phones are the ones that will have the most functionality. With them, you’ll be able to do things like run apps, watch videos, and listen to streaming music services such as Pandora and Spotify.

With starting prices around $100, they’re also not much more expensive than their non-touchscreen counterparts these days. Buying one in many ways is a no brainer.

When it comes to computers, the reasons why you should get a touchscreen device get a little murkier. Not all manufacturers offer a touchscreen computer option, but many do. The biggest reason to opt for a touchscreen model is if you foresee yourself using your computer as a tablet computer as well. In that case, something like Microsoft’s Surface Pro can be an excellent choice. The device has all the same functionality as your traditional laptop, but the keyboard can be removed and you can use it as a tablet as well. You’re also getting a super-light device that’s easier to tote around with you. 

You’ll also be surprised at the times that having a touchscreen can come in handy. Sure, you’re not going to use the touchscreen on your laptop quite as often as the one on your smartphone, but there are definitely situations where using one can help streamline what you’re doing. For instance, if you’re filling out an online form, then tapping on the screen to move to the next field can be a lot easier than trying to navigate there using your mouse. Likewise, if you ever have to sign a document, you can actually sign with your finger if you have a touchscreen computer. If you’ve ever tried to sign something using a mouse, then you know how clutch that can be. And signing on your screen is much better than printing out a document, signing it, and then scanning it to make it digital again.

Who wants to do that?

Touchscreen computers can also come in handy when you’re reading a longer article (like this one). There’s something a little more intuitive about using a touchscreen to scroll down rather than a mouse. And if while you’re reading you want to zoom in on a particular part of the page, a touchscreen can allow you to pinch-to-zoom just like you do on your smartphone to get even close to the action.