Touch Screen vs Tactile Controls

touch vs tactile Touch Screen vs Tactile Controls

One of the big technological advancements in the last few years has been the introduction of touch screens into consumer electronics, such as MP3 players. If you really look at the specs of the most popular players today, you see a lot of old tech with a touch screen on top and a few UI tweaks to go with it.

While some people love this new method of controlling a player, there are also a lot of people who can’t stand it and swear by hardware controls for all it’s worth. Slow, clumsy and superfluous are some of the accusations that come from that side of the camp. Are touch screens really that bad, or is it time to let go of the static plastic knobs sticking out of everything? Read on for the pros and cons of the various control methods.

Tactile Controls

Tactile controls or hardware buttons as they’re sometimes referred to have been the de facto method of controlling MP3 players since the first one was released 11 years ago. There are several different kinds of hardware controls and some are better to use than others. The Sansa E-series, View and Fuze for instance use a control ring similar to the touchpad on an iPod, but hardware based. Some of the older players like the Cowon X5 or iriver H series’ used joysticks to control the player, while the newer iriver spinn tried to innovate with a control wheel. Still, the most used control type to date is the simple four way directional pad with a button in the middle, found on players such as the Sony series’.

Having tactile buttons have quite a few advantages over the more fancy touch screens. For one your finger will get some feedback and resistance when pressing down on a real button, which often translates to quicker browsing. This also makes most tactile control players a lot easier to use one-handed than touchscreen devices, since you have something to “lean against” without actually pressing anything without putting some force into it. Having physical buttons to orientate yourself by also means that using the player without looking, for instance in your pocket or on a training armband is a lot easier. Furthermore you don’t have to touch the screen and that will help keep the fingerprints away.

The major downside of tactile buttons is that they use a lot of space, both internally and externally. Unless you do like iriver and place the buttons underneath the screen and press the whole thing to navigate, you do need to have some space beside the screen to put all of the little plastic knobs. As a result, players with tactile control have a lot less screen real estate than a corresponding touch screen player when comparing two devices of the same size. Another downside is that you can’t have one button for each function and so functions need to be mapped to different buttons and it’s not always obvious what does what. There are also minor annoyances like cases needing to have holes everywhere to reach the buttons, while touch screen devices just need a big hole for the screen.

Touch Screens

Touch screens are the new “thing” that a lot of people want in a player, sometimes without really knowing why. The biggest advantages of touch screens are naturally the same as the biggest disadvantages of tactile controls. With touch screen devices you can get players where the screen covers almost the entire front of the player, such as on the Cowon D2, Cowon S9, Samsung P3 and so on. This allows for players which are relatively speaking small compared to the screen size. Bigger screens means they’re more suitable for video, which is why a new type of players have popped up over the last few years with screens in the 3-3.5″ range and resolutions of 272×480, so-called WQVGA. Some years ago, you either had 2.5″ 320×240 devices or 4″ 480×272 devices. The new type of players is very popular and the latest players like the P3 and S9 also have better video format support. You won’t get this type of player with tactile controls.

Touch screen players are also often the easiest ones to use, since you have virtual buttons where you essentially have dedicated buttons for everything. You can also drag your finger on the screen and navigate as if you were handling something real on the table in front of you.

On the downside, touch screen players are often slow to navigate compared to players with tactile controls. This is especially true for navigating long lists, such as a list of songs or artists. If you’ve ever had a Sony player you’ll feel like being in slow motion when flicking through the lists on a P2.

A touch screen player will also be a lot harder to use one handed since touching the screen at all will probably trigger something so you lose the ability to grip it properly. The same goes for using the player without looking, which makes using the player while in a pocket or on an armband close to impossible. Cowon’s implementation of hardware controls on the top of touch screen players has made them popular in this respect since you then have the pocket control abilities even if the main controls are touch screen based.

Another problem with touch screens is that you get fingerprints on the screen. This is especially annoying if you’re watching a video since you have to touch the controls on screen to control it and in doing so you’ll get the screen all messy.

Furthermore, a touch screen will never feel all that real to use due to the lack of feedback when pressing things. This is a bigger problem on touch screen based phones where you really need a hardware keyboard to get anything done. Some touch screen devices have tried to solve the issue with so called haptic feedback, which is a system where you get some sort of physical feedback when pressing virtual buttons. The iriver spinn for instance vibrates when you press a button, and the Blackberry Storm smartphone has a system where the entire screen is one big button so you have to press the virtual button and then press it hard enough to press down on the screen itself. Haptic feedback is still far from emulating hardware buttons, but in the future we might have screens that form into actual raised buttons which should help to make touch screens more easy to use for extended periods of time.

Capacitive Touch Screens

There are two types of touch screens: capacitive and resistive. Capacitive touch screens work by having a layer on the screen that detects small electrical charges like those your finger gives off. As a result, only body parts will be able to make the screen react with the exception of some random items like batteries, hot dogs, specially made styli and so on. The biggest upside to this is that the screen can be solid, often glass or very hard plastic, which will last forever and some might not even need a screen protector. Players with capacitive screens also tend to have more finger friendly interfaces because it’s not meant to be used with a stylus. Players that have capacitive touch screens include the Samsung P3 and the Cowon S9.

Resistive Touch Screens

Resistive touch screens work by having a layer on the screen that you physically tap to let the screen detect where the input is. This requires the screen to be very open and without the protection of glass or other hard materials. The screens are then both more open to scratches and less resistant to direct pressure. The positive thing about resistive screens is that it works with a stylus, which also means accuracy is greatly improved over capacitive screens. This isn’t all that useful for MP3 players- even though the Cowon D2 for instance has a drawing application which wouldn’t be all that usable on a capacitive player- but for larger devices such as UMPCs resistive screens are a lot more handy due to handwriting etc.

Touchpads/Touch buttons

Touch buttons are used by some companies (especially Samsung) and is a system where you have touch sensitive buttons integrated into the player. Examples are devices such as the Samsung T10, Q1 and U3. This control system really has no advantages whatsoever while at the same time having all of the disadvantages that a touch screen has. You won’t get the extra screen real estate or the easy to use interface, while at the same time having a player which is clumsy and difficult to use one handed, impossible to use without looking and slow to use due to the lack of haptic feedback. The system also requires the player to be “alive”, so you can’t have button combos to reset the player when using touch buttons. The only advantage to this system that I can think of is that it might look fancy, a feature that is extremely subjective and in many cases will be interesting for about 3 minutes before you’re stuck with a player that has a bad control
system and nothing good to show for itself.

Touchpads are what you find on laptops and also some players like the Zune. While the touch buttons have just one feature – yes/no (either it’s pressed or it’s not) touchpads track finger movement. That’s something you cannot do with tactile buttons and so it does have a purpose in life while touch buttons don’t do anything that hardware buttons can’t.


As with any other feature on a MP3 player, only you know what’s the best option for yourself. You should however make sure you choose features based on objective reasoning and not just because it looks cool. Hopefully this have given you a better understanding on what it means to choose a specific control method and the pros and cons with each of them.


Martin Sägmüller on May 25, 2009 6:32 AM

Great writeup – I especially agree with the the touchpad chapter. It completely eludes me how somebody could come up with, say, the YP-Q2 control scheme. They have to be the worst in usability I’ve ever tried and make absolutely no sense.

suffer1989 on May 25, 2009 7:24 AM

Meh… nothing can replace tactile feedback. Touch screen just feels too “floaty”.

Shortly on May 25, 2009 10:29 AM

I like both tactile and touch screen, for different reasons. My Sansa players are used when I can’t look at the screen, or when I’m concentrating on something else while listening.I use the touch screen for videos and for holding in my hand. It feels like more of a natural player. Where I can do many multiple level things quickly since I know the features of the player.In addition, the task I’m doing at the time determines the size of player I will be using. If I’m doing outside work, my Clip is perfect. If I’m in the car or at home, my O2 is better.So, I like both, but for different reasons. Please don’t stop with the tactile buttons! Further develop the touch screen, too! Always give us options, please.

Milad Thaha on May 25, 2009 10:29 AM

I do agree about Touchscreens. But I’m not all that supportive when you say the touchpad has no advantage. I own a ZVM and I don’t think that neither a Dpad or a touchscreen can replace the functionality that ZVM offer. Ofcourse, its a purely subjective case though.

Photoman on May 25, 2009 12:22 PM

That’s why I’m glad the new Sony Touchscreen have both with tactile buttons.

curious on May 25, 2009 1:04 PM

Just curious, what is the player to the right of the p3 and above the Archos.

Alex M on May 25, 2009 1:33 PM

@Curious:All I can say is that it’s an iRiver, but it’s not commercially available AFAIK.

Hillshum on May 25, 2009 1:53 PM

A touchpad feels cool/has the pointless flashyness of touch, without the fingerprints

Rich on May 25, 2009 2:10 PM

Nice article. It completely eludes me why some people can’t accept that people like their Q2s and T10s. No-one is forcing them to buy one.

Bluecold on May 25, 2009 5:39 PM

@curiousiRiver P20

jjrosaria on May 26, 2009 12:38 AM

great article.. IMO touch screens are better as long as they are properly executed..A couple of hardware buttons (home, play/pause, forward and backward, volume) would be nice.. A greatly designed interface would be nice.. and not sluggish.. As long as all those aspects are retained I think that touchscreen devices are a tiny bit better.. and cooler lol

copeys on May 26, 2009 2:20 AM

great read :) . Nice to see an article that isnt bias, giving each point a fare go. Not like the others you see round the ‘net!Good info on the different types of touch screens as well, now I know why the touchpad on my laptop dont work with pens ;)

Andreas Ødegård on May 26, 2009 4:20 AM

@Milad Thaha:I forgot about that kind of touchpad since only the Zune uses it nowadays besides the ipod. Touchpads do have advatanages, so I edited the article and split the touchpad section into touch buttons (samsung style touchpads) and touchpads (zune/zvm). Samsung style touchpads are just touch sensitive buttons and dont give you any navigational advantages like the ZVM did and the Zune do, while touchpads does something that hardware controls can’t. Thanks for reminding me about that one, I knew I’d forgotten something.@Rich:People can buy and like whatever player they want to, noones disputing that. Touch buttons like the samsungs have however dont have any objective advantages over hardware controls, while they have a lot of disadvatages. “it’s cool” isn’t really an objective reasoning. As such it wouldn’t be fitting to include it in an article that aims to explain the pros and cons of the various control methods.

Tony on May 26, 2009 5:37 PM

I prefer tactile buttons over touch screens. Not the touch sensitive buttons like my Zen vision M had but buttons that actually click. My Zen’s Main Button was awful. Try to scroll down the song list and it selects a song before the song you wanted, Try to select the song and the stupid thing scrolls. There were times when I just wanted to smash it on the ground.The problem that I have with touch screens is that they gather finger prints. You also have to hold the device without touching the screen (or lock it) to prevent accidental button presses. IMO touch-screen are better left for things that are mounted (like car stereos) and not for things that you handle and carry around.My Sprint HTC touch pro has windows mobile with a touch screen (what a Nightmare!) I cannot tell you the amount of times I dialed some one by accident. I once turned the phone over (face down) and it dialed someone!! Now this phone takes crap to a whole other level. It’s hard to believe that a reputable company would sell such crap.

The DarkSide on May 26, 2009 8:55 PM

I loved the article, and it’s totally on point. Excellent work!!!I’m a victim of the Q2′s horrible controls, and it really is a nightmare when a player has touch controls just for the sake of a trend. I’m glad my S9, and to a lesser extent, Touch don’t have as many issues as the Q2. Separate issues, maybe, but navigation isn’t 1 of them.

Otter on May 27, 2009 11:26 AM

Nice article, and I totally agree on the evil of touch buttons.But I still have one big question about capactive touchscreens: should we expect this technology to improve in the future? Is the ability to ‘intelligently’ detect the center of a person’s finger tip possible? (as opposed to reacting to any skin contact at all)

EmHatter Project on May 27, 2009 8:56 PM

A great article but nontheless I just can’t come to terms with touchscreen. Just too slow and finicky for me to use. I really require something solid under my fingertips for me to be happy. Not even tactile spin-rings are good enough for me. The fact that this causes me to have a smaller screen size doesn’t bother me because I couldn’t care a whit about looking at pictures or video on an mp3 player. I figure that’s what my television and computer are for! I bought my mp3 player for music and that’s just what it’ll do.

b.chicco on June 2, 2009 1:28 PM

@Tony “IMO touch-screen are better left for things that are mounted (like car stereos) and not for things that you handle and carry around.”Sorry but I don’t agree. Touch screen on vehicles are very dangerous if used by driver. I mean them are very distracting because you must see the screen device instead the way.

epathchina on June 3, 2009 3:07 AM

Yes,touch screen make us change the menu on mp4 player easily,but i think it will be broken when you touched too many times.

sotlennomenclature on June 7, 2009 8:27 AM

I have both a Cowon D2 and a Fuze. I bought the D2 first, but have not used it since I got the Fuze, mainly as a result of the ergonomics of the controls. The control wheel and buttons of the Fuze leave the touch screen Cowon for dead. I can operate the Fuze in my shirt pocket, with the buttons facing outwards, thru the shirt material, including rotating the wheel to turn the sound up and down – all without looking.

ipod repair on June 15, 2009 11:57 AM

I bought the D2 and use it all the time.

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ruskie on June 24, 2009 5:40 AM

Well I’m not a big fan of touchscreens. I consider them a gimmick. Maybe if they’ll be as someone stated moulding so that you have an UI that extrudes a button then that would be nice but for now I’ll stick with plain old buttons. So far I had an iPod Shuffle 2G and Samsung YP-S2 aka Pebble. Love both of them for exactly the same reasons. No nonsense audio only player with proper buttons I don’t need to look at to control. I can operate both blindly and know exactly what I’m doing. Once touchscreens can imitate that great. Until then…

Evony on July 17, 2009 4:58 AM

My Zen’s Main Button was awful. Try to scroll down the song list and it selects a song before the song you wanted, Try to select the song and the stupid thing scrolls. There were times when I just wanted to smash it on the ground.

ashiiya on October 8, 2009 1:17 PM

I don’t have a preference, although I tend to lean toward the tactile controls more often. I don’t mind touchscreens, touch sensitive controls OR touchpads like the Zune. To me, they all have their uses and there’s no point for to complain about them in general since each type of control has their own pros/cons.As with the touch sensitive controls, I don’t think they’re completely bad, but maybe lacking in terms of usability xD it’s just fun to use.

chinaelectronics on October 21, 2009 3:38 AM

No matter how technology.Touch-screen mobile phones than the average life expectancy is an indisputable fact that short.A new touch-screen. The general life span is to click 300,000 times, crossed about 200 thousand times. Five years should be no problem.

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I agree that the touch screen. But I was not all of the support,

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