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 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 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.
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.