How to pick the best desktop display for Windows 8

Robert Cardin

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Windows 8 doesn't require a touch-sensitive display, but once you begin using a monitor that supports all those groovy new touch gestures, you'll find that the OS offers a completely different (and more engaging) experience.

This fact presents challenges for desktop PC users who've just upgraded to Windows 8. Should you stick with your current nontouch display, or move to a new one that offers touch support? Which features are important in a touch-capable display? As for other multitouch-friendly hardware options, can they deliver the same cutting-edge touch features that new Ultrabooks, hybrids and tablets possess?

Follow along as we answer all of these essential upgrading questions. (If you just want to know which desktop touch displays are available now, jump past the next section.)

Windows 8 has gone touch crazy

Windows 8 integrates touch support as no previous version of Windows has done. In the new Windows Start screen and in various Windows Store applications, you'll be able to use scads of touch gestures, many of them involving full, ten-point multitouch interaction; that is, the display will recognize the unique input from all ten fingers on your hands.

Even in the standard Windows desktop, touch works better than it did in Windows 7. In fact, some new Windows 8 devices come with pressure-sensitive styluses that let you draw or paint digitally with predictable precision.

Many traditional desktop PC users may feel that touch support is unnecessary for Windows 8. And if you work primarily in traditional desktop applications—such as Microsoft Office, Adobe Photoshop, and various PC games—that’s probably true. But as you start to use more Windows Store apps, you’ll find yourself reaching out to touch your screen more and more often, and you may start to regret that your display doesn't support touch.

The good news is that numerous multitouch displays that fully support Windows 8 are on the horizon. You just need to choose the one that best suits your needs and your budget.

Windows 8 certified displays are already here

At this writing, Windows 8 isn't yet a month old, so touch-ready desktop displays constitute a very immature product category. And for the same reason, the current crop of touch-enabled monitors is fairly expensive.

Acer's 23- and 27-inch touch displays use a simple, but effective stand.

The 23-inch Acer T232HL retails for $499, while its larger 27-inch sibling will sell for $700. The Acer uses an extremely simple, springloaded stand that's essentially a large, bent piece of metal, albeit a good-looking bent piece of metal.

Dell's S2340T includes USB 3.0 ports, a webcam, and an array microphone.

The Dell S2340T costs $650—expensive for a 23-inch, 1080p display—but it ships with a cool stand that can tilt completely flat, along with additional USB 3.0 ports, a webcam, and an array microphone. The Dell and Acer monitors are full IPS displays, so the panel technology is high quality.

Planar has introduced its Helium 8 (aka the PCT2785), a 27-inch, full HD panel that looks to sell for $899. Meanwhile, LG has announced the ET83 Touch 10, but that model's pricing and availability are unknown as yet.

The first rule of monitor shopping is, Don't skimp on image quality! Even if your budget is tight, try to find the best-quality display you can afford. You can work around awkward pedestals and poorly located cable connectors. But you'll be staring at your screen day in and day out, so it's not the place to economize.

Luckily, current-generation touch displays, though expensive, seem to be using high-quality components. Most boast IPS (in-plane switching) technology, which offers a wide range of satisfactory viewing angles plus good color fidelity.

You won't find multitouch desktop displays with resolutions higher than 1920 by 1080 (also known as "full HD"). Even 27-inch touch displays are limited to 1080p; and no 2560-by-1440-resolution displays with capacitive touch are yet available for discrete, stand-alone monitors. Fortunately, display quality is great at 1080p on many touch displays.

Five-point versus ten-point touch

Microsoft's certification requirements for Windows 8 devices are fairly stringent. To be Windows 8 certified, a monitor must be able to to react to five simultaneous touch points. This excludes touch technologies based on side-mounted infrared sensors, for example, as they often can't detect occluded finger touches. The solution of choice for current-generation displays is ten-point capacitive touch sensor arrays, similar to those used in smartphones and tablets. These sensors are pricey, which clearly contributes to the fairly high price tags on Windows 8-ready desktop displays.

Microsoft also established fairly strict guidelines governing how displays should integrate side bezels. Various Windows 8 gestures involve swiping inward from the edge of a bezel, which demands a new approach to display design. All of the Windows 8 touch displays I've seen add a thin layer of glass that covers both the LCD panel surface and the bezel in a continuous sheet. This sheet typically incorporates the capacitive touch sensor as well.

Note the smooth glass extending across the bezel in the Dell S2340T.

Another key requirement addresses how the touch interface should communicate with system hardware. Microsoft specifies that the touch interface must connect via either USB or the i2C bus. Because i2C is a circuit-to-circuit connection that's unavailable when you attach an external monitor, USB is the only practical option as a connection path under those conditions. Bottom line: If you want to attach an external touch display, you'll need an open USB port on your PC. Microsoft doesn't specify a particular version of USB, so USB 2.0 is probably good enough.

I've been using a 23-inch Acer T232HL panel. It's already available at retail, and it comes with a USB 3.0 connection and cable. Whether I connect it to a USB 3.0 or USB 2.0 port doesn't seem to matter: The touch features work fine either way.

Acer's T232HL is a 23-inch IPS display with touch support.

Other requirements in the certification document involve things that aren't listed in product specs and that you can't check for when comparison-shopping. But if the display you're considering is Windows 8 certified, it does support those features. Two of them, in particular, are quite interesting:

First, a display must be firmware-upgradable by the user. I once had a firmware problem with an older, nontouch display, and the only fix was to ship it back to the manufacturer. Ensuring that users can upgrade firmware is a major advantage.

Second, the display's touch digitizer must be HID compliant. HID (human interface device) is the standard for USB input devices. An HID-compliant device won't require a separate driver—so once you connect the USB interface, touch should work, with no further device driver installation required.

Various other certification requirements address touch latency, touch separation detection, and more. The only technology that covers all of these bases today is capacitive touch. Other technologies, including infrared sensors, seem promising, but no manufacturer yet ships a display that meets Windows 8 certification while using sensors other than capacitive touch.

Connections and ergonomics

In addition to having USB connections, you'll need display connectors. Most displays ship with DVI and even VGA connectors, but they also typically include HDMI connectors. And some monitors, such as Dell's aforementioned 23-inch S2340T, include DisplayPort connectors.

Product designers are also doing interesting things with stands and ergonomics. The Acer T232HL (shown above) uses a single, curved bar attached via a ratcheted spring mechanism to enable the display to tilt at various angles, depending on how you want to use the hardware.

Dell's S2340T, meanwhile, offers an impressively flexible stand that you can tilt easily at various angles, including completely flat (see below). The USB 3.0 ports are on the base and are easy to reach. The Dell also includes a webcam and an array microphone, which make its $650 price a bit more palatable.

Dell's display brings new meaning to the term "flat panel."

What about support for multiple displays? Well, you probably don't need two or three touch displays, as most of your touch opportunities will occur in single-screen-only Windows 8 apps and in the Windows 8 Start screen. Of course, you can use touch on the Windows 8 desktop, but there it's useful primarily for basic system navigation—such as for calling up the Charms bar.

I've already mentioned the dearth of high-resolution touch displays, but integrating multitouch in high-resolution monitors is certainly possible. Case in point: Dell already sells a 27-inch all-in-one—the XPS One—that features a native 2560 by 1440 resolution. Whether future touch displays take this direction will depend largely on consumer demand and on how much consumers are willing to pay. The prices of 27-inch, 2560 by 1440 panels are starting to drop, so I hope that we'll see some high-resolution models with multitouch support by early 2013.

In lieu of a new display

If you're already heavily invested in a high-quality monitor, you can take advantage of the new touch interface in other ways. Microsoft and Logitech offer a line of multitouch-enabled mice, for example. And perhaps even more useful is Logitech's T650 wireless touchpad, which fully supports Windows 8 gestures. As a desktop user, you may not want to give up your mouse for a touchpad, but the T650 makes for an interesting secondary input device.

The Logitech T650 is a 5-inch touchpad with multitouch support.

Bottom line

During conversations with various display manufacturers, I learned that capacitive touch sensors add about $100 to the price of a display. This premium will likely decrease over time. For now, though, if you want a touch-enabled Windows 8 experience on your desktop, you'll have to pay a price premium to get it. Nevertheless, once you start using those new touch gestures, you'll have a hard time going back.

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