Capacitive or resistive: what’s the best type of touchscreen?

In the real world

Capacitive or resistive: what's the best type of touchscreen?

So what’s the difference between these two technologies in practice? First and foremost, resistive screens tend to be stylus-friendly, while capacitive screens favour a swipe with a finger. That’s a generalisation, because some manufacturers have recently made resistive screens that are more finger-friendly, while some clever people have come up with conductive styluses that can work (kind of) on capacitive screens.

For finger-based user interfaces capacitive is still far better, though, while if you need the single-pixel accuracy of a stylus then resistive is the sensible choice.

The fact capacitive screens can sense more than one finger press at a time brings me to their major advantage – they can support multitouch interfaces. For those of you who’ve never used such an interface, I can best describe it as one of those light-bulb-over-head revelations. The classic demonstration is in Google Maps, where if you want to zoom in on an area you simply make a pinching gesture on the screen and the map zooms proportionally: spread fingers outwards to zoom in the other direction.

It’s a brilliant and intuitive control mechanism. (And yes, I do know that around a year ago a couple of companies demonstrated ways to get multitouch on a resistive screen, but so far as I’m aware, it hasn’t been implemented on a smartphone yet.)

One area where resistive screens win out is on price, since capacitive screens (plus their associated controller chips and other trimmings) usually cost around half as much again as their resistive counterparts. This isn’t too significant in a high-end smartphone where the margins tend to be pretty large, but it becomes an issue for entry-level devices.

iPhone 3GS

The question as to which technology is more robust is an interesting one. Since the front element of a resistive screen needs to be flexible, it will be some type of plastic, but as anyone who’s ever been sold a “scratch-resistant” coating on their specs will testify, there’s no such thing.

On the other hand, capacitive screens, being made of glass, are more susceptible to shattering by sharp knocks. I have a friend who keeps her iPhone in her handbag, along with all the other junk that women keep in there – she’s now on her third one, thanks to sharp objects such as keys, scissors, tweezers, pens and so on.

Of course, she should keep the phone in some sort of protective case, but that’s a bit of a cop-out as the whole point of a modern phone is to have it readily to hand.

Protective cases raise an interesting point. For a resistive touchscreen you can buy snugly fitting skins in which the screen area is a thin clear window, and because it’s flexible the touchscreen will work through it. It won’t be as responsive, but it will work. The same trick can’t be employed for capacitive screens, where the tolerances are so tiny that any sort of barrier will prevent operation.

You’ll also find that capacitive screens won’t work if you’re wearing gloves (although some manufacturers now make gloves with electrically conductive finger tips). It’s also pretty well impossible to use a capacitive screen in the rain.

Resistive screens win when it comes to accuracy, since a well-calibrated screen should be able to detect stylus position to within a single pixel. However, because the touch surface is actually a millimetre or so above the LCD, there’ll be a potential parallax error: calibrate it while viewing absolutely square on and it will still be a pixel or two out when you use it at an angle.

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