Acer's P3 convertible Ultrabook sits astride a Serato Scratch rig (running on a conventional laptop, actually). The software is a new touch-enabled version of VirtualDJ, made for Acer and currently available free with their touch range. Photo from the Acer event in Taipei.

Acer’s P3 convertible Ultrabook sits astride a Serato Scratch rig (running on a conventional laptop, actually). The software is a new touch-enabled version of VirtualDJ, made for Acer and currently available free with their touch range. Photo from the Acer event in Taipei. (And yes, the iPad has something to say about this, as well.)

“Where are my touch laptops?”

It’s becoming the “where are my flying cars?” of the laptop music age.

And so it is that I’m here in Taipei, Taiwan, having spent today hanging out with Acer as they talk about what they’re doing with touch on their computers (laptops and tablets). The touch laptops are here in force – not a couple of netbooks or tablet PC oddities, but with the full-blown force of the PC industry behind them. The question now is whether we actually want them.

2012 was a little early to ask that question for the music audience; now the mature products – with Windows 8 behind them – are in the 2013 generation. I have some specific information to share, but I want to back up and consider some of the broader questions first. (If you just want to look at hardware, read later this week.)

It’s been nearly a decade since electronic musicians first started seeing touch in the wild. At the time, the power was immediately evident: you had the ability to imagine new ways of interfacing with music without the limitations of hardware knobs and faders. It was Star Trek: The Next Generation-style power, finally appearing in the real world. And that was a natural fit to musicians suddenly facing computer capabilities that lacked obvious form – sounds unfettered by the laws of acoustics and physical instruments. So it was also immediately apparent that eventually, you might want these touch interfaces to merge with your computer.

But since that first epiphany, the marriage of touch with conventional computers has been surprisingly slow in coming. Apple showed the way with iPhone and iPad, in their own categories. But laptops, with their hinged clamshell design, are another animal. Conventional software written for the mouse and keyboard can be simply awful when you start jabbing with your fat fingers, and the hinged design of a laptop leads to the dreaded “gorilla arm”: using a vertically-oriented display feels uncomfortable and makes your arms go numb. (On behalf of the gorillas of the world, I have no idea why this is called gorilla arm; maybe gorillas were unfairly subjected to usability testing in an early computer lab.)

So, why would you want a laptop to be touch-enabled, anyway, instead of a dedicated tablet running touch-centric software? Apple, for their part, has drawn a line in the sand and decided you don’t. Their MacBook line eschews touch beyond the trackpad, and focuses on conventional (still very powerful) software. The iPad is the platform for touch. Even years into a supposed “post-PC” age, software on the two remains very different – and the OS X software is far closer to its Windows brethren than iOS. Whatever rampant speculation about the two fusing, with the MacBook and iPad leading their respective sales categories, there doesn’t seem to be a logical motivation to fuse those two – least of all when Microsoft’s strategy to treat the two categories as blurred have initially fallen flat.

And let’s be clear – this can’t be understated – the iPad is working as a music platform, a new music platform. It’s working so well, in fact, that it’s easy to lose sight of whether its rivals are in the game.

But looking forward, there are reasonable arguments to adding touch to a laptop – itches that neither tablet nor conventional laptop can scratch.

1. You might want a bigger display than a tablet. (With the success of the iPad mini, and sales of smaller Android tablets or even the Kindle, tablets tend to like sizes at 10″ or far below.)
2. You might want some ports (note: plural) for connecting hardware – for us musicians, audio interfaces or controllers. That can be a difficult, expensive, or even impossible proposition on the iPad.
3. You might want more computational power. Apologies to brilliant chipmakers, but that again returns to size accommodations (think heat and battery requirements, in particular).
4. You might like to run any software, not just what’s available through a store. (Users run software made by developers, and so this means the narrower capabilities of development frameworks on those stores – Microsoft’s as well as Apple’s – don’t always fit what developers create.)

Or, to put it even more directly, why carry a laptop and a tablet if both are basically computers with displays? Why shouldn’t the laptop also offer an alternative to the tablet?

But could another PC maker give you a laptop you would want? Just as you might admire Apple for their focus on separate laptop and tablet categories, I think there’s a place for the PC OEMs exuberant experimentation. There, fans of natural selection will find, increasingly centered close to manufacturing in Asia, rapid iteration and a “let’s see what sticks,” all-categories-covered barage of product ideas. And some of these ideas do stick: Apple alone didn’t – couldn’t – build the one billion user global PC market. They’re just so far short of another real hit in this age.

Touch, physical contact, and gestures matter - in every nuance. This happens to be, I'm told, the right way of eating dumplings in Taiwan. (Okay, it also gives you more tactile feedback than a touchscreen.) Come on, I'm doing research.

Touch, physical contact, and gestures matter – in every nuance. This happens to be, I’m told, the right way of eating dumplings in Taiwan. (Okay, it also gives you more tactile feedback than a touchscreen.) Come on, I’m doing research.

Musicians don’t exactly make up a good picture of the global PC consumer base. But they do represent people who can push machines to their limits when it comes to expression and performance. They’re the ones using all those ports at once when average consumers don’t – and using their full bandwidth. They’re filling up hard drives and requiring maximum throughput when reading them. They’re the greatest test of every nuance of a touch display, every millisecond of latency, because they don’t just use them as an interface: they use them as an instrument.

And the clamshell laptop is in a way an icon of the revolution in computer music making – and the target of disdain. Think of how often – years into widespread music performance on computers – you hear complaints about “laptop” music, “laptop” performance, people checking their email, even the glowing fruit logo of a certain popular vendor as it hovers over audiences.

We’ve got another shot at seeing a replacement. What’s remarkable to me is, for all the success of the iPad, if you go to clubs or live shows, experimental or dance music, the best you’ll see the iPad do is sit next to a laptop. So there’s clearly something missing here.

Taking nothing away from other hardware and acoustic instruments and all the myriad ways you can make music, this question of whether you can make music with commodity computers remains interesting. Ever since Kraftwerk first wrote songs about the joys of appropriating business machines, musicians have continued to do fun things with mainstream hardware designed for a completely different purpose.

So – let’s become operators of our pocket calculators once again, and see how things are stacking up. I’ll have more on the specific hardware later this week, some impressions from Taipei (of Acer and others) and – because this takes some time to test and cover – at last through the rest of the year. (And yes, readers have been asking for this; now I think the time is right.)

In the meantime, it’s worth pointing to developer Chris Randall, who’s been tackling multi-touch with a very big external display. As the PC makers struggle to get it right in hardware, it turns out that making the actual music making software is an even bigger challenge. Chris writes:

As all regular readers of AI know, I’ve spent the better part of a year (and gone through two fairly expensive touchscreen monitors) trying to come up with a touch-based app for songwriting and live performance. I’ve just got my seventh (!!!) attempt working to the point where it can actually be used to make music, so I thought I’d toss up a quick video.

He puts together a combination of synth hardware, custom computer-generated noises, samples, and touch sequencing. Watch:

Well, the thing about a black canvas – the thing that makes it beautiful – is that it is open to a lot of possibilities. And those take time.

Tune in soon for the exciting … uh, continuation and very much not final conclusion … to our saga.

Naturally, having endured this editorial, if you have specific hardware or questions you’d like me to investigate while roaming the big PC vendors at Computex, Taipei, let me know now! I hope we’ll have more conversations with these makers in coming months.

  • Todd Keebs

    Really looking forward to your coverage on this Peter! I’ve been eyeing up the R7, so would definitely love for you to check that out in depth this week. The P3 pictured above is nice, but in my opinion the sweet spot of usability and portability is somewhere between 15-17″ to avoid squinting at/hunching over a tiny screen while performing. I’ve found an iPad size fine for a dozen faders or so, but getting more in-depth begs for a larger screen.

  • John Albert

    Theres a music based review of the Microsoft Surface here (using Reaktor):
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=c2oXVYTiHqY
    The thing is pretty sweet, but the software companies need to catch up and include support for multitouch.

    This new trend of all-in-one computers with batteries seems super promising – the Dell XPS 18 is basically an 18 inch tablet with a kickstand – exciting to see what making music on this thing will be like.

    • http://pkirn.com/ Peter Kirn

      Wow, terrific video – and nice Reaktor patch there. The Surface Pro is nice but really heavy; Acer is now making effectively the same thing but light enough you might want to use it. So there’s some potential here. If you’re that handy with Reaktor, you’re … well, a very small market, but you could have a heck of a lot of fun.

    • lala

      see, the guy has to hold it in 2 hands and also has to use the table to get rid of the weight

    • lala

      so what is remaining from the multitouch is 2 thumbs 2 use it if its not on a desk &_&

  • gLOW-x

    Windows multitouch was already implemented…in Vista. Yes, Vista.
    Tablet PCs existed way before iPad.
    And the first multitouch enabled Windows music app is Sensomusic Usine…early 2010.
    But no one cared about this. What is going to change now ? iOS already invaded the music market and you think now Android and W8 are going to be game changers ?
    Not me. Android already pretended to be years ago. We know history.

    The answer is the same, as usual : no devs, no apps, dead system, like tablet PCs years ago. That’s why Apple flooded the market with apps.
    See you in 5 years ;)
    PS : i’m not an Apple fanboy.This message is written on XP SP3 ;) And i use an iPad too…because there is no credible alternative for serious music making now.

    • http://pkirn.com/ Peter Kirn

      I don’t disagree. But there are a couple of things that are different. Five years ago:

      1. Vista had multitouch APIs, but there were no apps and the OS wasn’t built around touch. W8 has an actual reason to use touch.

      2. The Windows market is now actually demanding touch and tablets.

      3. Five years ago, a lot of that hardware seemed in the “hobby” category; now it’s getting implemented across product lines.

      And, really, none of those things matters as much as this one:

      4. The old hardware sucked. Seriously. Laggy, imprecise, awful displays, price premiums for machines that were slower … so, if the hardware is better now, that’s a significantly bigger factor.

      It’s still way too early to view this stuff as a good investment for music developers. But sometimes – see that Reaktor video – you can give developers a reason to toy around with something and solve the chicken and egg problem.

    • http://pkirn.com/ Peter Kirn

      Oh, and I’m hilariously here in Taipei with an iPad 3, an iPhone 5, and a MacBook Pro. Ahem. But I do have Win 8 on dual boot and in Virtual PC, so that … uh … almost counts. ;)

  • Graham Thorne

    The Microsoft Surface Pro doenst support multitouch right? Surly one of the main advantages of having a touch screen is that you can use more than one point of contact?

    • Steve Elbows

      The Surface supports 5 point multitouch and the Surface Pro supports 10 point multitouch. Not that I would recommend the first generation of these devices in particular.

  • lala

    touch enabled software – meh
    > stands for now we have bigger buttons?! :/

    if its not made for multitouch I’m not interested

    • lala

      the other thing is most devices are much to heavy
      there is much more sex in it if u can hold it in 1 hand
      this gets u away from the desk idea :)

  • experimentaldog

    My wrists hurt after using a touch screen vertically, so that’s out. Then there’s the problem for big fingered people like myself who accidentaly hit the wrong fader or cant quite turn a virtual knob. The UI has to be low res. or big enough for easier access. The current menus in most software are still way too small. Faders buttons and xy pads seem easiest. I still think it would be great if there were hybrid music platforms in the works. Like Live Push that was actually a fast computer housed in a Push with screens in the pads for clips and ports for external touch screens and devices. Or a device that has tons of buttons and ports that can run Max,PD,Live, chuck, etc. Merge the tablet computer with haptic hardware…

  • Random Chance

    I have an iPad and some software for making music and you know what? I rarely if ever use it for anything other than presentations, reading and casual web browsing. It’s nice to have multitouch faders and all that but it’s still nowhere near what I’d call a decent substitute for physical controllers (as opposed to simulations of them on a touchscreen). I’m all for using computer technology to make playing and producing music easier and more enjoyable than with more convential means. I tried a graphics tablet, then a touch screen, different PDAs, now the iPad. It’s all rather, uhmm, disappointing. And I’m not sure that Microsoft and its OEMs will change that in the foreseeable future. It has to be the application that drives the development of tools, not the other way ’round as it seems to be with touchscreen technology at the moment despite some interesting things happening.

  • Nick Cuttooth Cooke

    It kinda seems to me like we’re still seeing the Betamax version of this technology. It’s gonna take a couple more generations before it really establishes itself as the way forward for music making. The fact is that there’s nothing wrong with a desktop PC and a mouse, just as there’s nothing wrong with an SP1200 and I don’t think we’re going to see anything changing in a hurry.

  • newmiracle

    I’ve been keeping up with CDM for years now, and always keeping an eye out for touch screen advances.

    If you are investigating, please look at all touch devices you can. Ask about latency, horsepower, etc. It would be awesome if you could have a copy of Usine on a USB stick and ask if you could take it for a spin on the devices (probably a slim chance of that).

    But here is what I’ve been saying for years: 10 point capacitive touch monitors. Things are getting better as of this year, but they are still very expensive. Don’t get me wrong, I’m tempted by x86 Windows 8 tablets. But you’re still stuck with the integrated graphics. I just want the touch! What are feasible options for affordable touch screens that have good performance for under $400? I’ll upgrade the GPU, CPU, and the rest when I see fit.

    Microsoft was pushing for Windows 8 to be the touch OS. At the time it came out the only monitors that supported the 10 point touch suggested minimum requirement were $600-$700 cheapest. And they wonder why people didn’t upgrade.

    What are my music making touch screen monitor options for a $400 budget? Will the new crop for the year be cheaper, quicker, sharper? Any other whiz bang features that set it apart from the rest? That is what I’d like to know from Computex.

    • Todd Keebs

      I think you’ll be quite happy to see that ASUS has something right up your alley:
      http://www.engadget.com/2013/06/04/asus-monitors-computex-2013/

      No word on pricing, but I can’t imagine they’ll be horrible.

    • Steve Elbows

      There is a lot of very understandable skepticism about multitouch desktop monitors due to the ergonomic issues. So its not clear to me how quickly there will become a big enough market for these things for the price to drop.

      Personally I wanted to start messing with windows multitouch but wasnt a fan of the first gen of windows 8 tablets & multitouch laptops, so I bit the bullet and got an Acer T232HL multitouch monitor for now instead. It wasnt cheap, but at least its large enough to experiment with stuff that goes well beyond what the ipad can offer, and has a mechanism that allows me to angle it in a manner that doesnt make my arms fall off too quickly. However I have totally failed to develop anything fun for it yet, and to say that the current windows touch-capable software offerings are underwhelming would be a large understatement.