Touch on Linux is a little Touchy

I recently purchased a hybrid device. Acer Aspire R3 131T. It is a nifty little 11 inch device – a little low powered maybe, but enough for my needs. I mainly bought it because I need it to read a lot of heavy PDFs (which Kindle could not handle properly) and it doubles as a small laptop for other purposes when needed.
Initially it came with Windows 10. However, being a little Linux lover at heart, within 24 hours, I was trying to install Ubuntu 16.04. Which, fortunately for me, installed alright and works quite fine – luckily because the WiFi card, processor, and Graphics card are all Intel based. And Ubuntu runs quite alright on it as well. Except one thing that is.
Touch.
Don’t get me wrong. Touch works. When I double tap on a folder, or tap on the Dash, it opens. That is okay. But the experience is not polished. And no where near Windows 10.
Because, like it or not Windows 10 absolutely kills Linux when it comes to touch.
Almost all of its default apps cater much more to the needs of touch based devices than keyboard and mouse based devices. Infact, for many of its non-UWP Apps, like the File Explorer, there is a special option in the Settings App where they can be optimized so that they incorporate a little extra space in all of their options (for example in the pop-up menus, spaces between individual items). Using touch on Windows 10 is an absolute pleasure.
Not that it has its own problems. The Windows Store still sucks (when it comes to updating and downloading apps), I absolutely hate it when Windows suddenly reboots for an update or when shutting down Windows does not shut it down and starts installing some update with the message “Preparing Windows”, when it hangs (yeah, Windows still does that sometimes) and so on and on and on. Also, the Universal Windows Apps have dumbed down the user interface so much that when using it in desktop mode, it looks quite out of place and rigid, with very few keyboard shortcuts for quick customization. All these problems are a few reasons why I love Linux.
But despite all of these glaring problems, using touch on Windows is a pleasure. I do not like Windows 10. But the way Microsoft has implemented touch is commendable. And may I say even, exemplary.
So, naturally, I wanted to see how touch is on Linux. The first thing I did was install Ubuntu GNOME 16.04 (using GNOME 3.18, if I remember correctly). And I will be honest – it seems to be built with touch in mind. And touch actually works quite okay with it. The problem? It is slow and often does not respond. I often flip my laptop when I have to read a PDF or some other document – and naturally this means, I had to use Evince a lot. And my experience with touch in Evince was not good. Zooming in and out with 2 fingers works fine, but whenever I do so, the page goes black and it takes about a second to re-render the page. It kind of breaks my workflow. I often read PDFs with detailed images and when Evince does that, it often takes me by surprise. Not just that, scrolling using touch is a problem. Scrolling using the mouse is really smooth, and so is zooming and panning – so I do not think it is a problem of low-end hardware or some software problem, but I think this is specifically a problem related to touch. And of course , I do not want to talk about the absolute lack of annotation in Evince.
Compare this with a fantastic PDF reader and Annotator I found on the Windows Store – Xodo. It is just beautiful and really well designed. Almost every kind of annotator is there and Zooming, Panning or scrolling using touch is just flawless. It is almost like a refreshing break from the bad touch support in Linux.
I also tried other PDF readers like Okular and Atril – but if Evince had bad touch support, then they do not have anything at all. The finger basically works as a pointer and nothing else. Multi-finger gestures are non-existent, so zooming, panning and scrolling using touch is a horrible experience involving dragging scroll bars and clicking little buttons.
That is enough talking about a single app. Let’s talk about the interface. As far as the interface is concerned, I think GNOME is the only one with a lot of touch support, while Unity is somewhat there (I aam talking about Unity 7, in Ubuntu 16.04). Swiping from the side brings the Applications page, the entire GNOME Shell has been designed with large buttons and interfaces which are easy to touch. Really, the biggest problem I faced while using GNOME with touch was that the animations bogged the system down – especially because I have a low powered processor (Intel Pentium N3700) and just 4 Gigs of RAM. But then that is going to be the case for most of the upcoming low priced general purpose laptops, now that computation is moving to the cloud and browsers are starting to dominate our daily activities. I even disabled Animations using the Tweak Tool, even then the GNOME Shell felt slow. Moreover, the onscreen keyboard was very narrow with no options for changing its width (from a GUI).
Next I tried Ubuntu Unity. And to be honest, I think it provided the right balance between a keyboard centric interface and a touch centric interface – although the close, maximize aand minimize buttons are a little small. Switching apps using the Unity Launcher Bar is quite fluent and so is dragging and dropping apps from one place in the bar to another. Using Dash is also quite fluent. However, the standard OnBoard Keyboard is a little slow and although much more customizable than the Windows 10 Onscreen Keyboard and the GNOME Keyboard (which is a very good thing), it feels a little sluggish. Which, to be honest, kills the entire experience.
I did try KDE (via Kubuntu 16.04) as well, and I think it suffices to say that that the touch just works as a pointer and nothing else (as exemplified by Okular).
Before you come bashing at me saying “East or West, Keyboard is the best” or “Command Line! Command Line! Command Line!”, I just want to interate here – YES, keyboard is very important for productive tasks. But what about when you just want to use your hybrid device (which are slowly starting to dominate the market) to read a book? Or watch a movie? Or do some GUI based task – like even editing a video (which is a fairly heavy task but can be an excellent use case for touch based interaction)? Yes, Linux is, in my humble opinon, much more flexible than Windows when it comes to doing non-touch tasks like coding, or writing documents (which is exactly why inspite of all that Windows-praising, I am typing this on LibreOffice in Ubuntu), but let us not forget, touch is slowly but steadily becoming the future of interacting with our personal devices. Maybe it will never be the most productive way of doing so, but it sure is the most natural way of doing that. I think Linux should not find itself late to the party of touch-based interaction.
I wish that GNOME would improve upon their touch based features, but at the same time also bring some more customization and material when it comes to keyboard based interaction, and I think that KDE is missing out on a whole lot here. In my opinion, KDE could massively benefit from touch-interaction, because I think it is the only distro which nails the right balance between customizability and space between different elements – it has a lot of buttons and they are well spread out for the human fingers to distinguish.
The way users interact with devices is facing yet another paradigm shift, and it is high time Linux adapts to that shift. Touch needs to be taken seriously, because while it may seem dumb and limiting but it is also the most obvious and natural way to interact with computing devices.

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5 thoughts on “Touch on Linux is a little Touchy”

  1. I think the boat has already passed. Touch was the thing when phones came to the market. That boat is sailing and is soon gonna pass….if not already passed. The futures lies in AR and VR based devices. If Linux wants to stay ahead and not just keep up, it needs to target at the future and not the present. Don’t get me wrong, I’m a huge Linux fan and use it daily, but I’m just being honest here

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Maybe. I believe we are looking towards a more touch-based future. Sure VR is going to come in a big way, but at the same time, it needs to be affordable for all, because the hardware requirements for VR are above average. Let’s see – it could be either ways. Hell, as much as I love Linux, if Microsoft is betting on Touch so much, there must be some hidden potential there.

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