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It's already just started happening: you buy a laptop (or "ultrabook," if you like), and you get touch. Now it'll be up to developers whether that's useful. Acer S7, earlier this month.

It’s already just started happening: you buy a laptop (or “ultrabook,” if you like), and you get touch. Now it’ll be up to developers whether that’s useful. Acer S7, earlier this month.

Earlier this month, I had the pleasure of traveling to Taipei, Taiwan for Computex, where Acer was promoting its latest touch hardware. Normally, I’d ask whether there was reason for musicians and DJs to care. But this time, the computer maker is hoping the passion around music will be a factor that woos users to their newest machine.

Let’s get one thing straight: the PC market itself isn’t going anywhere. In the final quarter of last year, PC makers shipped hundreds of millions of units. (That includes Apple – and it’s another reason Apple may not want to get out of the conventional PC market.) There are now more than a billion PC users worldwide. This isn’t just some people in coffee shops in San Francisco and New York; it’s a huge chunk of the population of Earth using this stuff.

Taipei is a spectacular place, culturally and technologically, and not just because I have a soft spot for dumplings. (Actually, I'm really glad I don't live there, or I might eventually be indistinguishable from a dumpling.)

Taipei is a spectacular place, culturally and technologically, and not just because I have a soft spot for dumplings. (Actually, I’m really glad I don’t live there, or I might eventually be indistinguishable from a dumpling.)

The PC market isn’t going away, but you can expect the relative power of different players to shift. We are starting to see big changes, led by volatile new markets (growing phone and tablet sales), economic pressure, and changing tastes. Some players are up – Apple grew by a bit, for instance, and Lenovo by a lot. Others are hurting; in 2012, Taiwan-based Acer Group themselves saw a lot of negative growth. That includes big drops in the US at the expense of HP and Lenovo, in particular. These things come in cycles; the question isn’t who’s up or down right now as where they’re headed.

Acer seemed cogniscent of the challenges. CEO JT Wang went as far to admit that the reason some of those billion PC users aren’t buying new machines is that users “are becoming smarter” – and more demanding.

The message behind the Taipei press conference and the Acer lineup for 2013 generally is that touch is instrumental to broadening the appeal of their range. It’s hard to overstate this, particularly in contrast to Apple’s separation of computers without touch from iPad and iPhone. Acer featured touch on most of their ultrabook and notebook ranges. In fact, only a couple of the models they showed came in non-touch versions.

Very often, these are ten-point, high-definition, low-latency touch sensors, too. I didn’t get to test the Acer machines yet properly, but hope I will. Generally, though, the quality and responsiveness of what’s available in the Windows market has advanced immensely, from the downright-lousy offerings of a few years ago to touch displays that now rival or best what you can get from something like an iPad.

A few models stood out.

There's a subtle message here; see if you can spot it. I'm going with "change the passwords on the dinosaur embryo protection facility."

There’s a subtle message here; see if you can spot it. I’m going with “change the passwords on the dinosaur embryo protection facility.”

R7: Big Touch Laptop, Crazy Hinge

The Aspire R7, unveiled in New York in June, is definitely an oddity. Weighing 2.4-2.5 kg (over five pounds) and with only a 4.5-hour battery life, it’s portable but hardly a competitor for an ultrabook. What you get in exchange is a massive 15.6″ touch display running at 1920×1080, plus decent i5/i7 CPUs and GT 720M 2GB NVIDIA graphics. The display itself is on a special hinge Acer calls the “Ezel,” which allows you to shift the display toward your face, rotate it around so someone else can see, or make a really, really big 15.6″-sized tablet.

Oh, yeah, and to allow you to put that touch display closer to your face, they put the trackpad above the keyboard. They also have some ads that seem to make it seem like using the R7 is like jumping off a volcano or crashing the Starship Enterprise.

The R7 has a really big display. Seeing this instead of a little 10" tablet (cough) is a massive difference. If some developers took advantage of that, it could be a joy to touch - imagine an oversized tablet with laptop-class performance.

The R7 has a really big display. Seeing this instead of a little 10″ tablet (cough) is a massive difference. If some developers took advantage of that, it could be a joy to touch – imagine an oversized tablet with laptop-class performance.

As a convertible, though, the R7 is ... a bit peculiar. What that hinge does for, you, though, is create a touch surface you can actually suspend above the base and still touch comfortably, which could offer more live performance scenarios.

As a convertible, though, the R7 is … a bit peculiar. What that hinge does for, you, though, is create a touch surface you can actually suspend above the base and still touch comfortably, which could offer more live performance scenarios.

A Russian blogger at the press event set the R7 next to his 13" MacBook for comparison.

A Russian blogger at the press event set the R7 next to his 13″ MacBook for comparison.

It’s worth reading The Verge’s review, as they do a great job of going over the tradeoffs. You can also watch the slightly surreal launch video.

But everything about the R7 that might make it less popular for mainstream users seems more useful to creatives and live music performance. One of the major complaints about touch onstage is that it just isn’t big enough. Here’s a large display you can shift into all kinds of positions or use as a conventional tablet, with extremely precise touch support and beefy innards. (And on the visual side, you get a decent GPU and stylus support.)

Imagine if you could switch from Ableton Live to a Windows-based touch controller on the same machine, carrying only one computer to a gig and getting rid of the normal annoyances of wifi connections and the like. The R7 does things other touch machines don’t. Its flexible hinge makes it touchable in various configurations – as a tablet, but also elevated to bring it closer to you. And its larger size gives you more real estate to touch, without having to carry around an enormous desktop display.

Better Ultrabooks, No Ultrabook Convertible

No yoga master: the Acer S7 has a unique hinge, but because the display can't lie flat, fully extending it isn't so useful for touch.

No yoga master: the Acer S7 has a unique hinge, but because the display can’t lie flat, fully extending it isn’t so useful for touch.

Otherwise, the S7 is a really pretty machine. As an ultrabook, it's well worth considering against similar PCs (and MacBook Air). If it could just get a little flatter or fold into a tablet...

Otherwise, the S7 is a really pretty machine. As an ultrabook, it’s well worth considering against similar PCs (and MacBook Air). If it could just get a little flatter or fold into a tablet…

If the R7 is too radical, the Aspire S7 is a more conventional laptop. If you ever wish you had a slim laptop with a touchable screen, this is just that. It has a Gorilla Glass display and nice aluminum case, and reasonably-powerful innards with insanely-long battery life. (With new Intel tech inside, the S7 – like the new MacBook Air – extends that battery life over previous models.)

I have to say, of all the machines from different makers I saw at Computex, I think I probably like the S7 the best. It definitely feels Mac-like, but still distinctive. It also feels really nicely made, and now runs quieter and has greater keyboard travel than the previous generation. Its display resolution goes all the way to 2560 x 1440 on a 13″ screen – impressive.

Interestingly, the “budget” sibling S3 comes with a better GPU option – a 1GB NVIDIA GT 735M. There’s also the more affordable V Series, which also offers touch and GPUs.

The real problem here is, if you want to take advantage of that touchscreen, it’s touch to get your arms into a comfortable position. While makers like Lenovo and Asus make convertibles that fold into tablet form factors, and while Acer does this with the R7, the S7 can’t quite get its touchable display flat. It does feature a “dual-torque” hinge that lets you extend the display to almost 180 degrees, so you could conceivably do that and turn it upside down, but since it isn’t quite flat it will rock a bit as you touch it. (I tried it on the demo units.)

It seems Acer could use a convertible portable laptop like Lenovo’s Yoga – and then you’d have, again, a versatile Windows laptop that you could fold into a tablet form factor for better touch experiences creating, improvising, DJing, or performing.

I’ll say this, too: it’s really too bad the PCs don’t yet have Thunderbolt.

DJ Tie-ins, Serious Real-Windows Tablet

I know a lot of CDM readers have been unimpressed by the iPad, dreaming instead of a tablet that ran real Windows software. Microsoft’s own Surface Pro embodies that idea. The Aspire P3 bests Microsoft’s offering almost spec by spec. It’s noticeably lighter, has a 1920×1080 display to the lower-res screen on the Surface, and has more standard high-end specs. I didn’t get a lot of hands-on time with the P3, but my first impression was that I liked the screen and handling the hardware better than I did the Surface Pro.

The P3 actually has a cover that it pops in and out of, though it's still reasonably light and thin with the cover attached. You get a much more usable keyboard than you do on the ultra-slim Microsoft Surface Pro keyboard. Photo courtesy Acer.

The P3 actually has a cover that it pops in and out of, though it’s still reasonably light and thin with the cover attached. You get a much more usable keyboard than you do on the ultra-slim Microsoft Surface Pro keyboard. Photo courtesy Acer.

The sub-$1000 P3 is also the subject of the Acer DJ tie-in with Tiësto.

And here’s where things get a bit strange.

The Tiësto Seal of Approval

Alongside the P3, Acer launched a promotional campaign with DJ Tiësto – still by nearly any measure the richest DJ in the world. (Inking these sorts of deals is likely to keep it that way. He is lucky, though, that Daft Punk split their cash between two people.)

As far as attracting Tiësto fans, I can’t really fault the ad. (Those devoted fans give Acer nods in comments, and even go to the trouble of working out the set list in the music bed.)

But it’s hard to escape the feeling that Acer doesn’t quite understand the significance of computers in music.

In Acer’s world, real DJs don’t use computers – they use Pioneer CDJs. (Note, you never see Tiësto touch the Acer. His usual Pioneer rig is there, instead – and in a party held by Acer for guests in Taipei during Computex, that’s exactly what he did, jam on his CDJs and DJM.)

Women are either models or nagging bosses. (Heidi Klum as the model?)

And the people who actually do use computers to make music are nerds. (“Vernon” definitely looks like a slimmer Wayne Knight. Keep an eye on Vernon, actually; he may be trying to steal dinosaur embryos.)

Also, your production manager / tour manager wishes he was the one DJing. (Wait – okay, that part sounds pretty realistic.)

Now, in fairness, many, many gigging DJs these days are split between Pioneer CDJs and computer rigs running Traktor, Serato, and the like. At Tiësto’s level, they’re pretty heavily biased toward CDJ, with some exceptions – Deadmau5, Guetta, and Skrillex, among others, I think are all using laptops. But it does seem an odd choice to seek out the CDJ user when you’re a computer company.

I did hear from Acer reps that they had been told by Tiësto that he’s using his Acers. He might be using them with the CDJs via Rekordbox software, in which case you wouldn’t see them onstage. But, then, I think an Acer laptop could be perfectly at home onstage.

The laptop-free Tiësto party held by Acer in Taipei.

The laptop-free Tiësto party held by Acer in Taipei.

Compare, for example, how Apple shows their products. Here, in place of “work” and “play,” mobile and desktop Apple machines are simply part of life – including a DJ running a MacBook with a Traktor rig, in front of a crowd. (No celebrity endorsement is necessary: it’s clear this is just how people play music.)

For a non-Apple example, we recently saw an Acer laptop (yes, Acer) with Four Tet. He was running Ableton Live on a nice-looking Acer laptop. That was not any kind of paid endorsement; I think that’s just his computer. And quite frankly, these machines can often offer more bang for your buck than the ones from that other company whose name begins with the letter ‘A,’ depending on your needs and preferences.

Just as musicians and DJs really do use computers and not just CDJs, they use Windows and Acer and not just OS X and Apple.

That said, the actual software you see in the Acer ads is pretty darned good: and it could be the tip of the iceberg if music devs start to embrace touch on Windows.

Bite of the Apple: Touch DJing on Windows

Virtual DJ works really well with touch, thanks to some redesigned controls. And unlike a tablet, you can then use any hardware you like, and run any Windows software you want.

Virtual DJ works really well with touch, thanks to some redesigned controls. And unlike a tablet, you can then use any hardware you like, and run any Windows software you want.

Acer’s bundled VirtualDJ edition – which they say is worth US$79 – is actually no slouch. It’s a sign that you really can transform desktop Windows software into touch-friendly versions. (Cakewalk’s SONAR and FL Studio, along with, in particular, Sensomusic Usine, have also added touch features.)

Evidently a custom, touch-ready version of VirtualDJ LE, the OEM release, the Acer-exclusive software was pretty easy to navigate with fingers, including touch-style knobs for EQ, filters, and effects as you’d see in software like TouchOSC or Lemur on iPad. The big faux record decks I could do without, but otherwise this is the quite-nice, very possibly underrated VirtualDJ software package you see on Windows and OS X.

And you get exclusive Tiësto content. Okay.

No matter. I think the point is, all Windows apps should have the ability to do this. One of the big deficiencies in going from Traktor on the iPad to Traktor on a desktop right now, for instance, is that you lose all the benefits of being able to touch and drag the waveform to cue, slice, and remix sounds. These kinds of gaps seem like they’ll become even more apparent. The first music developers to get this right will have a big edge, because a lot of PC users who don’t own iPads or want to make music on their main computer will soon have machines capable of touch. They’ll gravitate toward the software that’s ready for them.

So, even amidst this odd Tiësto campaign, I’m glad to see Acer doing this. And because you do need to support touch explicitly, this is a natural OEM opportunity for music developers. Just bundling a DJ app with a PC may or may not make sense. But if you have the DJ app that works well with its touch features, then there’s a real case to be made.

Turntables, also touchable and a very big deal. The DJ at the Acer press conference used both the P3 and a turntable running control vinyl to control Serato running on a more conventional Acer laptop.

Turntables, also touchable and a very big deal. The DJ at the Acer press conference used both the P3 and a turntable running control vinyl to control Serato running on a more conventional Acer laptop.

Tune in next time…

…for a look at how touch and music making could converge on Windows, plus a survey of some of the convertible machines out there. (Hint: they’re … kinda crazy.)

Previously:

As Touch and Laptops Converge, Finally Potential for Music Making? [Prelude]

Windows Touch and Music, Demonstrated with Surface and Reaktor