Resistive vs Capacitive TouchScreens

My recent work in experimenting with Android cell phones has reminded that there are two types of touch screens used in modern cell phones: resistive and capacitive. 

Resistive is the type of touchscreen used by Windows Mobile Professional and Windows Mobile classic devices. (Windows Mobile Standard devices don’t have touch screens). These screens are traditionally used with a stylus and respond to light pressure. A finger or any improvised stylus can also work. They can only respond to one touch point at a time.  

Capacitive is the type of touchscreen used by the IPhone, and by most of the Google Android phones, such as the TMobile G1, the TMoblie MyTouch 3G, and the Verizon droid. These are designed to work with a human finger. They do not respond to a stylus unless it is specifically made for this type of screen. It can respond to more than one touchpoint at a time (multitouch) and therefore has a greater range of gestures it can respond to.   

Which type is better? As always, it depends. The resistive touch screen is better at pinpointing an exact location if you are using a stylus. It is also better for entering text via handwriting.  The capacitive touchscreen is much easier to use with a finger and can seem more friendly. This is often why your friends get all excited about the IPhone’s touchscreen when Windows Mobile has had one for years.

The usability of either type of screen depends greatly on how well software is designed for it. Microsoft has announced that Windows Mobile 7 (not yet released) will focus on capacitive touchscreens, while Windows Mobile 6.5 will continue to focus on resistive touch screens. Some operations in Windows Mobile applications, and even in BackCountry Navigator, are more difficult to achieve without a stylus. BackCountry Navigator for the Android will take a different approach to selecting waypoints on the map or a list.   

What challenges do the screens bring for people who want to use their cell phone in outdoor recreation? There are a few things to be concerned about:

  • Waterproof protection (ie dry bags/cases) Because resistive touchscreens respond to pressure, they are able to respond to touch through a flexible plastic membrane, like those on the OtterBox and Aquapac bags. One challenge is that the accuracy of the touch can be reduced if the bag is either too tight or too loose. Since capacitive touchscreens rely on current from human skin, one might wonder if they work through a drybag, but they do in all the ones I’ve tried.  
  • Stylus retention. This comes up frequently for those who use a resistive touchscreen on the trail or in a kayak. Having a clip on your dry case may be sufficient, but even better is attaching your stylus to a retention string of some sort. If you don’t pay attention to stylus retention, you will sooner or later find yourself in the woods whittling a promising twig into a replacement stylus. For a capacitive touchscreen, you want to buy a specialized stylus that will work on the screen. Retention is even more important because the twig won’t work.  
  • Use with gloves. While this may not be a concern at your workplace or the mall, you do want to keep your hands warm while in the outdoors. Resistive touchscreens will continue to work, but your capacitive touchscreens suddenly stops responding when you put gloves on. This situation has given rise to some products known as IPod gloves or IPhone gloves. These simply have bits of aluminum in the finger tips in order to conduct current properly. I do not know yet if they have these in neoprene for kayakers.   


A few products are helpful in enjoying the benefits of your touchscreen in the outdoors. Below are links where you can buy a specialized stylus that will work with a capacitive touchscreen. In general, a product advertised for IPod or IPhone will also work well for other devices, like Android phones, with a capacitive screen. If you buy one of these products, be sure and comment on this page about how well they work for you.

In conclusion, knowing your touchscreen, its capabilities, and its limitations, can help you have more fun in the outdoors with your mobile phone.  

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