Windows 7 supports a multitouch interface out of the box, and a number of laptops have shipped with touch-enabled LCD screens. For the most part, multitouch has been useful only with Windows 7-specific applications or with third party apps designed for the Windows 7 touch interface. Once you've played with the bundled Microsoft Touch applications, their novelty starts to wear off.
Now iBuyPower, a purveyor of boutique gaming PCs, is taking its shot. The company's Armada MT20X uses touch-enabled Windows 7, but iBuyPower also provides a utility that it calls Magic to enable standard DirectX games to take advantage of the touchscreen.
Intrigued, I gave Magic a whirl, and overall I give the capability a cautious thumbs up. It's not particularly useful for first person shooters, because using it seems to impose an input lag and because the interface of such games seem as naturally well suited to using a keyboard-and-mouse combination. On the other hand, turn-based and real-time strategy games can benefit from multitouch, though my experience was mixed. I checked out two games, Supreme Commander 2 and Warhammer 40,000 II: Chaos Rising, on the Armada MT20X. Before you can use touch effectively, you need to run the Magic profiling utility, which lets you change the Windows default for touch controls. Each game may differ, but most real-time strategy games use left and right clicks for various move and attack options. In such games, touch seem useful when you can't use a mouse, but in the end, it's no real substitute for a mouse and hotkeys.
It is crucial to your gaming success that you set up the controls carefully. For example, though setting up single-tap as left click and double-tap as right click is easy, doing so is not a good idea, because if you start tapping furiously to give orders to multiple units, you'll get confused as to which unit is doing what. It's much smarter to use a combination key, like Shift-double-tap. Ultimately, though, using a mouse is still easier, at least until true touch-enabled games arrive. Ruse, Ubisoft's upcoming real-time strategy game, is being built from the ground up to work with multitouch interfaces, and the Armada might turn out to be a great system for playing Ruse on.
Then again, maybe not. The MT20X ships with a beefy Intel Core i7 720M CPU, but its GPU is a rather anemic mobile Radeon HD 5650. Even with laptop's resolution scaled down to 1680 by 1050 pixels and its features set to medium-low, Just Cause 2 eked out a scant 17.4 frames per second. Far Cry 2, run in DirectX 9 mode at medium settings, fared better, hitting 42.9 fps at full 1080p resolution. But Dawn of War II: Chaos Rising managed only 22 fps at medium settings and full 1080p. So if you plan on buying the Armada MT20X as a gaming rig, you'll need to play the more demanding titles at lower resolutions and reduced graphics settings.
When running desktop apps, the MT20X fell slightly behind other PCs in its class, posting a WorldBench 6 score of 104. The unit also has a somewhat limited array of ports, with two dedicated USB ports, one eSATA/USB combo port and VGA, HDMI, ethernet and audio in/out jacks.
On the plus side, display quality and sound quality were a cut above average. The small speakers don't deliver booming bass or room-shaking volume, but stereo imaging was good, albeit tightly constrained. The speakers cranked out a noticeable midrange boost, bringing voices to the fore, something we liked when running movies.
WMV content looked excellent, which made us long for a Blu-ray drive. We watched DVDs of Raiders of the Lost Ark and Serenity, scaled up to full-screen resolution, and noticed pleasing colour rendition. Our overall impression of image quality was positive, but detail levels seemed to fall short of those on the recently reviewed Micro Express NBL60.
In the end, the Armada MT20X seems to be a fairly average 6.6-pound laptop with a good 15.6-inch screen that does offers bright, saturated colors and the plus of a Windows 7 touch interface. Nevertheless, don't simply assume that touch is what you want. We appreciate iBuyPower's effort to enable users to play more games via touch, but the overall effect seems more bolted on than organic. And at around £850, the Armada MT20X is a bit pricey for its performance level, even with the novelty of a multitouch screen.