If you’re old enough to remember what would now be classed as “feature phones”, the precursors to smartphones, or very cheap tablets, then you’ll have experienced using a resistive touchscreen. Modern smartphones and tablets pretty much invariably use capacitive screens. This is not to say that capacitive screens are good and resistive ones bad, but it highlights the fact that the two types of screen are very different both in the technology behind them and in how they are best used.
As their name suggests, resistive screens respond to pressure, whether it’s from a finger or from a stylus. Their lack of sensitivity, as compared to capacitive screens, limited their usefulness on mobile devices, but it can be a great asset in environments where robustness is more important than precision. If all you need to do is select from a range of options which can be displayed in the form of large icons, for example on-screen number pads or a short list of menu options, then a resistive screen will probably be more than up to the task. As it is the lower-tech solution (than a capacitive screen) it is likely to be cheaper and it will definitely stand up better to environmental hazards such as moisture, which can be brutal on capacitive screens.
In very simple terms, capacitive screens work by taking advantage of the fact that the human body is a natural source of electricity. Instead of responding to pressure like their resistive counterparts, capacitive touch screens register the location of the electrical charge generated when a finger touches their screens and turns this into an instruction, such as “display the letter e”. This means that capacitive screens need to be worked either by a bare finger or with special gloves or styluses designed to transfer an electrical charge. Capacitive screens are, frankly, miles ahead of resistive ones when it comes to precision work, particularly on smaller screens such as the ones on mobile devices. Such precision, however, comes at a price, both financial and in terms of overall robustness. Capacitive screens are usually somewhat more expensive than resistive ones and they are also less robust, being particularly vulnerable to moisture.
Choosing the right touchscreen for your situation
If you require a touchscreen for highly precise, detailed work, such as inputting long strings of data, then a capacitive touchscreen is really the only way to go. If, you are looking for maximum robustness, especially in damp conditions, and/or the lowest possible price, then a resistive touchscreen is really the only way to go. If, however, you have the budget for a capacitive screen and you value its precision, but have concerns about how it would stand up to regular use, particularly outdoors, then the compromise approach could be to use a capacitive touchscreen with some form of protection, such as a cover. This would need to be a cover which was specially designed for capacitive screens, i.e. one which would still transfer the electrical charge they need to work, but this solution could add that extra level of robustness to make a capacitive screen a viable option.