Excalibur Touch Chess Review

by Chris Kantack

What you will learn on this page

The purpose of this web page is to educate you about my experience with Excalibur Electronics' new handheld chess computer called "Touch Chess".  Often I will compare Touch Chess with Excalibur's original LCD Computer Chess product or with ChessMaster running on the GameBoy.  On this page, I'll often refer to Excalibur's  original handheld as "LCD Chess".  The Nintendo GameBoy running ChessMaster will usually be referred to as "GameBoy ChessMaster".

I consider the original Excalibur LCD Chess handheld along with the new Talking LCD Chess to be one of the best computer chess bargains ever invented.  Touch Chess is another product that has no equal in its price range.  While both these products share many similarities, there are a few differences that prospective buyers should be aware of.  These differences could possibly sway your decision to choose one product over the other.  At the end of this page, I will provide my email address and links to other pages and sites that contain information about the LCD Chess and Touch Chess products.  If you still have an unanswered question, or wish to comment on any of the material I present here, feel free to email me. 

Introduction to Touch Chess

"Touch Chess" was a brand new chess computer product from Excalibur Electronics in 2001.  If you are familiar with Excalibur Electronics' handheld "LCD Chess" computer product, then you will already be familiar with many of  Touch Chess's features.   Though Touch Chess uses the same "chess chip" as LCD Chess, the "chess thinking" software on Touch Chess is newer and some additional features have been added.    What really sets Touch Chess apart from LCD Chess (and many other portable chess computers), is its ease of use.   Virtually all functions and operations, including piece movement, are controlled by touching the screen with the end of a small plastic stylus.  Touch Chess has a very attractive design.  With a golden-tinted chrome housing, the unit measures 4 3/8 x 3 1/8 x 1/2 inches.  The overall touch sensitive screen area measures 2 1/2" high by 2" wide (or 3 1/4 inches diagonally).   The actual chessboard measures 1 7/8 inches square (giving it a diagonal measurement of 2 1/4 inches).  Unlike the original LCD Chess unit, which was especially contoured to fit in the left hand, Touch Chess fits equally well for left or right-handed use.  

Stylus Storage and Usage

The stylus is a small plastic pen 3 3/8 inches in length.  It easily stows away in a small cylindrical "slot" located within the right side of the unit.  When fully inserted, the stylus snaps securely into place.  You will not lose this stylus by accident as long as you stow it away properly.   The stylus is easily retrieved again by pulling it straight out of its slot.  Stylus storage is so easy that in games where I've had 3 minutes or more per move, I'll actually put the stylus away after each move, then pull it out again when entering the next move.  Thus I've extracted and stowed away the stylus hundreds of times.  It still works as good as new.  You'll find the stylus and its internal storage compartment quite durable.  There is nothing special about the makeup of the stylus.  So if for some reason, you would lose the stylus, any small pointing device will also work. 

Superb User Interface

Using the stylus to move a piece and/or perform a function could not be easier.  It takes just a gentle touch of the tip of the stylus to select a piece or to choose a destination square.  Board position set up is also "a breeze" with Touch Chess.  Access to special functions and virtually every other feature that is available is quite easy to access using the Touch Chess interface.   

The only feature, not available via the screen interface, is the contrast control.  A small dial, located on the back of the unit, is used for contrast adjustments.    It works flawlessly and your adjustment will remain secure until you need to adjust the contrast again.   (I find that I only need to adjust the contrast once every month or two to accommodate the aging of the batteries.)  

Good Display Characteristics

As with the LCD Chess unit, Touch Chess' screen is usually best viewed not by looking directly at it but at an angle where the upper portion of the unit is a bit further away than the bottom of the unit.  For additional comments on the optimum viewing angle, refer to the "Display Quality" paragraph found on my Excalibur vs. GameBoy ChessMaster page.

The size of Touch Chess' display is great!  Touch Chess side by side with the original Excalibur LCD Chess Computer - click for a larger view Indeed Touch Chess' display is even larger than the one found in LCD Chess.  The style of pieces is the same as with the LCD Chess unit.   Those new to Excalibur LCD units will find that they will very quickly adapt to the look of the pieces.  Both displays have excellent color schemes making them easy on the eyes.  

Another big plus for Touch Chess (along with the original Excalibur LCD handheld), is the display's resistance to overheating when used in direct sunlight.   There have been several cases where I've seen the display on the GameBoy or Palm unit (go black) shortly after being exposed to direct sunlight.  The Excalibur units, on the other hand, continue to function well with easy to read displays.   (This may be due to the shiny nature of the unit's casings---reflecting most of the sunlight so as not to overheat the units.)

Display Characteristics That Could Be Better

If there is one thing I could do to improve Touch Chess, it would be to improve the brightness of the display to match that of the original Excalibur LCD Chess handheld unit.   Outdoors or in relatively bright rooms, Touch Chess' screen is fine.  However, in less than optimum lighting situations, the LCD Chess screen is much easier to read than Touch Chess.  If you plan on a lot of chess playing in less than ideal light, (say a nightly commute home on a bus for example), you may seriously wish to consider the LCD Chess unit over Touch Chess.   I'm not saying that Touch Chess' display is bad.   It is excellent in bright areas and certainly better than GameBoy ChessMaster.  But because of the touch screen technology used, there is inevitably some light transmission loss resulting in a darker screen under marginal lighting conditions. 

I've also noticed a bit more glare (stray reflections) on the Touch Chess display than I do with the LCD Chess unit or GameBoy.   Some of this is due to the larger screen found on Touch Chess.  But I tend to think an improvement could also be made to the screen plastic that would significantly reduce what glare is present. 

Battery Life

Touch Chess uses 3 button batteries (type: AG-13 or more commonly know as LR44).  These batteries are not expensive costing only around $1 each.  Your first set will come supplied with the unit.  Expect your batteries to last up to a year or more unless you play many, many long games each week.   Excalibur chess computers are the most efficient electrical devices that I've ever encountered.    Contrast this with the GameBoy which (if you're lucky) will last maybe two to three long games with a single set of batteries.

Overall Durability

I haven't yet dropped Touch Chess and I don't plan to.  My feeling is that this unit may not be as durable as LCD Chess but I can't be sure.   My LCD Chess unit, on the other hand, has been dropped (accidentally) several times.   LCD Chess usually does a system reset when I drop it (or requires a reset after I drop it) but otherwise it survives quite well.  Once, when I dropped LCD Chess on to a hard floor, it came completely apart.  I quickly snapped everything back together and, after a system reset, it ran fine again..   So while I can say, from personal experience, that LCD Chess is quite durable, I don't yet know about Touch Chess.  (Update:  I've been using Touch Chess for 15 months now with no problems.)

What's so special about Touch Chess?

In a sense, you could call Touch Chess a revolutionary product.  To the best of my knowledge, no other LCD style chess computer is nearly as easy to use as Touch Chess.  Sure you might be able to find a chess program with a comparable interface on a Palm or Pocket PC.   But those PDAs will be quite a bit more expensive than Touch Chess' $49.95 list price.  Note, Touch Chess comes with batteries and a protective pouch included.

Touch Chess makes a great learning tool!

Like the original Excalibur LCD Chess handheld, Touch Chess contains many features that will appeal to the novice chess player.   The following features (which can be toggled on or off) will appeal to many newcomers to chess:

    - Threat Warning Indicator : (warns if piece is in danger)
    - Hint feature: (computer can recommend a move for you)
    - 4 levels of play specifically for beginners  (there are 73 total levels)
    - Help feature (shows all legal moves for a selected piece)
    - Training Positions (provides practice checking the Black king)
    - Book Opening Trainer (allows one to play and practice one of 34 popular openings)
    - 32 "Mate-in-Two" and 1 "Mate-in-three" practice exercises are included

Great for Advanced Players Too!

As with LCD Chess, Touch Chess has features that will appeal to more advance players.   These selectable features include:

    - "Fast" (selective search) thinking option
    - Random (computer randomly chooses between two equally good moves; adds more variety to play)
    - Open (instructs computer to use one of 34 different openings)
    - Info (shows moves that computer is considering and the number of moves that Touch Chess is "thinking ahead")
    - Undo key  (Allows you to "take back" a move.  You can undo up to 13 whole moves; 26 ply.)
    - Rating (Touch Chess will rate your play!)
    - 73 levels of play  (Level 73 is an infinite time level--you determine when Touch Chess is ready to move)
    - 16 Great Games (allows you to play thru sixteen of the world's greatest games)
    - Setup Mode (Touch Chess provides excellent support for setting up special board positions)

The manual that comes with Touch Chess has some nice summary annotations for each of the 16 "Great Games" that are stored in its memory.  

Easy Position Setup

Touch Chess' ease of use is especially useful when studying moves and positions from chess books.  With GameBoy ChessMaster or the LCD Chess handheld, you must press (sometimes) several keys to complete a move.   When playing chess against the computer, this is not a problem.   However, when studying from chess books or when re-entering games from a magazine, it is quite possible to lose one's train of thought when having to enter  several keystrokes.

No so with the Touch Chess unit.  One enters a move by simply touching the piece with the supplied stylus then touching the destination square.   As long as the move is legal, it is immediately executed.   Nothing could be more natural.   It's quick, simple, and it sure makes studying chess text a lot easier.   So even if you don't care about having a computer opponent available, I still highly recommend Touch Chess to anyone who spends a lot of time studying other chess books or games.  It's a perfect companion for chess study.

Better Sound Options 

Touch Chess' software is a newer more refined version of that used in the Excalibur LCD Chess unit.   I'm glad to see that Excalibur Electronics has learned a few things since making the LCD Chess unit.  While I still love the original LCD Chess handheld, I've always been disappointed by the lack of a sound option that would completely silence the unit.   On the original LCD Chess unit, even with the sound "off", there is still a loud confirmation beep after each computer move.   Indeed, many people have opened up their LCD Chess units just to disconnect the speaker.   

Fortunately, there is no need to tinker with the innards of Touch Chess as it has the following three sound options: 
                 - All sound on (key presses and moves)
                 - No sound on key presses (but still beeps on computer move)
                 - No sound except for error buzzes

"Error buzzes" are very rare and not loud at all.   Thus I believe everyone will find Touch Chess' new sound options quite adequate in any environment.

(Note to owners of LCD Chess: Tobias Giesen has a web page illustrating the installation of a sound switch for the original Excalibur LCD handheld.  Click on http://www.tobiasgiesen.de/excalibur.htm for more information.)

Improved Chess "Brain"

Touch Chess also has had some refinements made to its chess logic.   Ron Nelson, who is the developer behind LCD Chess and Touch Chess, estimates that Touch Chess is approximately 100 Elo points stronger than LCD Chess.  I've played several games with these units competing against one another.  It took a while, but after many games I do see where Touch Chess is indeed a bit stronger.  (Keep in mind 100 Elo points is not a whole lot of a difference.)  In any case, at around 1450 to 1550 Elo, the computer opponent in either LCD Chess or Touch Chess should be sufficiently tough to frequently beat nearly all casual chess players as well as provide a serious challenge to many "club level" and some tournament players.

If you're looking for a stronger chess handheld,  your best bets are the new Talking LCD Chess handheld or, for even more strength, I highly recommend getting a Palm PDA and running ChessGenius or  Chess Tiger.  I estimate Chess Tiger's playing strength at around 2200 Elo.

 

Touch Chess vs. LCD Chess vs. Talking LCD Chess (Which to buy?)

Many of the features amongst these three units are nearly identical.   One big advantage of Touch Chess is that it has a an extra "quiet" sound option.  I'd definitely go with Touch Chess if you plan on using it in environments where you don't wish to disturb others.  Of course the PDA (pen stylus) interface makes playing Touch Chess much easier than with either LCD Chess units.  Very little effort needs to be expended on setting up a position and making moves.  However, Touch Chess' screen cannot be read in dim light nearly as well as with LCD Chess or Talking LCD Chess.  Keep this in mind, if you plan on playing with your handheld in less than good lighting conditions.  

On the other hand:

If you cannot find Touch Chess for what you feel is an affordable price, by all means, consider LCD Chess or Talking LCD Chess.  Talking LCD Chess is quite a bit stronger than Touch Chess as it uses a newer chip.   Even the old LCD Chess unit provides 95% of the strength and functionality of what Touch Chess offers for less money.  If you will be using your chess portable in less than optimum lighting conditions, I'd easily go with one of the LCD Chess units over Touch Chess.   LCD Chess' screen is noticeably brighter with a bit less glare than Touch Chess' display.  And while I find Touch Chess ideal for "chess study", there is certainly nothing wrong with using Excalibur's original LCD Chess unit for the same thing.   (It just takes a bit longer to set up a position and to enter a move.)

In any case, the Excalibur handhelds, in my opinion, are superb values.  If you have an old Palm PDA, I'd recommend instead purchasing ChessGenius or Chess Tiger.  The Palm PDA units provide the option of stronger play and a much more readable screen.

Where you can Purchase Touch Chess

Touch Chess is no longer readily available.  However, check around the internet.  There's a good chance that if you search on the term "Touch Chess" at Google or Ebay, you'll find someone that still carries the product or has an individual unit for sale.  The original list price of Touch Chess was $49.95.     

Any Questions?

If, after reading thru these pages, you have further questions or comments relating to any of the material I've presented, drop me a note!  My email address is: chessinfo@kantack.com or just click on the envelope icon at the bottom of this page.

Related Links

Your Move Chess & Games Touch Chess Review  
"The Chess Piece" home page Excalibur Electronics Home Page
Touch Chess Operating Manual Excalibur LCD Chess Operating Manual

 

Top of page        Home        Links

My Computer Chess Pages

Handheld Chess Overview        LCD Chess vs. GameBoy ChessMaster

Talking LCD Chess        Touch Chess

Chess Station        Alexandra        King Arthur

Chess Tiger        ChessGenius

My Other Chess Reviews

GameTime II        Fancy Chess Set        A Parent's Guide to Chess

 

email chessinfo@kantack.com if you have any questions