The Apple Magic Trackpad is a blessing, but in disguise. It’ll require new muscle memory for dedicated mouse users, is better than a conventional trackball, and has amazing new features. But it’ll require a period of acclimation.
The Apple Magic Trackpad was released on July 27, 2010 without a lot of fanfare. It’s a five inch (13 cm) square touch surface that provides a trackpad experience for desktop users. Apple’s product page says, “Why should notebooks have all the fun?”
Apple Magic TrackPad (Apple)
Hidden in that question is the suggestion that notebook computers are very popular, many people operate their notebook by touch alone, dispensing with an additional mouse, and, most importantly, Apple is luring its customer base over to the concept of doing more touching and less mousing.
What better way to round up and include the desktop users in the touch and gesture experience than a touch trackpad? Of course, the question is, how well does it work?
It’s the Muscle Memory Stupid
We, as Apple customers, are confronted with a wide variety of input devices. We have conventional mice, 3rd party trackballs, trackpads on the MacBooks, the Apple Magic Mouse, and now the Magic Trackpad. All of these devices work differently, and all of them require different muscle memory to work seamlessly.
Accordingly, one question to ask is, does the curent input device cause ergonomic problems? Can your wrist rest on your desk comfortably with a mouse? Does the scroll wheel or microball tire a single finger? Do you have room on your desk for a mouse, or are the quarters cramped? Changing your input device is not only a matter of moving forward with the technology, but choosing something that’s comfortable. Having to develop new muscle habits complicates that.
Fortunately, the very young don’t have that problem so much. I’ve seen teenagers text at lightning speed with thumbs, and it’s amazing. Older people who’ve become accustomed to a mouse or trackpad will need to ask themselves if they really need a change because the Magic Trackpad can be annoying. It takes time to accommodate to. However, there are significant rewards for the courageous and experimentalists.
Magic TrackPad in Action
There are twelve fundamental gestures as follows:
Like the trackpad on the MacBooks, you can elect to achieve a click by a single finger touch or by a physical push on the pad. It gives by perhaps a millimeter with a pleasant physical click.
In every respect, the Magic Trackpad brings to the desktop what the current MacBook trackpad can achieve. Also, if you’re accustomed to that, but you tend to attach a larger display and keyboard when the MacBook is on your desk, then a desktop trackpad could be a useful addition. Especially for those who put their MacBook up on a stand, like I do. That makes the use of the MacBook’s native trackpad impractical.
For those desktop users with, say, an iMac, the addition of the Magic Trackpad can save a lot of desk space and also introduce some really nifty gestures. Here are the ones that I like.
- Scrolling. There’s no longer a need to precisely place the pointer in that narrow gutter where the window slider is. Just position the cursor over the scrollable area and do a two finger slide up or down. You can do that with “inertia” turned on or off. One has to be careful here with finger movements. One has to have a clean single finger touch for the pointing (without allowing another poised finger to accidentally touch), then consciously bring the other finger down for two finger scrolling. One can’t be ambivalent or careless.
- Rotation. Just like the iPad, one can rotate image in Preview or other eligible apps. For example, Image Well from XtraLean Corp won’t allow it.
- Pinch/Zoom. If you want to get a better look at something, say, in Safari just do a two finger spread movement to zoom in. That’s a lot easier than mousing up to the zoom icons at the top. Again, it doesn’t work with every app. One also has to be careful here as well. If the cursor is over the desktop, a careless movement with two fingers will zoom the size of the desktop icons. That could be handy, especially if you have “icon preview” turned on (CMD-J), but for the first time user, it can be mildly alarming. To zoom the entire screen, hold sown the CTRL key and do a two-finger slide. Users with slight vision problems users will love that.
- Four Finger Swipe. There are two gestures here that I love. A four finger swipe horizontally brings up the Application Switcher, normally accessed with CMD + TAB. Then you can quickly switch from app to app as the foreground app. I use that on conjunction with HyperSpaces to invoke four virtual desktops and keep my apps better organized. A four finger vertical swipe triggers Expose.
I have found, after almost a week of using the Magic Trackpad that I’ve encountered new and bizarre problems that I didn’t anticipate.
- Losing the pointer. With a mouse, you have a physical feel for where the pointer is on the screen. Even though I use Mouse Locator to punctuate the position of the pointer, after it’s been idle for a few seconds, it can still be occasionally tricky to find the pointer on a dual screen display. I’m getting used to it.
- Sticky Surface. If your fingers are the least bit sweaty in warm weather, the surface will be somewhat unresponsive. The pointer will stick. It’s best to have very dry fingers and set the Track Speed very high to minimize pointer “stickiness.” That said, the fineness of the control doesn’t seem to equal my Magic Mouse.
- General Finger Discipline. If you’re accustomed to a mouse, you know that you can grab it any old way. But on a Magic Trackpad surface, you can’t let a finger hang and accidentally brush the surface. The M.T. works by sensing how many fingers you’re using, so like a pianist, you’ll need to exercise what I call “finger discipline.” That can be as tiring as using a forefinger to manage a scroll wheel or microball on a mouse. Again, I am learning this practice.
Also, I should note that Mac OS X 10.6.4 or later is required for full functionality.
The Magic Trackpad isn’t cheap, and so one wouldn’t want to buy it on a whim, expecting to immediately make Mac life wondrous. Despite the Fast Tracking mode, I still don’t get the immediate and fine tracking and pointer control that I can get with a mouse. That’s going to take time. I find that during writing, it’s sometimes faster to just use the cursor key to make fine, quick corrections — especially when the text is small in, say, the Skype text composer.
That said, the speed and accuracy with which I can get to a spot is far better than a conventional trackball. In my own case, no matter the size of the ball, I always overrun the position I want to get to, and so homing in with a regular trackball is a series of finer and finer corrections. That’s tiring with a physical track ball. With the Magic Trackpad, I get where I want to go, without overruns, a lot faster. If there’s one thing that’s sold me on the M.T., that’s it.
If you can maintain finger discipline, keep your fingers clean and dry, and learn how to use the cursor keys quickly in conjunction with the trackpad, you’ll have a jolly good time. Depending on your dexterity, it may take a few days to a week to develop the required muscle memory. I wouldn’t even rule out having a wireless mouse running in conjunction for awhile, especially to assist with fine text editing.
In the long run, Apple is going to have us pointing with our fingers, and I suspect the mouse is an endangered species in Apple’s collective mind. If you have some spare change and want to experiment, or if a conventional trackball doesn’t cut it, I recommend the Magic Trackpad — with the reservations noted above. Patience will be mandatory.