Apple Magic Trackpad Requires Patience

| In-Depth Review

 

Apple Magic Trackpad - top

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?”

Magic Trackpad-1

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:

Magic Trackpad gestures

Allowable gestures

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.

Problems

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.

Summary

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.

Product: Magic Trackpad

Company: Apple

List Price: US$69.00

Pros:

Fast pointer positioning, duplicates Macbook gestures for desktop user, good manual, saves desktop space.

Cons:

Doesn’t seem as accurate as high resolution optical mouse, somewhat expensive, requires some time to adapt and learn finger discipline. Mac OS X 10.6.4 required.

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12 Comments Leave Your Own

Lee Dronick

“Sticky Surface. If your fingers are the least bit sweaty in warm weather, the surface will be somewhat unresponsive. The pointer will stick.”

That is a concern. Not just perspiration I would think, but also Cheeto dust and such.

Photoflash

I have a Magic TrackPad, and I like it, generally.  The most annoying thing is that I don’t have to actually touch the pad to click; it will sometimes click when my finger is as much as 1/4 inch from the surface.  Maybe static electricity is to blame, but dampness is not a solution, as noted above.  Hopefully, I’ll be able to find some way to stop these ‘ghost’ clicks.

John Martellaro

Photoflash: As I noted in the review, there’s a setting that requires a physical push to click.  That’s what I use to avoid an accidental touch/click.

rY.

10.6.4 is REQUIRED in order to use the Magic Trackpad.

Let me repeat myself: You MUST have SNOW LEOPARD version 10.6.4 installed in order to make the Magic Trackpad do anything.

I tried using the generic bluetooth “mouse” profile under 10.5, and the best I could get was to be able to move the mouse pointer- not even single-tap worked!

So.  10.6.4.  Which, btw, also means, Intel Mac-only… sheesh!

furbies

I think I still prefer the original Magic Mouse (the one with the scroll ball)


(But I haven’t had a chance to play with the Magic Trackpad yet)

xmattingly

I’ve had mine since it came to market, and it has absolutely replaced my mouse. As far as I know, it might be the only input device that lets you have one-handed control of windowing and app switching (without resorting to clicking in the Dock).

The cool thing about touch control is - as John mentioned - it’s very much in line with the track pad on Apple’s laptops. If you like that input device and want it for your desktop, the Magic Trackpad is definitely for you.

Apple has done a really nice job of sprinkling touch UI functionality all over OS X, which as you get more used to the track pad you will find nice “Easter eggs” here and there. For example, you can shrink or grow icons on the desktop or a Finder window (in icon mode) by pinch zooming. Or adjust the size of a window in Coverflow mode in the same manner, or bring a DVD Player/Quicktime video to full screen mode w/ this gesture. Etc, etc.

Another thing that works great that John didn’t mention is the three finger gesture, which you use to go forward & backward through your browsing history in Safari or a Finder window.

Although there are some downsides…

With the three finger gesture, for some bizarre reason you can either have that for a forward/backward gesture, or window-dragging - but not both. I was also a bit disappointed to find that for the three finger window drag gesture, you have to tap on the title bar - which to me, is no better than “drag lock”. You would think that they could have just as easily let you three-finger tap anywhere within a window for this function.

There is minimal customization of gestures in Apple’s System Preferences. For example, I would prefer to have the four fingers+up gesture be my Expose/app windows function instead of Expose/desktop. Apple added this type of customization to Expose’s Preferences for the Mighty Mouse; it seems pretty negligent to me that they couldn’t include the same for trackpad gestures.

You will find some odd places where a gesture that makes perfect sense has not been implemented into the UI of other apps. For example, the Coverflow resizing gesture ONLY works in a Finder window. Not in iTunes or Safari.

The little flaws are certainly not a make-or-break deal, and you have to remember that this device is functionally identical to Apple laptops, so missing features are certainly no fault of the Magic Trackpad. But it does seem that if Apple is going to get behind touch UI in OS X, their GUI team had better get on the ball and make gestures work more consistently and intuitively across all of their apps.

In regard to Photoflash’s comment, I have not experienced an accidental click by hovering a finger near the pad. It IS very sensitive though, and generally only requires a feather touch to activate a click - especially if you have tap-to-click turned on. Sticky fingers can definitely be a problem though. I’ve had wet fingertips a few times, and when they dry off after a few seconds I’m good to go - but if you tend to have sweaty hands or lick your fingers (as you might eat at your desk), this may not be an ideal device for you.

Final note: I recall Ted Landau saying that with the Magic Mouse, he had connectivity problems via Bluetooth on his Mac Pro. I ran into the exact same issue. A Bluetooth USB dongle did clear up most of the problem, but I still had occasional glitchy connection, particularly when my batteries were getting drained. With the Magic Trackpad, there have been zero connection issues. Pop in some batteries (I use rechargeables), and it will connect to your Mac straight away when you hit the power button. I don’t have any signal loss until the batteries are completely drained.

All in all the Magic Trackpad was certainly more than enough for me to ditch my mouse, but there are still some gesture UI shortcomings that I would like to see Apple work out in the future.

Lee Dronick

I think I still prefer the original Magic Mouse (the one with the scroll ball)

I liked it for its accuracy, but I didn’t like the ball that was difficult to clean. I hated that hockey puck mouse, I never could get used to it. Currently I am using the new Mighty Mouse and although it had a learning curve I very much like it.

I have tried the Magic TrackPad, and will probably pick one up in the near future.

jameskatt

A trackball is so much better than using a mouse or trackpad for nearly everything.

Lee Dronick

A trackball is so much better than using a mouse or trackpad for nearly everything.

I never cared for them, but then the last one I had was back in the System 7 days. Of course we all have different tastes and preferred ways of doing things, so it is good to have choices. A number of years ago I was taking some continuing ed courses and they had Macs equipped with those hockey puck mice, I usually brought in my own mouse so that I could work better.

Anyway, after reading John’s review and the comments I am pretty sure I will get a Magic Trackpad. My birthday is a scant seven weeks away, sounds like a good excuse to ask for a Trackpad.

Tardis

Be prepared to spend three days to a week of frustration getting used to how many fingers you need to perform which function on the Magic TrackPad.

Then throw away your mouse. Even the Magic Touch mouse. You will never go back.

[Update: keep the old mouse, preferably a wired one, nearby for the occasional re-boot or when booting into Windows.]

Lee Dronick

Be prepared to spend three days to a week of frustration getting used to how many fingers you need to perform which function on the Magic TrackPad.

Yes, and these learning curves are getting steeper as I am getting older. However, such exercises are supposed to be good for us by helping keep our minds and bodies agile. I was an early adoptee of the low profile Apple keyboard, it took a few days before I learned to love it, my wife hates it and uses the older model. I suppose I could learn to use a trackball or even the much maligned, and misaligned, hockey puck mouse.

Mike R

I have had a Magic Trackpad since the day it came out. I had wanted to have gestures on the Mac and prior to this device, I had a Wacom Bamboo. It was overly sensitive to unwanted clicks but I was happy to put up with that for the increase in ease of use when very busy with gestures.

This one doesn’t have that issue for me at all. I dislike mice and had only been using a trackball for 15+ years once I got used to it. The Magic Trackpad is my sole pointing device and I am totally hooked on gestures on OS X. As some added coolness, many of the gestures ALSO work in Windows 7 under Parallels. A truly excellent device.

I also use Mouse Locator as it is very easy to lose the pointer on the 27” iMac with 24” external display. Cannot recommend that little gem enough either.

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