Where have all the good touchpads gone?


— 10:18 PM on June 10, 2010

As you might've noticed if you read our front page (or my Twitter feed), I flew to Taiwan last week and attended the Computex trade show. Computex is a momentous yearly event spread across two locations, three convention halls, and several satellite buildings. Those buildings include the Grand Hyatt Taipei Hotel and Taipei 101, which until recently held the title of world's tallest skyscraper.

Understandably, I got to see my fair share of computer hardware. That, and booth babes shrieking unintelligible corporate propaganda into microphones while dispensing cheap trinkets to their slack-jawed audiences.

This sea of circuit boards, gadgets, and slack-jawed attendees often parted to reveal some new and not-so-new laptops. I captured some of those machines on camera, played with a few of them, and ignored quite a few others. But nearly every time I put my hands down on a touchpad and started moving my finger around, I let out a disappointed "ugh" under my breath. Nearly every time, I asked myself the same questions. Why, out of so many laptops big, small, cheap, and expensive, can I not find a single half-way decent touchpad with a broad tracking area and a smooth surface? Why did all these manufacturers seem to opt for the same wretchedly inadequate strips of touch-sensitive plastic?

Many years ago, I had sworn off touchpads entirely after discovering the IBM TrackPoint, that tiny red joystick nested between the G and H keys of ThinkPad keyboards. With it, I could track without taking my hands off the home row... or moving much more than my index finger and thumb. A split-second of pressure to one side achieved the same result as several swipes across the tiny touchpad area. Holding down the middle button while pushing the TrackPoint up or down allowed scrolling with equal ease. It seemed like the perfect input device for the lazy typist.

In the fall of 2008, I was seeking a replacement for my aging ThinkPad T41. Lenovo, the new owner of the ThinkPad line and upholder of the mighty TrackPoint, wasn't offering any systems with the combination of form factor, features, and price I wanted. I was reluctantly thinking of buying a laptop either without a TrackPoint or with a poor third-party imitation. Then, on October 14, Apple introduced the aluminum MacBook. On October 21, I placed my order.

The MacBook didn't have a TrackPoint, but it didn't need one. Below its keyboard lay a massive slate of glass with multi-touch input capabilities and a hidden button mechanism. I was hooked. You haven't used a laptop until you've moved the cursor from one corner of the screen to another with a single motion, scrolled by effortlessly dragging two fingers, moved back a page in your browser by swiping three fingers to the left, activated a graphical overview of all your open windows by gently dragging four fingers down the touchpad surface, or enlarged some thumbnails with a simple pinch. This user experience owes as much to the hardware as to Apple's software. Mac OS X makes multi-touch gestures feel remarkably solid and consistent, and it provides excellent support for tap-to-click functionality, down to the slight "stickiness" that makes button-less drag-and-dropping feel reliable yet not sluggish.

At the time, I expected other PC makers would quickly attempt to replicate the comforts of the glass touchpad, as they're wont to do with other Apple innovations. Yet here we are, almost two years later, and PC touchpads still suck almost universally by comparison.

It's not just that PC laptop makers cut corners by using smaller touchpads with fewer features. It's that some of them seem to be actively trying to make the user experience as miserable as possible, coating their touchpads with all manners of textured and glossy finishes that feel either awkward or plainly unusable. I came across what may be the worst example of this trend a couple of days ago at Future Shop, which had one of HP's G-series notebooks on display. Neat industrial design, absolutely wretched touchpad:

Just look at that monstrosity. With the same texture as the palm rest, it doesn't just impede finger movements; it makes them downright uncomfortable—almost as if you spent long enough using this system, you might start to develop calluses like some guitar virtuoso. How can the world's biggest PC vendor not just ship such a design, but actually ship it on three of its most affordable laptops? Did no one protest somewhere along the process? Are HP's industrial designers playing a cruel trick on their unsuspecting audience, or were they really that eager to promote form over function?

HP is far from the only laptop maker to make poor choices in that respect. The dimpled touchpad on Asus' Eee PC 1201T disappointed me almost as much, and my I found my fingers skipping infuriatingly across the glossy touchpad of Scott's Gateway LT3103. What's worse, when laptop makers do manage to get the coefficient of friction in the right ballpark, they usually fail to get other attributes right. Either the tracking area ends up too small, or they ship immature drivers with poor or absent multi-touch support. Sometimes both.

Perhaps today's touchpads are intended to be more fixtures than usable input devices, a signal to the user that he should purchase a quality Bluetooth mouse and stick that in his laptop bag. But why? Over the past 20 months, Apple has shown me quite clearly that touchpads can not only be usable; they can be almost more fun and comfortable to use than a full-blown mouse. PC laptop makers don't seem to realize that aluminum panels and glossy display bezels aren't what make MacBooks great. It's the ergonomics, stupid.

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