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Hands-on with Synaptics' next-generation mobile input devices

Slimming down while adding functionality

A few weeks ago, Synaptics invited us down to Santa Clara, California, to check out its latest mobile computer input devices. How could we say no? Touchpads, touchscreens, and keyboards may not be as sexy as some components, but they're the only tactile connections we have to the computing devices that are increasingly at our side or within arm's reach. These physical inputs are fundamental parts of the user experience, and they often don't get the attention they deserve.

As I sat at the airport gate editing another article, I couldn't help but look down at my laptop and laugh. My trusty 11.6" ultraportable is coming up on three years old, and she cost me just $550 new. An SSD upgrade has kept performance sufficiently snappy, and battery life is still great, but the inputs leave much to be desired. While the touchpad has decent gesture support, it's comically small by today's standards. The keyboard has gotten mushier with age, presumably because the underlying membrane has been beaten into submission by heavy-handed typing. Also, the TN display is painful to endure after being spoiled by the new wave of tablets and their IPS-fortified touchscreens.

The rise of touchscreens is the biggest trend in computer interfaces, especially with Windows 8's October release fast approaching. Synaptics has all sorts of touchscreen products to cover a range of devices between smartphones and super-sized notebooks. More impressive are its innovative treatments of more traditional forms of mobile input: the touchpad and keyboard. Synaptics' new ForcePad injects pressure sensitivity into a touchpad, while the ThinTouch completely rethinks keyboards. We got touchy feely to see what they're like.

May the ForcePad be with you
Synaptics got its start in the touchpad business back in 1995 with the appropriately named TouchPad. The design combined a tracking area with separate buttons, an approach that dominated the notebook scene for more than a decade. The ClickPad came in 2010, doing away with discrete buttons in favor of a clickable tracking surface. It's a higher-end solution than the TouchPad, which still finds its way into an awful lot of notebooks today.

For Windows 8, Synaptics told us Microsoft is recommending a tracking area no smaller than 105 x 65 mm (4.1" x 2.6" for the metric-impaired). There's an appropriately named Modern ClickPad sized to match not only those dimensions, but also the new name for Win8's Metro interface. That's all well and good, but it's not terribly exciting... at least when compared to the new ForcePad.

The ForcePad does away with tactile clicks in favor of pressure sensitivity. It can track as many as five fingers independently and register forces up to the equivalent of one kilogram (2.2 lbs) for each one. The ForcePad offers six bits of precision, allowing it to measure finger pressure in 15-gram increments.

Impressively, the ForcePad works its magic without moving parts. It barely even deforms under pressure. Synaptics told us the ForcePad deflects by only microns, which should be imperceptible to end users. My fingers definitely didn't detect any sagging.

The lack of movement is potentially problematic, since folks are used to feeling a tactile click. However, Synaptics told us the usability testing it conducted internally and with Intel revealed users are just fine clicking without tactile feedback. The ubiquity of touchscreens probably has a lot to do with that.

Some people tap harder than others, so the ForcePad's drivers will include a user-configurable click threshold. Synaptics was keen to point out that this threshold will be consistent across the entire tracking area, with none of the dead zones found on some clicky touchpads. The firm is also considering letting users enable an audible cue when clicks are registered.

As someone who has always enabled tap-to-click on conventional touchpads, I didn't miss the lack of a physical click when using the ForcePad. Tapping to click felt natural, tracking was responsive, and the surface had very little friction, so it didn't impede smooth finger movement. The first demo I was shown illustrated the force being applied by each finger using a series of colored columns that rose with increased pressure. The columns responded immediately even to subtle changes in pressure, and their sensitivity seemed consistent no matter where I pushed down. Next up was a flying game that pitched and banked based on pressure from different fingers. The controls worked nicely, but I crashed horribly—pilot error.

The final demo was sort of the opposite of the first. Instead of using rising columns, it depicted force input by deforming a model of none other than SpongeBob SquarePants. The effect was a little unnerving at first. Despite the fact that the ForcePad didn't actually bend or warp, seeing the on-screen deformation made it feel like my fingers were pushing into the tracking area. Once I realized the ForcePad hadn't turned to Jello, I quite enjoyed the sensation.

Of course, the ForcePad is good for more than just fancy demos. According to Synaptics, the chassis flex visible when some ultra-slim notebooks are held at one corner can generate phantom clicks on some clicky touchpads. The ForcePad can detect this flex and compensate accordingly. Synaptics also offers an automatic calibration system that allows notebook makers to offer a consistent ForcePad feel across different chassis designs.

Expect to see the ForcePad primarily in ultrabooks. It won't replace the ClickPad but will cost notebook makers a little more. The ForcePad should give manufacturers more wiggle room in their designs, though. At just 3 mm thick, it's notably thinner than the ClickPad, which measures a pudgier 5.5 mm. That's probably part of the reason Intel has apparently selected the ForcePad for its next-generation ultrabook reference design. Other notebooks featuring the ForcePad are expected later next year.

Until then, your best shot at getting some hands-on time with the ForcePad is the User Interface Software and Technology conference, otherwise known as UIST. The conference is organized by the Association for Computing Machinery, and it features a student contest that asks teams to develop novel ways to use unique interface technology. Last year's UIST contest was centered on a touch-enabled Microsoft mouse, and this year's competition involves the ForcePad.

Synaptics developed an external ForcePad module for the contest. With the help of a hardware partner, it would like to offer something similar to the general public. The firm sees potential in gaming, and I suspect developers will find other interesting applications for the ForcePad's pressure sensitivity.