Putting it all together
Synaptics makes no secret of its intent to own all of a notebook's physical inputs: the touchpad, the keyboard, and the touchscreen. The firm already has a substantial slice of the touchpad market, and it's hailing the ForcePad as the most significant innovation in that segment since 1995. From a purely technical perspective, that doesn't seem like too much of a stretch. The pressure sensitivity in the ForcePad I tried felt very slick, and the design is thinner than conventional alternatives. Whether the ability to detect the firmness of one's touch proves more valuable than, say, gesture recognition very much depends on what developers do with the capability. There's certainly plenty of potential for cool applications.
When ForcePads finally become available next year, they'll at least have some extra mojo in Windows 8. After coming up with 20 force-enabled gestures in its usability labs, Synaptics settled on five for the final driver. Among them, force-enhanced scrolling and zooming gestures whose speed is determined by finger pressure. There's a continuation function that allows those gestures to be extended past the edge of the tracking area simply by pressing harder, as well.
I'm eager to see what developers do with the technology and whether anyone can come up with a compelling gaming application. Too bad "materials requirements" will keep the ForcePad's pressure sensitivity out of touchscreens.
The ForcePad might have been the star of the show, but as a writer who bangs out thousands of words in the average day, the ThinTouch keyboard was nearly as impressive. I'm amazed a switch mechanism less than 2.5 mm thick felt so good. The ThinTouch is purportedly easier to backlight than existing switch technology, too. No wonder Synaptics is keeping the particulars of the design hush-hush for now.
If you haven't noticed, thinness is sort of a theme with Synaptics' next-gen input tech. No, the company isn't trying to squeeze itself into a pair of hipster skinny jeans. As it repeatedly noted, thinner keyboards and touchpads afford notebook—and particularly ultrabook—makers greater flexibility. They can use the millimeters saved to make the entire chassis thinner or put the extra space to better use, either by adding battery capacity to extend run times or by employing beefier cooling to accommodate faster processors. When you think about the footprint of the keyboard and touchpad on modern notebooks, even a couple millimeters translates to a not-insignificant portion of the total system volume.
Meanwhile, the ClearPad Series 4's focus on latency reduction is encouraging to see. Cutting touchscreen latency is an important part of smoothing out the user experience. I just wish the new driver silicon was available with touchscreen sizes large enough for Windows 8 tablet-notebook hybrids.
Although Synaptics' next-gen input technologies have definite appeal, it may not be easy to determine which future products are actually using them. Synaptics was candid about the fact that it doesn't have the money to fund an Intel Inside-style logo program. Manufacturers rarely advertise the origins of the touchpads, keyboards, or touchscreens used in their devices. Some even use multiplier suppliers, making it especially difficult for consumers to know what they're getting before opening the box.
The quality of the touchpad, keyboard, and touchscreen has become an increasingly important differentiating factor for mobile devices, especially notebooks. After sampling Synaptics' next-gen units, I can't help but wish device makers would state which input hardware they're using as clearly as they describe other system components, such as processors, graphics chips, and hard drives. Based on what I saw, the ForcePad, ThinTouch keyboard, and Series 4 ClearPad are all worth seeking out. At least the ForcePad's unique pressure sensitivity should be easy to spot.