Talkin’ ’bout Touchpads

on February 18, 2014

A great deal has been written recently about the challenges that the PC market faces in comparison to other product categories, such as smartphones and tablets. But there hasn’t been much discussion about some of the self-inflicted wounds that PC makers have placed upon themselves. In the consumer market, in particular, many people find PCs to be more difficult to use than competitive products. Part of the problem, of course, has to do with the operating systems and types of applications available on the different types of products.

I would argue, however, that another part of the problem has to with the execution of certain principles long associated with PCs, especially with regard to input. Poor quality touchpads, in particular, have become particularly problematic and have turned what would otherwise be great, highly productive PCs into devices that all too frequently end up causing enormous frustration among end users. How many of us have had to retype words, sentences or even entire paragraphs (on some days, seemingly, every few minutes) when we somehow brushed against the touchpad, ending up selecting a chunk of text and started typing over it before we even realized it was happening? So frustrating![pullquote]Out of the box, I’ve run into way too many PCs whose useful value has plummeted in my mind because of the faulty performance of its touchpad.”[/pullquote]

It’s unfortunate, really, because generally speaking, touchpads have made great strides over the last several years. They’ve evolved from tiny, hyper-sensitive squares that were difficult to control to large surfaces that can not only accept basic pointer movements but right and left mouse-button clicks, scrolling and even multi-finger gestures. Part of the problem is that as the touchpad sizes have increased, so has our ability to unintentionally engage them into performing actions we never intended. Virtually all touchpads now come with customizable control panel software that enables palm rejection and other technologies designed to reduce these accidental encounters and, in many cases, tweaking those settings can make a big difference. Out of the box, however, I’ve run into way too many PCs whose useful value has plummeted in my mind because of the faulty performance (or poorly chosen preset settings) of its touchpad. In fact, it’s gotten so bad, that touch panel performance (or rather, lack of interference) is now one of my key metrics for measuring the overall performance of a PC.

Happily, not all touchpads suffer these kinds of challenges. Apple, for example, has done an excellent with its touchpads over the years, giving MacBooks some of the first large-sized, touch-integrated, gesture-friendly touchpads available for PCs several years ago and continuing to offer a rock-solid touchpad experience ever since. In fact, without starting a religious war, I think it’s relatively easy to even find Windows zealots who will acknowledge the general superiority of the MacBook touchpad experience compared to most Windows-based PCs. To be fair, there are also certain models of PCs from most of the major PC vendors that offer a high-quality touchpad experience as well, but the problem is it’s really hit and miss. If you dig into the specs of a machine and can determine the touchpad supplier for a given model that can help—I’ve generally found Synaptic touchpads to offer a better experience—but even there, the default settings of the touchpad driver may not be well suited to the way you type or work on your PC.

As with many things in life, it typically comes down to a matter of costs. Higher-quality, better performing touchpads cost a bit more than some of the alternatives, and in the hyper price-sensitive, profit-starved PC business, literally every penny counts. But in my mind, the at most $2-$3 difference in cost is well worth it—in fact, I would much prefer to compromise on virtually any other element on a notebook than the touchpad, except perhaps the screen. PC vendors do have some difficult design tradeoffs to make these days, especially given the challenging nature of the market, but let’s hope that more of them put the appropriate amount of attention on the elements that matter most.