Talkin’ ’bout Touchpads

Bob O'Donnell / February 18th, 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!

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.”

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.

Bob O'Donnell

Bob O’Donnell is the president and chief analyst of TECHnalysis Research, LLC a technology consulting and market research firm that provides strategic consulting and market research services to the technology industry and professional financial community. You can follow him on Twitter @bobodtech.
  • Glaurung-Quena

    Every non-geek windows user I know has no idea that they can customize their touchpad via control panel… And every single one has been incredibly thankful once I disabled “tap to click” for them. I suspect that one “duh-fault” setting (on synaptic touchpads on machines from last decade) is responsible for more user misery than any other single thing on modern laptop computers.

    • Bill Smith

      If you’ve used a recent Mac laptop, you know that it’s more than just default settings. I always have “tap to click” on, and it works wonderfully in most circumstances. The difference is more pronounced.

      As I mention elsewhere, Apple uses other inputs to make their touch pads function well. It’s integration, not necessarily better hardware, that changes things.

      • Bob O’Donnell

        Yes, this is true, Bill, but I have found that as Gluarung-Quena points out, you can make some pretty dramatic improvements in Windows-based touchpad performance on some notebooks by tweaking the settings. Makes you wonder why they weren’t better optimized in the first place.

        • Space Gorilla

          I would guess the very thin margins in the Windows PC world has something to do with why many ‘pieces of the puzzle’ aren’t better optimized. Who has the financial incentive to do so? More effort = less margin, and there’s already too little profit margin.

          • qka

            Touch pad optimization is a nonrecurring effort. Do it once, and it’s done. Amortize the costs over all the units you ship. Just as likely, optimization will apply to multiple models.

            I don’t believe in the “it costs too much” argument. I believe it’s more “We don’t care!”

  • AhmadZainiChia

    PC makers need to get out of the race to the bottom mindset…price is not everything. It’s gonna be an uphill battle, but they (the PC makers) need to think long term.

    • aardman

      It’s not the PC makers’ fault. There have been attempts to sell high end consumer PCs. They all failed because very few people want to spend $1000 on a laptop if a serviceable model is available for $400. And as long as it has Windows and runs the apps that they use, that’s good enough. If Apple licensed OS-X to clone makers, the same thing would happen.

  • Bill Smith

    Good article, Bob, but this is kicking them when they’re down. Most Windows laptop vendors are at a major disadvantage when it comes to touch pads. It’s not just how the device itself functions, but how the OS works with it. OS X is tightly integrated with Mac touch pads, beyond just having a good driver. Apple uses other information (e.g. keyboard state and history, cursor location, whether an app has been recently activated, whether there’s a selection and the type of selection) to determine what should be done with touchpad movements. Even then, it’s not perfect. I’ve occasionally ended up typing in the wrong place. For example, I note that if I have touchpad glitches, it will inevitably be while I’m using Webmail for Exchange, where Safari can’t offer much information. I almost never have an issue when using Pages or Xcode, even though I do far more typing, and swapping between mouse movement and typing, in those native applications. That is, of course, empirical evidence.

    Before other laptop vendors can genuinely compete with Apple, they will need to either get Microsoft to implement a better API than “mouse emulation” for touch pads, or invest more seriously in software to go with their touch pads. I vote for the former, since most laptop vendors are not known for their software prowess.

  • Anders CT

    I disabled my touchpad. Rarely use it anyway. I would happily buy a notebook with no touchpad.

    The screen matters more to me. I prefer at least 1200 lines of vertical resolution, with no software scaling (looking at you OSX). And I don’t like the 16:9 aspect ratio of most modern laptops.

    • Glaurung-Quena

      “And I don’t like the 16:9 aspect ratio of most modern laptops.”

      Is there anyone who does?

    • Bill Smith

      1. I prefer my touchpad to a mouse and, surprisingly, even a trackball. This discussion has made me realize that, while carpal tunnel issues drove me to using a Microsoft Natural Keyboard and a Logitech trackball on Windows, now that I use Apple products exclusively, I haven’t had issues for more than a year. That’s very strange since the keyboards on any laptop, much less Apple’s, are an ergonomic nightmare. It may be that, thanks to the dictation built into OS X, I don’t type as much? Still, I write 1000 lines of code a day, for which no speech recognition is worth bothering. Strange…

      2. I believe the 4:3 aspect ratio is one of the reasons why iPads are so much more useful than their Android 16:9 counterparts. Nobody should make a 16:9 display for work-related purposes, neither laptop nor tablet nor monitor. 16:9 is intended strictly for movies.

      • Anders CT

        I have never encountered an Android tablet with a 16:9 aspect ratio. Most are 16:10 which is much better. You can also get 4:3 of course. Interestingly many Windows tablets are 16:9. Probably a result of Microsofts PC fixation.

  • Rene Stein

    It isn’t just the touchpad, but that is just one example of the way the generic PC ecosystem considers the details of the product. The movement of the cursor in Windows is another example. This is your primary interface tool, and yet even under Windows XP, the movement of the cursor was absolutely terrible. I’ve used a few old Macs, like 512k, and that had better cursor movement than XP on a Core II Duo. How hard is it to make a cursor that moves smoothly? The Apple guys got it right away, the Microsoft guys took 20 years to get it right.

  • Keyur Shah

    Would it help if Microsoft starts selling Touchpads to OEM’s, so that it has tight integration with Windows?

  • KD

    Give me an IBM TrackPoint any day… Of course, I haven’t used one in years so I don’t know if they work with the thin keyboards of today. Most people that I worked with hated them until they figured out that it was just a stick with force sensors on it. You aren’t really pushing it, just letting it know which direction you want to move the cursor. And it stayed out of the way.

    For me, I have to keep my (PC) trackpad disabled and use an external mouse.

  • LA Stone

    If you go to Best Buy and try out all the PC laptops in the store, Mac and Windows, you come away with the notion that the PC devices are there as a tool to help sell Macbooks. The difference in user experience is that big. The touchpad is a major factor. Just try and see how easily you can land the PC cursor on a target vs the Macbook’s for an instant difference. But to be thoroughly convinced, navigate both to the same website then begin the 2 finger gesture scrolling immediately. The Mac has a rrsponse that will amaze you if you are accustomed to Windows behavior. Not oy does respond immediately but it feels like the screen is LOCKED to your fingers on the touchlad. It’s just fantasticly usable. The PCs on the other hand have awful response. EVERY SINGLE MACHINE IN THE STORE. You will find that the touchpad may simply mot work at all. You slide your two fingers and the cursor goes up or down on the screen rather than the screen going up and down. Then your cursor is above or below the browser so you reposition and try again. It may respond in some jerky fashion. They the page may fly away or move slowly and drive you nuts. It’s consistently unpredictable. And when the browser has “settled down” it will behave better but still poorly. The interesting thing is that if you reach up and try to use the screen itself while the touchpad is completely unresponsive, the screen is generally always responsive! But not the touchpad.

    Another thing you’ll notice is that 99% of the PC laptops/tablets etc have a touchpad made of some material that sticks to your finger rather than sliding under it. Try the Macbook and feel the difference instantly. Obviously, if you’re finger is jerkily moving across the touchpad then the cursor is doing something bad in one way or another. There were exactly 2 devices with a feel similar to the Macbook. A Samsung ATIV model and an HP Spectre model. Both had a nice non-stick surface like the Macbook but the browser still performed awfully.

    Another thing noticed is that every pc in yhe store except these two used Synaptics software to drive the touchpad. For the two that worked reasonably well, I could not determine what software ran the touchpads.

    The PC vendors know exactly what they are doing. They’re selling junk and hoping we won’t care or notice but we care. That’s why the Macbooks are dominating the laptop market even without touchscreens or stylus input. The PC vendors must be happy with their current level of sales. I can’t figure out any other way to explain this. Surely if one guy can walk into Best Buy and realize all of this in the course of 1 hour, then the engineers at every PC OEM can figure it out over years and years of trying to compete with Apple.

    I bought a Sony laptop Thursday. I took that crud back today. I won’t bother trying again. I have an old ASUS ep121 which I’ve been trying to upgrade for a coue years. It looks like I’m gonna keep it until these PC vendors decide that they really have to get serious about quality. And Windows 8. That’s a whole different set of troubles. The updates seem to be doing more harm than good. And the vendors are adding more gestures that work 4 times out of 10 to help infuriate the hapless end user. Nice idea to slide from the edges of the touchpad except, it barely works. Probably it doesn’t help that it’s built on terrible touchpad technology.

Protected by Gerben Law