I don’t have any statistics on this, but I’d venture to say that the pointing device of preference for the vast majority of computer users is the mouse.
Wired or wireless, the venerable mouse enables you to move the little arrow around on the computer screen, and point and click to select an object or execute a function.
You can left-click and right-click. If your mouse has a scroll-wheel, you can scroll the display upward or downward. For many tasks, you don’t even need the keyboard.
Today, whether you’re a Windows or Mac user, pointing devices of differing shapes, sizes, colors, and number of buttons can be found, but most users seem to have settled on the prototypical oval-shaped mouse with two buttons.
So, done deal, right? Not to be contrarian, but I think there’s something measurably better: the trackpad. I’m not talking about the trackpad that sits at the bottom of your laptop keyboard.
I’m talking about Apple’s Magic Trackpad 2.
I’ve been using the Magic Trackpad 2 on my home computer (a MacBook Pro) for some time now. It took a little getting used to, because its operation differs in significant ways from the standard mouse.
Now, however, I find the trackpad so natural and effortless that, when I do have to revert back to using a mouse, as I do on my Windows PC at work, it feels clunky.
While it might not be immediately obvious, using a trackpad is akin to swiping and touching on a smartphone or tablet.
The first thing to note about the Magic Trackpad 2 is that it’s wireless. It is powered by a rechargeable battery and connects to the computer via Bluetooth LE. There are wireless mice, of course, that use the same technology, but the vast majority of mice are wired and connect typically to a USB port.
The Magic Trackpad 2 comes with a Lightning cable. To pair the trackpad with a Mac, you plug the Lightning end of the cable into the adapter on the back of the unit. Then plug the USB end of the cable into your computer. (Note: there is a device driver that will enable the trackpad to work with a Windows PC, but we don’t go into that here.)
A toggle switch is located on the back of the trackpad. Flip it to power on the device, and in a moment the trackpad is paired with your Mac.
Once connected, the trackpad controls the pointer on your display. Simply drag a single finger on the trackpad, and note the fluidity with which the pointer moves on the screen.
Equivalent mouse functionality—and more
Apple sets up the trackpad with some default settings that mirror the basic functionality of a typical mouse.
To select something—a file, for example—you would single-click a mouse’s left button. On the trackpad, you tap once with a finger.
To open a file or folder, you would double-click the left mouse button while pointing to the object. On the trackpad, you double-tap your finger.
In a Word document or e-mail, to enter text, you position the pointer, single-click or single-tap, and start typing.
With menus, you point and click, or point and tap, move the pointer downward to highlight a command, then single-click or single-tap to execute the command. The operations are similar with both devices, although I would argue a bit more fluid with the trackpad.
Where things begin to diverge is in dragging and scrolling operations.
In addition, Apple has created a bunch of two-finger, three-finger, and four-finger operations that a standard mouse can’t do.
Scrolling takes some getting used to. With a mouse, you typically click, hold, and drag a scroll bar downward to scroll down. You click, hold, and drag upward to scroll up.
With a trackpad, the motion is directly opposite, and since there’s no “hold” equivalent on a trackpad, you use two fingers. So, place two fingers on the trackpad, and drag down, and the items in the displayed window—an open folder, a document—scroll upwards. Drag upward, and the display scrolls downward.
This is very weird at first, but when you think about the analogy of a touch-enabled smartphone or tablet, the movement is very natural. On a tablet, drag the display downward and you see what’s up above. Upward and you see what’s down below.
Now, because most modern mice have a scroll wheel, the same directional rules apply for scrolling a scroll wheel as with scrolling on the trackpad. Move the scroll wheel downward, and you scroll the display upward—and vice versa.
In a document, to highlight a sentence with a mouse, you click and hold at the beginning of a sentence and drag the mouse rightward (and downward if the sentence is multi-line).
With a trackpad, however, you have to use three fingers. With one finger, position the cursor at the beginning of the sentence, put three fingers on the trackpad, then drag rightward and downward.
What are some of the other functions that a trackpad enables on a Mac? In System Preferences, click Trackpad, and MacOS provides a nice visual guide to the panoply of available functions. You can specify settings among the categories of Point & Click, Scroll & Zoom, and More Gestures, as described in the images provided in this section.
A learning curve worth the effort
Without a doubt, there’s a learning curve associated with switching to a trackpad. At first, operations can feel awkward, especially as you move from the desktop to applications. But in a very short time, common tasks begin to feel quite natural, and the speed at which you can execute those tasks improves enormously.
Not to belabor the history, but Xerox was the first company to pioneer the graphical user interface and the connected pointing device. Apple famously usurped the idea and ran with it, first with the Apple Lisa, and then with the Macintosh.
Kudos to Apple for continuing to push the envelope for ease of use, and for giving the industry a roadmap.
As I write this, Apple has just announced its new MacBook Pros, which have added a new touch-enabled interface, called the Touch Pad, to replace the row of function keys on the keyboard. It remains to be seen how important this new paradigm becomes and whether it will spark further innovations, but I wouldn’t bet against it.
Meanwhile, I continue to marvel at how innovations like the Magic Trackpad seamlessly enter and decidedly improve my workflow.