Multitouch Trackpad vs. Touch Screen Computing


I have some friends (mac-using friends) who are gaga over some of the new commercials they’ve seen of touch screen Windows-capable machines — namely the HP TouchSmart PCs. On one level I understand — that stuff looks cool! But I quickly come back and think, realistically how useful is this? When I pointed this out to my lovely wife, her retort was along the lines of, “Don’t you still dream about having that computer from Minority Report?” Touche. But in the real world (as opposed to what Hollywood likes to portray) as computers and monitors exist now, is this really what we want? Appease me while I argue a skosh. (Feel free to get involved in the comments!)

I’m one of those, along with many I know, that prefer people to keep their fingers off my screen when pointing to or talking about something on my computer. I hate smears. Multiply this times n when a glossy screen is present — which of course is always now with the new MacBook lineup. (Has anyone else noticed that the glossy coating on the new MacBooks is even more of a magnet for smudges than the old?!)

Then there’s the other categorization of computer users: those who keep their hands on the keyboard as much of the time as possible, and those who live and die by their mouse. Like a good nerd, I tend to be the former. But even for the mouse-lovers amongst us, it’s little more than a lateral sweep of the arm to the side and back to the keyboard. These new touch screen computers require an actual reach up and around to the screen to do whatever it is you need.

For me, these are two very solid reasons as to why the Hollywood idea of touch computing doesn’t jive with real world applications. At least not at this point in time.

The above reasons, however, highlight precisely why Apple’s multitouch trackpads seem to be hitting a sweet spot for those interested in touch computing. With this larger than life trackpad on my new MacBook (nearly three times larger than that of the new Dell I just got at work) I get the option to play with gestures and touch computing without the hassle of reaching all over the place, or smearing my gorgeous display. The current support for multitouch on Macs is still in its infancy, yet there’s a great deal of flexibility. We’ve already seen where Firefox has gotten into the mix, as has Curio (and likely others that I’m unaware of at the moment). I can only imagine that a wide array of options for leveraging this is just around the corner.




Well thank you, but I would like to give credit where credit is due. I had seen an article on TUAW a while back talking about a concept design from OLO Computer that was essentially a laptop shell with a place to dock an iPhone where a touchpad would normally be. Presumably, the iPhone itself would act as the computer, using the “dock’s” keyboard and monitor.

Also, with devices such as the Nintendo DS showing a successful case for a dual-screen display with a single, dedicated touchpad, and keyboard such as Optimus Maximus ( showing the potential for an input device that can change to suit your needs, I see it as only being a matter of time (I hope) before we see similar functionality from Apple. It seems that they’re already going in that direction, and have the technology on hand.


I think you are on to something Joe :)

The trend now is to do touch just to do it.
That is taking away our precious screen real estate, because the buttons and other interface elements has to be bigger. (also the case, however nicely done, on the iPhone)
Imagine having an OS with no interface elements on the screen, instead all of them on a huge video trackpad.
The LED keyboards never really took off, but maybe Joe could get a job at Apple and make video trackpads instead :)


Besides the issue of fatigue brought about by reaching for a vertical screen, I think there is room for innovation even beyond Apple’s current multi-touch trackpad. It is certainly a step in what I believe is the right direction. What I would like to see next is a “video” touchpad. Seeing as the new MacBook/Pro touchpads are glass and based around the technology behind the iPhone/iPod Touch, I could see the next advancement being, in essence, an iPhone built into the laptop. It could show application-specific information, buttons, etc.

Nick Santilli

I fully considered such a situation. And I’m sure you’re right. But as we saw with iPhone, Apple has a way of revolutionizing things we mortals never thought of. So would they make a touchscreen that would blow our minds? Quite possibly. But for bow I think everyone’s point of it being tiring to reach for a touch screen is absolutely spot on.

Thanks for all the input folks!


Back to the mouse rant, the Apple mouse is the worst mouse on the planet, and if it were not possible to use a Mac with a trackball, I would switch back to Windows. Yeah, I feel that strongly about teh suckage of mice.


I would like to have both. Why not? We don’t choose between the keyboard and the mouse even if we prefer one more than the other, we have both. (well I don’t have a mouse, I DESPISE MICE WITH EVERY FIBRE OF MY BEING, I have a trackball, but you get the point)


Lets be real, if Apple had made a touch screen, all apple folks including myself, would try real hard to fit it into our computing mode. We would lord it over the PC folks and be jerks about it…cuz thats what we do…
But, everything everyone says about how un ergonomic a touch screen can be is true.
That being said, I if I had to choose between the multitouch trackpad and the touchscreen… the Apple implementation of mulitouch touchpad is sweeet. And I hope the trackpads get larger.

Jonathan Hollin

However, gesture-based control looks like a good crossover between a touchpad and a touchscreen. The Mgestyk system is a new touch-free way to interact with your computer. It lets you control games and other applications just by moving your hands, allowing for more natural and immersive interaction. Gestures are processed in 3D, meaning that even depth-based gestures (like controlling the throttle of a plane) are natural and responsive to use. Mgestyk works even in total darkness!

Check out the videos!


Touch screens aren’t practical, neither is a ‘Minority Report’-style interface, this is known since the 90’s, when in 92 Sun made a movie about a futuristic interface named StarFire, the actors got really tired during the filming, wonder why.


Having used a tablet for some years before buying a Macbook Pro in ’08, I can tell you it isn’t practical as well, the screen has to be very steady for the accuracy to be good and having to raise your hands in order to control your computer sucks, worked better when in tablet mode, but then I had the need for a physical keyboard to write.

Trackpads are a great solution, and Apple currently has the best ones, big, nicely positioned non-bevelled trackpads, no windows laptop provides that, that plus the gestures makes them awesome to use. Wrote about it here: Peripheral Extinction – .

The latest macbook trackpad redesign was a good improvement, the dedicated button on the bottom of the previous trackpads was a bit ‘noisy’.


And let’s not forget to mention that using touch screen for all tasks would ache a lot. Yes you would get used to it but the older generation of people would still need to use a mouse or trackpad.

Mark Pilger

In the late 70’s, I used a cad system with a light pen to touch the screen. We were limited to about 3-4 hours a day because the system was tiring to use. It had to be in a dark room because the green screens were hard to see and touching the screen with the light pen wore out your arm. After 6 months, we finally got digitizing pads-a huge improvement that allowed us to work up to 6 hours a day. Touch screen computer was a bad idea that died 30 years ago. Leave it buried.


The best place for the display is perpendicular to the ground. To use Microsoft Sofa (er, Surface), you have to be hunched over. A display that is parallel to the ground will just give you a backache.

The best place for input is parallel to the ground. If you have to touch the screen to do things, smudges notwithstanding, your arms will get tired.

This is probably why tablet computers haven’t worked out so well. With the input and the display on the same surface, you either have to hold it so that it hurts your back or makes your arms sore.

Just from human anatomy, I don’t think touch-screen computing, in this form, will take off.


I too agree that we simply don’t have software/hardware that would
perform better with touch.

There are of course situations like info stands, dedicated home automation stuff and other environments where mouse and keyboard is impossible to fit in.

The new mousepad and the iPhone is all the “touch” I can manage.

I have actually been involved in building a Minority Report like system using stereo cameras and a holographic projection screen. But again we found out it’s uses were limited to very special pieces of interaction and software.


I’m laying in bed reading this with my macbook resting on my belly. The large trackpad rocks. I can’t imagine how I could do the same with a touchscreen… I can’t even reach the screen from here.

So, yeah. As cool as they may appear at first blush, I don’t think touchscreens are all that practical.

Ross Graham

As a graphic designer, I’m confident my fat fingers are a lot less precise than the pointer of the mouse. I would never use touchscreen computing in my workflow.


Touchscreen computing may be handy in a kitchen or business situation, but I don’t see it being practical for everyday use. As it is now I have to bend forward to be able to reach my 24″ iMac’s screen. My arms would get tired quickly.

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