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Review: Apple Magic Trackpad a Futile Gesture

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A sleek representation in aluminum, plastic, and glass, plus 80 percent more multitouch by area than a MacBook trackpad; what’s not to like about the Magic Trackpad? Everything that really matters.

Removed from its minimalistic packaging, a press of the power button and the Magic Trackpad is recognized as a generic mouse by any Bluetooth-enabled Mac, even one running Windows. An update for Boot Camp provides basic mouse actions, but the “magic” of gestures is currently available via software update only for OS X 10.6.4 on Intel Macs—sorry, PowerPC users.

As for hardware, Apple’s industrial design superhero Jonathan Ive no doubt intended for form to follow function. The device is the surface, approximately five by four inches of tactile-pleasing glass.

Flipped upside down, the two rubber feet at the bottom are, in effect, right and left mouse buttons. “Clicking” the corners when the trackpad rests on any hard surface provides tactile feedback. Brilliant.

On its side, the Magic Trackpad is far less than an inch thin, excluding the cylindrical housing for two AA batteries. One end unscrews for battery access, and the other end holds the power button.

If this design seems familiar, it is. The Magic Trackpad is a perfect fit for the Apple Wireless Keyboard, except for one thing. It’s not a mouse.

From Photoshop to StarCraft to Pages, the lack of precision compared to a $5-off mouse a close-out table at Best Buy was constantly irritating. Even when precision was not an issue, like scrolling in a web browser, the Magic Trackpad–any trackpad–will simply not be as smooth as a mouse.

If the comparison seems unfair, it is because the mouse is the device the Magic Trackpad is meant to replace. On a MacBook, the multitouch trackpad is a portability compromise–the best portable input device ever made–but still a compromise. Unfortunately, the Magic Trackpad doesn’t even compare well against a MacBook trackpad.

It’s not the size of the trackpad, but how you use it that matters. The MacBook trackpad is well-integrated in front of the keyboard and as part of the palm rest, allowing for thumb or finger movement, and more importantly two-handed usage.

Who drags a file by clicking with a finger on one hand and dragging with a finger on the other? Not someone using a Magic Trackpad. While you could use a three-finger swipe via preferences, you’d lose the fabulous navigation swipe. As for placing the Magic Trackpad in front of the keyboard, I found the larger size and lack of palm rest integration hindering more than helping. So, what’s the solution?

Besides being the ultimate keyboard in conjunction with a Home Theater Mac, the as-yet-non-existent Magic Keyboard would eliminate the last difference between the laptop and desktop Mac experience in terms of input device. And make no mistake, with seven of 10 Macs sold last quarter being laptops, portability is the future.

“Just as you would on a MacBook,” asserts the blurb on the back of the box regarding the multitouch experience of the Magic Trackpad; however, that’s wrong. While the Magic Trackpad is the next step towards a multitouch future, it’s not there yet, and therefore I cannot recommend it.

But just wait till the Magic Keyboard gets here.

51 Responses to “Review: Apple Magic Trackpad a Futile Gesture”

  1. My Magic Mouse is gone, gone, gone and it ain’t never comin’ back…

    I love the Magic Trackpad. Took me about two days to get used to it. I can’t ever imagine using a silly mouse again and I had been using one since ’85. So long sucka!

  2. Joe Cassara

    Futile gesture indeed. That’s why it’s sold out at all three of our Apple stores, indie Apple dealers, and Best Buy stores. Charles, you have no use for BMW floor rugs, but that doesn’t make them pointless.

  3. I’m struggling to understand why this reviewer finds it a poor compromise compared to a MacBook trackpad. – I know trackpads aren’t many people’s preferred input device over a mouse. But I find this is usually the case with PC users where most laptop trackpads are horrendous, so a mouse is an essential extra! I find that the reason PC laptop trackpads to be so poor to use, is that they require you to use two hands – especially for operations such as click & drag, which can be really awkward and RSI inducing. This is simply not the case with the Magic trackpad – I can perform many desktop operations with ease just using my one hand, which effortlessly glides over the smooth glass-like surface, which remains cool to the touch (unlike the MacBook trackpad which can get a tad warm at times if the processor is under heavy load). I’d almost suggest that if you are having to use two hands your technique is wrong – none of the gesture demonstration videos show using two hands, except where a keyboard combination is used along with a hand gesture.

    I can only heartily recommend this product, and would go as far to say that I wouldn’t be surprised if this replaces my mouse as my preferred set up some time soon. – I’ll leave my judgement though just yet, until I’ve given it some serious Photoshop usage, before I think about ditching my trusty mouse for good!

  4. MisterK

    I haven’t gotten a Magic Trackpad yet, but I may treat myself to one for my birthday or for Christmas. I respect the reviewer’s opinion, but I disagree that the mouse is the best pointing device. I started using a Wacom tablet about five years ago, and since I got used to it (it actually took a couple months to really get the hang of it), I have a really hard time ever going back to mice. I love my Apple products, but my Magic Mouse pretty much goes unused… except for when I’m controlling the Mac Mini connected to my TV. That’s certainly one place that I think the Magic Trackpad wins out over a mouse or a tablet. I don’t mind your mockup of the all-in-one keyboard/trackpad, though. I’d give that a shot.

    Truth is, for a non-workstation operation, I think the trackpad beats out a trackball (which, in turn, beats out mice). At a workstation, a Wacom tablet wins for precision by a long shot. So the mouse is trumped everywhere (except for gaming, of course).

    That said, I think something like the Magic Trackpad will really come into its own when the Mac OS follows more of the iOS operations. Having my arms outstretched all day at a touchscreen iMac is not the ideal, but I can see myself looking straight ahead, treating the trackpad as though it were a duplicate of the screen surface.

  5. “The Magic Trackpad is a perfect fit for the Apple Wireless Keyboard, except for one thing. It’s not a mouse.

    From Photoshop to StarCraft to Pages, the lack of precision compared to a $5-off mouse a close-out table at Best Buy was constantly irritating. Even when precision was not an issue, like scrolling in a web browser, the Magic Trackpad–any trackpad–will simply not be as smooth as a mouse.”

    Exactamundo! It’s what I thought upon the trackpad’s release and it’s what I confirmed when trying it at the Apple Store.

    • Maybe the scroll speed was set too high? I can scroll a pixel at a time using the two finger scroll on the Magic Trackpad, it’s far better than any scroll wheel I’ve ever used. Not to mention you get seamless scrolling in all directions without any of that tilting wheel nonsense or other hacks.

  6. I disagree. For me, the Magic Trackpad has replaced the mouse.

    Using a mouse for even a brief period of time aggravates my carpel tunnel and cramps my hand.

    I’ve used the Magic Trackpad for periods of several hours without a single hand discomfort. I’m never going back to a mouse.

  7. This seems to be a very superficial “review” at best. I’ve been using my trackpad with an iMac & have permanently retired my mouse. Using an app like better touch tool allows you to customize the trackpad to your exact satisfaction. You really should try to depend on it exclusively for a few days before rating it as such an enthusiastic 2 thumbs down device.

  8. Chris Stevens

    Completely disagree, it looks great, feels great, is completely lovely to use and plenty accurate for even indesign and other CS5 functions. I love mine and am happy to be freed from a mouse. Of course if you really want a mouse still, the magic mouse sits quite happily along side and you can switch.

  9. No problems with precision here. You seem to be using it incorrectly in a few cases I think. Don’t approach it as the same device as you have in a laptop or a replacement for a mouse necessarily. For example you mention your frustrations with click and drag. I find it’s simple to use one hand – the thumb clicks and holds, and your index finger (or other if it suits) can drag about freely. You can do the same thing by clicking as you would normally with index finger, then place your thumb on the pad which takes over from your index finger as ‘holding the click’ while another finger drags. Sounds odd or complex but I find it intuitive in practice. I personally find this approach to click and drag preferable to using a mouse on a high resolution or dual screen, means I don’t run off the edge of a mouse mat or overextending the drag thereby un-clicking the mouse and dropping files in the wrong place.

    I do agree it’s not great for Photoshop, but it’s not really the intended audience is it?

  10. Wow, Mr. Jade, it sounds like you had a really bad day or an ax to grind, or both. You decided you weren’t going to like this product and reviewed it that way. Whatever. I’m sorry I wasted my time reading it, and not because it’s a negative review. I would welcome a negative review if it had some substance. All I got from this was, “I dunno, I just don’t like it and I’m never gonna like it.” Whatever. I hope they don’t pay you for this stuff because they’re not getting their money’s worth.

  11. I must respectfully disagree also. I replaced my mouse on my desktop with the Magic Trackpad, and I love it! I haven’t noticed any problems with precision. Maybe there are some, but if so, they haven’t made any difference in my experience. I brought my Magic Mouse to work to use with my MacBook there. I wish I could justify buying a second Magic Trackpad! The mouse seems like such a step down from the Trackpad. Again, this is my personal experience, but I think it’s a bit misleading to say that mice are better. Perhaps in some situations they are, but not in mine.

  12. Simon White

    I’ve completely replaced my magic mouse with the magic trackpad. For the sort of stuff I do it’s perfect. Detailed work in photoshop isn’t so hard either.

  13. I guess it’s personal preference but I think the author is brain dead. I’ve used the magic trackpad for several days now and it is far superior for me than any mouse or trackball I’ve ever used. The multi touch abilities just crush any mouse functionality. But to each his own. Be content with multi decade old tech, don’t embrace the future. How’s your horse doing?

    • You know, Scott, hovercraft technology is decades younger than automobile technology but we still use cars.

      Care to take a guess why?

      Well, since you seem incapable of objective thought, I’ll tell you: it’s because cars are better.

    • Is that crushing thing asymptotic, or have you not used the Magic Mouse? The Magic Mouse has arguably the most useful gesture, the swipe that allows for navigation when web browsing. Perhaps the Magic TrackPad crushes all mice, but not all mice are crushed equally.

      • Well, again, it’s a matter of opinion. I’ve used the Magic Mouse, but didn’t find it to compare favorably to my trackball, even (although my wife loves it).

        The Magic Trackpad (in my opinion) is significantly more usable than the Magic Mouse. But again this is very subjective, and this whole article and comment thread seems to ignore that fact.

  14. Michael Rosenthal

    The title, “Futile Gesture,” is cute, but way off base. After several months of using the Magic Mouse and several days of using the Magic Trackpad, I find the Trackpad more enjoyable to use. It has a more complete library of gestures than the mouse or the trackpads on my 2010 MBPs. The difference between the devices is also largely in their geometry and roughly parallels the differences between trackballs and mice. The larger surface of the Magic Trackpad compared to the MBP’s is a benefit, especially for a larger hand.

    As for accuracy of pointer placement, comparing the two, I don’t notice the difference. The mouse relies largely on upper extremity movement across a surface. The trackpad, being stationary, pointer placement depends entirely on fine motor gestures with the hand. If that is a problem, any mouse would be a better device.

    It seems likely that both devices will live on for quite a while, but as we all get more accustomed to using our hands a pointing devices on touch screens, Trackpads will grow on us. They would certainly be better than raising our hands to work on a monitor.

  15. Dunno. I use the trackpad of my PowerBook 12″ consistently. The mouse is there, but always stored in my backpack I simply cannot imagine the magic trackpad doing a worse job than the tiny little trackpad of the PowerBook.

  16. I never considered the Trackpad as a mouse replacement, but as a secondary input device. It sits to the left of my keyboard (I’m right-handed) and I solely use it for 2, 3 and 4-finger swipes. It has proven much more reliable and better than the Wacom Bamboo it replaced. Maybe a bit pricey for a second input device.

    I would never regard it as a replacement for the mouse – I’m so much quicker and more accurate with a mouse than I can ever be with a (swipe or pen-based) tablet…

  17. You seem to assume that people use two Hands on their laptop trackpads. I don’t think that I have ever found that necessary. For things like dragging, for example, I usually click with my thumb and drag with my finger, pretty much like I would have before the button moved from a distinct item to being integrated with the trackpad.

    So far, I love my Magic Trackpad, but I haven’t been able to use it for a full day of work yet since it showed up at quitting time on Friday.

    • While it’s true I have no empirical data regarding one or two hands on the trackpad, I think we can all agree that trackpads sell rather poorly when compared to a mouse. Maybe gestures will change that, maybe not, but it won’t change the dpi comparison between fingers and mice. In three straight days of continuous usage, I found the Magic TrackPad wanting in comparison to a simple mouse. I admit that’s totally subjective, but input devices are a very personal preference.

      • Yes we can all agree that a new device that just came out mere days ago does not sell as well as devices that have been around for 20 years. What an amazing insight.

      • Trackpads have been out nearly as long as the mouse. They’ve never caught on, but perhaps gestures will change that for Apple. More likely, Apple will simply do away with the mouse and ship iMacs with TrackPads, the same way they did away with the extended keyboard.

      • Fadzlan

        Well, if any anecdotes helps – I never use my trackpad on my Macbook with more than one hand. That being said, I can click by pressing on that trackpad, which helps on the one hand usage.

        Wonder if you can still do that with the Magic Trackpad.

  18. Mac reviewers must upgrade their Macs too often. Check out what Apple says:

    The gestures that make the Magic Trackpad more than a squashed mouse only work on MacBooks if they were marketed after late 2008 and MacBook Pros marketed after Early 2008. Still quite useful MacBooks and MacBook Pros made before then are left out in the cold.

    Given also what Apple is doing with the 2-g iPod touch (no BT keyboard) I’m starting to suspect that the old Mac Tax (paying more for comparable hardware) is being replaced by a nasty policy forced obsolescence and coerced upgrades.

    That’s bad. Apple is rolling the the money, becoming more profitable than Microsoft, but refusing to spend mere pennies to support products off the market less than two years (in the case of MacBooks) or that are still being sold (in the case of the 2-g iPod touch). That’s going to come back and bit them in the near future.

    • The article in question is referring to what the internal trackpad does after the update, as near as I can tell. Older laptops didn’t have the same trackpad hardware as the new ones.

    • Because it doesn’t work on Macs 2 years old then going forward you are assuming Mac users have to replace their hardware frequently. There is no reason to believe that unless you can see into the future.
      Apple is doing just fine and will continue to do so in the future despite your rather nonsensical and illogical theories.

  19. Mark Hernandez

    Wow. Recommending/Not Recommending is so binary, so on/off, so disrespectful of the fact that we live in a world of tradeoffs and a diversity of people who see and use things so differently. It’s a good thing I read and learn and make my own decisions, rather than following other people’s recommendations which only apply to them.

    Kinda like how we all feel about Consumer Reports not recommending the iPhone 4 just because of a fraction of people that might have reception issues, when such a harsh determination is disrespectful of the fact that the iPhone, in their opinion, is the best phone currently available considering all the other myriad of interacting variables at play.

    Hmmmmm. You could have just recommended that people visit the Apple Store to make sure that it was what you expected and to see if it works for you.

    • So, in other words you like it and the reviewer is wrong?

      Guess what though? It’s his subjective opinion so he can’t be.

      Anyway, whilst I love my Macbook’s touchpad it remains a poor substitute for a mouse. That’s just the reality of the situation.

      • I suggest that you heed your own advice. You can start with looking up the definition of the word ‘imply’, Darwin.

        We can try ‘context’ once you’ve done that, hmm?

      • Steve Bummer

        This reviewer is a complete [email protected]!

        This is a trackpad for your desktop, plain and simple.
        Use it for what it does best.
        For all the rest there is the Mouse and Digitizer(Wacom)

        It’s simply too easy to become a reviewer these days

        If ever you think that Mac users are fanboys and reject any criticism, maybe the reason is the extremely low quality of reviewers. No journalistic experience needed, any tosser like charles or mark can write what they please.

        So what is the point in reviews..

  20. Interesting, you never really said what was wrong with it other than it not being a mouse, the accuracy of a single finger is no where near the entire hand/wrist. I think maybe the next ‘Magic Keyboard’ will be somehow a keyboard with flush keys and a touch across the surface of the keys for use of the trackpad.

    • It lacks the precision and accuracy of a mouse, but is designed to take the place of one, down to a presumed location on the right or left of the keyboard. That negates two-handed usage like a trackpad on a MacBook too. Worst of both worlds.

      • This is not a useful review and in fact is hardly a review at all. Apple has said it was designed to either replace or complement a mouse. I use it to replace about 80% of what I would do with a mouse. That 80% is more comfortable, natural and fluid than using a mouse.

      • Could you give an example of how it is less precise or accurate than a mouse? Not trying to be difficult, but after a few days of use, I’m finding the Magic Trackpad to be as precise as the Magic Mouse it’s replacing.

      • StarCraft. Or any game. I also found it less precise in PhotoShop. I found it not as smooth when scrolling, be it in a word processor or web browser. This is not to say in all situations the lack of acuity was intolerable, but if I’m going to be moving that arm to the right of the keyboard anyway, well, why shouldn’t it be just as good as a mouse?

        The tradeoff is gestures, but, again, the Magic Mouse has the most important gesture, swipe to navigate.

      • Thanks; that’s interesting. I don’t play games on my Mac so I can’t compare there, but I’ve been enjoying using it in Photoshop (moreso than the Magic Mouse, actually, because of how frequently I accidentally activated the one-finger scroll gesture on the mouse.)

  21. Christopher Ryan

    Hey Charles

    I dunno. I’m going to respectively disagree with you. I love the Magic Trackpad and in my use, it’s very common for me to do the click with one finger and drag with another motion.

    I wonder if Apple’s motivation for this is, like you said, because portable sales outweigh desktop sales, so this is a means to provide a more comfortable experience for users who are currently portable Mac users who will be moving to a desktop at some point? Or portable users who will be using an external setup?

    I like your suggestion of the Magic Keyboard, but if it weren’t for symmetry and literally size constraints, I’d argue that it’s more comfortable to use a trackpad to either side of your keyboard instead of beneath it. Since you move back and forth regularly, if you’re using a trackpad on any sort of regular basis, it’s awkward to continue to move OVER it to get to your keyboard. (I know notebook designs fly in the face of this, but think about it for a second. If you have the option to put it to either side, why not do it?)

    Interesting review, but like I said, I love my Magic Trackpad. :-)