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If you walk into a retail store and ask a sales rep to explain a laptop to you, chances are you’ll receive a long list of hardware information focusing on what’s inside. You’ll be told what the processor is, you’ll be told the size of the hard drive, and you’ll be told the RAM installed.

This is information you’ll want to know, but in today’s world of speedy processors and cheap RAM, many users will rarely ask about all their laptop has to give. As a result, the difference between a good laptop and a great one comes down to the little things, like the touchpad. Yet the touchpad itself is a mysterious item. It’s there, it works, and it has for years. Not all touchpads are built the same however.

The Basics Of Touchpad Technology

The first touchpads How To Disable The Touchpad While You Are Typing How To Disable The Touchpad While You Are Typing Read More made their debut in the early 1990s, and were one of several responses to the problem of providing an portable input solution with a portable computer (trackpointers and trackballs were also common). The first laptop to have a touchpad –or trackpad, as it was officially called at the time – was the Apple PowerBook 500.

Modern touchpads use a technology called capacitive touch. This is the same tech used by most modern touchscreens, and it works by detecting the electrical current of a human finger as it comes into contact with the touchpad surface. This allows for smooth, easy navigation that doesn’t rely on physical pressure.

However, capacitive touch does have one minor disadvantage, and that’s the inability to detect inanimate objects or gloved human hands. Special touchpads, like the tablets from Wacom, are required for use with a stylus. Fortunately, only artists and Eskimos routinely bump into this problem.

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The Differences Between Touchpads

While virtually all touchpads use the same basic technology to detect input, there are a wide variety of ways to use this technology, and a wide variety of touchpad sizes and textures.

The most important feature to look for in a touchpad is multitouch gesture support. Although this has become a common extra, it’s not ubiquitous. For example, I recently tested a MSI GT680R gaming laptop, priced at about $1,500, which did not have multitouch. Determining if a laptop supports this feature is easy if you can use it hands-on. Just try scrolling down a webpage with your middle and index fingers.

If a laptop doesn’t have multi-touch, it should at least have scroll space available. This is a small vertical area, usually on the right side of the touchpad, that’s exclusively designed to translate finger movement into an up/down scrolling motion.

Material quality, although low-tech, is critical. Most inexpensive laptops will simply construct the touchpad out of the same plastic as the surrounding laptop, and that works alright, but it doesn’t result in the smoothest feel. More expensive laptops, like the MacBooks, use a glass surface because it provides less resistance to finger movement. You’ll occasionally find other materials used, as well. The ASUS Bamboo series, for example, crafts the touchpad out of the same bamboo you’ll find on the rest of the laptop.

Finally, the touchpad buttons are important. The best option is a touchpad that offers two separate physical mouse buttons, but many touchpads use what is called a rocker-style button. This means there is one individual with a rocker in the middle, which means the button operates like a seesaw. Rocker-style buttons look sexy, but they can be annoying to use because pressing the button near the rocker requires more force than pressing the button at the edge.

The perfect touchpad should offer multitouch support, a smooth surface, and two individual buttons with great tactile response. Finding all of these features together is difficult, particularly in inexpensive laptops, but it’s not impossible.

The Importance Of Software Support

Although your touchpad’s hardware is important, the software being used also has an impact on how your touchpad performs.

For example, Windows did not even support multitouch until Windows 7 (although there are ways to hack it How To Easily Activate Two Finger Scroll In Windows Laptops How To Easily Activate Two Finger Scroll In Windows Laptops Read More ), even if the hardware was capable of it. Although much has been made about the inclusion of multitouch as it relates to tablets, its impact on laptops has been more immediate and obvious. Navigating Windows with a touchpad is much easier than before.

With that said however, there are still clear differences between Windows 7 and Mac OS X, which offers incredible multitouch support. Much of the difference between navigating Windows and Mac OS X on a laptop comes down not to the hardware (although the MacBook’s glass touchpad is nice) but to the software support. Ubuntu also offers full multitouch support as of version 10.10.

Conclusion

It’s easy to forget about the touchpad when a sales rep is gushing to you about the great hardware packed inside the new laptop you have your eye on. Don’t let that distract you. The touchpad is something you’ll be using a lot, and it cannot be replaced or upgraded, so you need to be sure to buy a laptop with a touchpad you like.

  1. Julius Leachman III
    June 28, 2011 at 8:42 am

    Great article Matt. Will make sure to put the touchpad into huge consideration when purchasing my next laptop. Will also pass on the information to others in the market for a laptop...

  2. Kevin
    June 17, 2011 at 9:52 pm

    I like TRACKPOINTS that used 2 be offered by IBM so much better than mice or touchpads. I can use all 3, but the trackpoint has 1 advantage over the others: keeping fingers on the keyboard (and the right/left mouse-keys were just 'neath the space-bar, so just extend thumbs down a little to use). I don't spend much $ on input devices, but I did manage to buy an external USB keyboard from IBM several years ago. Great purchase, but disappointed that I can't find an updated wireless version now.

  3. Bilal Jaffery
    June 8, 2011 at 12:34 am

    I love the touchpads Lenovo puts on its R and T series thinkpads. Love em!

  4. chatman
    June 3, 2011 at 7:32 pm

    Most important to me is the ability to switch my touchpad off. When I am typing, if my fingers go anywhere near it, it sends the cursor flying off to the other corner of the screen. Really p155es me off. Can any laptops do this?

    • M.S. Smith
      June 3, 2011 at 7:39 pm

      Yes, quite a few do. The touchpad can often be turned on or off by pressing a specific function button. Sometimes it can be turned off in Windows via the Mouse settings, as well.

    • chatman
      June 3, 2011 at 8:12 pm

      Thanks. I'll have to check for that facility when I buy my next laptop.

  5. Jdroost
    June 3, 2011 at 4:18 pm

    When I installed Win7 on one of my Dell E1705,The touch pad stopped working...still have the up/down keys..With Ubuntu 11.4 on my other Dell E1705 not a problem..can't find a way to get it back on the Win7 .....

  6. LoBo
    June 2, 2011 at 8:23 pm

    I overlooked the touchpad when I bought my new lappie. Great hardware specs but a badly designed HP touchpad. It was impossible to use it with linux mint but now that I switched to ubuntu it works wonderfully with a few tweaks.

  7. laboratory
    June 2, 2011 at 4:51 pm

    For me touchpad was designed to use it, when you can't use mouse.
    But for some reason laptops are divided people into laptop mouse users and touchpad users.

    So at the end if you are mouse user there is a great chance that even if your touchpad is a PRO you will use it once a year:)

    And for touchpad users. Well it's the same as for mouse users. Most people use basic functionality of the both mouse and touchpad. And maybe 3-5% need something extra.

    Cheers.

    • M.S. Smith
      June 2, 2011 at 4:58 pm

      True, some people don't use their touchpad much. People with very large laptops that aren't often moved are the most likely to not use it So that's yet another thing to consider when buying.

    • User
      June 3, 2011 at 12:11 am

      On my fifth laptop...  never liked their touchpads...  only use when a mouse is not practicable; as on an aircraft.

      Best

  8. Fryskmantsje
    June 2, 2011 at 4:48 pm

    Nice article.

    Wish I've read this 3 years ago when I bought my Dell XPS M1530.
    Great laptop but à crappy touchpad.

  9. Corey Ganser
    June 2, 2011 at 4:13 pm

    This is a very good call.  I just got a laptop online and it has great specs, but the touchpad drives me nuts because you have to push really hard on it to recognize and the borders of the buttons blend into the touchpad itself too easily

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