Crappy Clickpads Could Kill The Ultrabook

In case you hadn’t heard, Ultrabooks are the next big thing for laptops. With their superslim designs and tablet-like responsiveness, this category has the potential to keep notebooks quite relevant in the so-called post-PC era. When you ask industry analysts what might prevent Ultrabooks from taking off, most will tell you their relatively high prices. But I believe there’s an even bigger obstacle: the clickpad.

What’s a clickpad, you ask? It’s a touchpad that lacks discrete mouse buttons. The buttons are built into the pad itself, which makes for a more seamless and sleek design. Apple nailed this technology a while ago on the MacBook Air. However, I’ve seen so many bad implementations of this technology on Windows machines that I shudder when I see one.

Here are the telltale signs of a crappy clickpad:

  • The jumpy cursor: Navigating around the screen shouldn’t feel like a chore, but with Ultrabooks such as the ASUS Zenbook UX31 the cursor would sometimes jump when we were trying to select an icon. At other times, the cursor would jump up a line while typing, due to accidental contact with the touchpad. If you can’t get the basics right, don’t bother.

  • Pinch to stutter: Anyone who has used an iPhone or Android device knows that pinching to zoom should be a smooth, continuous motion. However, on many Ultrabooks this action feels like you’re zooming in slow motion. Rotating can also be hit or miss. Perhaps Windows 8 will offer better built-in support for multitouch gestures, but right now it doesn’t feel natural at all.

  • Erratic scrolling: If you use a MacBook Air, you’ll find that scrolling up and down webpages and documents with two fingers is silky smooth. You don’t even have to think about it. On Windows-powered Ultrabooks, I often overshoot the target or I need to be very deliberate to initiate scrolling in the first place.

  • Right clicks out of nowhere: One night I decided to take the IdeaPad U300s home to see how well Lenovo’s Ultrabook worked, and I couldn’t wait to give it back. That’s because the system mistook a left click for a right one so often that I had a hard time getting any work done.

  • Annoying Stiffness: There is one thing that prevented us from giving the HP Folio 13 an Editors’ Choice Award, an otherwise great Ultrabook with best-in-class battery life. And that’s the stiff clickpad. We had to use too much force to activate the buttons.

 Of course, some clickpads are better than others, but right now they’re the worst thing about Ultrabooks. Yes, they give you more surface area for performing multitouch gestures, but if they don’t work the way they should then it’s just a wasted effort. It may seem old fashioned, but right now the Ultrabook with the best touchpad is the Toshiba Portege Z835. It uses two physical mouse buttons and they work just fine. 

If you’re looking to point fingers, the easy target would be Synaptics, which makes clickpads for Ultrabooks, including the Acer Aspire S3, Lenovo IdeaPad U300s, and HP Folio 13. The company says its image sensing technology allows for more precise navigation and sophisticated gesture recognition, but I haven’t been impressed thus far. Elan and Sentelic are among other clickpad makers. Ultrabook manufacturers bear some responsibility as well, because they’re the ones who implement the technology and make sure drivers work properly.

To me, though, the biggest culprit is Windows itself. Whereas Mac OS X is designed so that you need to double tap to launch contextual menus, Windows uses right clicks. That’s why you see so many Clickpads that leave room at the bottom for flat left and right buttons. Unfortunately, that adds another layer of complexity and sometimes leads to errant right clicks. Some people may hate this idea but Microsoft should just do away with the right mouse button option altogether in Windows 8 and make the two-finger click standard on notebooks.

Intel also needs to take a leadership role in ensuring that Ultrabooks measure up to certain ergonomic standards. After all, the chipmaker is spending $300 million to spur this category. In my mind, if you can’t deliver a satisfying user experience, you shouldn’t be able to call your laptop an Ultrabook, and you don’t get any marketing support.

Apple has a built-in advantage when it comes to touchpads because the company makes the hardware and the software. There are no middlemen. And if Ultrabook makers don’t raise their standards they’ll continue to play second fiddle to the MacBook Air.

AUTHOR BIO
Mark Spoonauer
Mark Spoonauer
Responsible for the editorial vision for Laptopmag.com, Mark Spoonauer has been Editor in Chief of LAPTOP since 2003 and has covered technology for nearly 15 years. Mark speaks at key tech industry events and makes regular media appearances on CNBC, Fox and CNN. Mark was previously reviews editor at Mobile Computing, and his work has appeared in Wired, Popular Science and Inc.
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  1. MarcXW Says:

    I couldn’t agree more. I have an X1, and even though the clickpad isn’t terrible, every time I see a Macbook, I realize what I am missing out on. I prefer using the trackpoint anyway so it isn’t much of an issue for me, but when my friends try to use my laptop and they try using the clickpad, they always complain, rightfully. I am astonished that since their introduction, no manufacturer has managed to optimize the drivers properly.

  2. Jordan Says:

    This is a very good issue to be discussed. I’m a pc user and prefer windows vs mac just because of i’m used to it. However the only reason why I would switch to mac is because of their clickpads. I believe that if I run windows on a macbook it’s going to be the best of both worlds but I’m going to wait to see if synaptics steps their game up.

  3. StickMan Says:

    Another vote for the TrackPoint here, but mostly only the ones made by Lenovo (at least so far). The speed at which I work increases dramatically when using the TrackPoint, because I no longer have to take my hands off the keyboard. It’s amazing what a little piece of rubber is capable of. I wish more people would consider it.

    On the flip slide, I think other manufacturers’ pointing sticks can do well, if they can just fix the middle button hold-to-scroll and add some momentum to the scrolling. Having something like the Wet Banana Chrome plugin that works throughout the OS would dramatically improve the experience. If only there was a decent third party application that can enable this in Windows… Has anyone found one?

    …Oddly enough, the design and location of the pointing stick in the Fujitsu UH900 works well for me too (despite being an Alps stick, too!).

  4. Rawast.T Says:

    Is Macbook’s track pad patented or something? Why can’t other companies buy a Macbook Air, rip it apart, and figure out how Apple builds it?

  5. MrG Says:

    I have a HP Pavilion DV7. Its click pad is horrible in many ways. I have given up trying to use it and use a USB mouse all the time. How can they design such a nice machine and then smack a horrible input device on it?

    As an designer I’ve been waiting for 10 years for them to make a great tablet PC. I want to draw on my screen. This would do away with the click pad entirely. The wave of iPads etc. with touch screens makes me hopeful that soon laptop makers will see how much consumers like their pads and switch to the tablet format. It is obvious to me this is where tech will go eventually… we will see how much longer i need to wait.

  6. TD Says:

    This is just nuts. The “solution” for Windows is to keep discrete buttons for crying out loud. They work. The right click menu also works. There is no need to make Windows touchpads the same as apple’s clickpads. The only thing that would accomplish is to make a productive system less productive. Oh yeah – I guess it would be more “COOL, MAN” like Apple. Right. The cool cult. I give a rat’s buhind. I like to get things done on my laptops, and you know what else works? The friggin page up and down buttons and the arrow keys. You don’t have to take your hands off the keyboard to use those either. God save us from “cool”.

  7. Zachary Bell Says:

    Yet another vote for TrackPoint and good ergonomics.

    Lenovo’s ThinkPad lines and Apple’s MacBooks get it right, while most of the others need to work on an alternative to a clickpad by itself.

    My cases for each:
    Lenovo ThinkPad: The TrackPoint UltraNav (yes, the little piece of rubber in the middle of ThinkPad keyboards). By having a usable pointing stick along with the clickpad or touch pad, my performance while using a laptop has improved and I won’t be going back to a single pointing device anytime soon.

    Apple: The designers and engineers at Apple just get it. Simplification is key for them, so they eliminate the right-click commands altogether, opting to use a multi-touch gesture instead. I would choose Apple as a first alternative to Lenovo, though a MacBook is more expensive than a 12″ or 14″ ThinkPad Edge.

    Both: The keyboards and pointing device designs are nearly flawless, although in their own unique way. On each, my typing speed has improved by two times when compared to popular consumer notebooks by Acer, Toshiba, Dell and HP.

    IMHO: I would take a ThinkPad Ultrabook, such as the X1 and T430U, and if that’s not available, then I’ll take a MacBook Pro 13″ (due to my need for an optical drive on a Mac).

  8. Tim O Says:

    I think this is an overreaction and a repeat of a common chorus on the internet lately. I have heard this complaint many times over the last few months now and so I have been specifically testing the so-called problems with these click-pads. I have have ((not)) experienced such issues that would prevent purchase. Also as far as price – Apple Air Book is pretty pricey if you have not noticed so that charge seems like a stretch. When buying an Ultrabook your paying for small compact and efficient mobile computer when a tablet just won’t do. Ultrabooks are the future for many and thanks to Apple for pushing the design threshold we all will benefit. Thats capitalism and market competition.

  9. Bassem Says:

    Clickpad is the future.
    Multi-gestures allow for a much improved productivity over standard trackpads with discrete buttons.
    I am currently a Macbook user. The two things that I miss in other laptops is the battery life and the trackpad. It is much superior to anything else I have used before and since.

    While the build-in multi-gestures controls of the Mac are impressive, I use a tool called BetterTouchTool (similar to Linux’ TouchEgg app, I believe) to allow me to completely customize gestures and actions. This allows for high productivity because, for example, you can switch between tabs using three finger gestures, and through different applications through four-finger gestures. Just google-search to see how amazing this is.

    Since I feel Macbooks are too expensive and I don’t really need OSX, I hope that other laptop manufacturers will embrace and improve clickpads, and that Windows 8 will improve on multi-gestures control.

  10. Mark Sobus Says:

    Touch pad is one of many problems with U300s. i’ve had mine for 5 months. when word processing i literally have to turn touch pad off and use mouse because any touch causes cursor to jump elsewhere, and sometimes it just randomly blocks text and deletes. i have had numerous mechanical problems with this laptop also: screen, wireless, and quality of service to name a few.

  11. Neil Says:

    Why hasn’t this been raised more as an issue? I just returned an HP Envy 4t 1000 because the clickpad was unusable no matter how much tweaking I did of the settings (I did a lot of it). Unfortunately, the trend for ultrabooks is to do away entirely with trackpads and go to clickpads only. I’d love to see a list of ultrabooks that still offer clickpads. The list is shrinking!

  12. Harry Says:

    Your analysis of the current crop of crappads is spot on! I thought that I was alone in my anger at the pad on my top-of-the-line Samsung. I have come to dread working on this because of the multiple attempts to get a click repsonse from a touch, yet if I graze the pad while typing my cursor readily responds and damn. This is the worst machine I have ever worked on, due entirely to the flawed pad. I have had this junk since February and no driver update. Maybe the folks at Samsung haven’t tried to use their machines and so do not realize what a disaster this is.

    It has been my hope that Windows 8 will fix this issue. Perhaps those who have tested the OS can report how it manages trackpad performance; or IF it manages same.

  13. Phil Says:

    I have a zenbook UX31 and the touch pad does jump around quiet a bit. But overall the product is worth it. Great machine.

  14. AppleWindows Says:

    This article really hits the nail on the head.

    Manufacturers have to understand that the clickpad/trackpad interface is one of the most important areas in the laptop/ultrabook experience and it is frustrating to have to jump through hoops to make them work satisfactory. It has to work out of the box without having the users to crawl through blogs, sites, and documentation to figure out how to optimize it via configuration.

    Out of the box, Apple’s clickpad work extremely well; I have a Macbook Pro and it works great.
    On the Windows side, the capability is there, but it feels like you are handed with a system with half-tested drivers installed and the OEM just says: “Update your drivers!” to resolve any issues. I have an Asus UX32VD and the touchpad was so poor I was ready to pack it all up, return it, and eat the restocking fee. But decided to spend some more time to figure out if there is a way to get it in a workable state. After uninstalling the ASUS Smart Touchpad drivers and installing the Elan drivers, running the Elan configuration panel (which is not available unless you obtain the etdaniconf.exe executable from the driver package) I got the touchpad to a point where in fact it now works brilliantly and perhaps even better than my Macbook Pro’s. In summary, I don’t understand how the Asus drivers sucked so badly (Quality control anyone?), and why they hid the very useful Elan configuration panel from users. But in the end, Ultrabooks CAN have very nice touchpads but you need to spend some time to get it there.

  15. Jon Says:

    My old 2007 macbook pro (non-unibody) is has entirely better usability than any ultrabook or high spec windows laptop all because the trackpad on it doesn’t completely suck. Apple will continue to get my money until microsoft/synaptic/pc manufacturer figures something out, because it is honestly ridiculous how far behind they are.

  16. B Smith Says:

    One week with Asus touchscreen and the touchpad is driving me crazy. The multitouch feature works part of the time. Have to reboot to get it to work again. Cannot get the right click to work – ever. When typing, my palm makes my cursor jump. All the things I am reading about. Guess I will take it back within my 14 day period for returns.
    Love the touchscreen, but it is not turning out to be my primary input preference.

  17. James K Says:

    I have a Samsung series 9 that is great in every way except the touchpad with built in left and right click zones. When I go to left or right click about half the time the cursor moves. Samsung says there is no way to fix this. I makes me dread using the machine. I wish I was still in the return period, I would take it back. Light and thin is not a tradeoff for productivity and my productivity on this machine is terrible.

  18. Coro Says:

    Well, I had couple of notebooks and up to now, I have used touchpads with plessure.
    But alas, my new little Acer has TERRIBLE QUALITY of touchpad, in my humble opinion – it does not work in wet at all, not wvwn that, one wet finger touch and touchpad is gone for ten minutes.. and so on.
    But that is just a poor quality, not a design (in basic mezning) fault.
    If I could just glue 10 years old touch ower the poor new one, everything would be perfect! (well, I can glue that, but I have no way to hook wires..) – there is no difference in thickness or size!
    It is a kind of marketting bs, not a property of touchpads.
    Warranty replace would be the best answer here.. But I know I can never win. :(

  19. criggs Says:

    James K: When I go to left or right click about half the time the cursor moves.

    Yes, this was the same problem I was having on my Toshiba P875-S7102 Satellite Laptop. Turns out it’s fixable, but there’s NO documentation, so it literally took me THREE FRIGGING MONTHS before I finally found out how to defeat that.

    If you go into the Clickpad settings, and double-click the Smart Sense settings, one finds that one selects both restrict clicking and restrict tapping to a specific zone. Obviously one wants to restrict the zone so that both the left-click and right-click areas WON’T MOVE THE CURSOR. And that FINALLY solved the problem. What frigging PITA!

    TD: There is no need to make Windows touchpads the same as apple’s clickpads. The only thing that would accomplish is to make a productive system less productive. Oh yeah – I guess it would be more “COOL, MAN” like Apple. Right. The cool cult….God save us from “cool”.

    A huge, loud, deafening AMEN from me, man. Hey, world, remember us, the majority of computer users who have Windows, not Mac, and who have been using left and right clicks for a hundred years? Excuse me, but who died and made you God, Apple cultists? Double-clicking to get to the right-click is lame, 20th-century throwback, from the days when you poor Apple Neanderthals didn’t have right-click mouses. Excuse me, but I prefer to live in the 21st century, thank you very frigging much. Sheez!

  20. Raymond Says:

    Clickpads suck, touchpads rule. If it aint broke, don’t fix it!!

  21. Ben Says:

    Why are you jerking yourself off to Apple’s terrible design? I’ve used many a Macbook, and they’re just as terrible as many of the computers that you’ve listed here! Mouse acceleration is dismally slow, and I often have to fight Steve Jobs’ ghost himself as I struggle against the possessed cursor.

  22. Jennifer Says:

    After we tried everything to fix the issue, the simplest and the most effective solution is to tape a piece of cardboard to the touch pad. It doesn’t look too hot but that’s the only thing that works.

  23. John Says:

    For the guy who says “Apple and Lenovo got it right”… I beg to differ. I have the Yoga 13 and the trackpad is horrible. My trackpad is actually physically stuck down. Google “yoga 13 trackpad stuck” and you will find several people who had the same problem.

  24. The Duke Says:

    I don’t agree with the points on Apple (my girlfriend hated the touchpad on her Mac Air and has never grown to like it) the idiocy of copying the design when then mouse works differently on a PC is beyond belief. Apple added in an extra button on its touchpad to be like a PC, and PC manufacturers HID the split between the two buttons so its is HARDER to tell what you are doing. Morons. Change ‘em back, put in two distinct buttons.

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