Terrible Touchpads Give You the Finger

When you think about how much laptops have evolved over the past couple of years, it’s staggering. You can now get screaming-fast quad-core power inside a machine that weighs less than 4 pounds. Many notebooks can switch between integrated and discrete graphics on the fly. You’ll even find some models with 3D displays or tech that lets you stream video wirelessly to your HDTV. Yet even with all of these advancements, notebooks have taken serious steps back in some ways. The “evolution” of the touchpad seems to have moved from a utilitarian pointing device to a mere decoration.

In the interest of full transparency, I’m a pointing stick snob. I love the precision offered by the ThinkPad that I use as my primary notebook. It’s always pinpoint accurate, no tweaking required. But I’ve also used plenty of touchpads that work well, and it’s easy to tell the good ones from those that make you want to throw the laptop down a flight of stairs. My biggest pet peeve is touchpads that integrate mouse buttons. Let me clarify: Windows notebooks featuring touchpads with integrated buttons.

HP has been one of the biggest offenders with its Pavilion and Envy lines. One system I reviewed recently had a touchpad so wonky that the slightest brush against the surface while typing moved the cursor. Other times the notebook would shrink or enlarge webpages or documents, registering an errant second finger as a pinch gesture. A subsequent driver update made the laptop more usable, but we still docked a half star from an otherwise great system because of subpar ergonomics.

Other Windows notebook vendors continue to experiment with touchpads, sacrificing style for substance. Take the Gateway ID49—the first notebook we’ve tested with a glowing touchpad. The effect is kind of cool, but the whole device depresses when you click the touchpad, making you use more force and wait longer for your next move.

In general, I also dislike touchpads with glossy or mirrored surfaces. Take the Acer Aspire 8943G. It’s neat that the touchpad houses hidden touch media controls, but the glossiness causes unnecessary friction when all you want to do is move the cursor from point A to point B. The fingerprint smudges don’t help, either.

Palm rejection is another issue. As touchpads enlarge to enable multitouch gestures, so does the risk of making unintended movements. I especially notice this problem on laptops whose touchpads sit very closely to the keyboard, such as the Toshiba Portege R700. For the most part, Windows notebooks aren’t smart enough to know when you’re typing. Yes, you can dig into the settings in some cases to dial up Palm Check sensitivity, but you shouldn’t have to.

When notebook makers do see fit to include dedicated mouse buttons, they often skip discrete left and right buttons in favor of a single bar. I’m not a fan of this approach at all because, in a lot of cases, there’s not a clear delineation between left and right; or the bar might be too stiff, narrow, or both. Using any notebook takes some adjustment, but the best laptops don’t have a steep learning curve. They just work the way you expect, pretty much right out of the box.

For some reason, Apple’s MacBook and MacBook Pro touchpads are miles better than anything in the Windows camp. They’re silky smooth, offer multitouch gestures that don’t take any practice or patience, and have buttons that click when you actually want them to. The experience is so good, in fact, that Apple saw fit this week to release an external Magic Trackpad, which some say puts the mighty mouse on notice. (Note to Apple: please make a Windows version.)

Will I ever give up my precious pointing stick? Maybe. Leading touchpad maker Synaptics says it hears my complaints loud and clear and is revamping its ClickPad. It boasts a new mechanical design, as well as Image Sensing Technology that offers more multifinger capabilities usually reserved for touchscreens. More important, new SmartSense technology should prevent accidental palm activation of the cursor. These advancements can’t come soon enough.

At the end of the day, I’m psyched by many of the innovations and cutting edge components today’s laptops possess. But in too many cases these whiz-bang features get cancelled out by lackluster ergonomics. Consumers deserve a notebook that’s both powerful and easy to use. And only those systems will earn our Editors’ Choice.

Editor-in-chief Mark Spoonauer directs LAPTOP’s online and print editorial content and has been covering mobile and wireless technology for over a decade. Each week Mark’s SpoonFed column provides his insights and analysis of the biggest mobile trends and news. You can also follow him on Twitter.

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. Mr Frustrated Says:

    I totally wholeheartedly agree!!! I would kill for an Apple touchpad in my Sony Vaio Z series, or a Macbook Air with the graphics, processor, ports, SCREEN and optical drive of my Z series!! And my Z series has a pretty good touchpad by windows standards!!

  2. John Pierce Says:

    Mark — one thing you didn’t mention is which Windows laptop has the best touchpad? I was a little surprised about the Portege; How about some of the Asus pads? Maybe Gateway? Dell’s feel universally bad to me.

    I agree with you that Apple has the best one out – this is why I have a love/hate relationship with Apple. Their hardware is always absolutely top shelf, but quite frankly OSX has enough quirks to just irritate me. Using both Windows 7 and OSX I have to give the nod to Win7.

    Except for those lovely Macbook touchpads…. sigh.

  3. Avram Piltch Says:

    The touchpads on the ThinkPad T410 and T410s are among the best and the pad on the ThinkPad Edge series, while smoother, is good also. Toshiba’s touchpads on most of its systems: its netbooks, its new T235 series, its M645, and Qosmo X505 are all pretty good.

  4. Charles S. Says:

    Yes, Yes Yes!!!!

    I have been an HP customer now for about a decade. I am looking at replacing my laptop again (I have purchased about 6 in the last 7 years — i like new things. So, my first reaction was to look at HP and then I looked at the ENVY 14 or the DV6tse and the DM4t lines.

    HORRIBLE TRACKPADS. HORRIBLE. Within the same model they vary in quality – so quality control is apparently a problem, barely touching them while typing sends the cursor flying and it takes a diesel engine to press down on the buttons.

    For the first time in years I am seriously looking at other makers — and there is a better than 50% chance I will not buy HP because of their trackpads are absolutely the worst in the industry. I can’t stand them.

  5. aftermath Says:

    This is a great article on an issue that doesn’t get talked about enough. Thank you!

    The problem with the “rocker bar” approach of combining the left and right click on a single button is that it can eliminate the possibility of emulating a middle click by pressing down both buttons. Middle clicking is a useful technique in Windows and Linux.

    Even the best trackpad still presents ergonomic issues, both in terms of where they’re placed and how you interact with them. Even if your laptop is your primary computer, your trackpad should not be your primary pointing device. Also, most people just roll with the default settings of a trackpad, which is a big mistake. It’s like jumping into a car with the seat and steering wheel in their factor positions and just driving. Adjust the sensitivity and speed of the input device so that it works well for you.

    For people in the Windows world wondering which brand offers the best trackpads, I have to agree that Lenovo Thinkpads are the best (along with their keyboards). Unlike the author, I don’t think Apple does enough with its input devices. For my taste, Apple input devices are always very beautiful to look at but not very enjoyable to touch or use, especially for an extended period of time. Compared to my Thinkpad, the Apple trackpad feel sloppys, inaccurate, and offers extremely poor physical feedback. Ironically, I’ve used the Fingerworks iGesture pad on which Apple’s new extrernal trackpad is based, and even though it was 10 kinds of ugly, it was much better to use. Ultimately, it’s a very personal thing, and you need to really try out what you’re buying (just be aware of the ergnomic issues of all trackpads).

  6. Steve Says:

    I found this article for the very reason that it was written and I agree completely. My wife has a MAcBook Pro and I have a Windows 7 Sony Vaio. I wish my touchpad on my sony would act like the one of her MacBook. This begs the question….Has anyone been able to find or know about any software that you can install on a Windows computer which will make the touchpad operate like a Mac?

  7. Curt Says:

    Tried an HP dv7 and had to return it. The computer was GREAT but the clickpad made it unusable. I really like HP computers but am not too fond of the company. Looks like I am going to have to wait for the next round of Pavilions to come out.

    I checked out the other HPs with clickpads while returning mine and discovered that there is a lot of variation in how hard I had to push to hardware right-click the thing. Some were very easy and some were very hard.

    HP really needs to work on adding gesture right-click support to its clickpad drivers.

  8. Kate Says:

    I’m with you Kurt! I just bought a really good HP d5 ..which is also wonderful looking.. but I have to return it as the touchpad is enfuriating. So much for my Black Friday bargain!

  9. Tyrone Biggums Says:

    Great article. I have a ThinkPad circa 2004 that I am finally replacing. However, I’m addicted to the TrackPoint and hate trackpads. I was hoping to check out another computer maker but will probably stick to ThinkPad so I can get the TrackPoint. I love the TrackPoint because my fingers are always at the home keys.

  10. Jon Says:

    I am reading this article 3 years later, and guess what? Macbooks still have trackpads that are infinitely better than any windows laptop.

    I would love to save hundreds by switching to a windows laptop, but thus far using their trackpads is unbearable coming from a macbook.

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