Force Touch Trackpad

Along with Apple’s changes to their keyboard, the company has also gone in and significantly reworked their trackpad. The new Force Touch Trackpad represents the biggest change to Apple’s trackpad design since the creation of the capacitive, multi-touch pivoting trackpad introduced on the unibody MacBook Pro. In putting together the Force Touch Trackpad, Apple has significantly reworked the internals of the trackpad, creating a trackpad that behaves a lot like their traditional trackpad with some new features, but under the hood relies on some very different mechanisms.

The big change here is that Apple has done away with the traditional pivot and switch mechanism. With pivot and switch, the capacitive trackpad surface would act like a small touchscreen, and underneath it was a switch to register when the trackpad was pressed down. Mechanically the trackpad pivoted from the top (Apple likes to compare it to a diving board), with the trackpad inferring what action to take based on the combination of the capacitive readings and the switch reading. Multi-finger gestures would rely solely on the capacitive layer, primary/secondary clicks would be based on the number of fingers in use when the switch was actuated, etc.

The Force Touch Trackpad on the other hand eliminates the pivot and switch mechanism in favor of a combination of an electromagnet and force/pressure sensors. The pressure sensors essentially replace the physical switch, allowing the trackpad to tell when it has been pressed based on the amount of pressure, and thanks to the pressure sensors it can now tell how hard it has been pressed as opposed to the binary nature of the physical switch. Meanwhile without a physical switch in place to provide the clicking sensation and feedback of pressing down on the touchpad, Apple’s electromagnet – the Taptic Engine – activates to simulate the feeling and noise of pressing a switch.

Update 04/15/2015: iFixit has a great shot of the trackpad's internals, including a good look at just how big the electromagnet/taptic engine really is.


Image Courtesy iFixit

The end result is that the MacBook’s trackpad is among the first wave of devices that ships with Apple’s next generation trackpad and the enhanced capabilities that go with it. Ignoring the pressure sensitivity for a moment (we’ll get back to it), replacing the pivot and switch for an electromagnet works shockingly well. From a touch & feel standpoint the Force Touch Trackpad feels virtually identical to a traditional trackpad, to the point where it’s more than a bit uncanny. In practice you are not actually triggering a switch nor is the trackpad really moving (technically it’s deforming ever so slightly), but it sure feels like you’re working a switch. Apple has clearly done their homework on getting an electromagnet to emulate a switch, to great results. Meanwhile they don’t have the trackpad’s acoustics precisely matching a switch, but the resulting pinball-machine like plunk is close enough to a click that I don’t imagine anyone will mind the difference.

One side benefit of this change is that the trackpad feels the same throughout, and unlike the pivoting trackpad does not require more or less force depending on where you are relative to the pivot point. The variable force required has never been a major problem in my experience, but it is nice to no longer need to worry about where your fingers are relative to the top, and consequently how much force you need to use.

However the bigger deal is that by making the amount of force required to click consistent throughout the entire trackpad, Apple can now use the amount of pressure applied as another input, making the trackpad pressure-sensitive. The underlying pressure sensors and electromagnet are by default programmed to have two levels of feedback – a shallower press is equivalent to a click – and a deeper press brings about the pressure-sensitive “Force Click.” What force clicking does depends on the application, and right now it’s clear that Apple is still experimenting with what they can do with pressure sensitivity. The most obvious uses include line thickness in drawing applications, but the company is also using it for things such as variable speed fast forward and rewinding in QuickTime/iMovie. At times the force click is treated like a 3rd (tertiary) click, and other times the result is based on variable pressure. Since this is a new (and uncommon) feature there’s no global action assigned to the force click – nor does it behave as a middle click on a regular mouse – so what happens is up to the application.

In implementing force click and the Force Touch Trackpad, Apple does offer the ability to control the amount of pressure required and whether force click is active. With force click deactivated the trackpad behaves more or less identical to a traditional trackpad with a single click level. Meanwhile the click pressure setting is interesting, though I’m not entirely convinced it’s all that effective. Short of the tools to actually measure click pressure, I’m not so sure Apple is changing the amount of pressure required to trigger a click so much as they’re changing how hard the electromagnet vibrates. The feedback change is certainly very subtle going from light to firm, and if there is a change in the amount of pressure required then it is certainly equally subtle.

Ultimately whether the Force Touch Trackpad is a major upgrade or not is going to depend on a user’s ability to make use of the force click features. Even turned off, the new trackpad is essentially an improved version of the old trackpad without the minor drawbacks of the pivot mechanism. But with the force click turned on, then it brings new (though not always useful) actions to the trackpad that in turn makes it a bigger upgrade over the old trackpad.

In any case, the MacBook along with the 2015 MacBook Pro 13” are the first wave of devices to implement the new Force Touch Trackpad. Given its expanded capabilities I would expect Apple to eventually replace many (if not all) of their trackpads with this new design. Certainly the 15” MacBook Pro is a likely candidate, as is a future version of the Magic Trackpad. What remains to be seen is whether the next MacBook Air also gets this new trackpad, or if Apple withholds it to keep the products differentiated and to keep the costs of the MacBook Air down.

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  • Jaybus - Thursday, April 16, 2015 - link

    No. It is a form factor issue and has nothing to do with performance. Do you call a mid-tower case with keyboard, mouse, and monitor a PC? Even though the first mid-tower PCs had 80286 processors? With any form factor, performance increases over time (hopefully). Call it an ultrabook, then. The point is, it is a small form factor with focus on small size, battery life and wireless connectivity. It is a commodity device with zero expandability and limited i/o. Reply
  • zhenya00 - Wednesday, April 15, 2015 - link

    'Tech evolvolves.'

    That's exactly right. So don't get stuck on the fact that the only possible form that technical evolution may take is based on speed improvements. In this case, evolution is taking the form of better efficiency - doing more work with less. That's what's really important in computing today; not merely making everything faster.

    Your argument is basically like saying that LED lightbulbs aren't an important evolution - we should just be making ever brighter incandescent instead.
    Reply
  • Wulfgardr - Sunday, April 26, 2015 - link

    I wonder how anyone is supposed to write unbiasedly, Jesus we are human beings not robots, we actually answer to higher laws than electric ones. Opinions, you can form your own idea by surfing, reading and comparing stuff. You "shouldn't" need a place where you pay for someone to take care of your criticism. Reply
  • Death666Angel - Tuesday, April 14, 2015 - link

    This used to be subnotebooks. The below 13" category with outrages battery life, performance and price for its size (typically dominated by Sony back in the day iirc). Then came the First netbooks and stuff like the Acer 1810 with Core architecture CPUs, decent performance with decent battery in the below 1000$ price bracket. Current Atom stuff is netbook like, current Pentium-U stuff is like the Acer 1810 - meaning above netbook, below subnotebook - and current Core-M stuff like UX305 and MacBook is subnotebook territory. There, all the terms you need available even 3 years ago! :D Reply
  • darwinosx - Tuesday, April 14, 2015 - link

    No you still don't get it. Try reading the review. Reply
  • melgross - Tuesday, April 14, 2015 - link

    We know you're trying to be cute and dismissive, but obviously you know nothing about netbooks.

    Netbooks, by Microsoft's definition, had a maximum screen size of 10", a maximum resolution of either 1024x768, or 800x600, I don't remember which right now. It also couldn't have more that a certain, small amount of RAM or storage, and an Atom CPU.

    Any more than the maximum couldn't qualify for the $15 XP, and later, win 7 Starter edition.

    Really, if you don't know any of this, you know nothing.
    Reply
  • Impulses - Tuesday, April 14, 2015 - link

    They bumped that up to 11.6" pretty quickly. RAM was limited by the x86 Atom as much as anything else. They all shipped with 160GB HDDs... Reply
  • Ryan Smith - Tuesday, April 14, 2015 - link

    Truth be told I was tempted to drop the term "netbook" in this article, but ultimately decided not to for that exact reason. Netbooks were ultra-cheap Atom powered computers; the MacBook is neither cheap in price or build quality, nor is it Atom powered.

    The successor to the Netbook is for all practical purposes the Chromebook. The MacBook on the other hand doesn't easily compare to other small laptops since this is the first time Core has been available at such a low wattage.
    Reply
  • nathanddrews - Tuesday, April 14, 2015 - link

    I would probably lump Bingdows 8.1 devices in that category as well. I can't wait to see how Braswell/Airmont/Cherry Trail impacts that category. Reply
  • Impulses - Tuesday, April 14, 2015 - link

    The spiritual successor is probably a Chromebook, tho I'd argue the functional successor for anyone that bought a netbook as a second/third device would be something like the Surface 3 (non-Pro)...

    The first Atom netbooks weren't as cheap as some people seem to think, I'm pretty sure I paid something in the mid $400s for my Aspire One, it's still banging around the house (with a RAM bump to 2GB and a 40GB X25-V).

    I never really replaced that thing per se... I actually bought an OG ASUS TF to "tide me over" until ultrabooks, eventually realized I didn't really want to manage a laptop in addition to my desktop, and just made do with tablets on the go (N7 replaced TF).

    Been a while since I used the old netbook, but Surface 3 is looking awfully appealing. Hopefully MS will deliver one to AT pre launch. Btw, does Apple intend to sandbag the Air with crappy TN screens forever now that there's a new MB?
    Reply

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