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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  • Kumouri - Friday, April 24, 2015 - link

    "MacBook Core-M performance is absolutely perfect for anyone doing mostly e-mails, office, browsing."

    Those three things were literally the tasks netbooks were made to do. Netbooks are perfect for email, office, and web because they have all the power you need and insane battery life. Which is exactly what the MacBook is.
    Reply
  • ESC2000 - Wednesday, April 29, 2015 - link

    But why would you pay $1300+ when your use case is email, Web and office? You should be able to get something far south of $1000 that can fly through those tasks (including apple's own MBA which of course isn't far south of $1000 but you pay the apple tax and it's still cheaper than this machine). ..maybe somewhat more to get 8 gb of RAM (although why would you need for that use case) and 256 gb of storage. If that's your use case and you buy one of these that suggests to me that you want to pay hundreds of dollars for the way it looks. ..not the end of the world and certainly your prerogative. Reply
  • lilmoe - Tuesday, April 14, 2015 - link

    Meh. If I'm going to be more truthful, I'd say the new MacBook is actually worse than other netbooks as a value proposition. This isn't 2009. This device isn't a hybrid with a touchscreen like the Yoga 3 Pro. You're losing TOO MUCH for a design that isn't worth the price tag. Apple is making up for the *lacking factor* somewhat with a better screen and storage, but they should've used a better processor, made it a bit thicker, and put a larger battery. Oh wait, they ALREADY have a product like that; it's called the Macbook Air.

    I'd recommend an Air over this $1300 NETBOOK any day, every day. But Apple is being Apple here; they're trying to create a new, confusing, device category with this device. But I guess they can get away with it *because* they're Apple (ie: a luxury brand, as most people think of them).

    Those who think that Apple is "hated" because ^one of their products is criticized are simply paranoid (too many of them actually). It's "easier", "lazier", and "more ignorant" to call out constructive criticism as "whiny anti-Apple" no?
    Reply
  • modulusshift - Tuesday, April 14, 2015 - link

    The fact that you think the storage is a salient point in comparing any computers that have SSDs simply shows how out of touch you are with what laptops actually need to be right now. SSD performance differences (assuming one isn't totally wrecked and TRIMless) are things you only really notice looking at two computers side by side. If they are reasonably sized, then they have the same practical performance for all consumer uses.

    That's the bit that gets me, though. You people are clearly expecting this thing to do a lot more than it actually does. Did you dislike the Surface Pro 3, too? Because that's a weaker device all around than this thing is, and heavier, and louder, and with an even worse keyboard and trackpad, for the same price matched to storage and RAM sizes. But yet it could handle prosumer level things (like music production) fairly well. I enjoyed light 3D games like Civ V at full resolution and settings. So will this. How the heck is it a netbook?
    Reply
  • lilmoe - Tuesday, April 14, 2015 - link

    "Did you dislike the Surface Pro 3, too? Because that's a weaker device all around than this thing is"

    There's a think line between criticism and fanboyism. The latter applying to you.
    Reply
  • lilmoe - Tuesday, April 14, 2015 - link

    edit: There's a thin** line....

    you guys really need an edit button. Like REALLY.
    Reply
  • Jumangi - Wednesday, April 15, 2015 - link

    I agree the functionality compromises to keep with Apple's obsession for thin has reached the point of being dumb now. But the Apple fanboys will say this is genius and the "future". No thanks. Reply
  • Notmyusualid - Thursday, April 16, 2015 - link

    +1 Reply
  • Notmyusualid - Thursday, April 16, 2015 - link

    Sign me up as lazy / ignorant then!

    Looks like a netbook to me. Or ultrabook if you press me.

    And with that CPU, I'd imagine it'd choak trying to encrypt some videos for my phone to take on a road trip with me.

    Other than that, I'm impressed with that keyboard layout, especially with the new keys they've designed.

    Unless it was free though - I'd not place my money anywhere NEAR a device with one peripheral port, especially one aimed at being so mobile (think not wanting to carry extra hubs etc).
    Reply
  • lilmoe - Tuesday, April 14, 2015 - link

    Honestly? What's the difference between a $300 and a $3000 laptop? Aren't both called "Laptops"?

    This is totally a netbook, albeit better built with somewhat better performance. But absolutely NOT a laptop nor the cooler sounding "crossover", whatever that is. This isn't a hybrid either, nor does it have (or makes use of) a touchscreen.

    You're losing too much with this product. Battery life isn't as good as similarly priced, similarly sized laptops (even from Apple), and the performance totally off the mark.

    You're being too diplomatic.
    Reply

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