An Ode To Apple’s Trackpads

The most convincing consumer haptics in the world.

Apple makes the world’s best trackpads. I’m planting my flag.

I love to touch them, and I love their Force Touch technology, and I wish other companies would notice and try to live up to this standard.

I know I have unkind thoughts towards Apple products sometimes. Their current computer lineup is confusing, from both a marketing and a consumer perspective. The MacBook I’m using to type this made a lot of sense in 2016 but is now languishing on the ol’ “Apple Won’t Update Me” shelf. And their phone business is having what kind commentators could only call a rebuilding year.

But man. If you want a good trackpad on a laptop. Like, if you want the best trackpad. Then you have to go with a MacBook.

I’ve owned a 2016 12-inch MacBook since it launched, and I was immediately struck by how much I loved the trackpad. I was instantly ready to throw out all other trackpads and burn them from my memory, and that hasn’t budged a millimeter in the last three years.

Its surface is as smooth as a phone screen, even if I forget to clean it for a number of weeks. It has just enough friction against my skin to provide the right amount of feedback, and not a hair more. Its size is just right, and somehow, Apple finds room for larger and larger trackpads in their newer models as PC makers struggle to remember to include glass surfaces or Windows Precision Drivers.

I like my Dell G5. It consumes roughly 60 percent of my weekly computing time. But its trackpad is a questionable plastic thing. It’s…fine. It works. It has Windows Precision Drivers, and I can slide my fingers across it, and it’s okay.

Nothing is special about it, though.

It reminds me a little too much of every other cheap Windows trackpad from the last 15 years, especially compared to Apple’s gear. The rest of the engineering and design, from the metal keyboard deck to the overall chassis design, seems thoughtful. The trackpad feels like it either came off the shelf of an OEM, or had about 15 minutes of design.

Apple is the gold standard for trackpads. Other computers sometimes get it right, but too often only muster rough plastic, or a glass-topped pad that doesn’t have the precise feedback or fun feel of Apple’s design.

A big part of that is because of the haptics.

When Apple started getting into Force Touch(tm) AKA haptic feedback, I was immediately skeptical. I was firmly a physical buttons sort of guy. I’ve had my share of fun with rumbling game controllers and force feedback wheels, but never in my life had a vibrating surface fooled me into thinking it was a button.

Apple’s trackpad feels so much like a button that, three years in, I find myself clicking it just to feel it.

It’s so good. It’s immediately convincing. The sound is right. The pressure is right. It feels like it’s clicking down into the chassis even though it isn’t at all. And it’s more versatile than a button ever could be.

I love being able to click every single corner of the trackpad with the same level of feedback. I love the additional pressure level that allows me to “deep click” a second time…even though I find the default functions for that somewhat questionable and have never bothered to remap them.

I enjoy the different click pressure settings. I enjoy fiddling with the silent clicking mode to see how that feels and sounds different.

Apple convinced me that a vibrating plate could feel just like a button…and so far, no one else has really emulated it. At least, to my knowledge. I had high hopes for the haptic surfaces on the Steam Controller, but while they’re occasionally convincing, at best they operate like loud musical trackballs.

Sometimes, I enjoy visiting my local Best Buy and idly participating in the Trackpad Challenge. Because I’m really that lame. It’s fun to see how bad the competing trackpads are on the demo units there, and which ones have held up the best to abuse from curious customers. Apple’s are always the best.

I will always take some delight in critically and harshly commenting about Apple’s hardware and software path.

But their trackpads are second to none, and I loathe thinking about the greater-than-zero chance that they will someday remove the Force Touch trackpad because it’s the “courageous” thing to do. I hope it never goes the way of Magsafe.

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