Of Clicking and Not-Clicking: A Pseudo-Tech Nerd’s First Take on the Movable, Mechanically Ambiguous Apple Force Touch Trackpad (13″ Retina MacBook Pro version)

I’ll just cut right to the chase: You know how many (tech commentators) have been saying Apple’s Force Touch Trackpad doesn’t actually move?

That’s not actually true, at least not on the refreshed retina 13″ MacBook which you can buy and test today. The trackpad does move, physically, without massive effort, at minimum when pressed within a significant surface area of the trackpad (and, to fully cover the bases, at least when powered on).*

And then there’s those next levels where the Taptic Engine, as Apple calls it, definitively kicks in.

But to get all philosophical, is moving the same as clicking?

Unfortunately, I don’t have video or photos from the experience, and I’m much too Internet-shy for Meerkat or whatever. But I do have words for whatever they’re worth, and it’s easy to test the really-quite-interesting, work-in-progress new-gen Apple trackpad for yourself (along with my, er, “bold claims”?).

That’s Me in the Corner**

When I visited a nearby Apple Store this week, I found myself a demo 13″ rMBP and, well, just started tapping away. But I didn’t get any real sense of “using the Force”, so I verified via About This Mac that the display model was, indeed, the Early 2015 edition.

Having done so, I clicked around, including at the corner, and in relatively short order had two realizations:

(1) This trackpad really does move. It’s obvious when clicking in the corner (as in, the trackpad depresses into the case), and fairly obvious some millimeters away from the corner (since the trackpad still depresses). It’s just more subtle, and doesn’t require as much pressure, which is really quite nice. If the Taptic Engine remains active on a basic level, and it might, even if you disable Force Touch and haptic feedback (which you can do in the settings), then it’s nothing short of brilliant, because it works just as well with rapid clicks. Basic clicks really do feel more consistent throughout the surface of the trackpad, corner to center, and it’s a tremendous improvement from the diveboard-type trackpads of the past. Click the upper corners without fear! (The corners are actually the easiest to click, which can be a problem as I’ll explain later.)

(2) While it’s not 100% clear if the Taptic Engine is behind this, the trackpad seems to have two basic levels of click to it, at least as reflected by corner and near-the-corner clicking while seeing the trackpad sink slightly further into the case. Probably the most similar real-world analog of this is the press-halfway-to-focus, fully-depress-to-take photo button on most digital cameras. (You do remember those, don’t you?) Two-level clicking’s a pretty neat trick for a non-specialty input device, and means that “right-clicking” (whether a click to the right or a two-finger tap) could be made a thing of the past – you just second-level click to bring up the contextual menu, which to me rates much higher on the intuitiveness scale.

As for the “basic clickability” of the 13″ rMBP trackpad, I figure one (or two) of three things are happening.

(a) the trackpad actually has 1-2 levels of mechanical, as in non-Taptic Engine, click (hey, steel dome-type switches somehow click, right?)

(b) the glass trackpad is built with a certain flexibility to complement the haptic feedback via the Taptic Engine. In other words, it’s engineered to have a certain amount of give, but the “give” + feedback magically transform into a virtual click. [EDIT: This looks like the most correct theory, having tested the 13″ rMBP with the power off.]

(c) the trackpad might as well be a fixed hunk of metal, Taptic Engine is just that good at making you think you’re actually clicking (and I found the rare demo Force Touch Trackpad that was loose).

The highly effective “Click pressure” setting (there’s three to choose from) does make me wonder if I’m completely wrong about mechanical clicking, even though the 13″ MacBook Pro trackpad has at least some range of motion. Here is where you notice differences in second-level-clicking the most – it’s easier to invoke the second-level click at the corners (and there’s a bit less feedback), and it takes a bit more pressure in the center. Of course, with force sensors on the corners and the Taptic Engine more in the middle, that would be no surprise.

And that’s where Apple may have some work to do with the deeper layers of Force Touch, when testing with the all-too-brief sample video clips preloaded on the demo rMBP. The “extra clicks” when you go beyond 5x speed are so realistic, it’s eerie. But the responsiveness is just awful. Once you hit 5x, there’s 10x, 15x, 30x and 60x fast forward, and it’s far too easy to go straight to 60x even at the highest click pressure setting. Don’t even try modulation in the corners. At the very least, the force sensors should allow for greater pressure deltas between “haptic detents”. (VentureBeat observed the modulation problem as well.)

Overall, though? However it does it, the Force Touch Trackpad does the basics (first-level click, second-level click) very, very well. Assuming the force sensors have the appropriate bandwidth, the more troublesome elements like scrubbing and multi-level force strata would seem to be fixable via software.

Should Apple be able to fit the Taptic Engine (ahem, without significant legal threat) to other applications (say, iPhone) and allow for a consistent level of haptic feedback on any given area of the active surface (say, an iPad display), whether it’s fixed in place or not? The future of touch input could get really interesting.

Is the new-gen 12″ MacBook different, even though equipped with presumably the same trackpad? It’ll be a few weeks until we can find out.

** The bad puns are always free at The AAPL Tree. 😀

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