The MacBook's new trackpad will change the way you click

Monday's Apple event gave people who follow Apple news plenty to talk about. But for Mac users, the biggest news probably has to do with all the ways the new MacBook diverges from what we've been used to over the past few years.

No MagSafe, Thunderbolt, or standard USB ports, all replaced by a single USB-C port--that's big news, undoubtedly. But I'm just as interested in the different approach Apple is taking with input devices. After all, the new MacBook's keyboard and trackpad are unlike any of those currently found in the Mac line.

The Mac standard

In the past few years, the Mac product line has been more consistent than I can remember it having been for ages. USB and Thunderbolt are everywhere. (It's never been easier to be someone who brings a Mac into a room to do a slide presentation, since every Mac can use a Mini DisplayPort connector.) All of Apple's keyboards, desktop and laptop, have been the same exact design for quite a while now. And while buyers of new desktop Macs can opt for a mouse, they can also buy a Bluetooth trackpad that more or less matches the one found in Apple's laptops.

Welp. Here comes the MacBook, shaking things up. That's not necessarily a bad thing, but unless the MacBook remains a strange outlier, we may be witnessing an end to this era of stability and the beginning of a shake-up in everything we take for granted on the Mac. (Start packing those video adapters again, friends.)

The new keyboard

Apple designed the keyboard in the new MacBook to have reduced key travel, presumably because the thing is just too thin to allow those keys to move very far up or down. That seems reasonable, but when Apple extolled the virtues of the new keyboard on Monday, they raved about the increased size and stability of its key caps, the clever design of the butterfly keyboard switches, the stainless steel dome switches. So is this a compromise keyboard specifically designed for the MacBook, or does Apple feel this keyboard design is so great that it's going to make sure that all its future Mac keyboards are exactly the same way

I type around 110 words per minute and write for a living, so keyboards are very important to my livelihood, though I would not remotely call myself a keyboard snob. After Monday's event, I spent a lot of time typing on the new MacBook keyboard in the demo area. I'm not ready to render any final judgments--I'm going to need to live with a MacBook for a few days before I can do that--but I can attest that this new keyboard is going to take some getting used to.

The very small amount of key travel is the first thing I noticed. When you push a key, it depresses slightly, and lands hard (presumably on that stainless steel dome switch). It doesn't feel at all like a cheap keyboard, but it's a shockingly different feel than the current crop of Apple keyboards. It's like a cross between those current Apple keyboards and typing on an iPad screen, if that makes any sense--it's got the physical feel of a real keyboard but the hard landing of hitting that glass screen.

In fact, I found that I typed a lot faster on the new MacBook keyboard once I adapted some of my iPad typing technique to the new keyboard. My typing style on a physical keyboard includes a lot of force as a push through depressing each key. With the new MacBook keyboard, when I started thinking of just tapping the key with a finger (as if I was tapping the keys on an iPad's screen) and not using any extra force, things started to move a lot better.

Apple claims that the keys are far more stable than previous keyboards, and that seems right, though I admit that I've never really had a complaint about the keys on my keyboard feeling unstable. Each key cap is larger, which means they should be easier to hit--but the space between keys has been reduced, which would seem to me to be a decision that would increase the chances that your finger will hit the wrong key.

Beyond the changes to the key movement itself, this keyboard offers a few other interesting features. Each key is individually LED lit. (Can each LED be controlled separately, so we could turn the keyboard into a bunch of blinking Christmas lights) The Escape key has been elongated and the function keys narrowed. The arrow keys have been redesigned; the up and down arrows are still half-height, but the left and right arrows are now full sized. I can't decide if I like it or not, so for now I'll just say: change acknowledged.

The fact is, any time you switch to a new keyboard, there's an adjustment period, especially if the keyboard style is drastically different. That's the case here. Still, my gut feeling is that this is the best keyboard Apple could make given the constraints of the MacBook. It's too early to say for sure, but if I had to make a judgment right now I'd say that I hope this keyboard stays with the MacBook and goes no further.

The new trackpad

The highlight of my time using the MacBook in the hands-on area after the event was undoubtedly using the new Force Touch trackpad. It messes with your head, but in a good way. I may be cautious when it comes to the keyboard, but I'm in love with the new trackpad.

I have never liked the tap-to-click gesture on trackpads, preferring a physical click. So hearing that the new MacBook trackpad doesn't actually depress made me despair. But what Apple has implemented--a series of force sensors underneath the trackpad surface and a Taptic Engine that can vibrate the surface on demand--is a remarkable simulation of the real thing. If I hadn't known how the thing worked, I would've sworn that Apple had gotten its own announcement wrong and that this trackpad was just like all of the other trackpads on other Apple laptops.

Nope! When you press on the trackpad, the Taptic Engine fires up and shakes the surface of the trackpad. Your brain interprets the vibration and the pressure as a downward click, even though that's not what's actually happening. (The vibration from the Taptic Engine is from side to side, not up and down.)

This is all presumably to drive a little more thickness of out of the MacBook, but it has a fun side benefit: Now the clickiness of the trackpad can be controlled by software. A new slider in the Trackpad system preference pane lets you adjust how much force is required for a click, so you can tweak it to fit your preferences.

More impressively, Apple should be rolling this functionality out to third-party Mac developers soon. I'm really curious to see what sorts of features they'll dream up. As a proof of concept, Apple demonstrated a version of QuickTime Player that allows you to adjust the fast-forward speed based on how hard you press on the fast-forward button. The feature itself is a little gimmicky, but as a demo for the new trackpad it was impressive. The harder I pressed on the trackpad, the more clicks I felt. It was as if the trackpad was tabbed somehow, so I could feel as I pushed through each successive step to the next.

And all the while, the trackpad wasn't actually moving lower--it was all in my mind. It was enough to make me immediately desire a version of this trackpad for my desktop.

The new MacBook also introduces an entirely new gesture to the Mac vocabulary. You know about clicks, double-clicks, and control-clicks (or right-clicks or two-finger-clicks). Now meet the Force click. On the version of OS X running on the MacBooks in the demo room, I could click extra hard on a word on a web page in Safari, and it would open a floating palette with a dictionary definition or a link to a Wikipedia page. (In technical terms, Apple has wired its Data Detectors technology to the Force click feature in Safari. On today's Macs, you'd have control-click on a word and choose Look Up to perform the exact same feature.) In Finder, a Force click kicks off a Quick Look preview.

Again, presumably developers will be able to support Force clicks in interesting ways. But with both of these features we're back to that whole idea of "the Mac standard" again: The number of Macs that support these gestures will be few and far between for quite a while yet. Even if Apple does move Force touch into every trackpad it makes--which I think is likely--it'll be awhile before a majority of Mac users can take advantage of those features. Still, the idea of giving trackpad gestures an additional dimension seems great to me. But then, I am a committed trackpad user. Can you Force-click a mouse Maybe we'll find out someday soon.

Let's not forget that the existence of the Taptic Engine isn't just wired to emulating mouse clicks. According to Apple, the Force Touch trackpad can communicate other goings-on on your Mac to you via a vibration. Imagine dragging to center a text block in Keynote, and feeling when you hit dead center, rather than just seeing it on screen. The new trackpad makes that kind of interaction possible.

Eras of change

It's human nature to prefer stability and fear change. After a nice era of stability for the Mac platform, it sure feels like the new MacBook is ushering in an era of change. It remains to be seen just how many of its innovations make it across to the rest of the Mac product line, but Apple rarely does things halfheartedly. I'm excited about the future of the Force Touch trackpad and a little more skeptical about the MacBook's new keyboard, but there's no doubt that both of them may change the way we all use our Macs in the next few years.


Jason Snell

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