Apple's Trackpad has been using Force Touch ( haptic engine ) since 2015. But I remember correctly my MacBook Air trackpad before Force Touch were excellent too.
It is one of those things where people "thinks" they are doing comparison when they are not. You often see enthusiast and nerds doing so called spec comparison. When in reality they missed out so many things. Better Keyboard, Better Trackpad etc.
The PC / Hardware industry has been operating at negative margin, with their source of profits coming from hardware branding rebate, software preinstalled, Data collection and selling etc. It was only the recent years did Gaming / E-Sports gave them another market to play with. And no one seems to enough incentives or resources to being a much better trackpad. That is why Microsoft had to step in and make their own Surface Line. Without some sort of quality assurance, the market will always be a race to the bottom.
They all support tap-to-click though (some better than others). Personally I try to avoid the "traditional" click both on Windows and Macs, because they take so much longer than a simple tap.
It was about the fact that while on other trackpads when you click, they produce a mechanical click. Macbook trackpads don’t have a mechanical click, the feeling of that click gets reproduced by the haptic/vibration engine. Which sounds wonky to emulate a physical click with a haptic engine, but in reality it works out like magic.
You can test it easily by turning off a macbook and trying to click on the trackpad. It won’t click at all, it will feel like just a flat piece of glass/metal/etc with no clickability.
Trackpad is a no brainer...
So I don’t think that’s it. They’re good despite the fake click, certainly not because of it.
Surface laptop trackpads are on par with Apple ones.
I haven't seen anything actually competing with the macOS/Safari way of touchpad response. The 3-finger expose command just slides all the windows a bit out of the way so you can switch fluently.
On Safari, scrolling is natural, fluent and non-jarring even on long documents. Just slide a bit to the right with 2 fingers and you get a 'peek' of the previous page in your browser history. If you release the trackpad before completing the gesture the current page slides back gently like a real bit of paper.
Pinch to zoom now works on other browsers, but still not as fluent as in Safari.
It takes a tremendous amount of effort to coordinate the data collected by the trackpad, the OS response and graphics stack. If one of those components do not cooperate the 'magic' feeling is lost. I presume that is the issue with big, siloed companies or OSS projects.
It would be nice to have a clear "avoid" brand list for poor trackpads
I do use a Magic Trackpad 2 with Precision drivers on Windows 10 and ... it's as sluggish as my laptop native touchpad. Gestures barely makes senses, it's lagging everywhere, while the same device on OSX allow smooth-as-butter(tm) interactions.
I also found that OSX drivers have a nicer palm rejection feature where on Windows I frequently click with the palm of my hand.
I had an interesting experience with the very latest Fedora/Gnome versions with the Magic Trackpad letting me guess that an important step towards good gestures support on linux is on the way.
Here is a video by LinusTechTips about a new touchpad by Sensel that uses pressure sensors https://youtu.be/XuM2ZG_Hwjk It will be used in the ThinkPad X1 Titanium.
In the same video Linus basically says that capacitive touchpad are nonlinear and hard to get right, and Apple spends a lot of resources in fine tuning, more that anyone else.
I will not call LinusTechTips an authoritative source but to my knowledge, for now, that's the best we have.
For a Windows laptop the touchpad might involve 3 different vendors. And Windows supports older graphical APIs that just don't understand pixel scrolling. OSX doesn't, Apple just deprecated all of that years ago and told everyone to rewrite their app.
It could still of course be drivers I guess, but it would be a bit odd if it were in this particular case.
I imagine the Microsoft surface touchpad would be closer comparison with Mac because Microsoft would have a chance to integrate the hardware with software.
There may be someone in these comments able to breakdown the exact detailed technological "why" of the superior user experience but in general I don't think this is a very "ELI5" type topic; it's more about experience.
I honestly prefer the feel of the trackpad on the X240 (despite the lack of proper physical buttons) that I still have for personal use.
My first Mac was a 2015 late MacBook Pro, which is when they introduced the haptic stuff and I tried a friend's Air afterwards and I disliked the feel of the touchpad click in comparison. One of the most surprising little discoveries of moving over to a Mac for me was that despite having bought a Magic Mouse, I never really used it, my brain instinctually just kept gravitating towards the built-in touchpad, which is something I've never had with Windows laptops, in fact I had a seething dislike of the built in pointing devices on such machines all my life because I was way more effective with a mouse.
I've only felt the Mac touchpad slowing down my workflow was Photoshop (but still surprisingly OK), games (this is self-explanatory) and moving around multiple files, selecting and deselecting them. I'm fairly convinced that one of the primary comfort points that made me keep the Mac for the long term was the smooth gesture integration.
-Large touchpads, enabled by great palm rejection
-Haptic Feedback instead of physical clicks, letting you click anywhere
-start a gesture and the ui begins responding to it. It feels like you’re directly manipulating what’s on the screen. On other OSs they detect the gesture way too late so the feeling is broken.
-small details like scroll inertia are really smooth and present all over the OS, refining the overall experience
I can give you my use case as anecdata:
The instances I am using a work laptop I am using it at a desk not on my actual lap. I will use the keyboard as much as possible and on the scenario that I am frequently using a mouse input I will make use of a vertical mouse to mitigate RSI.
My casual usage of a touchpad will probably be in the minutes on any given work day. For someone like me an advanced physical touchpad is not a value adding proposition.
Some manufacturers (Xiaomi) have glass surfaces that get pretty close to the feeling of Macbook ones.
... but nobody has force touch and that makes all the difference. Ununiform response, no configurability and nothing that gets remotely close to the "low" setting, besides maybe a modded XPS 15 (some tape below the switch).
Macbooks are literally the only devices I've used on which you can comfortably drag things on the touchpad for the above mentioned reasons.
Edit: That's just the basic hardware side, of course. Apple also has fairly well thought out gestures (zoom, back with two fingers to the right) and apps supporting them, including a direct response to the finger and overscroll bounce (except in Electron apps, shame on them).
Except for my Surface Book 3, nobody else even comes close to even the four-year-old AAA-powered Magic Trackpad I keep on my desk, although I was surprised at how good the Lenovo Flex 5’s trackpad actually is.
For me, it’s a combination of gesture support (which is why I use a trackpad alongside a mouse), sensitivity (very good hardware) and exquisite fine tuning of things like acceleration and pressure.
(I don’t use the haptic features on my MacBook Pro and prefer tap-to-click to press-to-click, so once a new device is set up, hardware differences become slighter.)
I currently have a mb air m1 and an XPS 9570. If I had to say which is the best touch pad, it's the macbook; larger and more precise. But it beats the XPS by so little that I really don't care. However, I have a textured dbrand skin on the XPS touchpad which improves the surface so much so that I definitely prefer the XPS anyway- but the same would likely be true of the macbook if I had a skin on it.
Neither are as good as the touchpad I had on my first generation Thinkpad Yoga - now those pads have a kind of unsatisfactory tactile click, but on the first generation thinkpad yoga the entire touchpad itself clicked downwards. No dead zones or insensitive edges, literally the entire pad moved, haven't felt anything like it since. In the same manner as (I assume) OP I'm always gonna feel that any touchpad is just nowhere close to as refined as that one example. And likely I'll never see its like again since I assume Lenovo stopped using it for a reason (reliability must have been a concern when you have one massive button in the middle of a slim Chassi) That laptop also had the keyboard where the keys recede into the body and go rigid when you fold the screen to tablet mode, as well as being water sealed and having runoffs out of the keyboard. Truly something else. The keyboard also set my standard for laptop keyboards which means that no other laptop keyboard has come close since except for that of a barely functioning used XPS L321X I got for 50$ when I was "between" laptops.
So based on my very clear bias, most laptops on the market today including macbooks are steps back in keyboard and touch pad compared to my 2014 Thinkpad Yoga.
In the same way people compare macbook build quality to other laptops and always if the person has primarily used macbooks the outcome is given.
Meanwhile I kind of hate how careful I have to be with the screen of my macbook compared to thst of my XPS or the precision M7520 I have for work. But I'm used to laptops that can handle field use and of course the macbook is always going to be flawed by comparison to my ideal.
On an older Windows laptop the Synaptics driver even came with a "Restart" button in the control panel because it was so common that the driver would hang or crash.
AFAIK Microsoft's Precision touchpad drivers are much better though, but they are not compatible with my Windows laptop.
1. Tight software/hardware integration (MS have this also).
2. Premium segment positioning in the market, motivating differentiation on quality.
3. Apple brand overall is strongly identified with providing a quality user experience.
4. Other PC makers occupy majority of market which is low-margin, so no motivation to invest in this type of (relatively speaking) niche feature.
There are those that dislike the closed ecosystem of Apple but for me the features and seamless integration of their products far exceeds my desires for that. I would like more easily replaceable parts like batteries and drives but those are once every few years types of things vs. everyday use of a touchpad.
On Linux with GNOME 40... it seems perfectly acceptable. I haven't used Macs too extensively in the past so maybe I'm not used to something wildly better. Synaptics touchpads are still absolutely terrible, but the touchpad on this laptop is quite serviceable for basic multi-touch gestures at least, in my opinion.