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Ask HN: Why is the touchpad on MacBooks still ahead of other manufacturers?
60 points by waspight 12 days ago | hide | past | favorite | 55 comments
Just curious and a bit frustrated about this. I had to buy a Windows laptop, and there is no one that is even close to be as good as the Macbook considering the touch pad. Why? I mean this has been the case for years.

Correct me if I am wrong. I think all current Windows Laptop are trackpad with physical clicks.

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.

> I think all current Windows Laptop are trackpad with physical clicks.

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.

You missed the point of Force Touch on macbook trackpads. It wasn’t about tap to click at all, it was about the actual press to click.

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.

I didn't miss it, I'm aware of the Force Touch touchpad on new Macs. I just think that it isn't all that important because tap-to-click is usually the better option anyway. I guess the main point of Force Touch is that it removes another mechanical component that could wear out or break (like HDD => SSD).

Better keyboard? Seriously - you want to go there?

Trackpad is a no brainer...

Idk, I don’t hate the fake force touch click of Apple’s new trackpads but if you gave me a choice, I’d take the old kind any day.

So I don’t think that’s it. They’re good despite the fake click, certainly not because of it.

Is not "light years ahead" of __all__ manufacturers, just the cheap ones.

Surface laptop trackpads are on par with Apple ones.

I have to strongly disagree here. I own a Surface Book 3 and an M1 MacBook Air. There is no comparison. The Surface track pad is better than most Windows laptops, but not on par with a MacBook.

Also, I bet most of the Apple touchpad magic actually lies in the software. For instance the touchpad on an MBP doesn't feel all that great anymore under Linux (not a dig against Linux, it's just that writing universal touchpad drivers doesn't appear to be a simple and straightforward task).

The issue is Linux (and Windows for that matter) applications have extremely bad graphical feedback.

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.

I had the exact same experience putting Arch on an old macbook which led me to thinking it was more software than hardware but reading the comments here it does seem like a combination. There was a project from someone from the community here working on better linux drivers for trackpads.

I haven't used Linux on a MBP but I use a Magic Trackpad 2 with my Dell Linux laptop and the external apple pad is light years ahead of the built in Dell one (brand new Dell Precision so hardware age is no excuse)

I had about the same budget as a MacBook Pro, 2000-3000$. I decided to buy a Dell XPS but I could not tell any great difference between laptops in that price range either. I am comparing the XPS against my MBP 16 inch (year 2020).

You can walk through the entire laptop aisle of your nearest department store, and won’t find a single one that feels as precise, smooth or responsive. “Better than all” is a pretty apt description.

isnt it JUST surface though? ALL the other track pads ive tried are abyssmal. A physical click is now a deal breaker for me on a trackpad.

Dell XPS 15 (2020) (and probably the 13 & 17) is basically just as good in my opinion. But other than that, yea most laptops are far behind.

That is actually what I bought (OP) and i could not disagree more

And neither of them can proper detect your intention- as in - does s/he want to swipe or is it just the hand resting after typing.

I'd agree. It would be good to know what laptop OP bought.

It would be nice to have a clear "avoid" brand list for poor trackpads

Or better of, a clear list with good ones.

For a start, anything that relies on Synaptics or other 3rd party touchpad drivers (at least that has been my experience so far).

I'd say it's the OS, and the drivers.

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.

I use MacBook Pro 11.3 (mid 2014) with Haiku OS, there are no device specific drivers for that OS, and it behaves the same as OSX. It’s most likely the firmware which exports a generic HID which does the “mapping”.

The trackpad was improved in 2015, I think there might be less of a difference on a 2014 model.

i have the opposite experience. installed windows 10 on mbp 15 2014 and came back days later because of the trackpad being unusable(high expectations maybe)

It might change, unless Apple does something new.

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.

Apple designs the hardware, firmware, driver and OS.

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.

Ecosystem control is a part of the reason (strong focus on touchpad usage), but controlling both hardware and software is not. Proof: The touchpad's software side works just as well on hackintosh laptops.

I much prefer my ThinkPad's clicky buttons on top of the trackpad to a MacBook's trackpad.

In my opinion the problem is not always the touchpad(hardware) there are a lot of great ones. The problem relies on the driver integration with the os especially the interface. The animation and precision is so smooth in macos that at least makes Me think this hardware is far betteter then others.

Drivers may cause issues in some cases but I'm using a Magic Trackpad 2 with Linux on a Dell laptop, and the problem is definitely the hardware. The external trackpad works flawlessly, the built in one is terrible.

It could still of course be drivers I guess, but it would be a bit odd if it were in this particular case.

It may have to with OS X being optimised for only one type of touchpad, while windows has to accommodate all sorts of touchpads built by other companies.

I imagine the Microsoft surface touchpad would be closer comparison with Mac because Microsoft would have a chance to integrate the hardware with software.

Can someone ELI5 what's so special about the Mac's touchpad? It's been a good couple of years since I've used a MacBook and I don't recall anything in particular standing out for me about their touchpad.

The usability and responsiveness is just much better. You kind of have to just use it yourself for an extended period and experience the difference.

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.

The old thinkpads (sandy, ivy) have great touchpads. Not for gestures or advanced features, but just for moving the cursor predictably, edge scrolling, and discrete buttons on the top and bottom.

I had an X230 for work back in the day, and I seriously disliked its trackpad. It was really small, and using the physical click on the trackpad itself felt rather cumbersome because the force required for a click seemed to be quite inconsistent for different parts of the trackpad. (The physical buttons are nice, but for a primary click I usually find it faster to click with the trackpad itself.)

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.

The first time I've actually used macOS was on a hackintosh'd Acer laptop, only out of curiosity. I didn't keep it as my main OS but I was surprised to discover the gestures and that they worked perfectly just as I know them today on my Mac. So a lot of the "magic" is in software. Windows Precision might be good at passing the sensor information on to the OS and apps but the implementation simply seems to not be as good. On top of that, at least subjectively, the giant touchpad made out of a glass slab with the haptic feedback just completes the mix, makes it feel right.

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.

I see it as a mix of hardware and software, but mostly software.

Hardware: -Large touchpads, enabled by great palm rejection -Haptic Feedback instead of physical clicks, letting you click anywhere

Software: -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

Not everyone will value a touchpad or touchpad functionality the way you do.

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.

Vertical mouse mitigates pronation, it doesn't mitigate RSI. Shouldn't you prefer touchpad if RSI is a concern? It gives your wrist and fingers more articulation, as opposed to any kind of mouse where the wrist is fixed.

Microsoft Precision trackpads get close on the software side, it actually feels like it responds a bit faster. Too bad there's a bug in the driver that makes the cursor jump a few centimeters on every dozen or so clicks (Confirmed on Mi Notebook Air, Dell 5285, XPS 15 7590, 2015 15" Macbook with 3rd party driver), making it essentially unusable.

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).

I use a Mac daily, as well as Surface devices and a Lenovo.

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'm curious, in what way do you consider Macbook touchpad so much better? I have a Macbook pro, a dell, a Thinkpad, and I honestly can't tell which one I like better, they all work perfectly fine.

I find it likely that this is an example of someone using a macbook only for a long time, forming the opinion that the macbook touchpad is the standard and then finding everything flawed by comparison because its not quite the same.

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.

Not OP, but on my Windows (with Synaptics driver) and Linux laptops I usually have problems with palm detection so I get accidential random clicks (with "tap to click" enabled) and erratic scrolling and zooming. Sometimes multi-touch gestures "stick" and remain active even if there's only one finger on the touchpad. It's basically required to disable tap-to-click (but this still doesn't fix all issues where the palm detection fails).

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.

My 2cents:

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.

I think it's because the laptop OEMs don't build their own laptops, they just pay some Taiwanese ODM to build it. The ODM is more of a manufacturing company than an R&D company and thus does not have the DNA or enough incentive to build a quality trackpad + drivers.

This is a good example of "take my money" features where the value and experience of the feature far outweigh any notions of "open source" or things like that.

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.

I use a really cheap Acer laptop with a basic windows precision 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.

Which laptop did you get? I have used an HP elitebook and the touchpad was better than the one in my Macbook pro in some ways.

Dell xps

I keep my trackpad disabled 99% of the time, on my laptop , so....

So… Why bother replying then?

Point being, If most people cared about their touchpads then more vendors would invest in it. I doubt most people keep their trackpads explicitly disabled like me. But most people definitely do not care much about them (as in pay extra for it) , to incentivise making them better.

When you get used to the windows laptop trackpad you probably will no longer care.

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