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Apple’s Magic Trackpad is not so magic

Scrollpads and Trackpads have been around for decades. Most notebooks make use of them as they are convenient, use very little battery power and allow us to get a job done efficiently. Now Apple has taken a different approach and introduced them to the desktop in the form of the Magic Trackpad. Does it work? SEAN BACHER puts it through the Gadget 5 Question User Test to find out.
I remember the first notebook I ever used. Its specs were absolutely abysmal by today’s standards, but the fact that it came with a built-in mouse or – as it is more commonly known – a touchpad, meant that it was the best thing since sliced cheese.
No more messing around with silly mice for which you had to install drivers. Better yet, no more dirty mice balls that had to be cleaned regularly to ensure a smooth and fluid control of the cursor.

At first the touchpad was a bit difficult to use: controlling your cursor with just a finger was a completely new concept and required some practice before it could be mastered. Further, the buttons seemed to be at strange angles to the pad, but this was quickly overcome as your hand adjusted and your ligaments allowed you to contort your fingers into the strange angles. Before long, I was using the touchpad as if I had been using it from my first encounter with a notebook.

However, things were not all peachy for that long. Most touchpads are located below the keyboard’s space bar, and the cursor would often go on its own mission across the screen, due to your thumbs often being in close proximity to the pad while typing.  Even though you did not touch the pad, a wave of your thumb over it would cause the cursor to move, often needing to be moved back before you could continue. Not only frustrating, but also time-consuming, I was forced to haul out my old mouse, install the drivers and get back to basics.
Notebook vendors came out with various alternatives. IBM brought out the little red joystick or dimple located between the G and H keys, with the mouse buttons located below the space bar. Some vendors even brought out a scroll wheel, similar to those found on many of the older BlackBerry smartphones. HP even invented a permanently fixed mini-mouse that clicked in and out of the computer’s right-hand side. If you were a lefty however, you were in a bit of trouble.

Then Apple jumped on the bandwagon and in 1994 replaced all its trackballs with Trackpads on its PowerBook range. The company – along with many other manufacturers – also managed to perfect the touchpad, introducing abilities like edge scrolling and even incorporating the mouse buttons into the actual pad. Since then it has been improving on the pad, and has finally arrived at the Magic Trackpad – a trackpad for your desktop.

We put the Magic Trackpad through the Gadget 5 Question User test to see if it really does perform some magic.

1.                  Is it ready to use?
When you unpack the gadget from its box, all you have to do is slip in the included AA batteries, switch it on and pair it up with your computer via Bluetooth. It is as easy as that. No additional software needs to be installed and no passwords need to be entered as is often required when pairing many of the other Bluetooth devices out there.

It is, however, worth noting that you need Mac OS version 10.6.4 or later in order to use the Magic Trackpad. Other than that, once paired, it is ready to operate.

2.                  Is it easy to use?
Apple is synonymous with software and products that are easy to use. Besides the beautiful craftsmanship and funky product colours, this ease of use is what makes them so popular.

The Magic Trackpad operates exactly the same as any other Trackpad you will find on an Apple notebook. Apart from its size, which is just over double that of the one built into the notebook, there is absolutely no difference.

One thing I did notice is that you have to have the pad sitting on a solid flat surface, such as at a desk. What this translates to is that you can use it with a notebook, but only with a notebook when it is on a desk. I tried using the pad on my lap, holding it in the palm of my left hand, but nothing worked. It has to be on a solid surface.

Apple does, however, advertise the Magic Trackpad the other way around. That is, instead of using a conventional mouse at your desktop computer, why not use a Trackpad? To me this makes no sense, as the common old house-mouse has always been easier to control than any other cursor controlling device. The only reason I use touchpads and Trackpads is because they are convenient. I don’t have to carry any additional device around with me, don’t get tangled up in wires and so put up with inconvenience for the short time while away from my desk. But the minute I am back at my desk, my mouse gets plugged back in.

Another factor that put me off the Magic Trackpad is that I often find myself lazing back in my chair and browsing the Internet “at a distance”, something anyone can do with a wireless pointing device and big enough monitor. But the Trackpad forces you to sit upright all the time.

3.                  Does it operate as advertised?
The Magic Trackpad offers a couple of additional benefits over your traditional notebook pad. For instance it allows you to right-click by depressing two fingers on the pad. It lets you switch between applications by dragging four fingers across it. It even lets you launch Apple’s Expose by dragging those same four fingers up and down. Furthermore, it offers functions like pinch zoom and screen zoom. All this is thanks to Apple’s multiple finger gesture recognition feature.

At first I found all these additional gestures cumbersome but, after a few days’ use, they became hard-coded into my brain and I often found myself performing weird and wonderful acrobatic tricks with my normal mouse to get the same effects – of course without any success at all.

4        Is it innovative?
Apart from easy to use products, Apple’s other forte is innovation. Unfortunately the Magic Trackpad falls over dead here. Companies like Wacom have been dabbling in this space for some time already and, in many cases, their products are much better than Apple’s.
Apple’s multiple finger gesture recognition feature can be considered innovative. However, many of the gestures the Magic Trackpad offers can already be found in the company’s notebook range.

5        Is it value for money?
With a price tag of more than R1 000, I would steer clear of the device, especially considering that you can get a really smart wireless mouse for less than half the price. Sure, it won’t look as sleek and sexy, but it will do pretty much the same job in the same amount of time, if not less.

If you have just bought yourself a brand new Apple desktop, complete with the chic Bluetooth keyboard, have a few extra Rands to spend and don’t mind fumbling around on a Trackpad, then Magic Trackpad will be a stylish addition to your desk.

If, however you are content with your current pointing device, don’t need to show off and have some serious work to do, then I suggest you stick with what you have.

– Follow Sean Bacher on Twitter at @seanbacher

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