My computer came with an Apple "Magic Mouse". The name sucked and the ergonomics were atrocious, but the multitouch surface was incredibly sexy. The ability to left-click, right-click, and scroll without a scroll wheel and in fact even without buttons was tantalizingly cool.
Like its predecessor, the "Mighty Mouse", it featured the handy ability to scroll in any direction, but without the drawbacks of the Mighty Mouse’s mechanical, ball-based scrolling sensor which was plagued by constant clogging up and was fiendishly difficult to clean.
In practice, however, it didn’t live up to its promise as the first multitouch mouse. The truth is that of all the multitouch gestures possible on the mouse, the only ones which could be performed with reasonable comfort were clicks and simple scrolling operations. Anything more complicated required uncomfortable grasping of the mouse between thumb and "pinky" finger in order to keep it still while using the other fingers on the surface.
I found myself routinely plugging in an old corded Logitech mouse whenever I needed to do anything that required real precision. And the more I used the Magic Mouse, the more discomfort I felt as a result of its low profile; it didn’t fit "in" the hand, but ended up sitting an inch below the palm, being controlled only by my fingertips. This lack of full-hand contact made it prone to positioning errors and misclicks.
The "Magic Trackpad"
The Apple "Magic Trackpad" is another product with a sucky name. As a "techie" I find it somewhat miffing that Apple would use the language of fantasy novels to market their products; their is nothing "magic" about this at all: it may be "cool", "innovative" or "sexy", but whatever it is, it’s all about the tech.
When it first came out I considered it to be an interesting development — and somewhat ironic given that "laptop"-style control devices had always been second-rate, with portable users invariably opting to plug in mice for long sessions — but I didn’t feel it was compelling and wasn’t tempted to buy one.
Lately though, I revisited the topic and started to seriously consider the Magic Trackpad as a viable alternative to a mouse.
Straight out of the starting gate the MT (I can’t stand calling it by its full name any more) wipes the floor with its mouse-embodied predecessor.
By placing it alongside your keyboard you have a minimal distance to move from keyboard to control device, and it’s always in the same place, unlike a mouse, which may be at any random point where you last left it.
Unlike the mouse, the MT allows you to adopt an incredibly relaxed hand position, as you there is nothing at all that you have to "grasp" in order to use it. You never need to hold it in place why you move one or some of your fingers, so you don’t have to undertake any uncomfortable contortions.
Because this is a stationary device, it is much better suited for multi-touch gestures than a mouse. And because of its size, it is practical to use four-finger gestures even if you have a large hand like I do (even on the generously-sized trackpad of my partner’s MacBook I never use more than a two-finger gesture).
So I’m finding myself actually using the four-finger swipe to call up Exposé for the first time ever. I almost never used Exposé until now, but I can see myself using it from here on.
This was the one thing which made me classify the MT as "not compelling" when I first saw it. Having used a MacBook trackpad extensively, I was familiar with the gymnastics required to click-and-drag (that is, click-and-hold the bottom-left corner with your thumb, while moving the pointer with another finger).
Once I saw some video reviews of the MT demonstrating the use of a three-finger movement to drag, I said, "By Jove! That’s it!".
Actually, I didn’t say that, but internally, I was thinking, that’s it, this is the thing which turns this into a viable mouse replacement. This works equally well for selecting text, moving windows, dragging icons, or any other click-and-drag operation.
The enormous surface makes these two, three and four-finger gestures comfortable and practical. And there is such a clear difference between "two and three fingers", that it is much harder to make a mistake. In other words, we’re no longer talking about fine placement to indicate our intentions; instead we’re using incredibly basic distinctions like the difference between "three and four fingers" to clearly and unmistakably indicate our intentions. Within the first few minutes of using the device I already had the hang of it.
In fact, it works so well that it has me doubting the long-term survival of the mouse as a control device. We all know from our first brush with an iPhone, iPod Touch, or iPad, how satisfying it is to use a well-executed multi-touch interface. It feels like a direct connection with the machine rather than a remote-control one. The MT brings that same feeling to the desktop computer.
Silence and effortlessness
You can physically click the MT in the lower corners in order to produce a left or right click but I don’t use that capability at all, preferring to tap to perform a left click and do a two-finger tap to perform a "right" or secondary click.
This works impressively well. The device and the drivers to a marvelous job of differentiating between a tap (a click) and different movements like swipes and drags. This is the kind of technology which would be a downright pain in the ass to use if it wasn’t perfectly executed, but the truth is, it seems that it is perfectly executed and it makes it an effortless pleasure to use.
And the absence of audible clicks when you use it this way make it completely silent. (As I said above, you can do physical clicks if you want, but I chose not to). I’m finding it incredibly relaxing to work in this way, as it makes me feel more like I am working with the machine rather than bending it to my will.
I haven’t tried the MT with games and I doubt I will. For me, this is definitely a pointing device: something to move a pointer around the 2D space of the screen, and do "desktopy" things, like clicking, dragging, and scrolling (which incidentally, it is exceedingly good at, due to its sensitivity to "inertia" and its 360 degree range of movement). There might be some games out there that involve exactly that kind of manipulation, and the MT will be great for those.
But for your standard first-person shooter, I think the mouse is going to be the king for some time. While the trackpad is a wonderful analogy for the 2D space of the screen, a mouse seems the best tool we have right now for directing a camera in 3D space. And the large number of buttons that many mice have, especially gaming mice, make them well suited to the interaction that most games demand (in which you leave one hand on the keyboard and another on the control device at all times).
So those are my first impressions of the device. It builds on Apple’s experience in laptop control surfaces and multi-touch displays (where it seems they are the undisputed leaders in the industry) and brings those lessons to the desktop space. It may not be as "sexy" as the Magic Mouse, but it is certainly much more practical, usable and ergonomic. I can see myself becoming more proficient with this device, and using less energy to boot.
Construction is solid and the build quality is immaculate. If you’re thinking of giving one a try, I wholeheartedly encourage you to take the plunge. It’s well worth the asking price.