|Introduction & Specifications|
|Apple has been in the line of fire lately. It's an unusual place for the company, which has found itself on the positive end of things for quite a while. In fact, for a string of years, it seemed as if Apple could do no wrong. The iPhone 3G and 3GS were huge hits, as was the new "unibody" MacBook design. And then there was the iPad, which shocked many by selling over 3 million units in a matter of months and proving once and for all that there was an untapped tablet PC market in the world just waiting to be served.
But with the iPhone 4 came all sorts of criticism. Apple even held its own press event in order to announce that they were taking "antennagate" to heart, and that users would get free iPhone cases on Apple's dime in order to make things good. With all of that hanging over Apple's head, it's questionable timing to release an entirely new input peripheral. Apple releases new hardware very infrequently. Whenever a brand new device ships from Cupertino, it's always a big deal. The company has one of the most streamlined hardware operations in the consumer electronics universe, and just weeks after the introduction of the much-anticipated iPhone 4 came yet another brand new accessory.
But here's where it gets strange. Apple's CEO Steve Jobs has a history of showcasing new Apple hardware on stage, generally during one of their highly watched press conferences at WWDC or elsewhere. This gives Steve the chance to demonstrate a new product in front of millions watching around the Web, so that everyone "gets" what a new device is for. In fact, we cannot recall the last time Apple introduced a completely new piece of hardware without showcasing it first. But that is exactly what has occurred with the Magic Trackpad.
The Magic Trackpad is an interesting device. Many assume that this is just another step in the direction of an App Store universe, where even the desktop operating system is honed to be more like a mobile OS where basic apps rule and finger swipes are the primary control method. But even if that's way off base, one thing isn't: Apple wants users to replace their typical mouse on the desktop with this, or at least a subset of users. That's a fairly large assertion to make, and a bold one at that. Consumers have used mice on the desktop for decades, and literally every piece of software that has been created in the modern software era was designed with a mouse cursor in mind.
The specifications here are fairly simple to digest. This is a trackpad, but for your desktop. Or, better still, a trackpad that has been removed from a notebook's casing and placed in a standalone aluminum enclosure. It slants down slightly due to the bulge in the rear that is used to house two AA batteries, and it measures ~5.2" (long) x ~5.1" (wide). It's just one solid sheet of "glass," the same substance that Apple uses on their current MacBook trackpads. As with Apple's notebook trackpads, the entire surface area of the Magic Trackpad clicks, so you can press downward on any part of the pad and you'll register a left click. The unfortunate part is that there is no right click, so you'll either need to assign an option key on your keyboard to hold while mashing down in order to register a right click, or simply tap the pad with two fingertips. Either choice yields the same result. The only other specification note worth mentioning is that this device uses Bluetooth to connect, and Mac users must have OS X 10.6.4 at a minimum to use it. In other words, if you're still on Leopard, you won't be able to use this device. Amazingly, Apple decided to make the Magic Trackpad compatible with PCs, too. It works with Windows XP, Vista and Windows 7, but the functionality is far more limited (and requires some work). You can only use the standard clicks and two-finger gestures. More advanced Multi-Touch and three-finger gestures will only work on the Mac.
The Magic Trackpad was a bit perplexing when we first saw it. It's not the first multi-touch trackpad to ever be introduced (Wacom has been making them for years, for example), but it's the first trackpad could actually take the place of your mouse in every way. But does it really work out to be as "magical" as Steve Jobs believes it is? At $69, it's easily as pricey as some high-end mice, and it's obviously not going to be as useful in some scenarios (there's no dedicated right click and no scroll wheel, for instance). We're going to investigate these questions in the pages to come and tell you whether or not this is actually an investment worth making for the avid desktop (and notebook!) user.
|Performance And Usability|
|First off, a few notes on the design. This device is incredibly light and super easy to pack. Maybe even easier to pack than a travel mouse. It's thin, so it slips in easily into a laptop bag, and even those who only have briefcases will still be able to fit it. The point here is that the Magic Trackpad makes it possible for laptop users to carry around something more ergonomic than a tiny, built-in trackpad when they may have had trouble squeezing in a mouse before. The other boon for travelers? The Magic Trackpad is its own surface, so you won't have to bother finding a table or flat surface for your laser mouse to operate. In fact, you could easily prop the Magic Trackpad up on an airplane tray table or living room couch cushion and mouse away; using a mouse on those same areas is difficult due to lack of mousing space and an unpredictable surface, respectively.
We have to point out, however, that you will need some sort of solid surface to use the left/right "click" features. The entire trackpad doesn't actually depress. There are two small bumps beneath the front of the pad, and when you press downward, those bumps actually click up into the pad to register a left/right click. That said, you can always just tap your finger for left click and two-finger tap for right click, so you still have an option there. Apple includes two AA batteries which power the Bluetooth module within; while we have not used the trackpad long enough to seriously comment on long-term battery life, it seemed to only drop a percent or two after a few days of normal desktop usage.
Onto usability and performance. For starters, we should mention that the very latest version of Mac OS X is required. Yes, required. OS X 10.6.4 must be installed on your Mac, along with a ~75MB update that can be downloaded from the company's support site. The pad also works with Windows machines if you're willing to do some digging, though the functionality is stripped to simply moving your cursor around and two-finger gestures like scrolling; frankly, we can't recommend this for Windows users with so many other fully-featured alternatives on the market. But on the Mac side, the settings are rather in-depth and advanced, and it's those special features that might make you consider this device over a traditional mouse.
Once you have updated your system to 10.6.4 and installed the Magic Trackpad update, installation is a breeze. We rebooted our machine post-update, turned on Bluetooth, pressed the power button on the pad and told our Mac to setup a new Bluetooth device. It took about 10 seconds for the pad to be found, and once it was paired, we headed into System Preferences where a "Trackpad" icon greeted us. This is where most of the "Magic" in the Magic Trackpad happens. Users can adjust tracking speed double-click speed and scrolling speeds, while you can enable Tap to Click, Dragging, Drag Lock and Secondary Click (for left or right corner). Two finger selections get even more interesting: Scroll (with or without Inertia), Rotate, Pinch Open & Close, Screen Zoom and Secondary Tap. There are even options for Three and Four Finger tapping: Dragging/Flip through, Swipe Up/Down for Expose and Swipe Left/Right to Switch Applications.
In general, we're looking at this review as a way to judge whether or not the Magic Trackpad is a) a good replacement for your desktop mouse and/or b) a good replacement for your travel mouse or a good secondary control method for the on-the-go computer user who currently doesn't have one. Just by reading above, you'll notice a slew of things that your average mouse can't do. But these aren't necessarily things that your average high-end, third-party mouse can't do with a bit of macro work and assigning certain commands to certain buttons. It's obviously far more capable than a Mighty Mouse, but those with higher-end multi-button mice may already have some of these commands mapped to key shortcuts.
There is no two ways about it: there's a learning curve to the Magic Trackpad. Even those who use a newer generation MacBook as their primary machine will have to get used to how this pad operates. It's not difficult to grasp, per se, but using it perfectly takes some time. Most computer users have been controlling their desktops with mice forever; suddenly, you're forcing your mind to translate a trackpad into a desktop controller, and it takes a few hours just to get the hang of it and stop cupping your hand as your reach for your "mouse that's no longer there." For us, the size was just about perfect. It's notably larger than a MacBook trackpad, but it didn't seem "too" large at any point. Our main gripe about the layout is that the two buttons underneath that depress for left/right click were too low to the bottom, so pressing the top took more effort than pressing at the bottom. Not a tremendous amount, but enough to become bothersome at times.
The surface of the pad feels exactly like a new generation MacBook pad. It's the same exact tactility, which is a definite positive. It's easy to touch, it's easy to move around on, yet there's a feeling of traction that you don't often get with purely glossy trackpads. We did yearn for the maximum trackpad speed to be a bit higher, but for most users it'll track plenty fast. Using the pad, once we actually became used to the idea on a desktop, was simple. It's effectively exactly like using a MacBook trackpad. What's most interesting about using the Magic Trackpad on a desktop is the things that you can incorporate into your workflow that you previously weren't using. Swipe to open Expose? That's handy! Definitely more handy than pressing an "F" function key. Three fingers to drag/drop windows? Certainly easier than clicking, selecting, then holding and dragging. And in general, using a surface of just 5" versus having a mousing surface that's quite a bit larger is preferred. You never have to wonder if you left your mouse sitting too close to the edge of the table before grabbing and starting a task; the trackpad surface is always the same size and the position is wherever you make it. That's a big plus for those cramped for space.
The gestures are really what set the Magic Trackpad apart. Adding gestures to your workflow can really speed up how you navigate within your desktop environment; if you're constantly zooming text in various Web windows, the pinch/zoom gesture is so much faster than moving over to your keyboard and pressing a two-key combo to accomplish the same thing. When viewing photos, the inertial scrolling (click and drag on a map in Google Maps, then let go as you're dragging if you've never experience inertial scrolling) is a great addition, and makes for less work on the end user.
Again, all of this has been possible via a MacBook trackpad, but how many computer users do you honestly know that integrate this into their desktop workflow? Most people have separate workflows for their notebook and desktop, and the Magic Trackpad is a great way to seamlessly connect those two for Mac users.
Performance was near-flawless. Tracking was extremely precise, and the pad recognized even the softest of taps and the most gentle of swipes. Apple has really nailed the input recognition; never did we have a gesture go unnoticed. In fact, the recognition is so good, that we occasionally would swipe up without actually meaning to, and thus we would enable Expose. But it's easy to compensate and avoid those errors once you get used to using the trackpad on a desktop, and we were never annoyed by the performance. Apple has managed to convert their world-class trackpad performance on the MacBook line into a standalone peripheral. After constant use, we actually found the trackpad speeding up some areas of our life, but slowing others. We get the impression that the Magic Trackpad will greatly help those that sort through multi-media often (and HTPC users who control from the couch), but those who find themselves clicking on small cells or areas (such as in an Excel sheet) will most likely prefer the added precision of a mouse. If you practiced enough with the trackpad, you could probably get yourself to that level of precision, but if your mouse does the trick, why try to reinvent the wheel?
|Summary and Conclusion|
|In summary, the $69 Magic Trackpad is more novel than magical. As with most every other Apple product we have tried, the execution is spot-on. Tracking was extremely precise, and thus, the pad was very useable. Even the softest taps and the most delicate of swipes were picked up, and there was absolutely no Bluetooth lag on our Mac Pro nor on our MacBook Pro. The sheer quantity of multi-finger gestures that are supported is impressive, and those that take the time to climb over the learning curve will no doubt be rewarded by increases in productivity. But at the end of the day, the Magic Trackpad is a niche device that will only enhance the workflow of a select few.
For starters, Windows users need not apply. While the pad works just fine on Windows machines (XP, Vista and 7) if you put in some extra legwork, the gesture support is so limited (just scrolling on Web pages, for example) that we would have to recommend a pad that's actually made for Windows machines. There's no compelling reason to purchase this one over any of the Windows-centric alternatives.
But for OS X users who have upgraded to OS X 10.6 already, we can certainly see people taking advantage. For instance, if you have a Mac Mini hooked up as an HTPC, the Magic Trackpad makes for an outstanding controller. You won't have access to a keyboard, but if you have your media arranged in iTunes or another scrollable list, it's easy to select the media you wish to play via this pad. This is undoubtedly our controller of choice for Mac-based HTPC setups.
For heavy MacBook users who travel a lot, yet long for a secondary controller aside from a mouse, the Magic Trackpad also makes a lot of sense. The Magic Trackpad doesn't need a specific surface under it to work, and unlike mice (which require a great deal of surface area to function), this pad requires only the space of the unit itself (around 5.2" x 5.1"). It's also super thin, making it perfect for lightweight travel. If you're a Mac laptop user, and you feel cramped with your existing trackpad setup (or you just own an older MacBook or MacBook Pro without the new "glass trackpad" gesture features), the Magic Trackpad is a fantastic travel companion. We still prefer a mouse, but oftentimes mice are inconvenient to use in unpredictable travel circumstances.
But really, will the Magic Trackpad replace your iMac or Mac Pro mouse? For the vast majority of users, the answer is no. It would take a bit of practice on the pad to become as precise and quick on it compared to how quick most people are on their favorite mouse, and many third-party mice offer lots of extra buttons for easy macro arrangements. If you simply prefer the feel of a trackpad over a mouse, then the Magic Trackpad will work admirably. We had no usability or performance issues at all, and the battery only drained 1-2% per day after long, normal work-day-use. The price also isn't outrageous; it's at the high end of what we would pay for a device like this, but for those in need of something of the sort for travel or HTPCs use, it's a decent value.
It's a novel concept, and it has its places, but we can't recommend it as a replacement for those who love their existing mouse. If Apple would have included a capacitive stylus and allowed this to work as a pen digitizer (much like Wacom tablets), we may be singing a different tune. That would really add to the functionality; but alas, Apple included no hardware or software to turn this into a pen recognition pad. It's an opportunity missed, in our estimation. If you're curious about it, we would recommend stopping by an Apple store and trying one out, but unless you detest your mouse setup, you'll probably still revert to what's old, tried, trusted and reliable.