Touch Me, Part 1


I’ve been trying some alternative input devices recently, and wanted to share my experiences for those who are interested. My input devices, both at work and home, have been the most stable part of my computing arsenal for the last few years; it’s the only part of my system that I rarely change. Both at work and home, I use the excellent Matias TactilePro keyboard (although that’s a newer model on the linked page). The Matias has positive, clicky keys that I love. My coworkers don’t complain, but I doubt they have the same love for them, given the racket they make when I’m typing. Still, I’ve had 2 copies in constant use for years. Mousing duties have been handled by the Logitech MX Revolution which has been solid and comfortable.

Being a long-time Macbook Pro user–I’ve used a Mac laptop as my only machine for work and play off and on since the early Powerbook days, and exclusively for over a decade–I’m very comfortable with the Apple keyboard and trackpad. Especially with the latest versions, Apple has dialed it in, in my opinion. The trackpad has been particularly refined in the recent past, as Apple gets more and more behind its touch surfaces. Even though I’m very comfortable with the trackpad when using the laptop on its own, I didn’t seriously consider the recently introduced Magic Trackpad until I watched the “Back to the Mac” presentation, and the Lion operating system. It’s clear that touch is going to be an even bigger part of Mac OS X in that version of the OS, and I think it’s worth seeing how a trackpad would work as a desktop input method. So I bought one.

When I first bought the Trackpad, I was ambivalent. I mean, it was pretty much what you’d expect: a standalone version of what’s on the current Macbook lineup. One thing I didn’t like was the angle at which my wrist was turned when the trackpad was to the right of the keyboard instead of in front of it. To narrow that gap, I decided to try a different keyboard. Enter then Bluetooth-connected Apple Aluminum Keyboard. It’s the perfect companion to the Magic Trackpad, and its small size brought the trackpad in closer and reduced my wrist rotation. I’d bought the keyboard back when it was first introduced, but never really used it as my primary keyboard. There are things I like about it, namely the iTunes controls that are mapped to the function keys and the small size, but in general it’s not as good as the Tactile Pro.

I think the Magic Trackpad is different, though, in that after more than a month of using it, I think it’s a worthy mouse replacement even now, before the enhancements Lion is going to bring. I find that now that I’m using a trackpad all day, every day, I’m using the newer gestures more than I did before. I mean I’ve always used the two-finger scroll and tap to click, etc. But now that I’m using the Magic Trackpad, I’ve made some other adjustments that are now habit, and I love them.

First is a switch from double-tap and drag to drag or move objects. If you don’t know what I’m talking about, go to the Trackpad System Preference pane, and under “one finger”, select “Drag” and “Drag Lock”. I’ve been dragging that way for years, and was always happy with it, but for limited periods. Now I’ve trained myself (it took a couple days of get it in muscle memory), I love using three-finger dragging. It’s just like it sounds: you place the pointer on a draggable item, like the title bar of a window, and drag with three fingers. If you get to the end of the trackpad and need to keep dragging, you can lift and continue, like you would with a mouse, as long as the transition is done reasonably quickly. It’s a nice, fluid way to drag.

Second is the four-finger swipes up and down to do Exposé. Four fingers up the trackpad, and the desktop clears, like F11 used to (or Command-F3 on a newer Mac keyboard layout). Four fingers down is the “standard” all windows Exposé that I used to trigger with F9. I really like those gestures; they feel really natural in use, and it took no time at all before I was using them all the time instead of the function keys. I can’t wait until the four fingers sideways motions are more useful–the current Command-Tab-app-switcher replacement behavior is terrible and I never use it instead of Command-Tab itself.

Lastly, I love the scrolling with inertia. Two finger scrolls can be “flicked”, and the scroll continues naturally, like on an iPhone or iPad. I was using this on the laptop before the Magic Trackpad, but now I enjoy it all the time. It’s a nice, intuitive effect and I’m hoping Lion brings more of these kinds of small things to the Mac.

Overall, it’s been a good experience. I’m probably going to go back to my old keyboard, which means I’ll need to figure out how to configure my desk to get around the wrist angle issue, but I have some ideas to try there.

Next post on this topic, I’ll talk about my experience with the Wacom Pen & Touch tablet, which I’ve had for a few months now, but never written about. It’s got some similarities to the Magic Trackpad, but since it also has a stylus, many other interesting bits it brings to the table.