Hands-on look at Apple Magic Trackpad

Apple's newly released Magic Trackpad offers all the functionality of a MacBook clickpad in a stand-alone Bluetooth device. Will iMac owners make this their new mouse?

Multitouch on the iMac: Apple's Magic Trackpad gets desktop users in on the touch experience.
Multitouch on the iMac: Apple's Magic Trackpad gets desktop users in on the touch experience. Sarah Tew/CNET

UPDATE: Post-software update multitouch impressions below.

Not too long ago, one of us at CNET foretold a future without mice where touch peripherals would dominate. We may not be there yet, but Apple's Magic Trackpad certainly takes us one step closer to fulfilling that prediction.

Announced and available Tuesday , Apple's $69 Bluetooth device is minimalist and not particularly cheap. It is what it seems to be at first glance: a large aluminum square mounted on a slight riser, just like Apple's Bluetooth keyboard. In fact, it's the same depth and height as the keyboard, which lets it sit flush next to the keyboard for owners of current iMacs. When placed next to each other, the Magic Trackpad and keyboard almost feel like a single peripheral.

To use the Trackpad, you need to install a software update that Apple will release later Tuesday. The software update enables full multitouch and gesture customization, including tap-to-touch and program-launching clickzones. Even without the software update, the Trackpad works like a  regular non-multitouch trackpad. While Apple geared its full suite of multitouch gestures toward Macs, the Magic Trackpad will perform in its basic functions when paired via Bluetooth to a Windows PC--we tried it. Apple does have a fuller Windows-supporting update to their Magic Trackpad software, but it's a Boot Camp update for Macs running Windows.

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The Magic Trackpad's surface is smooth glass, like the MacBook Pro trackpad, and we welcome its extra width. In fact, the Magic Trackpad is 80% larger than the already spacious MacBook Pro trackpad. The size crosses over to become nearly a mini-tablet more than a conventional touchpad, although currently Apple doesn't seem to be utilizing this aspect. While its clickpad functions on a Mac are limited to the lower zones and taper off near the top, the Magic Trackpad seems to click throughout the surface. Alas, however, this pad needs to be on a flat surface like a desk in order to click: the two rubber feet at the bottom function as the click zones, rendering the Magic Trackpad unclickable on a surface like a lap. That can be overcome by activating tap-to-click in the trackpad preferences to use simple direct tapping of the pad in lieu of a pressing-down. Truth be told, we prefer tap-to-click over physical clicking anyway.

Multitouch on the Magic Trackpad is customized via a software update available to all Macs running 10.6.4 or later. A new Trackpad control panel toggles and tweaks features including tap-to-click and scroll speed, although the features cleave closely to ones already familiar to the touch language of MacBooks and MacBook Pros. Beyond shifting secondary click from left to right and turning on/off inertial scrolling, there aren't really any ways of customizing other click zones or custom multitouch commands.

One observation we did have after playing with the Magic Trackpad for a while is that it's possibly a must-have peripheral for a Mac Mini owner connecting to a TV. As a living room accessory, the Magic Trackpad offers a comfortable input with useful commands (swipe, and particularly zoom) for living room use. In fact, using pinch-to-zoom to expand text on Safari's web browser, we were able to quickly enable easily-readable type for living room reading. It would be even better if the Magic Trackpad had volume-control and media-shuttle controls built in, but it's a good start for now.

In fact, if you were to wonder why the Magic Trackpad even exists when there's a perfectly capable Magic Mouse, that might be the hint: in a future world of TV-connected computers and computing on larger screens, the Magic Trackpad could end up being a far more versatile fit.

Right now, however, in the good old present, we're not sure we'd ditch our mouse and use the Magic Trackpad. Still, it's a compact solution for the touch-addicted. Stay tuned for a full review of the Apple Magic Trackpad once we've had a chance to use it on a variety of Macs and environments.

About the author

Scott Stein is a senior editor covering iOS and laptop reviews, mobile computing, video games, and tech culture. He has previously written for both mainstream and technology enthusiast publications including Wired, Esquire.com, Men's Journal, and Maxim, and regularly appears on TV and radio talking tech trends.

 

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