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MacBook Air not only laptop getting touchy-feely

Gestures are all the rage these days and a new Synaptics touchpad means that Windows-based laptops should also start responding to a host of touch commands.

Ina Fried Former Staff writer, CNET News
During her years at CNET News, Ina Fried changed beats several times, changed genders once, and covered both of the Pirates of Silicon Valley.
Ina Fried
3 min read

From the moment I played with the iPhone and Microsoft's Surface tabletop computing technology, I have been waiting for pinch-zooming and other motions to make their way into mainstream PCs.

The wait is essentially over.

Although it's the MacBook Air that's been getting all the ink for adding such gestures, Synaptics announced at the Consumer Electronics show last week a version of its touchpad for Windows notebooks that will also support a range of gestures, including methods for continuous scrolling, zooming in and out, and trackball-like movement.

And that's just the start.

"There will be more gestures forthcoming," said Mark Vena, vice president of Synaptics' PC business unit.

Gesture touchpads do everything that ordinary touchpads do, of course. What they add is the ability, through software, to translate finger movement into on-screen motion. For instance, the touchpad on the MacBook Air translates a twist of the fingers in the rotation of a photo on-screen.

It will take a little time before Windows PCs with the new gesture-capable touchpads hit the market. Vena said that the first models should ship in late March or early April, though he wouldn't say which computer makers have signed up for the new version. Vena said the MacBook Air announcement is helping his business, particularly with computer makers that were on the fence about redesigning models to include the new touchpad.

"None of them have been dismissive of gestures," he said. "Some have been a little more, shall we say, deliberate."

Gestures have been slowly making their way onto PCs for a while, mainly via the notebook's trackpad. For some time, Mac and Windows laptop owners have been able to scroll up and down a page by swiping their fingers along the pad.

Microsoft included support for gestures in its earliest plans for Vista, but was primarily focused on using a pen, not touch.

Toshiba showed off PCs and laptops at the Ceatec trade show in October that could be operated by gestures. Flick your wrist to the right, the page goes forward. To the left, back. Also at Ceatec, Sharp showed off a gesture screen that takes commands from three fingers. Pioneer has a GPS car unit that can be operated with gestures: touch the hologram for parking and the GPS unit tells you where the nearest lot is located.

Vena gives a lot of credit to Apple for getting consumers excited about the concept.

"The iPhone has done a great job of educating the marketplace on the benefits of touch technology and what you are able to do with it," he said. "There's just a lot more (understanding) in the minds of consumers in terms of what gestures are capable of."

Adding such gestures should be a no-brainer. It's just a better experience, much like the graphical user interface was eminently more enjoyable for most people than a character-based system. Die-hard DOS fans might have a point that command-line interfaces can be more efficient for those who like memorizing commands, but most people prefer a more natural way of navigating through a computer.

Such is the case, I believe with gestures. Take zooming in and out of the screen. Apparently, there is a feature in Windows, using the control key and the scroll wheel, that enables zooming. I didn't know about it until Synaptics mentioned it Wednesday (although I'm sure my educated readers have been doing this for years). But any product that lets me pinch to zoom in and out leaves an indelible impression in my mind.

Whether it's Surface, the iPhone, or the new MacBook Air, they all make me want to do the most important gesture--reach for my wallet.

CNET News.com's Michael Kanellos contributed to this blog.