It qualifies as one of the major annoyances of notebook-computer users: inadvertently moving the cursor by brushing against the touch pad while typing. One person I know actually taped a business card over his laptop's touch pad. Well, what the technique lacks in elegance it makes up for in simplicity.
But what if you want to disable your touch pad only when you have a mouse or other input device plugged in? That's my situation. When I'm using my laptop at a desk or other semipermanent location, I plug in a USB tablet to give me more precise cursor and mouse controls. Most people are more likely to use a USB mouse--often a miniature travel mouse--in that situation.
The touch pad-control options available to you depend on your make and model of laptop. Some systems include a setting that lets you disable the touch pad automatically whenever a mouse or other cursor-control device is connected to it. Unfortunately, my Sony Vaio isn't one of them.
My machine uses a Synaptics driver whose settings I can access via an icon in the notification area near the clock (aka the system tray) and through the Mouse applet in Control Panel. Either way, that's too many clicks to get to the setting that lets me disable the touch pad. That's why I created a shortcut to the dialog box and assigned a keystroke combination to open it... almost.
You can create a shortcut to a specific tab in a Control Panel dialog box, but the steps are slightly different in XP and Vista. First, open the appropriate Properties dialog box by clicking Start (in Vista) or Start, then Run (in XP), typing main.cpl, and pressing Enter to open the Mouse Properties dialog box. Find the tab with the touch pad settings. You'll refer to this dialog as you create your shortcut.
To create the shortcut, right-click the desktop or any folder window and select New, Shortcut. In the Create Shortcut dialog, type control main.cpl,,x, (in XP) or control main.cpl ,x (in Vista), with x being the number of the tab with the touch pad setting from left to right, minus one. For example, if your touch pad settings are on the sixth tab of the Mouse Properties dialog box--as it is on my laptop--enter the number 5.
That's the idea, anyway. For some reason, the shortcut I created wouldn't recognize the sixth Synaptics tab in the Mouse Properties. So I had to enter 4 to open the dialog to its fifth tab. From there, I press Ctrl-Tab to move to the sixth tab and then Alt-D to disable the touch pad.
To access your touch pad controls with a keyboard shortcut, right-click the shortcut you just created and choose Properties. Click in the Shortcut key text box under the Shortcut tab and press your preferred keystroke combination. I selected Ctrl-Alt-T, but you have to be careful not to choose a combination that's already in use.
Your touch pad needn't be an all-or-nothing affair. On most notebooks, you can adjust its touch sensitivity via a setting in the Mouse Properties dialog box. For example, clicking the Settings button on the Synaptics tab on my laptop opens a dialog box with an option called Touch Sensitivity. I was able to change the default setting--the second-lightest option--to the second heaviest of the six settings.
Another setting in this dialog lets me prevent the cursor from jumping because of an incidental touch of my palm as I type. In my case, my fingers are more likely to stray onto the touch pad when I'm entering text.
Note that there are lots of free and low-cost utilities that promise to give you more control over your notebook's touch pad and other cursor-control options, but the Synaptics software that shipped with my laptop meets my needs. However, if you're having problems with your notebook's touch pad, updating the driver software might help. Check your laptop vendor's Web site for details.