Hands On With the Amazing Force Touch Trackpad on the New MacBooks

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When Apple announced it’s new MacBook laptop, the first thing it emphasized was the thinness. At 2-pounds and only 13.1mm tall, with the closed lid, it makes the MacBook Air start to look chunky. Sure, it has a retina screen, a new keyboard, and only one port—which is also used for charging—but the most interesting part of the new MacBook is really its trackpad.

Let me explain why the trackpad is so important. First, the trackpad no longer clicks at all. It has no buttons and itself is no longer one big button. Instead Apple is using its Force Touch technology to simulate a button click while you use it. That’s right—”simulate” a click. We’ll come back to that.

But secondly, and more important, the new Force Touch technology will be used in Apple’s new Watch, it’s also rumored to show up in other iOS devices this year—like the iPad and iPhone. This is a key piece of technology that will likely help shape the future of Apple products for the next few years. Surprisingly, the very first product it’s useable in is a traditional laptop.

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The new paper-thin MacBook computer isn’t out yet, but the same Force Touch track pad that it will ship with is also is also appearing on new versions of the MacBook Pros. You try it out for yourself now, and you probably should, even if you don’t plan on buying a new computer.

Underneath the static piece of glass is a haptic (or taptic) feedback device which simulates button presses. Having Force Touch on a device—beyond helping make it thinner—also provides more contextual menus. So, for example, pressing harder makes it feel as if you’re actually pressing to a deeper level to achieve new commands.

The only way to describe it initially is: weird. While the computer is on and you’re pressing away, your brain is convinced the trackpad is physically moving, but if you turn the computer off, nothing. The piece of glass doesn’t budge.

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The hardware is fun to play with and try to wrap your mind around, but that’s not the only reason it’s so cool. Apple also demonstrated the actual software benefits of having a Force Touch trackpad as well. Beyond just having more gestures available, it also can make certain tasks quicker. The main example was speeding up a Quicktime video just by pressing hard while the pointer was on top of the forward button—just like a car accelerator pedal.

The pressure sensitive trackpad could also be used for drawing, and in fact, one company has already announced a drawing app to utilize the feature. Beyond those things there wasn’t a whole lot of ways to use Force Touch right now, but Apple did provide an API so developers can use the pressure sensitive capability to enhance their apps. That means it will start showing up in more and more places and become an extremely handy shortcut before long.

The new trackpad might not make too many headlines and will probably go unnoticed by a lot of people, but that’s the point. It’s so well done that adding potentially huge features doesn’t come with many, if any, draw backs. Plus when Force Touch starts showing up in the iPad and iPhone you can bet that people will take notice—it’s only a matter of time at this point.

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