Tuesday, November 2, 2021

Please Shrink the Trackpad

Lukas Mathis:

After years of struggling with ghost clicks, randomly dragged icons, poor palm rejection, and generally ever worsening MacBook trackpads, I didn’t want to deal with software features trying to compensate for a trackpad’s lack of physical features.


The reason this [Lenovo] trackpad just works is that its form follows its function. It’s built to move the cursor without getting into your way when you do anything other than moving the cursor, and it’s built to click when you actually want to click, not when you accidentally touch the trackpad wrong.


Or perhaps the «large trackpad» trend is similar to the «glossy screen» effect. Just like those nice, shiny screens, big trackpads look enticing. The fact that they mostly get in the way is not apparent at the time of purchase.

Apple used to have the best trackpads, but now I constantly get accidental and misclassified clicks on my 16-inch MacBook Pro. Its keyboard is the same width, but its trackpad is much wider, so there’s less safe area to rest my palms. For my next notebook, I’m seriously considering getting a smaller display than I’d like. That’s the only way to get a smaller trackpad, and even the one on the MacBook Air is wider than I’d prefer. I never had problems running out of space using the older trackpads going back to the Wallstreet PowerBook, whose trackpad was considerably narrower than the Spacebar. It even had a real button to click.


Update (2021-11-12): Jonathan Deutsch:

I had plenty of issues with the original giant 2016 15" MBP trackpad, and after returning it chose 13" sizes from then on to avoid most palm issues. I heard the software got better at some point. When I got the 2019 16" MBP I didn’t experience too many problems.

So, apparently, the 2019 version that’s causing trouble for me is the improved version.

See also: Hacker News.

Update (2023-11-22): Sabahattin Gucukoglu:

I appreciate that ergonomics of laptops in general has never been great, but does the trackpad on the M2 Air and newer MBPs really have to be quite so darned large? I’ve been mostly putting up with the occasional unwanted trackpad input as my thumb brushes the top edge of the trackpad for a while now. Without any gestures activated in Settings, the worst effect is that the cursor goes into the wrong place and I have to relocate my typing insertions. But, recently I accidentally shut down a VM in the middle of a delicate operation rendering it unbootable[…] I’m trying my absolute best not to brush the trackpad, keeping my palms wide apart and my arms straight, as is good posture, but ultimately it still happens from time to time, and short of just turning it off altogether (which also seems strangely hard to do) I’m stuck for any real solution other than just tucking my thumbs as hard as I can, typing more slowly and carefully and hoping it doesn’t happen again.

35 Comments RSS · Twitter

Do you use tap to click? For all the years I’ve been using Apple laptops (and PC ones), I always make sure that is turned off. I would assume that may have an effect on the ghost clicks from my experience at least. I don’t remember a time where my palms accidentally interacted with the trackpad however.

If anything, I know when I’m holding my laptop on my stomach in such a way my gut is touching the trackpad or even pressing on it, I’ll get some unintended interactions. But that’s me and my gut and bad posture… :)

I remember most laptops in the 90’s having ones that were definitely too small. It took multiple swipes, removing your finger, repositioning, and repeating to move the cursor where you wanted it. Today’s Apple ones do seem a bit oversized or maybe too generous. You can pretty much traverse the whole screen without ever having to remove your finger, which I’m guessing is their intention. Perhaps it’s overly generous, but it gives you a big target and lots of room for your finger to roam.

I don't know what it is with you people. I'm using my Macbook daily for several hours and have owned several models and subsequent sizes and I literally have NEVER had a single ghost click. Besides. What makes you think you're so important that Apple is going to actually listen?

Maybe we should type wearing nonconductive fingerless gloves.

Tap-to-click is a feature I make sure to turn off just because it also triggers when making small pointer movements. I am so happy being back on my rMBP 2012 with its sane trackpad size and physical button because the MBP 2018, that I really spend enough time to get accustomed to, simply drove me nuts with its accidental clicks when typing. The list of fixes with the M1 Pro/Max MacBook Pros is long but the trackpad is still head-scratchingly huge, so I’m wondering whether the failing palm rejection is something Apple doesn’t hear about often enough.

@Chaz No, I don’t use tap-to-click, and I usually use the MacBook Pro on a table. The 90s ones were small enough that sometimes I’d have to pick up my finger, but that was fine because I could keep the button held down so it wouldn’t interrupt a drag.

@ruurd It is strange that some people have constant problems yet for others it seems to work fine. Are our hands really that different? Or are some of the trackpads perhaps defective?

I saw you and that original post both mention this recently, and it keeps surprising me. I’d have to agree with other commenters: I like the big trackpads, think they’re an improvement over the old ones because I have more room to do gestures (though I did use your physical button trick back then), and have never had a ghost input. And I DO have tap-to-click turned on. Wonder why the palm rejection fails so frequently for you, whereas I forgot my palm was even on it until you posted this. Maybe I hold my hands differently?

I regularly switch back and forth between a 2013 MBA (my personal computer) and a 2018 retina MBA (my work computer). I was expecting to dislike the larger trackpad on the newer MBA, but in practice haven't had any issues with ghost clicks.

Maybe I'd have issues using a 16" machine with its even larger trackpad? I don't know. But I notice that when I rest my hands, the outside edges (the corners of my palms below my pinkies) are on the laptop palm rest, while the inside palm areas below my thumbs are slightly raised in the air. So even though the trackpad extends a little underneath my hands, in practice my palms don't tend to touch it much. Maybe different resting positions are the reason why some people have accidental clicks.

FWIW I used to think the 2013 trackpad size was ideal, but I've grown to prefer the larger 2018 one because there's more space to perform gestures comfortably. In particular I use pinch-to-zoom constantly, and the four finger pinch-out-to-show-desktop semi regularly. I've always found the 4 finger pinch to desktop suffers on the 2013 trackpad from not having enough space to invoke reliably. Pinch to zoom is OK, but to me is still nicer with the larger trackpad area.

Years ago I worked on a PC laptop with a trackpad a little smaller than the one picture in Lukas's post. Drove me crazy. Ignoring any advanced gestures, which Windows didn't support at the time, for me, it failed at the basics of allowing me to scroll comfortably. (I also really dislike separate physical left- & right-click buttons.)

Clarification: Both pinch-to-desktop and 4-finger-swipe-up-to-show-all-windows are actually 5 finger gestures if you're dragging a file while invoking them. (Your thumb is held down while the other 4 fingers do the gesture.) Even the larger trackpads can feel a little constrained with these, but they're a very handy way of making drag & drop useful with lots of windows open.

One last note: while I was surprised to like the larger trackpad, I was equally surprised that I ended up disliking force touch. I was looking forward to using it as a quick way of bringing up the dictionary.

In practice I invoked it accidentally all the time, and found the haptic feedback confusing. (Often it would give me force touch feedback in the middle of dragging a file, which sort of felt like I had let my finger _off_ the mouse button mid-drag.) So I ended up disabling it.


Touch bar sucked, the notch sucks but I love the big Trackpad. Never had a problem with it.

Beatrix Willius

What ia a ghost click? Using a new MacBook Air with the stupid butterfly keyboard.

@Beatrix: A ghost click happens while typing on the keyboard, when the trackpad misinterprets the pressure of one’s palms as a click and so, depending on the location of the mouse pointer on screen, the text insertion point changes or the file/tab/application switches.

I had issues all over with my last MBP from 2018, but the trackpad never once caused me grief. Now I'm on the new 14" MBP and it's equally great, much better than the Thinkpad X1 that I also use.

Doeke Zanstra

@Michael I wonder what would happen is you taped some plastic to the edges of your trackpad. I've tried on my stand alone trackpad. Tape and paper don't work, but a piece of ticker plastic seems to do the trick...

"You can pretty much traverse the whole screen without ever having to remove your finger"

That's the case with pretty much all modern notebooks, even those without huge touchpads, unless your mouse speed is set at a low level.

I do think people use touchpads very differently: even with larger touchpads, I physically can't use the whole touchpad, since I usually rest my lower arm or palm somewhere, which prevents me from moving my hand too much. So I anyways can't move the tip of my finger more than around three inches. This means that I can physically access about a third of the MacBook Pro's touchpad's area.

I do use tap-to-click and drag-lock, but that's because ever since Apple got rid of the separate button for the trackpad, I have never been able to get drag-and-drop to work reliably for me. Drag-lock is the most reliable option I've found.

I do know that this isn't just me, either. When I help friends with tech problems, I regularly see them have similar problems. It's just that they assume that they are doing something wrong, rather than assuming that the expensive laptop they bought can't reliably detect what they're doing.

Anyways, as I pointed out in the blog post, I'm not saying that larger touchpads shouldn't exist. I'm saying that, unlike, say, a faster CPU, which is objectively better, they're a preference. I don't want them to go away - if you love them, that's great. I do wish there were more options for people who prefer smaller touchpads, though.

My current MBP (late 2013) has a significantly smaller trackpad, but my Magic Trackpad is larger, and perhaps roughly the size of the built-in one on newer MBPs. It took me a while of getting used to, but seems fine now, meaning I do not see palm detection failures.

I do think there's significant range in how people use their trackpads. I've always used tap-to-click and drag-lock. I occasionally play with the trackpads of other laptop brands and… none of them surpass Apple. Panasonic is (or used to be) awful; Dell seems to have gotten significantly better but still isn't great; Microsoft Surface seems to be about as good as Apple.

Whether Apple overshot on the current size, I'm not sure. It seems plausible.

Please don't. The trackpad is fine as it, the size is good.

@Doeke I’d be worried about that pressing against the screen.

I also don't remember a problem from the last 5 years of modern Mac trackpads. It has the be all about hand positions.

I'm keeping straight wrists during typing so they come in at about a 30 degree angle. When I rest, I keep them slightly rotated outward so the pressure is on the outside edges (which touch the MacBook abound 1 inch below the Fn and arrow keys) and when I type, my wrists actually don't touch anything most of the time.

I guess not everybody types this way (but I also can't even make the touchpad click or move the pointer with my palm if I try).

I've been using tap-to-click _forever_, because I hate pressing to click, it invariably shifts cursor position on the trackpad and makes it very hard to do things like drawing and because ThinkPad Trackpoints gave me a twinge of permanent RSI on my right index finger that comes out to play whenever I spend too much time clicking on things (which is also why I only use a mouse for drawing and prefer the trackpad for almost everything).

I have never had issues with ghost clicks that I can remember. Missed multi-finger gestures, yes. But the base of my thumbs routinely brushes the trackpad on my MacBooks and never caused a problem. And I often do weird things like two-finger select-and-drag for short text selections, etc. Zero issues.

I suppose some people just have different capacitive effects on these devices for some reason, or have hand shapes/positions that may generate more "noise".

I have had the same problem since 2016 MacBook Pro redesign and I have been crying about it ever since. Some people think it is small thing, but happening every once a few months is annoying enough because it never happened once on my MacBook Pro 2015.

@Ed Only once every few months? You’re lucky!

Seriously? what's the problem with you guys? Apple trackpad is big enough, I've NEVER had an issue with missclicks or ghost clicks, if you have them it is probably due to bad posture on the keyboard. Market is full of small (and useless) touchpads, please buy them but don't force other people to stop using the incredibly good LARGE touchpad.

Apple won't listen to this anyway. As always.

I can only presume it's differences in posture and/or oil on respective palms.

While I agree Apple's current trackpads are a bit on the large side, I can't say I have any serious issues with mine. And I DO have tap to click and a variety of other touch gestures enabled. I have never used a trackpad on a non-Apple computer that was worth a damn. They're all terrible.

Chaz: "I remember most laptops in the 90’s having ones that were definitely too small. It took multiple swipes"

What's the problem with using multiple swipes? It's simple and reliable. Nearly every human action involving muscles works this way: I have to take multiple steps to walk, too. Even after I learned to ride a bicycle and drive a car, I never complained about having to take steps when walking.

Dario: "Market is full of small (and useless) touchpads, please buy them but don't force other people to stop using the incredibly good LARGE touchpad."

The market used to have small and reliable touchpads. In the marketplace of computers that run macOS, there are no small touchpads. Assuming there can only be one size of touchpad on a Mac, why do you think it's acceptable to "force" everyone to use the large size, which is clearly not working well for them?

> What's the problem with using multiple swipes? It's simple and reliable.

It's inefficient and causes fatigue over time. Bu the solution to this isn't a larger trackpad, but taking advantage of Apple's smart acceleration. The faster you swipe, the farther the pointer travels. I can swipe from the left to the right border of my 4K 32" display in a single swipe, while still preserving precision tracking when moving more slowly.

> What's the problem with using multiple swipes? It's simple and reliable. Nearly every human action involving muscles works this way: I have to take multiple steps to walk, too. Even after I learned to ride a bicycle and drive a car, I never complained about having to take steps when walking.

It’s funny that you bring up bikes and cars. Apple’s trackpads have a built-in gearshift. Nobody asks “so what if this bike doesn’t have gears”.

The trackpad is a tool, and acceleration makes it a much better tool. I can make fast pointer movements *and* precise pointer movements while actually moving my fingers very little.

To each their own, I guess.
I use gestures a lot, most of them via BetterTouchTool. And because I do use three- and four-finger gestures, a bigger trackpad is beneficial to me.
Also, I never get ghost clicks, but then again, I don't type a lot of text and I don't manage blind typing, so my palms don't rest besides the trackpad a lot, rather in front of the laptop.

Bryan Pietrzak

"Apple won't listen to this anyway. As always."

Ironic given that Apple made the new laptops thicker, with bigger batteries, better screens, and brought back both ports and MagSafe. And let's not forget going back to scissor switches on the keyboards....

Isn't that kind of the definition of listening?

Definitely gonna agree with pretty much everyone on here! If anything I would really hate it if they moved back to the old, smaller trackpads.

@Beatrix, what year is your MA? The last MacBook models with the butterfly keyboard were from 2019. They went back to scissor switch after that. My new one is a 2020 MacBook Air/M1 and has the scissor switch. I missed the whole butterfly keyboard fiasco, since my 2013 MBP 13” Retina lasted 7 years.

Typically tap to click is disabled by default, but I can see how it can be an issue. I normally disable that myself in PC notebooks because of the ghost clicks. Especially some touchpads which have always been too sensitive. I think MacBook touchpads are big to benefit the gesture users who probably prefer the bigger space. I think it is a bit too big for my taste but Apple I guess thinks more is better. I don't ever use gestures so for me the whole point of a huge touchpad is a unused features.

I agree with wanting a smaller trackpad, because I want the keyboard closer to me. My wrists seem to suffer more the farther forward I have to reach to type on the keyboard. If it were up to me the keyboard would be all the way to the front edge (so there'd be no wrist rest) and the trackpad would be behind it, and I'd be able to pop the trackpad out and put it on the side. And the laptop body would have a taper like older MBAs.

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