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Crappy Clickpads Could Kill The Ultrabook

In case you hadn't heard, Ultrabooks are the next big thing for laptops. With their superslim designs and tablet-like responsiveness, this category has the potential to keep notebooks quite relevant in the so-called post-PC era. When you ask industry analysts what might prevent Ultrabooks from taking off, most will tell you their relatively high prices. But I believe there's an even bigger obstacle: the clickpad.

What's a clickpad, you ask? It's a touchpad that lacks discrete mouse buttons. The buttons are built into the pad itself, which makes for a more seamless and sleek design. Apple nailed this technology a while ago on the MacBook Air. However, I've seen so many bad implementations of this technology on Windows machines that I shudder when I see one.

Here are the telltale signs of a crappy clickpad:

The jumpy cursor: Navigating around the screen shouldn't feel like a chore, but with Ultrabooks such as the ASUS Zenbook UX31 the cursor would sometimes jump when we were trying to select an icon. At other times, the cursor would jump up a line while typing, due to accidental contact with the touchpad. If you can't get the basics right, don't bother.

Pinch to stutter: Anyone who has used an iPhone or Android device knows that pinching to zoom should be a smooth, continuous motion. However, on many Ultrabooks this action feels like you're zooming in slow motion. Rotating can also be hit or miss. Perhaps Windows 8 will offer better built-in support for multitouch gestures, but right now it doesn't feel natural at all.

Erratic scrolling: If you use a MacBook Air, you'll find that scrolling up and down webpages and documents with two fingers is silky smooth. You don't even have to think about it. On Windows-powered Ultrabooks, I often overshoot the target or I need to be very deliberate to initiate scrolling in the first place.

Right clicks out of nowhere: One night I decided to take the IdeaPad U300s home to see how well Lenovo's Ultrabook worked, and I couldn't wait to give it back. That's because the system mistook a left click for a right one so often that I had a hard time getting any work done.

Annoying Stiffness: There is one thing that prevented us from giving the HP Folio 13 an Editors' Choice Award, an otherwise great Ultrabook with best-in-class battery life. And that's the stiff clickpad. We had to use too much force to activate the buttons.

 Of course, some clickpads are better than others, but right now they're the worst thing about Ultrabooks. Yes, they give you more surface area for performing multitouch gestures, but if they don't work the way they should then it's just a wasted effort. It may seem old fashioned, but right now the Ultrabook with the best touchpad is the Toshiba Portege Z835. It uses two physical mouse buttons and they work just fine. 

If you're looking to point fingers, the easy target would be Synaptics, which makes clickpads for Ultrabooks, including the Acer Aspire S3, Lenovo IdeaPad U300s, and HP Folio 13. The company says its image sensing technology allows for more precise navigation and sophisticated gesture recognition, but I haven't been impressed thus far. Elan and Sentelic are among other clickpad makers. Ultrabook manufacturers bear some responsibility as well, because they're the ones who implement the technology and make sure drivers work properly.

To me, though, the biggest culprit is Windows itself. Whereas Mac OS X is designed so that you need to double tap to launch contextual menus, Windows uses right clicks. That's why you see so many Clickpads that leave room at the bottom for flat left and right buttons. Unfortunately, that adds another layer of complexity and sometimes leads to errant right clicks. Some people may hate this idea but Microsoft should just do away with the right mouse button option altogether in Windows 8 and make the two-finger click standard on notebooks.

Intel also needs to take a leadership role in ensuring that Ultrabooks measure up to certain ergonomic standards. After all, the chipmaker is spending $300 million to spur this category. In my mind, if you can't deliver a satisfying user experience, you shouldn't be able to call your laptop an Ultrabook, and you don't get any marketing support.

Apple has a built-in advantage when it comes to touchpads because the company makes the hardware and the software. There are no middlemen. And if Ultrabook makers don't raise their standards they'll continue to play second fiddle to the MacBook Air.

Responsible for the editorial vision for Laptop Mag and Tom's Guide, Mark Spoonauer has been Editor in Chief of LAPTOP since 2003 and has covered technology for nearly 15 years. Mark speaks at key tech industry events and makes regular media appearances on CNBC, Fox and CNN. Mark was previously reviews editor at Mobile Computing, and his work has appeared in Wired, Popular Science and Inc.