Notebook Design 101: Touchpad Do's and Don'ts

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One of the most fundamental aspects of notebook or netbook design is the touchpad. Aside from the keyboard, it's the one area where users have the most physical contact with a system. And yet, we're amazed at the fact that notebook makers continue to produce touchpads that mar the overall experience. So, here's a primer on touchpads and buttons that work, and ones that don't. While our opinions are, by nature, subjective, there are a few universalities that we think all notebook makers should heed.

1. Make 'em big.


There's nothing worse than a small touchpad, and a small laptop should be no excuse. Take, for example, the Toshiba NB205: This 10-inch system has a touchpad that's 3.1 x 1.6 inches, by far the largest we've seen on a netbook, and larger than on a number of full-size notebooks.

2. Split up the freakin' buttons.


With few exceptions, we've rarely liked the single-bar-as-button design. Many times,  it results in buttons that are either too soft or too hard to press, and there's more of a chance of you hitting the wrong one if you're not looking at the notebook. Which brings us to another point...

3. Buttons go below the touchpad.


This just doesn't work.


4. Hold the friction.


Nothing ruins a computing experience than having to repeatedly swipe a touchpad just to make it across the desktop. Ironically, a touchpad that's too smooth causes too much friction, making it impossible to move your finger without effort. Something silvery and shiny may look cool, but loses points to more pedestrian, but useful, touchpads such as those found on Lenovos:


And it's ok being innovative. ASUS' touchpads are dimpled, which not only looks different, but helps cut friction, too.



5. Make sure it, you know, works.


Only one company has got the integrated mouse-button touchpad right, and that's Apple. Not only is the touchpad on the MacBooks and the MacBook Pros positively large, but it seamlessly integrates the mouse button into the design, and allows for multitouch gestures, too.

dell_mini_10_3136g hp_envy13







Both Dell (with the Inspiron Mini 10) and HP (with the Envy 13) have tried similar approaches, but both were marred by poor software that caused the cursor to jump around the screen erratically whenever you had more than one finger resting on the pad. However, Dell has improved its netbook with updates, and HP promises that it has upgraded its Envy since our review.

So, what touchpads work for you? What's your favorite? What's your least favorite?

As featured on "Into Tomorrow...with Dave Graveline", airing Friday, November 6!

Add a comment
  • Tom Says:

    The touchpad needs to be small and well recessed so that you don't bump it with your thumb whenever you're typing. Very annoying when pages change and my cursor jumps across the page.

  • NOX Says:

    A voice from the future (2013).
    Learn from the touchpad of the old hp nc8430. Not very large but big enough to move confortably around a 16:10 screen (personal experience) and with two rows of three buttons. One at the top for the stick and three at the bottom for the touchpad.
    The best picture of it I was able to find is from a discussion about a Dell model
    By the way, that is a 2006 notebook designed for Win XP but the touchpad is almost multitouch. With the appropriate software it can detect two finger swipes. XP couldn't but more modern OSes can. I'm using it with Linux and the middle button is very useful as it pastes anything that has been selected (no need to explicitly copy).

  • Broox Says:

    Re: CHEVEN,

    I would _try_ getting some textured overlay material, probably lexan, from a label manufacturer - such as Bay Area Labels Also, McMaster-Carr might have an overlay plastic film you can use. The material would have to be as thin as possible to minimize interference with the touchpad's electrical capacitance characteristics.

    However, why waste your time with a touchpad; a well-tuned trackpoint stick in the middle of the keyboard is much faster than a touchpad or mouse because you don't have to move your hands off the keyboard position.

  • CHEVEN Says:

    I just bought a Lenovo .......I HATE the touchpad !! I had a lenovo before and loved it and thought I would stick with something I liked and that worked. Unfortunately the touchpad is like GLASS !! its so smooth it gives me the EEBIE JEEBIES !! I don't want to take a $80 hit plus the shipping both ways so I guess I'm stuck with it :( is there an overlay or cover that would put some texture on it for my man hands ? or can I change the pad ?


  • Hal Says:

    Good points!

    8. Always function over design, not vice versa!
    Besides the shiny touchpads, many are making the touch pad flush with the palm rest making it impossible to feel where the touch ends and where it begins. Samsung NC-10 was an example of this horrid practice. Have their designers ever tried to use that laptop in a dark room??
    The same with the buttons (yes, 2 please!). I much prefer if they are very close to or at the edge of the mini-laptop as well.

  • Fanfoot Says:

    Excellent points all, and clearly an article that needs writing given some of the junk that just keeps coming out lately.

    I would add, if you wouldn't mind too much, a couple of additional points:

    6. Multi-touch is a required feature

    This is 2009. We expect multi-touch support from our trackpads. And yes that includes two finger scrolling, pinch and rotate as well as the ability to customize the gestures to our needs.

    7. Some people like the trackpoint. Consider offering it on some models.

  • JB Says:

    This should be a guide for every laptop manufacturer. I only disagree with one thing... the built in mouse button. Apple did a great job of it, but I personally still prefer a separate mouse button on my touchpad.


  • Mark Says:

    While being stuck with a sucky touchpad, once you got it, you got it. Just go buy a cheap USB mouse and keep it in your laptop bag.

  • Kim Says:

    Oh how I loathe the single button on the touchpad! My company saddled everyone with laptops that use that design and it is universally despised.

  • seamonkey420 Says:

    my advice??

    COPY THE MACBOOK AIR touchpad!! i love it!

    WTF is up with these crappy, tiny touchpads?? do these designers/engineers use a laptop ever?? really?? what freakin year is it???

    just sad how horrible some of the touchpads are; it shouldn't be that hard to get this right imo.

  • Janet Windy Says:

    I couldn't agree more! Manufacturers have repeatedly tried to mimic Apple's multitouch functions, but have ruined the basic functions of the mouse. My favorite touchpad continues to be that on the Apple Macbook Pro 13.

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