The pointing device has been an essential part of the PC since the graphical user interface (GUI) became popular over 20 years ago. It’s been done in many styles and shapes, from a traditional wired mouse, to a gyro air mouse like the Azulle Lynk. On notebooks, it’s done most often as a rectangular touch-sensitive pad in the palm-rest. If you’re an avid notebook shopper, you might notice that there is more than one kind of touchpad. What we’re going to do in this article is review the four basic types found today, along with their pros and cons.
The traditional touchpad is a rectangular, touch-sensitive pad, usually centered below the keyboard in the notebook’s palm-rest. Moving your finger across the surface of this pad moves the mouse. Below the pad are dedicated left- and right-click buttons, and sometimes a center-click.
The traditional touchpad was once the most popular type, but has taken a back seat in recent years next to buttonless touchpads, which we’ll detail next. A modern example of a notebook with a traditional touchpad is the business-class Dell Latitude E5570.
The advantages of a traditional touchpad include ease of use, reliability, and accuracy. It’s hard to mistake left- and right-clicks, because there are dedicated buttons for them. This style of touchpad furthermore tends to have the shortest learning curve, mainly due to its simplicity.
Here are key points we look for when evaluating traditional touchpads:
- Smooth surface. The pad should feel almost frictionless under your fingertips.
- Defined edges. It should be obvious by touch alone when your finger reaches the border of the pad.
- Appropriate size. The touchpad’s physical size shouldn’t feel confining relative to the notebook’s screen size. It should also share the same aspect ratio as the screen.
- Quiet buttons. There’s no reason to announce to someone on the other side of the room you’ve made a click, so the buttons should be as quiet as possible.
The most popular style of touchpad on a notebook today is the buttonless touchpad, commonly referred to as a clickpad. It was originally made popular by Apple in the mid-2000s on the company’s MacBook line.
This style of touchpad forgoes dedicated mouse buttons for a press-able surface. Simply press down on the surface at any point to produce a click. In other words, the entire surface is one big button.
We’ve seen a drastic improvement in the quality and usability of buttonless touchpads since they started appearing in the notebook PC scene around 2010. These are the specific qualities we look for in buttonless touchpads:
Precise clicking action. Each click should have a direct feel, and not require too much movement.
- Definitive left- and right-click zone. It should be obvious where to press the pad to produce a right-click. Some notebook makers will put a dedicated line on the pad to indicate where the right-click zone starts.
- Even click pressure. Pressing the pad in any particular location should require the same amount of actuation force as anywhere else. Much of this is dependent on how the pad is hinged. Most pads are hinged at the top, resulting in harder clicks at the top of the pad (furthest away from the user), and easier clicks at the bottom. Some difference in actuation force between the top and bottom of the pad is inevitable, but the difference shouldn’t be a detriment to usability.
- No play in the pad surface. Resting your fingers on the pad’s surface shouldn’t cause it to move in any way. The pad’s clicking action should be stiff enough that only a deliberate amount of pressure will cause the pad’s surface to give way and actually produce a click.
More often than not, we’ve found buttonless touchpads to be deficient in one or more of the areas just described. This can result in a poor user experience for obvious reasons. It the clicks aren’t precise enough, for example, this can slow down your interaction with the computer, thus reducing your productivity. And if you can’t tell the difference between left- and right-clicks, you may find yourself frustrated.
Traditional touchpads generally aren’t at risk for these problems, which is why we prefer them. But when buttonless touchpads are done right, they can work just as well.
Static/Haptic Feedback Touchpads
A distinct minority of notebook computers use a static touchpad. This style of touchpad looks like the just-described clickpads, but doesn’t have any movement. Some of these pads incorporate haptic feedback, but not all.
The HP EliteBook Folio 1040 is an example of a notebook that uses a static touchpad; HP calls it the Forcepad.
Static touchpads tend to work well, but the lack of physical click feedback will probably feel unnatural until you spend significant time with it. This style of touchpad is typically used to add some other kinds of functionality, such as pressure sensitivity, which wouldn’t make sense on a clickpad for obvious reasons.
Last but not least on our list is the venerable pointing stick. This is a classic alternative to a touchpad setup. The pointing stick is a rubber nub in the center of a notebook’s keyboard, generally accompanied by dedicated clicking buttons beneath the spacebar. To move the mouse, place your finger on the nub, and gently push it in the direction you wish the mouse to go. It’s similar to the trackball mouse in this respect.
The advantage with the pointing stick is that you don’t have to remove your hands from the keyboard to use the mouse. With your hands on the keyboard in a typing position, you can reach the pointing stick with your index fingers. Moreover, your thumbs should be able to reach the buttons.
The pointing stick arrangement was once more popular than it is today. It can still be found on business-class notebooks from Lenovo, Dell, and HP. Lenovo’s UltraNav solution on its ThinkPad notebooks is the most famous pointing stick setup. The ThinkPad T460s is a prime example. In our reviewing experience, we haven’t found a version we prefer more than Lenovo’s.
The pointing stick generally has a steeper learning curve than other variants, much again like a trackball mouse. Once properly configured, however, it can be just as effective of a pointing solution as any other. Purely from a productivity standpoint, it’s hard to beat.
The fact there are multiple variations of pointing devices goes to show that there’s no single best option. Much of it comes down to personal preference. On notebook computers, the traditional touchpad setup with dedicated buttons tends to be the safest choice, as it has the smallest learning curve, and provides the most consistent experience.
Lastly, the classic pointing stick, made famous by Lenovo ThinkPads, continues to be a go-to for enthusiasts. It’s arguably the simplest kind of pointing device, but also has a slight adjustment curve if you’re used to a touchpad setup.
Of course, the only true way to find out what works best for you is to try it in person. Visit local stores, or ask family or friends if you can borrow one of their notebooks for a couple of hours. You can always take a look at our notebook reviews for our take on what’s best. Also consider joining our community forum, which is free, and allows you to get expert advice from our members.