Long-term test: a month with the Magic Trackpad

MacFormat reviews editor ditches his mouse for a month

Has Apple killed the mouse

The Apple Magic Trackpad is a multi-touch trackpad aimed at desktop Macs. It brings all the familiar iPhone and iPad gestures, like pinch and swipe, to a desktop environment.

Although Apple hasn't pitched it as a potential mouse killer numerous pundits, bloggers and commentators predict the imminent demise of the mouse at the hands of this new device. But are they right? Will the Trackpad gradually take over from the mouse as the Mac owner's favourite desktop controller?

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As I tore the shrink wrapping off the box I was very sceptical, but definitely looking forward to a month without a mouse. It was 30 days that would (for me at least) settle the issue once and for all.

Day One

First impressions are very good. The Magic Trackpad looks great next to my iMac's aluminium keyboard. Build quality is excellent and its glass surface is smooth enough to let my fingers glide over it, but not so friction-free that it's awkward to click.

By default, the Trackpad's secondary click (the equivalent of a right mouse-button press) is achieved by clicking down with two fingers. Since I generally prefer to use a laptop trackpad's right hand corner for a right-click, the first thing I do is switch to this option in the Trackpad's System Preferences pane. This doesn't last long.

Unfortunately, it proves awkward due to the size of the Magic Trackpad, which is 80% bigger than the MacBook's trackpad. I soon find myself back at the preference pane to revert to two-finger secondary clicks.

Time to fire up an application. iPhoto is designed to play nicely with gestures, so this is as good a place as any to start. And it feels responsive. The gestures I associate with using iPhoto on your Apple notebook are just as easy to use here.

Ian osbourne

Swiping my way through a photo collection is as easy as ever, and having the pinch/unpinch gestures to hand for zooming in and out is a real boon. Rotating is a little trickier, however. It's functionally the same as in the MacBook (which involves thumb and forefinger twisted as if you're opening a screw-top bottle), but I seem to have to make a bigger gesture to get it to work properly. I soon get used to it, but again, it's tricky at first.

After a few minutes with iPhoto, another out-of-the box problem becomes apparent. Tracking is way too slow, and dragging my finger the entire width of the Magic Trackpad only takes the mouse pointer three quarters of the way across my iMac's 21.5-inch screen. Thankfully, this too is easily remedied.

Back in System Preferences, I increase the Tracking Speed using the slider. I can now cover the entire Desktop without lifting my finger from the Trackpad.

Day Three

The Magic Trackpad is becoming instinctive now, and I'm not reaching for the mouse out of habit, or even wishing it was there. It's like wearing a new pair of shoes – very refreshing, but in need of wearing in.

I've put the Magic Trackpad to the test with a variety of everyday apps. Web browsing in particular benefits from the now second-nature gestures I have (quite literally) at my fingertips. Moving backwards and forwards through my browsing history is a simple three-finger swipe.

At first, force of habit had me pressing the toolbar buttons, but the gesture is so much quicker and easier now I'm used to it. It's good to be able to enlarge or reduce the size at which the page is displayed too. It's not a feature I use much on a notebook, as I tend to be nearer the screen. But sat at my desk, when I come across a website that looks like the small print at the bottom of an insurance policy claim form, it really comes into its own.

The Mail experience is very similar to using Apple's emailing application on a MacBook, and iTunes also offers few surprises, good or bad. Word processing in Pages is straightforward too, with two-finger and three-finger swipes making it easy to navigate my way through large documents.

Double- and triple-clicking to highlight words and paragraphs feels a little tricky to begin with, but I simply adjust the click speed and it helps. (Or maybe the clicker's a little stiff, as it's new.)

One thing that's proving easier on the Magic Trackpad than it ever was with a mouse is click-dragging items a long distance across the Desktop. With a mouse, if I need to drag something further than the mouse mat allows, I often have to lift and move the mouse without releasing the mouse button. It's the same principle on the Trackpad, but holding the clicker down and moving my finger across the pad's surface is much more comfortable.

The Magic Trackpad goes a fair way to making Finder's Cover Flow view useful too. I've never been a fan of this feature. It makes sense in iTunes, where flicking through your album art has a real jukebox feel, and maybe in Safari when trying to find a recently-browsed web page whose title or URL you can't remember. But do you ever use it anywhere else? Me neither.

Yet with two-fingered swipes to roll through a folder's contents and three-fingered gestures to move up and down a folder tree, Cover Flow view is so easy to manipulate and I'm tempted to use it more often.

Day Five

I have no complaints about using the Magic Trackpad for iLife, internet applications and generally using my iMac, but how does it cope with a traditional shoot-'em-up, a brain-off, button-down blaster that demands speed as well as precision?

I load up Freeverse's Kill Monty, a Smash TV-inspired shooter where your movement is controlled using the keyboard, but you target your enemies with the mouse – or in this case, the Magic Trackpad.

It works much better with the Trackpad than I expected. It's instinctive and responsive, and I was soon trashing wave after wave of foes. When things begin to get really frantic you can throw a grenade with a secondary click, but this proves a little less responsive than it should. Without an independent right mouse button to fall back on, I can't shoot and grenade at the same time.

Finally, I try a first-person shooter; time to boot up my trusty copy of Doom 3. I expected it to be near-unplayable, but things start surprisingly well. When walking from place to place, the Trackpad offers no real disadvantages over the mouse. Movement is smooth, responsive and above all, instinctive.

Doom 3

After picking up my equipment a two-fingered swipe cycles through the weapons, which is less handy than it sounds. It's way too easy to do it accidentally, though I manage to get around this by switching off the Scroll gesture in the Trackpad preference pane. This function of the game is clearly intended for a mouse's scroll wheel.

But the Magic Trackpad really falls down when the shooting starts. It lacks the speedy precision of a laser mouse. As the pace begins to pick up and things get frenzied, it becomes increasingly difficult to put a bullet between an oncoming zombie's eyes, and I find myself firing three or four shots at his chest instead.

It's instinctive and comfortable in general, but after dying in the middle of a level that I usually would have completed without difficulty, I realise I miss my trusty mouse. After this performance, one thing's for sure: the Magic Trackpad will never be a hard-core gamer's controller of choice.

Day Twelve

Thankfully I'm not an RSI sufferer, but MacFormat's own Craig Grannell has mild RSI and owns a Magic Trackpad, so I asked him for his thoughts on the device. "My RSI isn't noticeable if I'm using the right tools and have reasonable posture," he said. "If either isn't right, I soon notice my right arm and neck becoming stiff, and my back starts complaining."

But does the Trackpad help? "It beats a mouse, because the hand is in a more natural position. Gestures and taps require less exertion than clicks, and the swiping significantly beats the awkward, semi-painful gestures you use with the Magic Mouse."

So does he recommend Magic Trackpad for RSI sufferers? "It certainly beats using any mouse I've tried to date, but it lags behind using a Wacom stylus-based tablet, such as the Bamboo."

For my first week or so with the Magic Trackpad, I found the opposite was true. Prolonged use of the Trackpad made my hand and wrist ache in a way the mouse never did. Although the hand was held at a comfortable angle, holding my fingers off the Trackpad to avoid accidentally activating gestures took its toll.

However, 12 days in, this is no longer the case, and I can use the Trackpad all day without a problem. Perhaps I'm getting used to the new position, or have developed better technique over time.

Day Twenty

I'm almost three weeks into my mouse-free month, and it's amazing how instinctive the Magic Trackpad has become over that time.

Swiping to scroll or page through documents is now so natural and free-flowing, I hardly realise I'm doing it. Double-clicking is far easier now the clicker is less stiff than it was out of the box, and it's finally giving just the right amount of resistance. Clearly you need to give the device time to realise its potential.

Day Thirty

I deliberately refrained from cleaning the Trackpad during the month to see how badly it picked up grease and dirt, and thankfully, it hasn't soiled much at all. A quick squirt of computer cleaner and a wipe-over with a dry cloth, and it's as good as new.

But the big question is, will it kill off the mouse? Personally, I don't think so. Useful as the Magic Trackpad is, there are some things for which the old-school controller is much better suited, most notably gaming and graphic design. I won't be sticking with it as a replacement for my mouse, but I'll keep it on my desktop because it complements it well.

Its versatile gesture controls can greatly enhance your computing experience, so why not have the best of both worlds? With the Magic Trackpad sitting next to your mouse, you can switch from one to the other at your convenience.

Maybe Apple will ride with this, and incorporate Trackpad technology into a keyboard? Just a thought. The mouse isn't dead; it's just gained a new pal.