Secrets of the Mac trackpad, from iBook to MacBook Air

Are you getting the most from your laptop's trackpad?

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Two-finger functions

While the single-finger trackpad features have been around for many years, two-finger clicking and scrolling options were introduced on the PowerBook G4 models in 2005 and were added to iBook G4 models later that year. They have become standard features on MacBooks and MacBook Pros.

When enabled, these features prove invaluable, particularly for users accustomed to using multibutton mice and mice with scroll wheels. Since they are hardware-based, they won't work on pre-2005 notebooks, although you can add similar functionality to some older models using the handy iScroll2 utility.

Two-finger scrolling: When this option is enabled, placing two fingers on the trackpad and moving them across the trackpad simultaneously simulates a scroll wheel on a mouse: The active window scrolls as if you were using the scroll bar. (In OS X Leopard, you can even scroll through background windows.)

Like the scroll ball on Apple's Mighty Mouse, the trackpad's two-finger scrolling is omnidirectional, so you can scroll up and down as well as left to right.

Once you're gotten used to two-fingered scrolling, you'll find that it becomes an integral part of Web browsing or skimming through documents, because you don't need to take your focus off of what you're looking at to keep reading.

Secondary click: No less useful is the two-fingered secondary click option. Windows users are used to right-click with a two-button mouse or trackpad to see options in a contextual menu. Despite Apple's penchant for one-button mice and trackpads, Mac OS X and many applications make use of similar contextual menus.

Users of pre-2005 Mac notebooks had to press the control key when clicking to simulate right clicking, but in newer models with two-finger secondary clicking enabled, simply tapping the trackpad with two fingers at one time produces the same effect.

Note: This feature was introduced with the MacBook Pro and MacBook in 2006, but PowerBook G4 and iBook models released in 2005 (those that support two-fingered scrolling) will offer it if they are running Mac OS X Leopard.

Multitouch gestures

The most notable and recently added trackpad functions, known as multitouch gestures, were introduced earlier this year on the MacBook Air and later appeared in the most recent MacBook Pro models. (Since the multitouch features rely on new hardware, they're not available in older models.)

Multitouch gestures take many of the touch-screen gestures used in the iPhone and iPod Touch and bring them to the trackpad. They work particularly well on the MacBook Air, which has a larger than normal trackpad surface area.

Trackpad tab in new MBP

Multitouch video tutorials are offered in the MacBook Air and newest MacBook Pros.

Click to view larger image.

Multitouch gestures let you:

  • Pinch your fingers together and push them apart to zoom in and out of a document
  • Rotate images by placing one finger (typically the thumb) on the trackpad and then rotating the a second finger around it
  • Swipe the trackpad with three fingers to navigate through a series of items, such as pages in a browser history or photos in an iPhoto album

On Macs that support multitouch gestures, the Trackpad options in System Preferences provide video tutorials of how to use the features.

Although multitouch gestures have an extreme cool factor, they can also be helpful in navigating and zooming, particularly when working with Web pages in Safari, images in iPhoto or Aperture, or images and PDF files in Preview.

See Computerworld's Ken Mingis demonstrating the new multitouch gestures in the short video below.

Ken Mingis discusses the MacBook Pro, which this year was updated to include multitouch functions with its trackpad.

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