Secrets of the Mac trackpad, from iBook to MacBook Air

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

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Note that unlike the trackpad features introduced on earlier Mac notebooks, multitouch gestures require application support. This means that not all gestures are supported in all applications, or even in some parts of the Finder.

This is understandable because these gestures are creating specific effects that will work differently depending on the type of application or media they're being used with. Earlier trackpad options, by contrast, simply simulate standard input-device functionality that works the same regardless of the application.

Some extra trackpad tidbits

In addition to the basic single-finger, two-finger, and multitouch gesture options for trackpads, there are a few noteworthy additional options. In some cases, these are model-specific, and in others they are general options.

Screen zooming: This option, which can also be used with a mouse, lets you hold down a modifier key (by default the control key) while swiping you hand up or down on the trackpad to zoom the entire display in or out. This can be a handy way of getting a closer look at images or hard to read text without resetting your display's resolution.

In addition to changing the modifier key, you can specify when the feature is available and whether to smooth the edges of images and text while zooming.

Ignore accidental trackpad input: It isn't uncommon for notebooks users to accidentally brush the trackpad with a palm, wrist or forearm while typing. Typically, this places the cursor somewhere else on-screen (such as an entirely different application) or selects text in the wrong part of the document.

This option tells the Mac to ignore any input from the trackpad at the same time that keys are being pressed (other than special modifier keys), thus ensuring that the cursor stays in place when you're typing.

Ignore trackpad when mouse is present: This does exactly what it implies: ignores any trackpad input if a mouse or other pointing device is attached to a Mac notebook. This prevents accidental input if you brush the trackpad with your hand or arm.

Finally, don't forget to adjust the speeds required for the cursor tracking, double-clicking and, on machines that support it, two-fingered scrolling.

Put your trackpad on steroids

If Apple's array of trackpad features isn't enough for you, you may want to check out SideTrack (shareware, $15). An alternate trackpad driver, SideTrack enables a whole new range of special gestures and other tricks.

With SideTrack, you can create horizontal and vertical "scroll zones" along the edges of the trackpad (as some Windows notebooks offer), map the trackpad button as a left- or right-click, map the action taken when you tap on the trackpad to varying types of clicking and dragging features, and even map the taps in the corners of trackpad to specific features (much as you can with a multibutton mouse).

SideTrack works on a much wider range of older Mac notebooks than Apple's built-in features do. Ironically, though, SideTrack doesn't currently support the newest MacBook Pro and MacBook Air models with multitouch trackpads.

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Ryan Faas is a frequent Computerworld contributor specializing in Mac and multiplatform network issues. You can find more information about him at

Copyright © 2008 IDG Communications, Inc.

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