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Friday, October 24, 2008, 07:45 am PT (10:45 am ET)

Apple's unibody MacBook Pro: an in-depth review with video


The glass trackpad

The MacBook Air debuted a larger multitouch trackpad earlier this year, but the new MacBooks now supply an even larger, single unit trackpad that doubles as a button. In other words, rather than providing a separate button below the trackpad, the entire surface of the trackpad functions as a button. More accurately, the bottom 80 percent of the trackpad surface acts as a clickable button while the top edge is fixed.

The new glass surface of the trackpad doesn't really look or feel like glass, but it does offer less resistance to your sliding finger when compared to the previous MacBook Pro's trackpad. As you slide your finger across the surface, there is less resistance than regular window glass; the new surface is even slicker than the polished face of the iPhone or the notebook's glossy glass screen. It feels like highly polished metal, or perhaps an enamel-glazed surface.

The trackpad gestures (below) build upon those new two-and three-finger gestures introduced with the MacBook Air. Using all four fingers, a quick swipe upwards reveals the desktop via Exposé, a swipe down presents all windows tiled in Exposé, and a four finger swipe to the right or left brings up the app switcher (identical to hitting Apple+Tab). The new gestures sure make it easier to rapidly bring up those features without a second thought about which key combo to hit on the keyboard.

Additionally, one can define the "secondary click" to be the bottom-right or bottom-left corner. This setting seems a bit odd because it is not very natural to right-click by rotating your thumb under your hand to target the lower right corner (if you're right handed; or vice versa if you're not). The demo video Apple displays in System Preferences indicates a finger right-clicking by touching the lower right corner. Who does that? Many PC users might be more accustomed to hitting a trackpad button located above the trackpad surface, but there's no way to define secondary click to the top-right or left areas of the trackpad (which do not function as a physical click button, but do register with 'tap to click' turned on).

Also missing from the configuration is any way to reassign the keyboard gestures, such as setting up a hot corner to invoke Dashboard. From Exposé settings in System Preferences, hot corners can only be associated with pushing the mouse cursor into a screen corner, but not tapping a given area of a trackpad. The new trackpad also provides no programmable support for a third, "middle mouse button" as Apple's Mighty Mouse software does.

Adding too much complexity to the finger gestures of the trackpad would certainly make it easy for things to get out of control, and Apple is cautiously introducing new features rather conservatively. In the future, it seems likely that the trackpad could be replaced entirely by a secondary LCD panel that provides immediate visual feedback on the options available, enabling more options to be presented at once. Without any display feedback, the trackpad functions are easy to overload, so Apple's hesitancy to push too much complexity into trackpad gestures makes sense.

MacBook


Because users likely give less conscious thought to the intuitive gestures they make on the trackpad than even the keyboard when touch typing, the differences and greater complication will likely throw most users for a loop as they get used to the new behaviors. There is potential for confusion when you tap the lower third button area with your thumb while your finger is pointing; if your thumb is firmly in the lower area of the trackpad, the system should recognize that as a 'one finger touch and one thumb button,' but if your thumb wanders upward, it becomes very close to the gesture used to pinch and zoom: 'two fingers on the pad, moving apart.' With new gesture support for actions like pinch-to-zoom, and the ease of accidently grazing a third finger along the trackpad surface, you can easily experience a variety of unintended actions

For example, we didn't even know that Safari supported "pinch-to-zoom text" until the text size of web pages began to enlarge or shrink, seemingly at random intervals while scrolling around through web pages with two fingers. That's because two finger scroll works only if your fingers stay in close alignment, otherwise the system has to assume you're performing a pinch action as your fingers spread apart, another action that is easy to accidentally register.

There's no way to turn off the two-finger pinch, rotate or scroll features, so you just have to learn to do certain things differently. Finger coordination for clicking to select text and then dragging the text to a new place requires keeping your thumb in the lower edge of the trackpad, as the system is constantly evaluating whether you are intending to tap and click, or whether you have two fingers on the trackpad for other reasons.

We also discovered some weirdness with right and left clicking. It was hard to determine if the system was just behaving badly (it did seem to stick between settings at some points), or if we were just engrained with two finger right-clicking instincts picked up from the earlier MacBook Pros, which becomes a 'pinch and click.'

With both the 'tap to click' and 'two finger right click' feature turned on, it's painfully easy to accidentally 'right click and randomly select' some action from the contextual menu. Two finger tap makes inline spell checking particularly easy, but again it's also often just too easy to accidentally hit two fingers at once on accident and end up inadvertently pasting in text from the clipboard randomly. Apple leaves those features off by default.

The system is usually intelligent enough to figure out that 'two fingers in the upper area tapping' is not the same thing as 'a thumb at the bottom ready to click, and a finger tracing around above.' There is clearly a lot of smarts involved in anticipating what you must be wanting to do. At the same time, a simply normal click is often frustratingly difficult to perform; it appears the trackpad software needs an update, because frequently an audible click of the panel does nothing and the click gets ignored. This makes it almost requisite to turn on 'tap to click.'

On earlier Mac models, tap to click has never seemed to be usable. It's hard to explain why, but tap to click on PC notebooks seems to work better than tap to click on Mac notebooks, perhaps because the dual physical buttons on PCs are so much worse that trackpad tapping is a better alternative. Tap to click is usually on by default on Windows PCs, and off by default on the Mac.

It's often just too easy to inadvertently tap to click, which can be particularly annoying when editing text and trying to position the cursor. One false tap and you're potentially selecting a line or typing into the wrong paragraph. Bottom line: virtual click taps seem to be improved while the "entire trackpad as a physical button" idea seems to have inconsistent and flawed behaviors, although this might only be an early adopter software flaw that can be fixed.

As with any input device, the new trackpad takes some getting used to, and the highly configurable settings should help most people find their happy place between gesture complexity and feature completeness. Users who want a very simple trackpad may be frustrated with the inconsistent mechanical click action (which again appears to be a software problem that can be fixed, not a hardware limitation), while extreme power users might be disappointed that the trackpad's gestures don't go far enough or allow enough customization.

On page 4 of 6: Expansion ports; & The battery and drive bay; .