Katherine Boehret

Apple Adds Touches to Its Mac Desktops

Last fall, I watched in awe as my friend’s 1-year-old picked up an iPhone, swiped the screen with her pudgy pointer finger and scrolled through a list of emails. I had a similar reaction last month when my computer-challenged aunt discovered the joy of two-finger scrolling on a MacBook Pro’s large, multi-touch trackpad. “Now this,” she said without a trace of the frustrated tone she usual reserves for discussing technology, “is very cool.”

Just what is it that makes gesture technology so very cool? For one thing, it’s more satisfying and intimate to use your own fingers to control something on a screen rather than punching buttons or maneuvering a mouse to do so. And touch gestures are easy to remember because, more often than not, they work using intuitive movements you already know, like flicking a finger across a screen to page through an electronic book.

It’s hard to find a consumer-technology company that doesn’t use touch gestures in at least one of its products. Some Microsoft (MSFT) Windows PCs have touch screens, and certain Windows laptops have emulated at least some of the Mac’s multi-touch trackpad features. But Apple Inc. (AAPL), in particular, has made a concerted effort to spread multi-touch gestures across all of its product categories from the iPod touch to the iPhone to the iPad to MacBook laptops with oversized touchpads that accept various gestures for controlling things on the screen.

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The Magic Trackpad, which has a glass-top surface, is propped up on one end by a thin tube that holds two AA batteries.

Now, the Mac desktop can have a touch of fun, too. Apple’s latest gadget, the $69 Magic Trackpad (apple.com/magictrackpad), is essentially a freestanding touchpad that brings multi-touch features to desktop Macs, which lack touch screens. Its entire surface also functions as a button for selecting and it measures about the size of a mousepad. The Trackpad connects wirelessly via Bluetooth to any Apple desktop PC running Snow Leopard, the latest iteration of the company’s operating system. It works in addition to, or instead of a mouse.

I’ve been using the Magic Trackpad on two different iMacs, one that’s about five years old and another that’s less than a year old. In both cases, I found its glass surface to be cool and smooth, and it worked well as a solution for small work surfaces where a mouse can’t move around much. I was also glad to finally bring the same touch gestures that I use on my MacBook Pro laptop to these desktops. For instance, I placed four fingers down on the Trackpad and pushed up to hide all opened programs and reveal my computer desktop. Then, by swiping four fingers down, I showed all opened windows, a feature Apple calls Exposé. When photos are opened, moving two fingers apart or together will zoom in or out on an image. Turning two fingers clockwise or counterclockwise on the Trackpad rotates the image.

But $69 is a lot to spend for the added pleasure of touch gestures, especially considering that the mouse already does some of these things—though not as cleverly—and keyboard shortcuts do others.

Installing the Magic Trackpad is a pain, as far as Apple standards go. First, users must be sure they’ve upgraded to the latest version of the Snow Leopard operating system—the most recent version is 10.6.4. Second, people must also go to http://support.apple.com/downloads to download a driver update for the Trackpad, a step that can be easily overlooked by users who are anxious to get going with their new gadget.

The Magic Trackpad weighs about 5 ounces and measures a bit more than 5 inches by 5 inches. It’s slightly tilted, propped up on one end by a thin tube that holds two included AA batteries. If you happen to also own the $69 Apple Wireless Keyboard, the Trackpad design is in line with that of the Magic Trackpad so when the two devices sit beside each other, it’s easy to move from the keyboard to the Trackpad and back.

A button on one end of the Trackpad’s battery tube turns the device on, and a blinking light indicates it’s ready to pair via Bluetooth with your Mac desktop, assuming you’ve downloaded the two necessary software updates.

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Apple’s $69 Magic Trackpad brings multi-touch gestures to the Mac desktop and connects wirelessly via Bluetooth.

If you don’t pair the device within three minutes, the Magic Trackpad turns off to conserve battery. An Apple representative estimates that the Magic Trackpad’s batteries will last about four and a half months with alkaline batteries.

My Magic Trackpad easily paired with my iMacs over a Bluetooth connection. After installing, a screen displayed settings and animated tutorials on how to use the touchpad. Settings included options like telling the Trackpad to enable right-clicking with a two-finger tap on the touchpad or just by touching its bottom right corner. All other gestures, which will be familiar to MacBook owners but not everyone else, are demonstrated in helpful animated videos.

If you can afford it, or if touch gestures simply make you a more productive computer user, the Magic Trackpad is a real asset. It can co-exist with a mouse or totally replace it, if you want. After just minutes of use, I stopped using my mouse altogether.

Edited by Walter S. Mossberg

Email Katherine Boehret at mossbergsolution@wsj.com.


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