Trackpad on an Apple MacBook Pro
For comparison, the working surface of desktop touchpad to a mouse and mat Note the top right corner of the pad; tapping in that area is the equivalent of a right-click on a mouse.

A touchpad (or trackpad) is a pointing device featuring a tactile sensor, a specialized surface that can translate the motion and position of a user's fingers to a relative position on screen. They are a common feature of laptop computers and also used as a substitute for a computer mouse where desk space is scarce. Touchpads vary in size but are rarely made larger than 40 square centimetres (6.2 sq in).[citation needed] They can also be found on personal digital assistants (PDAs) and some portable media players, such as the iPod using the click wheel. Stand-alone Trackpads are also manufactured for wireless function.


Operation and function

Touchpads operate in one of several ways, including capacitive sensing and conductance sensing. The most common technology used as of 2010 entails sensing the capacitive virtual ground effect of a finger, or the capacitance between sensors. Capacitance-based touchpads will not sense the tip of a pencil or other similar implement. Gloved fingers may also be problematic.

If the computer is powered by an external power supply unit (PSU), the detailed construction of the PSU will influence the virtual ground effect;[citation needed] a touchpad may work properly with one PSU but be jerky or malfunction with another (this does not imply any electrical risk; a delicate capacitive ground, not a contact ground, is at issue). This has been known to cause touchpad problems when a manufacturer's PSU, which will have been designed to work with the touchpad, is replaced by a different type. This effect can be checked by touching a metallic part of the computer with the other hand and seeing if operation is restored. In some cases touching the (insulated) power supply with some part of the body, or using the computer on the lap instead of on a desk, can restore correct operation.

While touchpads, like touchscreens, by their design are able to sense absolute position, resolution is limited by their size. For common use as a pointer device, the dragging motion of a finger is translated into a finer, relative motion of the cursor on the screen, analogous to the handling of a mouse that is lifted and put back on a surface. Hardware buttons equivalent to a standard mouse's left and right buttons are below, above or, to reduce the depth of the pad in compact devices such as netbooks, beside the pad.

Some touchpads and associated device driver software may interpret tapping the pad as a click, and a tap followed by a continuous pointing motion (a "click-and-a-half") can indicate dragging.[1] Tactile touchpads allow for clicking and dragging by incorporating button functionality into the surface of the touchpad itself.[2][3] To select, one presses down on the touchpad instead of a physical button. To drag, instead performing the "click-and-a-half" technique, one presses down while on the object, drags without releasing pressure and lets go when done. Touchpad drivers can also allow the use of multiple fingers to facilitate the other mouse buttons (commonly two-finger tapping for the center button).

Some touchpads have "hotspots", locations on the touchpad used for functionality beyond a mouse. For example, on certain touchpads, moving the finger along an edge of the touch pad will act as a scroll wheel, controlling the scrollbar and scrolling the window that has the focus vertically or horizontally. Apple uses two-finger dragging for scrolling on their trackpads. Also, some touchpad drivers support tap zones, regions where a tap will execute a function, for example, pausing the media player or launching an application. All of these functions are implemented in the touchpad device driver software, and can be disabled.


As touchpads began to be introduced in laptops in the early 1990s, there was often confusion as to what the product should be called. No consistent term was used, and references varied, such as: glidepoint, touch sensitive input device, touchpad, trackpad, and pointing device.[4][5][6] Users were often presented the option to purchase a pointer stick, touchpad, or trackball. Combinations of the devices were common, though touchpads and trackballs were usually included at the exclusion of the other.[7]

Cirque distributed the first widely available touchpad, branded as GlidePoint.[8] The touchpads included in Apple Computers’ PowerBooks were based upon Cirque’s GlidePoint technology;[9] another early adopter of the GlidePoint pointing device was Sharp.[8] Later, Synaptics introduced their touchpad into the marketplace, branded the TouchPad. Epson was an early adopter of this product.[8]

Use in devices

Trackpad of the BlackBerry Curve 8520 in the red circle.
Close up of a touchpad with a locking button on a Compaq Presario Laptop. Horizontal and vertical scroll bars are clearly marked out near the bottom and right sides of the touchpad.

Early Apollo desktop computers were equipped with a touchpad on the right side of the keyboard.[10]

Touchpads are primarily used in self-contained portable laptop computers and do not require a flat surface near the machine. The touchpad is close to the keyboard, and only very short finger movements are required to move the cursor across the display screen; while advantageous, this also makes it possible for a user's thumb to move the mouse cursor accidentally while typing. Touchpad functionality is available for desktop computers in keyboards with built-in touchpads.

One-dimensional touchpads are the primary control interface for menu navigation on the currently produced iPod Classic portable music player, where they are referred to as "click wheels" since they only sense motion along one axis which is wrapped around like a wheel. Creative Labs also uses a touchpad for their Zen line of MP3 players, beginning with the Zen Touch. The second-generation Microsoft Zune product line (the Zune 80/120 and Zune 4/8) uses touch for the Zune Pad.

Apple's PowerBook 500 series was the first laptop to carry such a device, which Apple refers to as a "trackpad". When introduced in May 1994 it replaced the trackball of previous PowerBook models. Apple's more recent laptops feature trackpads that can sense up to eleven fingers simultaneously, providing more options for input, such as the ability to bring up the context menu by tapping two fingers. In late 2008 Apple's revisions of the MacBook and MacBook Pro incorporated a "Tactile Touchpad" design[11][12] with button functionality incorporated into the tracking surface.[13]

Psion PLC's Psion MC 200/400/600/WORD Series,[14] introduced in 1989, came with a new mouse-replacing input device similar to a touchpad,[15] although more closely resembling a graphics tablet, as the cursor was positioned by clicking on a specific point on the pad, instead of moving it in the direction of a stroke.

Theory of operation

There are two principal means by which touchpads work.[citation needed] In the matrix approach, a series of conductors are arranged in an array of parallel lines in two layers, separated by an insulator and crossing each other at right angles to form a grid. A high frequency signal is applied sequentially between pairs in this two-dimensional grid array. The current that passes between the nodes is proportional to the capacitance. When a virtual ground, such as a finger, is placed over one of the intersections between the conductive layer some of the electrical field is shunted to this ground point, resulting in a change in the apparent capacitance at that location. This method received U.S. Patent 5,305,017 awarded to George Gerpheide in April 1994.

The capacitive shunt method, described in an application note by Analog Devices,[16] senses the change in capacitance between a transmitter and receiver that are on opposite sides of the sensor. The transmitter creates an electric field which oscillates at 200-300 kHz. If a ground point, such as the finger, is placed between the transmitter and receiver, some of the field lines are shunted away, decreasing the apparent capacitance.

Major manufacturers

See also


  1. ^ "Tap and drag". 
  2. ^ "The Tactile Touchpad". 
  3. ^ "A Comparison of Three Selection Techniques for Touchpads". 
  4. ^ "A WinBook for the Fussy". Windows Magazine (Dec 95): p. 105. 1995. 
  5. ^ "Sharp Unveils Line of Notebooks". Westchester County Business Journal (Westchester County Business Journal) (November 20, 1995). 1995. 
  6. ^ Malloy, Rich; Crabb, Don (October 1995). "Power Packed Power Books" (in English). Mobile Office (New York, NY) (October 1995): pp. 44–52. 
  7. ^ Jerome, Marty (1995). "Lightweight, Low-Cost Challenger". PC Computing (PC Computing) (December 1995): p. 96. 
  8. ^ a b c Diehl, Stanford; Lennon, Anthony J.; McDonough, John (Oct. 1995). "Touchpads to Navigate By" (in English). Byte (Green Publishing) (October 1995): 150. ISSN 0360-5280. 
  9. ^ Thryft, Ann R. "More Than a Mouse," Computer Product Development, EBN Extra, November 14, 1994, pp. E16 - E20
  10. ^ Getting Started With Your DOMAIN System. Apollo Computer. 1983. 
  11. ^ "The Tactile Touchpad". 
  12. ^ "A Comparison of Three Selection Techniques for Touchpads". 
  13. ^ "MacBook design". 
  14. ^ "GUIdebook Psion MC Series brochure". 
  15. ^ "GUIdebook Psion MC Series brochure, page 4". 
  16. ^ "Analog Devices’ Capacitive Shunt Method". 

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