Opinion: The trackpad is arguably one of the most boring components of a laptop, but a new emerging trend may push it into the spotlight in the coming months.
This year we saw the release of the Dell XPS 13 Plus and Microsoft Surface Laptop Studio, both of which feature haptic feedback trackpads.
This means that their trackpads lack the physical hinge that is guaranteed to please feel and sound. Instead, they use a hard pad that can’t be pressed, with vibrations that mimic the sensation of a click instead. Anyone with a modern smartphone will experience haptic feedback, with subtle vibrations that make the on-screen typing experience more comfortable and natural.
Apple has been using haptic feedback trackpads on MacBooks since 2015, but this trend hasn’t quite taken hold with Windows laptops just yet. But according to Nedko Ivanov, CEO of startup Aito, he believes the vast majority of laptops will use haptic feedback by 2024.
“I think this year will see the beginning of real mass adoption,” Ivanov said. “I would say next year, 2024 onwards, you will see the majority of touch panels using haptic feedback.”
Nedko Ivanov’s Aito is currently working with a leading laptop manufacturer to integrate haptic feedback technology into the trackpad. Unfortunately, Ivanov was unable to confirm the identity of this company, but did reveal that the laptop in question is now available for purchase.
But with haptic feedback technology adding an extra cost to producing a laptop and potentially draining the battery at a faster rate, what benefits would make the inclusion worthwhile? One of the biggest advantages of touch trackpads, Ivanov told me, is that they allow manufacturers to make laptops that are slimmer.
“When it comes to owning innovative thin laptops, the touchpad is the bottleneck,” he explained. “So if you have something like Apple’s touchpad that’s 6mm thick, compared to our touchpad that’s less than 2.4mm — that’s three times thinner. You can either make laptops lighter and slimmer or you can put in a larger battery “.
With physical trackpads pushed down into the laptop chassis, it makes sense that they take up more space compared to newer alternatives that use haptic feedback technology instead. And with laptop manufacturers looking for every opportunity to make their devices as thin as possible, it’s clear to see why they are interested in embracing the new technology.
You also don’t need a dedicated trackpad board when using this type of technology. The image of the new Dell XPS 13 Plus below shows that the trackpad blends in with the wrist rest, with no physical border separating the two. This is all thanks to the laptop’s inclusion of haptic feedback technology.
Haptic feedback is also compatible with many materials, including glass, plastic, leather, and even wood. This will allow laptop manufacturers to experiment with a wider range of designs without compromising the quality of the trackpad.
But even with all these impressive benefits, it’s nevertheless important for the technology to accurately replicate the more traditional trackpad experience – after all, humans are accustomed creatures and transitioning to something that looks so different can be hard to adapt to. I wasn’t too impressed with the solution in the Surface Laptop Studio, although the likes of Apple have shown that it is possible to make the feature popular.
I was able to try out AIto’s haptic feedback technology for myself, and was impressed with how similar it felt to a traditional trackpad. I was also able to adjust the settings to make the trackpad more sensitive, while increasing the intensity of the vibrations for clearer feedback. I really like the idea of being able to customize settings to my liking – if you don’t like the feel of a more traditional trackpad, there’s usually nothing you can do to improve the experience.
Ivanov also provided an example of haptic feedback that mimics the feeling of paper when signing a document online with a pen. It goes even further by suggesting that you can, in theory, feel anything you see on screen, even if it’s alligator scales. Ivanov suggests that this functionality will provide you with a deeper engagement with apps compared to a simple click.
Haptic feedback technology can be useful for laptops outside of the trackpad. For example, it can be used on a keyboard without any keys. Personally, I think it would be very difficult for the technology to replicate the feeling of deep keystrokes on a proper laptop keyboard, but the technology could be very useful for future dual-screen laptops like the Microsoft Surface Neo.
“This is the ultimate goal for future laptops,” Ivanov emphasized. “You’ll get a new screen, so instead of having a keyboard and a touchpad, you’ll have a second screen that can be changed dynamically by becoming a keyboard or touchpad.”
Ivanov tells me he’s still working with the obscure laptop manufacturer for future products, so the company appears to be happy with the results so far. And with so many major laptop manufacturers embracing haptic feedback technology, including Apple, Dell, Huawei and Microsoft, this is clearly not just a gimmick or a short-term trend – this is the future of laptops. And if Ivanov is correct in his predictions, tactile trackpads may become the norm in just a couple of years.
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