Wednesday, February 27, 2008

MacBook Pro Multi-touch Trackpad

I have an ongoing debate with Arjun over the new MacBook Pro with the Multi-Touch trackpad (the kind first introduced on the MacBook Air).

The Question
Are the additional multi-touch input gestures in the new MBP a result of a software/firmware or a hardware upgrade?

My Position
The hardware of the trackpad must be different in the new MBP, otherwise Apple would have released the upgrade as a firmware/software update, benefiting a larger audience, rather than as a new feature on a new machine.

Arjun's Position
The hardware is the same, and Apple chose not to release the new feature as a firmware/software update so as to exaggerate the "new" features of the new MBP and further distinguish the new model from the current model.

Admittedly, my view holds Apple's integrity in high-esteem. If I'm wrong, that esteem will no longer be so high. I hope that Arjun is right, if only because that would mean Apple could (would?) eventually release the same firmware/software for the last-gen MBP, or some 3rd party could attempt to do so.

The Evidence
First, from pictures, the trackpad on the new and last-gen models are visually the same, as opposed to the MacBook Air trackpad which is visually larger. Although not conclusive either way, it suggests a similarity in hardware.

Second, the last-gen model trackpad can sense multiple sources of input; two-finger tapping is distinguished from one-finger tapping for right and left click respectively, and two-finger scrolling is recognized for page scrolling.

As further evidence (and the most convincing in terms of Arjun's argument), the multi-touch capability of the last-gen models is independent of finger position, meaning that a two-finger tap with fingers side by side is recognized just as well as a two-finger tap with fingers spread to opposite sides of the trackpad. This position indifference holds true for two-finger scrolling; dragging two spread fingers works exactly the same as dragging two touching side by side fingers.

The logical inference from the above is that if two fingers spread wide can be dragged in a straight line for scrolling, then those same two fingers spread wide should be able to be rotated in a circular motion for, say, rotating a photo in iPhoto. Because of the hardware necessary to detect two, spread fingers moving simultaneously is already in place in the last-gen model, it isn't too big a jump to suspect the additional gestures added in the new MBP are a result of upgraded firmware/software.

However, one caveat to note is the nature of multi-touch input in the last-gen modes. Namely, all supported multi-touch gestures involve parallel motion; (1) two-finger tapping is recognized only when both fingers tap simultaneously, as opposed to having one finger in contact with the trackpad and then tapping with the other, and (2) two-finger scrolling involves both contacts with the hardware moving in the same direction.

The exception to my parallel inference in the last-gen models is that two fingered scrolling does not require both fingers to be moving, but works just fine if one finger is in contact with the trackpad and the other is moving.

The gestures introduced in the new MBP break the need for parallel motion; 'pinching' is convergent motion, 'spreading' is divergent, 'rotating' is inverse motion, etc. The exception is three fingered 'swiping', though the ability to sense more than 2 sources of simultaneous input may be a hardware improvement in the new MBP.

At this point, it's all speculative, though I hope that somebody with more knowledge in this subject will chime in resolve the debate. Otherwise, maybe we'll hear from Apple some day.


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