In February—after much thought, analysis and market research—I decided to buy a MacBook Air laptop instead of the then trendy-as-hell iPad 1. I had been meaning to buy a light, portable computing device for a few months, but a couple of factors pushed me towards the laptop form factor instead of the tablet.
First of all, I wanted something that while being portable did not compromise on speedy, reliable typing. I don’t mind using a touch-screen keyboard, but it still does not come as naturally to me as working on a regular old-fashioned one with buttons on it. Also, I like to look up when I am typing. I often tend to type for hours at a time, and looking down at the iPad screen while doing it has the neck screaming in agony within minutes.
I also had no intention of using the device for anything but typing, browsing and emails. To this day the laptop has hardly any multimedia on it and the only bits of “entertainment” I get from it are the occasional online videos or streaming radio in a café. As far as reading goes, I already use a Kindle quite voraciously. Finally, my brother-in-law already has an iPad 1. And, God bless him, he has absolutely no interest in using it for anything except to play Angry Birds. Rare are not the weekends when I pop over to his house and commandeer his tablet for a day or two.
Complete package: The Air offers great utility, form and portability.
So everything—utility, form and portability—pointed towards the 11-inch MacBook Air. So far it has been one of my most rewarding gadget purchases. But what I have thoroughly come to enjoy over the last few months is the multi-touch trackpad on the Air. It might seem like a needless iteration on the traditional laptop trackpad. But the multi-touch really does change everything, and for the better. Scrolling, for instance, is a joy on a multi-touch. Traditional single-touch trackpads usually allow you to scroll up and down or sideways along the edges. But the multi-touch allows you to do this at any time, anywhere on the pad—usually just by scrolling two fingertips up or down.
That may not sound like much. But when you’re scrolling through a long document or working on a spreadsheet, this simple modification saves a lot of repetitive hand motion. And that, in many ways, is the ultimate goal of the modern point-and-click device: how to interact with a computer with minimal effort and movement. It is to achieve this that Apple has gone from the Mighty Mouse to the Magic Mouse to the Magic Trackpad. The next iteration of OS X, Lion, will have even more touch functionality baked into it.
Over the last few months, I have developed something of an obsession with fine-tuning what I can get done with my trackpad. And I have been doing this in two ways.
One way is to use applications like the Chrome browser or the Reeder newsreader for OS X—both of which have trackpad gesture settings. With some practice, Reeder’s gestures can considerably speed up your headline processing speed. Thankfully, most of the movements are intuitive—swipe three fingers right, two fingers up or down, pinch in or out—and you don’t have to achieve any digital calisthenics.
The second, more comprehensive, way is to use an application such as BetterTouchTool or MagisPrefs. BTT can be used to add dozens of gestures to your trackpad. For instance, I use a four-finger swipe to the left to switch from application to application. A three-finger tap refreshes a browser page—essential during cricket matches. And clicking on a link in a browser window with three fingers opens it in a new tab.
Both BTT and MagicPrefs offer a wealth of customization possibilities. Currently, I am working on one that lets me convert a Web page into a Readability or Instapaper friendly version.
I’ve only spoken about OS X so far. Windows 7 has multi-touch gestures built into the operating system as well—though I am not sure how many Windows 7 computers come with the necessary hardware. In any case, an application like StrokeIt extends gestures to users of most versions of Windows. Though all gestures will be based on single-finger contact.
All this is meaningless, of course, when it comes to tablets. But as far as desktop or laptop computers are concerned, smart, multi-touch trackpads can make intense sessions of computing, typing and application-switching considerably painless. Hopefully, future versions of OS X and Windows will make this more of a standard, rich feature.
Who knows? One day my brother-in-law might pop over to borrow my MacBook. Though he’ll probably still use it to play Angry Birds.
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