What is a Touchpad?

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

A touchpad is a device designed to translate user input in the form of motions aimed at moving a cursor to a computer. It works much like a mouse, allowing users to move a cursor to select items and perform other functions, but is designed in a different way. Instead of using sensors and a roller ball or laser like a mouse, a touchpad is a soft pad with sensors that respond to finger movements on the pad. Since a touchpad does not require desk space, it can commonly be found embedded into lap tops, personal digital assistants, and portable media players. For users who prefer the touchpad interface, touchpads are available for desktop computers as well.

Touchpads are devices designed to translate user input in the form of motions aimed at moving a cursor to a computer through touch instead of through a mouse.
Touchpads are devices designed to translate user input in the form of motions aimed at moving a cursor to a computer through touch instead of through a mouse.

Under the soft skin of the touchpad, there is an array of sensors which create an electrical field. The finger changes the character of the electrical field, allowing the user to drag a cursor across the screen. Most touchpads come equipped with mouse buttons allowing the user to click on objects, while others interpret taps on the touchpad as taps of a mouse button. A tap and drag can be used to select an item, for example. The commands that the touchpad recognizes are all configurable, depending on user needs.

Most laptops have a touchpad in lieu of a mouse.
Most laptops have a touchpad in lieu of a mouse.

In addition to the basic mouse-like function that a touchpad provides, it can also be programmed to have “hot spots.” When the user taps on one of these spots, it can be used to scroll a document, open a frequently used program, or perform some other commonly used function. Preferences for these zones can be changed in the preferences for the touchpad, which also include sensitivity preferences. Most manufacturers also include safeguards with their touchpads, so that they will not respond to being brushed with a palm or an object other than a finger.

Tablet computers use touchpads.
Tablet computers use touchpads.

Computer manufacturers began developing touchpads in the late 1980s, and by the mid 1990s, several laptops had been released with a touchpad design. The touchpad was a vast improvement over the trackballs or nubbin pointers included in laptops previously, and quickly began to dominate the laptop market. Sensing the potential for other markets, companies also developed products like drawing tablets, which translate “drawing” with a specialized pen on the tablet into art on the screen, and this technology is also used for tablet computers, which are capable of recognizing handwriting on the motion sensitive pad.

With touchpad technology, graphics tablets may allow users to mimic drawing with a pen, for example by creating heavy lines by pressing down with the stylus.
With touchpad technology, graphics tablets may allow users to mimic drawing with a pen, for example by creating heavy lines by pressing down with the stylus.
Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a EasyTechJunkie researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

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Discussion Comments


There is a button like trackpad on blackberry phones, specifically the curve 8520. What is that called? How much would it cost and what are its specifications?


@Mammmood - I gradually warmed up to the touchpad. It wasn’t exactly love at first sight. I still prefer the mouse because I prefer the wrist motion rather than the finger motion to navigate the cursor.

One thing I don’t miss is the old trackball mouse I had on an old laptop. That thing was terrible. The trackball was set off to the right of the laptop, and I had to use my thumb to move the mouse.

I wasn’t very productive with it. The touchpad is a lot easier to use than that.


@Charred - Yeah there are all sorts of ways to incorporate touchpad technology with your laptop or desktop, even if you didn’t buy it with the touchpad installed.

If you fancy yourself an artist for example, you can get a USB touchpad, which provides you with lots of space – much more than the keyboard touchpad gives.

Frankly, it’s similar to the tablet computer in that sense, and I think the touchpad is one reason that tablets are so popular. People would just rather move things around with their fingers and do some light tapping to open up documents than to be stuck with a keyboard.


What’s neat about the touchpad concept is that it has been redesigned to fit within the various keyboard styles out on the market. For laptops, it was standard to have the touchpad in the middle of the keyboard at the bottom.

But you can have touchpads for your desktop keyboard as well. I’ve seen some designs where the touchpad is set off to the right, enclosed in its own enclave.

This keyboard touchpad design provides you with a lot of space. It basically puts the touchpad in the same location where the ten key number pad is placed in most keyboards. So you have a lot of flexibility.


@Perdido – I have an extra large touchpad that I bought separately attached to my laptop, and it works great for doing things that you could do with a drawing tablet. It is about four inches by three inches, so it's much bigger than the average touchpad.

This may not sound like a lot of space to draw with your finger in, but there is one really cool feature that makes it work. Once your fingertip reaches one of the edges, the touchpad knows this, and it gives you a time frame of three seconds to move your finger elsewhere and pick up where you left off. So, you never have to start over.


@wavy58 – I tried using my friend's drawing tablet, and I never could get the hang of it. Maybe I just didn't have the patience, but all I could seem to make were those squiggly, nervous lines you talk about.

I'm accustomed to using the touchpad on my laptop, so I thought I would be a natural at the drawing tablet. No such luck.

Maybe if I could use my finger to draw with instead of a stylus, I could do a better job. Does anyone know if they make large touchpads that work with laptops? If I had a big surface to drag my finger across, I think I could do so much better.


I have used both touchpads and drawing tablets, and I am very impressed with their responsiveness. I am a graphic designer, and sometimes it is more efficient for me to draw with the stylus than to use the mouse.

I use the drawing tablet at work every day when I need to create curved lines or draw an image other than a polygon or a straight line. The tablet is very sensitive, and it took some time to get used to it. For the first few weeks, most of my lines were a bit squiggly.

I never draw with the touchpad on my computer, because the surface area is just too small. I do use it for moving my cursor and clicking, though. I like being able to use my fingertips instead of a mouse, because I feel like I have more control over the situation.


I think that most touchpads are too sensitive, especially for people like me, who are used to using a regular old mouse. The touchpad picks up on every tiny little motion of my finger, and I'm not accustomed to this.

I like using a mouse, because I have to physically drag it around to get any results. I feel like I have a lot more control over the cursor and over which menu items I click with the mouse.

At work, luckily, I have both. I have the option to use the touchpad if there is ever a problem with the mouse. However, that is the only time I use it.


Is there some kind of weird relationship between touchpads and water. I have noticed that whenever I get out of the shower or wash my hands and then go to use the touchpad on my laptop the cursor is unresponsive and sluggish.

It goes always pretty quickly once my hands dry and really it is not that big of a problem. I am just curious. What is it about the moisture that messes up the touch pad?


Sometimes I am a little slow at embracing new technology, but I think touchpad synaptics are a fantastic improvement.

Even though I am slow at buying a lot of the new things that come out, I bought a tablet right away. There was just something about the smaller, light weight, sleek design that I loved.

Ever since I have had a tablet, using a touchpad on other devices is like second nature to me.


@julies - I agree that laptops have come a long way over the last few years. Using a synaptic touchpad does make most tasks easier to complete.

Even with the new technology of a touchpad, I still prefer to use a wireless mouse when I am working on my laptop.

I find that I am much more efficient if I am doing a lot of clicking and moving text around when I can use a mouse.

My son, on the other hand, never uses a mouse with his laptop. He uses a laptop all day long, and using the touchpad is what he feels the most comfortable with.


@golf07 - Kids seems to pick up on these things much faster than adults do. I must say the laptop touchpad is way easier to use than the old trackballs with the first laptops I had.

When I bought my first laptop that had a touchpad in it, I immediately knew it was going to be a big improvement. I have noticed a difference in touchpad sensitivity in different products though.

Some of them just seem to work better than others. I get frustrated if I have to keep repeating certain motions and nothing happens.


Did anyone besides me have trouble getting used to a touchpad when they first came out? I just felt like I was all thumbs and found myself getting frustrated trying to move things around.

Now I prefer a touchpad over a mouse, but I seemed to have more trouble navigating with that at first than I did a mouse.

Touching something I wanted to open up was never a problem, but it was the dragging and expanding that I had trouble with.

Since I have used a touchpad for awhile and am now used to it, I don't think anything about it, and love the technology of it. I guess you can teach an old dog new tricks sometimes.


Can you give me the code to get the coordinates for the 4-wire resistive touchpad by Atmeg16?

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