What is a Trackpad?

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

A trackpad, also seen spelled track pad, is a user interface which interprets pressure and translates it into movement of a cursor. Laptops are commonly equipped with trackpads, and many drawing tablets and personal digital assistants (PDAs) use the same technology. While it can take some time to become accustomed to the trackpad interface, some computer users prefer using a trackpad to mousing. Many trackpads also offer additional programmable functions which can make them even more versatile.

Most laptops have trackpads.
Most laptops have trackpads.

The method through which a trackpad works is relatively simple. A trackpad has a network of transmitters and receivers which are capable of reading very subtle changes in electrical capacitance. A grounding object such as a finger dragged across the soft upper pad of the device alters the electrical current. The change is converted into a signal which the computer can read, resulting in a corresponding movement of the cursor on the screen.

Trackpads, also called touchpads, replace the need for computer mice on most laptops.
Trackpads, also called touchpads, replace the need for computer mice on most laptops.

Typically, a trackpad also includes mouse buttons which allow the user to click on and manipulate objects on screen. Many track pads also have a “tapping” function, in which the user can sharply tap on a trackpad to select an object or perform an operation which would normally require clicking. On operating systems which support a double clicking function, the user taps twice.

It is also possible to program specific tasks into different regions of the trackpad, such as scrolling. Tapping on a certain quadrant of a trackpad could also act to minimize windows, switch workspaces, or perform other frequent tasks, reducing the amount of effort required on the part of the user. Once a user becomes adept at using a trackpad, he or she can use it extremely rapidly and effectively.

Most trackpads are intelligently programmed so that they do not respond to inputs from things other than fingers. Many designers have the palm of the hand in mind when they design this functionality, since the palm often hovers over the trackpad on a laptop computer. This feature has been greatly refined since the 1980s, when trackpads were first introduced to the market. Other progress in the field has made trackpads much smoother and more pleasant to use, and has led to the development of drawing tablets and other offshoot technology.

An alternate name for a trackpad is “touchpad.” “Trackpad” is often used to refer specifically to such devices embedded in computers manufactured by Apple, while “touchpad” is used for similar devices in computers from other manufacturers. Technically, the terms are interchangeable, although Apple devotees may not appreciate it.

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


@nextcorrea - I agree with you about the kids growing up with touch screen technology. My grand kids are much better at using a trackpad than I am.

That is just about all they have been exposed to, so it comes very easy for them. There is more versatility when it comes to using a trackpad, it is just a matter of getting the hang of it.


@julies - I felt the same way you did for a long time. Now that I have been using a touch screen most of the time and have spent time using a trackpad, I find this is what I prefer.

Just like anything, it just takes practice and patience. I remember when I first started using a computer, how slow and awkward a mouse felt in my hand. After awhile, it seemed very natural.

It is the same thing with using a trackpad. Once you get used to using it on a regular basis, you may find that is what you prefer. That is the way it happened with me.

Now if I sit down to use a mouse, that is what feels a little strange instead of the trackpad.


I seldom use the trackpad on my laptop. I found myself getting frustrated with it and felt like it was too hard to get used to.

Most of the time when I use my laptop I have a wireless mouse that I use to navigate around. There are times when this is not convenient, and I have to use the trackpad, and I always find myself getting frustrated by how slow I am with it.

If you have to do much clicking or moving things around, I have just found it much easier to use a mouse. If I was forced to use nothing but the trackpad, I am sure I would get used to it over time.


The best thing about my MacBook is the keyboard trackpad. It's so intuitive. You can use two fingers to scroll instead of having to use the scroll bar at the side of the window, and you can also use two fingers to right click. (That was always a complaint people had about the old Apple mice, that they had no right mouse button.)

And it's very responsive. It seems to work more smoothly than the trackpads on various PC laptops I've had in the past.


I work at a Best Buy and I end up trying out a lot of the new gadgets. I am amazed at both how good trackpads have gotten and also at how inconsistent they are. There is a huge gap between the best and the worst. Some of the worst are slow, unresponsive and immediately frustrating.

I think it is good policy with trackpads, just like with any technology, to try it out before you buy it. Make sure you know what you are getting in to. You can save yourself a lot of grief down the road.


@nextcorrea - I agree with you. I also think that trackpads have a greater appeal because they facilitate a deeper level of interface with the device you are using. Basically, a mouse gives you one point of entry, the clicker, or little arrow of the mouse. But haven't there been times when you wanted to move two things at once or click two things at once? Trackpads allow that.

I saw a very interesting video recently of a tablet someone had designed that allowed each of the user fingers to be a separate point of interface with the screen. So you could conceivably do ten things at once. It was pretty amazing to see and very persuasive as a model for how the future of digital interfaces will work.


I think that with the rise of tables, e-readers and touch screen smart phones the trackpad will probably become the standard form of computer interface leading into the future. It is not that there is anything wrong with the mouse, it just seems like that particular technology has seen it's time in the sun.

Little kids growing up these days will learn about computers from I-Pads much more than bulky desktops. Touch screen is here to stay.

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