Thinking Tech

Why are laptop touchpads so bad?

Posting in Design

Do erratic laptop touchpads drive you as crazy and they do me? Why can't PC makers design reliable laptop touchpads?

Does this happen to you? You want to go from point A to B on your laptop display and your touchpad mouse pointer randomly darts across the screen leaving a trail of unwanted open windows and applications. It's like I am in Miami today and want to head for a spring training game in Fort Myers (I am) and inexplicably end up in Jacksonville.

Or the pointer races across the screen turning the content blue as if selecting for cutting or pasting. Or the pointer just wanders like gravity is weighing it down...or up. Or it doesn't move at all as you try to regain tactile control on the touchpad.

Erratic touchpad mouse behavior happens all the time (several times while writing this post). Why can't laptop pointing devices be more reliable and perhaps less smart? Or schizoid. Or lousy.

That's a question I'm afraid I can't answer. I could not dig up much advice to work around these problems. What I found were complaints like mine (see videos below). One said his was too hot to the touch. Some said they could not turn off their touchpads to install an external mouse which in my experience are more reliable, but you need a table surface for those. I've found trackpoints (the rubbery button amid the keyboard) work better too, but those have largely disappeared at least in lower priced laptops.

I thought it might the `it's just me' syndrome so prevalent with Windows PCs. Maybe, it's just my HP Pavilion laptop, but somebody I was talking to yesterday had the same problem on his Dell (checking the web, the problem seems quite prevalent with Dell). And it's even worse on a new Toshiba Satellite laptop we have.

Sometimes, the touchpad is the biggest complaint in otherwise stellar laptops as evidenced by this Engadget review in October headlined "HP Pavilion dm3t and its terrible touchpad get reviewed." They are so bad, they get dinged in the headline!

So I suspect I am striking a chord on this issue. When I'm under deadline, the problem is a huge time waster. Whoops. I just moved my mouse pointer and it resized my window.

Yesterday, I explored my Windows 7 mouse settings. They are ridiculous. In Windows 7, there's nine menus with a combined 2-3 dozen individual settings for sensitivity and speed. Don't these developers have something more important to do? It's just a pointing device. One cryptic setting is for "orientation" where an animated dolphin jumps up and down.

What would orient me is one setting so the pointer only goes where I send it. That's the setting I want.

SmartPlanet.com is inherently pro-technology and so am I. But underneath all the wonderment often lies frustration driven by less than perfect design, engineering and execution.

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John Dodge

Contributing Editor

Contributing Editor John Dodge has written for the Wall Street Journal, Boston Globe, PC Week (now eWeek), EDN, Design News, Electronic Business, Bio-IT World, Health-IT World, Lowell Sun, Haverhill Gazette and Newburyport Daily News. He is based in Massachusetts. Follow him on Twitter. Disclosure