Synaptics makes touchpads and touchscreens. You probably knew that. Today, the company's getting into the keyboard market, too, and also building a pressure-sensitive touchpad with no buttons, no click, and no thought of blasphemy. Without the bulky mechanisms that accompany traditional units, both take up far less height, making them exceptionally well-suited for ever-thinner notebooks or making space for additional battery life. They're capable of some clever tricks, too. How do they feel, though? Read on, and we'll tell you.
ForcePad is the name of Synaptics' new touchpad, and it sounds like a promising concept. Instead of having a barn-door style mechanism and hidden switches like most single-button touchpads, the ForcePad simply has four force sensors underneath the capacitive image sensor array, one in each corner. It's basically exactly like Nintendo's Wii Fit Balance Board, except your fingers, not your feet, do the work. The ForcePad can measure up to 1000 grams of pressure for each of your five fingers at 15 gram resolution, which Synaptics can divided into 64 distinct pressure levels for applications.
You can imagine how this might be useful for artists who need thicker brushstrokes and the like, but that's just the start: Synaptics is also dreaming up advanced gestures that use the pressure sensitivity to the user's advantage everywhere. One example was a two-finger motion to scroll through documents: it works just like you'd expect, but if you press down harder on the pad, the scrolling could pick up speed. The company also showed us a flight simulator demo that solely uses the touchpad for controls, using the pressure like a miniature joystick to pitch and roll. There are loads of possibilities for software developers if Synaptics could build up a ForcePad install base.
Remember, though, without any buttons, the touchpad doesn't click, and that could be a bit of a hard sell. While the company's pitching the pressure-sensitivity as an alternative to a button press — you can even adjust the amount of pressure it takes to constitute a "click" yourself — it just feels really odd to push against a surface that doesn't give very much. That's the same problem users had with many stiff, single-button clickpads too, though, so perhaps laptop buyers will simply get used to touching rather than clicking from here on out. Synaptics says the ForcePad is sampling to OEMs already, and will appear in products next summer. In addition to integrated units for laptops, the company's considering a standalone USB version.
If you ask us, though, ThinTouch is the technology to look out for.
On the right, a single MacBook Pro key rests in a metal slab. On the left, it's accompanied by a ThinTouch key, just 2.5mm thick. In a blind test, we were asked to figure out which of four such keys felt best. To tell the truth, we picked the MacBook Pro key, but the ThinTouch came close in terms of comfort. Where conventional scissor-switch keys are perhaps 3.5mm thick (and 6mm when extended), the ThinTouch key shaves a full millimeter off the bottom, and yet it still feels like it has plenty of travel.
The explanation is clever (and patent pending): the key's mechanism simply travels diagonally instead of straight down. Every time you press the key, it moves towards you, not just down, and so there's more room for your finger to move as a result. Synaptics obtained the technology when it acquired the firm that invented it, Pacinian, and has grand plans for the idea. Not only are the keys deeper, but they'll also all have capacitive touch sensors for additional functionality of the yet-to-be-determined sort, including computers that know when you have your hands on the keyboard. One possible use case that might work out of the box: a laptop that can automatically turn off its touchpad when the keyboard is active. The company says it's sending ThinTouch to manufacturers now, but Synaptics will actually be building the keyboards itself, first for laptops and then perhaps full standalone keyboards later down the road.
As we alluded to earlier, one of the prime reasons manufacturers might go for ThinTouch and ForcePad is to make laptops thinner or increase battery life in the same space. Given current lithium ion tech, Synaptics says manufacturers could eke out nearly an hour of extra battery life between the two innovations. We're definitely looking forward to that. Synaptics tells us we'll likely see laptops with both ThinTouch and ForcePad at CES in January of next year.