The way to impress somebody with Apple's new trackpad is to have them try to click it when the computer is off. Nothing happens, it's just an inert piece of glass with just the tiniest amount of give when you press hard on it. Then boot up the Mac and have them try it again. It feels just like any other trackpad on any other Mac. It feels like a normal click.
Unless you know that there's a new kind of technology underneath that sheet of glass, it doesn't seem special at all. But then you remember that it did nothing when the computer was off, and then you have a stupid grin on your face and you tell everybody around you that they have to try this thing. And they do, and they're confused: what's so magic about this?
Let me explain.
The new 13-inch MacBook with Retina Display has a lot of performance upgrades (which we will review in due time). But maybe the most noticeable one is the trackpad. Like the super-thin new MacBook, this MacBook Pro has a "Force Touch Trackpad," which is an incredibly awkward name for a surprisingly awesome component.
The trackpad is force-sensitive, so it can tell how hard you're pressing down. But instead of an actual button that gets clicked, there's a set of electromagnets that move enough to feel like there's a click happening. It feels exactly like a regular click. Apple calls this the "Taptic Engine," which is a term that's only slightly better than Force Touch. Anyway, you're not actually clicking anything, is the point, it's clicking you.
There's no button, but it feels like a button
Oh, and one more awkward term: Force Click. What Apple has done is add a bunch of new ways to interact with OS X based on a super-hard press. The Taptic Engine (sigh) gives you an extra click to let you know you've successfully pressed hard enough, and then the OS does extra, neat little things like popping up definitions, web page previews on links, maps, image previews, and more. It essentially replaces the old "three-finger tap" that you can do on other MacBooks, but there are more things that Yosemite can do with it now.
So how does it feel? Great, totally normal, the stuff you usually do on a Mac trackpad now just works. But it can get a little weird once you enter the Force Click zone. Apple has put in some software settings so you can adjust how strong the click feels (and how hard you have to press to initiate a Force Click). Finding out which of the three levels feels right takes some trial and error. It's not instantly intuitive and obvious and if you lack fine motor control in your fingers (like I do), it can sometimes feel like it's some kind of oppressively difficult video game. Click, no CLICK, wait not that kind of click. But with some practice, it gets better.
There are places where the pressure sensitivity lets you do even more. You can annotate documents in Preview or Mail and pressing harder on the trackpad gives you a thicker line as you draw. You can press harder or softer to speed up or slow down the tracking speed in the Quicktime app. In both cases, I felt like it took a little too much finesse to really become something I'd want to do on a regular basis, but that could easily be more about my shaky fingers than a problem with the Force Touch settings.
Is any of this strictly necessary on the MacBook Pro? Not really. On the new MacBook, Apple needed to make the entire component as thin as possible, so this innovation was a necessity. Here, it's a way to access some tertiary features on the Mac that you maybe wouldn't have before. My favorite by far is Force Clicking on a link inside Safari to pop up a (scrollable) preview of the web page it's linking to. You can then quickly add it to Safari's reading list and move on with the page you're actually on.
Apple's not forcing you to use Force Click for the core of the Mac's operation, just for those extra features. And there are rumors that Force Touch may also come to the iPhone someday. If that includes Force Click, sign me up, because haptic feedback while typing that actually feels like clicking seems like a great idea.
At the end of the day, the only really bad thing I have to say about the Force Touch Trackpad is that it's called the "Force Touch Trackpad." No Apple, bad. No.