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Review: The Apple Magic Trackpad For Photographers

by Matt Beardsley on 11/29/2010

With the Apple Magic Trackpad, finger painting comes to Adobe Photoshop. The Apple Magic Trackpad is an interesting new Apple product that arrived recently with relatively little fanfare. Compared to more press grabbing new toys like the snazzy new iPod Nano or the fascinating iPad, the trackpad flew in under the radar, and it’s too bad, because it’s an innovative and interesting tool for digital photographers, and an affordable one at that. I’ve had one on my desk for a couple weeks and have grown to love it.

What Is the Apple Magic Trackpad

Essentially, the Apple Magic Trackpad is a touch pad from a MacBook Pro removed, enlarged, and free-standing on little rubber feet. It has a simple, clean, wireless design, with two AA batteries integrated into the base and a single on/off button. Build quality is 100% MacBook pro, and it’s as intuitive to use as one would expect from Apple. The top is button free, with both right and left click functionality built into the pad’s surface. It has a slightly easier click than current MacBook Pros, and can be set, via the OS-X preference panel to allow tap clicking anywhere on its face.

The Trackpad allows what Apple calls “gestures”, or clicks and slides using two, three, or even four fingers. The custom preference pane (which OS-X “Snow Leopard” loads via software update) allows numerous adjustments to gestures, scrolling, and tracking.

This is how I’ve set up mine:

two fingers: scrolling and right click
three fingers: dragging and highlighting
four fingers: up for an “Expose” view of all windows and down for a clear view of the desktop.

In writing this post, for example, swiping three fingers over text highlights, tapping two fingers brings up the right click for copy or pasting, and a quick slide up with all four fingers spreads out all five open windows to bounce between programs. It’s fast and fun to use, and well thought out.

The Pregame: With Adobe Lightroom

So does it work well as a tool for the digital photographer? Flicking through photos in Lightroom 3 is smooth and fun. The Trackpad‘s two-finger scrolling slides through pages of photos with momentum, like an iPhone or iPod touch, allowing a quick flick through pages of thumbnails or along a lengthy filmstrip. A quick tap highlights a photo, a two-finger tap brings up the right click menu, three fingers lets a photographer drag a file into a collection or folder. It’s very smooth.

In “Adjustments”, it takes either three fingers to move each slider (like a highlight or drag) or clicking the pad down and then sliding back and forth. It takes some practice and feels either faster or a bit less precise than a mouse, depending on your preference. Now that I’ve had some time to get used to it, it’s an enjoyable and fast tool for Lightroom and will certainly be an improved interface for many users.

The Main Event: With Adobe Photoshop

In actual Photoshop, It’s a much closer competition between the traditional mouse and the new Trackpad. The Trackpad‘s size is one consideration. It’s about the size of a DVD or CD, larger than the built-in pads on MacBook Pros. It’s big enough to work all over the screen for quick fingers. The velocity sensitive tracking will shoot the curser across the whole screen with a quick, short motion, but at a very slow speed—like what a photographer may use to create a specific mask or selection—he’ll only reach about a quarter of the screen. Though this one works well: especially for the fast-fingered photographers of the world. I’d be curious to see a larger Trackpad.

With the Apple Magic Trackpad, there are two ways to draw, either by using three fingers (essentially holding down a button and dragging) or clicking the lower left corner down with a thumb or left hand and tracing with a right finger (or vise versa for the left-handed). With unlimited little strokes, the one-finger method will allow a long selection or mask that covers a large area and with more precision. The three-finger method is fast and smooth, like finger painting, though space on the pad will eventually run out.

Often, in my workflow, I add a curve adjustment layer with a big bump up or down in exposure, black it out with a mask, and carefully paint in the effect for a flexible dodge or burn adjustment. Because I have the creation of the adjustment layers and blacked-out masks recorded as an action, it’s one button to slap down the curves and start brushing in white to add adjustments. It’s the closest we’ve yet come to actually moving pixels around with our fingers and it’s quick. I’ve enjoyed slowly spreading a little darkening around a bright background or smearing a little brightness on faces in a group photo. It’s a fun way to interact with Photoshop.

Is It Like A Wacom?

Inevitably, the Trackpad will face comparisons with established products from tablet interface king, Wacom. Wacom tablets come in three product lines: the professional Intuos line, the monitor/tablet combo Cintiq line, and an entry-level Bamboo line that includes both pen and touch pads (also with multi-finger gestures). Wacom tablets add additional features to the Magic Trackpad formula, like pressure-sensitivity, programmable shortcut keys, and the precision benefits of a familiar pen interface. They are also offered in a wide range of sizes and prices.

The Apple Magic Trackpad, however, is a natural choice for gracefully and easily integrating with OS-X “Snow Leopard” and offers unrivaled grace in navigating Web pages, documents, and photo collections (in, for example, Adobe Lightroom). When it comes time to dig deeply into PSD layers in Adobe Photoshop, the relatively small size and simple design will be a turn-off for some photographers, especially when the Trackpad is compared to more complex and costly tablets. The Apple Magic Trackpad offers an enjoyably direct interface, an ultra-clean design that makes all mice seem frumpy, and will be a welcome addition to the desks of many photographers.

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