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Will 2021 Be the Year of the Haptic Touchpad?

Haptic feedback replaces physical touchpad hinges with a superior, uniform clicking sensation. Lenovo just added it to a new ThinkPad, and more laptops are set to harness the tech in the coming months.

By Tom Brant

Haptic touchpads have been a staple of Apple MacBooks for a few years, but they haven’t really caught on among Windows laptop manufacturers. That could change soon. These nifty input methods, with a tiny vibrating motor instead of a physical clicking mechanism, are poised to go mainstream over the next few months.

At CES this week, Lenovo launched its second major laptop with haptic technology for the US market, following haptic’s debut on the Yoga 9i last fall. And vendors that supply this novel touchpad technology to laptop makers are redesigning their components to ensure that they’ll fit in even the slimmest, most futuristic notebooks.

Sensel, a small Silicon Valley firm that made its debut on Kickstarter in 2015, now supplies the haptic technology for Lenovo’s new ThinkPad X1 Titanium Yoga, unveiled at CES this week. In perhaps the surest sign that haptic technology is ready for primetime on Windows laptops, the X1 Titanium’s pad is pretty much indistinguishable from that of any other ThinkPad-it’s just a square that blends into the palm rest.

But as soon as you tap and click on it, you notice the difference. Haptic feedback is far more capable than a physical clicking mechanism because the force can be adjusted to suit your preference, and you feel a uniform clicking sensation no matter where you press the pad. Physical switches are easy to click in the bottom half of the pad but extremely stiff in the upper half where the hinge is located.

While the X1 Titanium’s haptic touchpad doesn’t quite feel as smooth as Apple’s Force Touch trackpad based on the few minutes I’ve spent with it so far, it does prove that you can fit haptic technology into a rugged, premium laptop that’s much thinner than even the MacBook Air.

“It doesn’t feel identical to a physical click, but it feels very close,” said Dean Chang, Sensel’s director of product. The company is already working on its next-generation design, which will add force sensors in addition to the haptic motor.

Sensel haptic touchpad

The new force-enabled design is 3mm thick, and it can detect how hard each of your fingers are pressing it. If you manage to fit all 10 of your fingers on the pad, it will detect the pressure applied by each of them. The haptic feedback will respond, and a signal can be sent to whatever app you’re using to perform a specific function. Chang tells me that the most useful application of the force-haptic combination is 3D CAD modeling, although it’s also suited to video editing.

The new module is only 3mm thick, so it can fit into pretty much any laptop design. “We’re getting a lot of interest” from laptop designers, Chang says.

Will You Pay the Haptic Premium?

That’s an encouraging change from a few years ago, when Synaptics showed off its own haptic touchpad tech at CES 2019. The company, which makes many of the traditional clicking touchpads in mainstream laptops sold today, said at the time that its ZPad technology was ready to be implemented, but no manufacturer had indicated interest.

The ThinkPad X1 Titanium Yoga is among the first haptic-enabled laptops.

The reluctance was due in part to high manufacturing costs and the engineering challenges of getting ZPad into existing laptop designs. It’s clear that Sensel has solved the latter problem, but costs still remain a challenge. So far, the only haptic-equipped laptops to go on sale have been expensive flagships. The ThinkPad X1 Titanium Yoga starts at $1,900. The cheapest models, like the Yoga 9i and the MacBook Air, start around $1,000.

The high price threshold could continue to hamper wider adoption of haptic technology on Windows machines. So could the variety of other touch input methods Windows users already enjoy, like touch screens and digital pens, which aren’t available on Mac laptops. But now that the technology at least has a foothold in mainstream Windows notebooks, it has a promising immediate future.

Sensel’s tech alone will show up in several new laptop models this year in addition to the ThinkPad, Chang says. Some will use enormous pads that rival the 16-inch MacBook Pro’s gargantuan haptic-enabled surface. The bigger the pads get, Chang explains, “it’s almost like using a mouse.”

Originally published at https://www.pcmag.com.




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