Touchpad Gestures — A Cursor-less Experience.
Have you ever used a MacBook before? If so, then I bet the first thing you noticed was how easy navigation was. Out of the box, macOS comes with some pretty neat touchpad gestures like two-finger and five-finger pinch, up to five-finger swipes, etc. This simplifies activities like switching desktops and applications, minimizing and maximizing among others.
In the Windows world, navigation has actually improved significantly. Many of those Mac gestures have found their way to the Windows atmosphere after several updates. Three finger gestures shipped with the first version of Windows 10 while four finger gestures were added in the Anniversary Update.
However, one caveat I have found in both desktop environments is that there’s still a lot of dependence on cursors for basic recurring tasks.
In this article, we’ll explore several ways to reduce your reliance on the cursor for getting things done. Windows is the major focus here but the same concepts can be applied to other operating systems.
The Problem: Precision Touchpad, Unprecise User
‘Precision Touchpad’ is the official name given by Microsoft to touchpads that are well integrated with Windows 10. These touchpads have proven to be more accurate and reliable than traditional ones as Windows directly processes touch inputs instead of the touchpad. Nevertheless, this hasn’t helped with the overall precision. There is still one major player who just can’t seem to get things right — the user.
Humans have never been good with precision and we won’t start with a touchpad. Every time I want to close, minimize, or go back and forth within a window, I’d have to spend precious seconds trying to accurately place my cursor over the action buttons. One’s level of frustration depends on the speed and sensitivity of the cursor as well as the size of those action buttons. Furthermore, failure to hit the target could be costly, especially in application that don’t issue warnings before permitting certain actions.
The Solution: Windows Shortcuts
This whole article won’t have been possible without keyboard shortcuts. Personally, I feel that everyone falls between one of two broad categories: keyboard users and mouse users. Many tech savvy users get by with their keyboards, using shortcuts to navigate through Windows without even touching their touchpads. However, normal users (like us) don’t have the luxury of keeping all these shortcuts our their heads. Some of them even require your fingers to do some yoga before they can be pressed and using two hands just to close a window is definitely not an option for me.
Regardless of your faction, there are still some shortcuts out there that everyone uses. Shortcuts like ALT + F4, which closes applications, and all the popular ‘CTRL +’ shortcuts such as CTRL + Z, CTRL + C, CTRL + X, CTRL + V, etc.
However, many of the useful navigation shortcuts are unknown to the general public. For example, CTRL + Windows + D creates new desktops and CTRL + Windows + Left/Right switches between them.
Many users just don’t get along with these shortcuts and prefer using their touchpads. So how can we merge these to minimize cursor usage?
Windows Update to the rescue.
Of recent, Windows Updates haven’t been very friendly. Sometimes, they cause lags in performance and even hurt the very touchpad I’m promoting here. Hopefully, this month’s update would be the holy grail 🙂.
Notwithstanding, there was one added feature that really clicked — the ability to map keyboard shortcuts to touchpad gestures. This feature has been present since the Creator’s Update back in ‘17 but has not been well advertised.
CTRL + Gesture + Shortcut
Mapping shortcuts to gestures in Windows is pretty easy. However, there is a clause. Your PC should have a ‘Precision Touchpad’ as discussed earlier. Go to Settings, search for ‘Touchpad Settings’ and go to the touchpad page and confirm whether ‘Your PC has a precision touchpad’ is labelled at the top. If yes, then you can proceed with the rest of this article. Else, you may have to check with the online community how to change gesture settings for your particular touchpad driver.
To configure your gestures, scroll to the end of that same page and click on Advanced Gesture Configuration. There, you can configure whatever action you want to your gestures and even add Custom Shortcuts.
Having mapped and observed different gestures with different shortcuts, I’ve come up with this particular gesture configuration.
Two Finger Gestures
Two finger gestures are, by default, setup for zoom and pan operations as well as vertical and horizontal scroll. This leaves us with two gesture categories for configuration.
Three Finger Gestures
I’ve assigned some desktop-specific tasks to this gesture category. Three finger gestures are easy to trigger and feel more natural. Also, mistakes here are not that costly. They can easily be resolved by performing the reverse of the particular gesture.
The left and right gestures allow me to go back and forth within a particular application. The tap gesture opens the notification center. I use this other than Search because I could easily launch Start with the dedicated Windows button and continue typing without having to switch from touchpad to keyboard.
Sadly, the back and forth shortcut (ALT + Left/Right) doesn’t work for some applications but it does work for core applications like File Explorer and most browsers.
Conversely, you can also assign Switch desktop to the left and right gestures to keep things more desktop-specific. I address why I went for this config later in the article.
Four Finger Gestures
This is where intentionality and commitment come in. Most times, it is difficult to mistakenly trigger a four finger gesture because we’d need to consciously lower our pinky to interact with the touchpad.
A Little Experiment
At this point, I’d like you to pause and perform a little experiment. Move your cursor in circles with your index finger and note the position of your pinky as you go around. You’d notice that your pinky is effectively out of the touchpad region. Even if you try other fingers or a combination of them, you’d notice that your pinky maybe within the touchpad region but it is still positioned higher than the rest of your fingers. This is because the pinky is the shortest among our four fingers.
This is important to note when assigning gestures as we can then assign expensive and more application-specific actions like closing applications and minimizing Windows.
I control my music with four finger tap and three finger gestures on my touchscreen (more on that later). That way, it’s hard to accidentally pause/play my music. It also keeps me from constantly switching over to my keyboard when not engaged in keyboard-inclusive activities (that’s if it had music controls, thanks Lenovo® 🙃).
Conversely, you can assign back and forth tasks to the left and right gestures and keep things more application-specific.
Most of the gestures are somewhat dependent on the position of your taskbar. I place my taskbar at the top. Swiping up with three fingers seems as if all windows are minimized to their respective locations at the top taskbar. Closing applications just works with four fingers down. You can make a switch if you are using a bottom taskbar. The aim is to make the gestures as natural as possible.
Switching desktop is a must for me as my workflow consists of up to five desktops. However, if it doesn’t apply to you, I recommend you assign Switch apps instead.
Back and Forth Gestures
Now for my use of three finger gesture for back and forth tasks. Personally, I am more accustomed to the iPad’s four finger gesture for switching between applications. It feels very similar to switching desktops.
In addition, back and forth tasks on most applications I’ve use aren’t that expensive. Most important processes would warn you before you exit the page and going forward won’t do anything if there is no where to go. Hence, three fingers do just fine for me. Also, mistakenly switching desktops with three fingers can be very annoying. I consider it more expensive.
Definitely a post for another day but if you have a touchscreen device, you can migrate more cursor-intensive tasks like maximizing windows and popping up touchscreen keyboard. You could even reconfigure all the gestures here for an all-gesture experience in tablet mode. All thanks to a third-party application called GestureSign.
Now obviously this article isn’t final. It is totally up to you to experiment and find your sweet spot. Just remember that the goal of gestures is to minimize your dependency on cursors and try to make your PC experience as natural as possible.
Setting up appropriate touchpad gestures helps to cut down the time — and possibly frustration — it takes to navigate within Windows. This may not be an issue for many but if you made it this far, I am guessing you are looking for something new.
Would be awesome to have five finger gestures. Hopefully, Microsoft adds this in subsequent updates 🤞.
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