Microsoft pushes for better touchpads on Windows laptops

Microsoft will work with Intel, as well as trackpad technology companies Elan and Synaptics, on its Precision Touchpad effort

Given how many great laptops have been sullied by miserable touchpads, it's good to hear that Microsoft is trying to do something about it.

During last week's Build 2013 conference, program manager James Clarke revealed an initiative called Precision Touchpad. Microsoft will work with Intel on the effort, as well as Elan and Synaptics, which offer trackpad technology to major PC vendors.

"Much in the same way that we made a massive improvement to touch in Windows 8, we're improving the touch experience in Windows Blue," Clarke says, referring to the codename for Windows 8.1. The presentation at Build 2013, which begins about 53 minutes into this video, was spotted by a forum poster at The Verge.

Clarke bemoans the lack of consistency and reliability in existing laptop touchpads. "If you were to go into, for example, a Best Buy and try a bunch of different touchpads, you'd probably come away with very different experiences, very different materials, some of them are rough, some of them smooth, some respond well, others don't--very inconsistent--so we wanted to fix that."

What is Precision Touchpad?

Precision Touchpad will allow Windows to directly handle certain aspects of the touchpad, such as finger tracking and palm detection, instead of leaving it up to third parties. Clarke said Microsoft will focus on fluid gestures, including two-finger scrolling and pinch-to-zoom, and on accurate palm detection.

A brief demo on a prototype showed a Windows 8 laptop responding quickly and fluidly to various gestures. Although touchpad makers are already doing many of the things that Microsoft wants to accomplish, such as palm rejection, the idea with Precision Touchpad is to make the experience more consistent.

For PC makers, those improvements may come just in the nick of time. Traditional PC sales are tanking as consumers snap up cheap tablets, so many PC makers are now pinning their hopes on more expensive devices, such as interesting Windows 8 hybrids and high-end Ultrabooks. In other words, PC makers want you to spend MacBook money on a really nice machine that's built to last.

But it's hard to justify spending a lot on a fancy Ultrabook if it just doesn't feel right to use. The touchpad is a major factor, since you're guaranteed to interact with it all the time. A push to improve all PC trackpads is certainly welcome.

Unfortunately, it'll be a while until Precision TouchPad shows up in Windows laptops. Clarke said the devices with improved touchpad support will launch in limited availability later this year, followed by volume production in 2014.

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Jared Newman

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