Here’s how Apple’s new Force Touch Trackpad works

BY Gautam Prabhu

Published 16 Mar 2015

Force Touch trackpad

Apple surprised everyone by unveiling the all-new 12-inch MacBook at the Spring Forward media event. It may not cater to everyone’s requirement, but the engineering that has gone behind creating the new MacBook is quite mind-blowing.

It comes packed with tons of innovations such as a new edge-to-edge keyboard that comes with a butterfly mechanism instead of the scissor mechanism used by traditional keyboards along with individual LED under each key, the thinnest Retina display ever (just 0.88 millimeter) with larger aperture in each pixel, fanless architecture and Force Touch trackpad. The purpose of the article is to take an in-depth look at the Force Touch trackpad, and what it means to the future of user interface

MacBook and Force Touch

The Force Touch technology was first introduced with the Apple Watch, and has been included in the new 12-inch MacBook and 13-inch MacBook Pro.

So how does it work?

The trackpad has a glass multi-touch surface like the previous trackpad, but everything underneath it has been redesigned. It now comes with four “force sensors” that makes it easier to click the top part of the trackpad closest to the surface. So for the first time you will get the exact same feel over the entire surface of the trackpad. Unlike traditional trackpads that require room underneath for the downward motion of a click. In the case of the Force Touch trackpad, the sensors that are distributed across the surface will detect the click and move the trackpad laterally towards you, providing the familiar downward motion feel. Phil Schiller, Apple’s Senior Vice President of Marketing, who gave the presentation of the new MacBook at the event, mentioned that since the feel is managed by software, users can be adjust it to get a softer or stiffer feel to their trackpad.

Force touch

The Force sensors also detect how much pressure you’re applying, so it can differentiate a lighter click from a deeper press. This has allowed Apple to introduce a new gesture called “Force click”.

What’s even more interesting is that the Force Touch trackpad also includes a Taptic engine, a linear actuator that provides taptic feedback. So when the force sensors senses a user click on the trackpad, the Taptic Engine issues haptic feedback to the user to give a feeling that he or she has pressed the trackpad, though in reality it isn’t moving at all. TechCrunch’s Matthew Panzarino explains how this works:

There is a set of vibrating motors underneath that provides ‘force feedback’, also known as haptics in some applications. This feedback fools your finger into believing that you’ve pressed down on a hinged button, the way your current trackpad works. This feedback relies on phenomenon called lateral force fields (LFFs), which can cause humans to experience vibrations as haptic ‘textures’. This can give you the feel of a ‘clickable’ surface or even depth. The Force Touch feature of the new trackpad allows you to press ‘deeper’, giving you additional levels of tapping feedback. The effect is done so well that you actually feel like you’re pressing down deeper into a trackpad that still isn’t moving at all. It’s so good it’s eerie.

What’s inside?

iFixit disassembled the new MacBook Pro, and took a close look at the workings of the Force Touch. They discovered that the Taptic Engine is made up of four separate electromagnets, which they believe work together in various combinations to generate different types of vibration feedback.

The magnets rapidly push and pull against a metal rail mounted beneath the trackpad, to create a tiny “buzz” of feedback with each click (and a second buzz for a “force click”).

So what can you do with the Force Touch trackpad?

Schiller gave the following uses cases where the Force Click gesture could come in handy on the new MacBook and the new 13-inch MacBook Pro.

  • When you Force Click on a word in a browser, it will automatically open a Wikipedia lookup of it.
  • If you’re in the Mail app, then Force Clicking on the address in the email will open the Map that shows the location.
  • If someone has sent you a date and time for an event via Messages or email, then Force Clicking on it will automatically create a Calendar entry.
  • You can also force click on a file in Finder and automatically get a preview of the file without opening the application.
  • You can also force click on a link in Safari to get a quick preview of the webpage.

In addition, the force sensors can sense a range of pressures on the trackpad, so you can press lightly for a thin stroke or harder for a thick one, allowing you to create a more accurate illustration while signing your signature for forms in Preview based on the pressure.

You can fast forward a video in QuickTime by pressing deeper on the fast forward button. The deeper you press, the faster it goes.

In some ways, Apple seems to be replacing the three-finger tap with the Force Click gesture. Update: You can use the two-finger tap on the Force Touch trackpad for the right-click just like the previous trackpad.

You can check out the video for some more hidden Force Click features:

First Impressions

Most people who got a chance to use Force Touch say they loved the new Force Touch trackpad. Sean Hollister of Gizmodo had this to say about it:

Apple’s new Force Touch pad sounded a little bit gimmicky during the announcement… but I love it. I love it so much. Not because it’s easy to press like the laptop buttons of yesteryear—it’s not—but because it’s so smart.

However, Dieter Bohn of The Verge found it not very intuitive, though he says he’s in the minority:

The new trackpad is accurate, and kind of wild: it doesn’t actually move or click, but the haptic feedback works so well it feels like you’re clicking. It’s great. On the other hand, the Force Click action is very far from intuitive — at least for me.

Dan Ackerman reports that most people in CNET offices who tried the new trackpad were fooled by the tactile illusion, and seem to be convinced that they were clicking down on a physical trackpad.

Apple Watch and Force Touch

Apple first introduced the Force Touch technology in Apple Watch. In the case of Apple Watch, Force Touch uses tiny electrodes around the flexible Retina Display to distinguish between a light tap and a deep press, and accordingly give users access to a range of contextual specific controls. So force pressing on the screen will bring up additional controls in the case of stock apps like Messages, Music and Calendar.

It will also let you select different watch faces, pause or end a workout, search an address in Maps, and more.

iPhone 6s and Force Touch

There are rumors that the next generation iPhone, dubbed iPhone 6s and iPhone 6s Plus (presumably) will feature Force Touch technology. If it does, then it would probably be implemented the same way it has been done in the Apple Watch.


Force Touch adds a new dimension to the user interface, and one of the biggest innovation in sensing capability since multi-touch, which has revolutionalized the way we use mobile devices. It will be interesting to see how developers will be able to leverage the Force Touch technology in their apps, as Apple added support for ForceTouch APIs in the latest OS X 10.10.3 Yosemite beta.

I’m quite excited about Force Touch, and can’t wait to see how it changes the way we use our mobile devices, though it does look like it will take sometime to get used to it.