Magic Trackpad 2 review

The Magic Trackpad 2 is Apple's latest standalone trackpad accessory for Mac, released alongside the Magic Mouse 2, the Magic Keyboard and the new generation of iMacs, and is an update to the original Magic Trackpad released in 2010. Our Magic Trackpad 2 hands-on review evaluates the trackpad's design, build quality, features and ease of use, and helps you decide if it's right for you.

Apple's new Magic TrackPad 2 (which you can buy on Apple's site) has an obvious selling point. It brings the Force Touch pressure-sensitive technology previously seen in the screen of the Apple Watch - and, more relevantly, the trackpad of this year's 12-inch MacBook - and adds it to your existing Mac setup.

No matter how old your Mac is (well, within reason), the Magic Trackpad means that - like the lucky few who bought the new MacBook earlier this year - you can do both standard clicks and deeper Force Clicks, which activate a variety of additional functions depending on the application. This is the first time that Mac desktops have gained access to Force Touch features.

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Magic Trackpad 2 review

Magic Trackpad 2 review: A brief digression on terminology

Before we get on to the nuts and bolts of this product, we should clear up some terminology. As my US colleague Jason Snell (who I will be quoting more than once in this article) points out, this isn't 3D Touch but the more old-fashioned Force Touch. This can feel a little confusing.

The screen of the Apple Watch and the trackpad of the 12-inch MacBook both had Force Touch, which was marketed on its ability to distinguish between two degrees of pressure, a normal press and a force press (although in practice there are certain contexts, at least for the trackpad, where a range of pressures can be detected, to an extent that appears almost analogue).

Then the iPhone 6s and 6s Plus came along, offering the more advanced 3D Touch feature, which can detect three degrees of pressure (although again, it's not quite as simple as that - and in many contexts you can only do a normal tap or a hard tap).

For the Magic Trackpad 2 we seem to be regressing to the earlier Force Touch branding. In other words, the launch of 3D Touch wasn't a cross-product rebranding of Apple's pressure-sensitive touchscreen (and trackpad) technologies - it was a distinct brand and technology. (However, and adding perhaps one more layer of confusion, Jason predicts that Apple's pressure-sensitive trackpad technology will indeed be rebranded as 3D Touch in the future - potentially around the launch of Mac OS X 10.12 in 2016.)

Let's see what this all means in practice.

Read next: 13 ways to use Force Touch

Magic Trackpad 2 review: Physical design and build quality

First things first: what does the Magic Trackpad look and feel like? Minimalist, of course.

Magic Trackpad 2 review

It's white across the top (and bottom), compared with the silver/aluminium finish on the 2010 Magic Trackpad. There's still a metallic finish around the edge, however. The on/off button at the back offers a glimpse of lime green when the device is on, but this somehow works within the overall aesthetic.

The trackpad sits on four soft white feet and is pleasingly resistant to lateral movement: you'll find it admirably stable on the desk. And the top surface has a lovely smooth feel to it. Fingers glide across it without any feeling of resistance.

The top is a matt rather than a gloss finish, which we love, and has the side effect of not collecting fingerprints to any noticeable extent. (The underside, on the other hand, has a reflective, glassy gloss finish, which seems cheap and does pick up fingerprints, but is obviously hidden from view at pretty much all times.)

Magic Trackpad 2 review

Susie Ochs, reviewing the Trackpad 2 for Macworld US, describes it as a "Cheeto-unfriendly slab", which is not quite as pejorative as it sounds: like a lot of Apple products, the device is so white and clean-looking out of the box that any spillages (such as the aforementioned orange-coloured snack) will show up painfully. A pure, clean look is something that most Apple fans would look on as a plus point, but considering you're going to be touching the Trackpad 2 constantly, a potential susceptibility to stains and marks isn't a trivial consideration (although, as mentioned above, it does seem to be resistant to fingerprints).

"The Magic Trackpad 2 is shockingly large and blindingly white," Ochs explains. "It looks kind of a like a futuristic thing you'd find in a high-tech kitchen, like a smart scale or a wireless charging station or a heating pad that keeps your coffee at the perfect temperature for hours."

Magic Trackpad 2 review

Above: you can see the difference in finish between the matt top surface (left) and the glossy underside (right), which in this photo is reflecting the hand of the person who took this photo

The trackpad itself is far larger than on the original Magic Trackpad.

Ergonomically speaking, the design of the Trackpad 2 is going to be a boon for those who have found trackpads uncomfortable in the past; unlike the convention trackpad design, which frequently requires you to hold down a thumb on one part of its surface while scrolling or moving the cursor with an index finger on another (potentially painful after a while), Apple's version lets you use light taps and gestures instead.

To return to Ochs' review:

"The Magic Trackpad is helping me retrain myself to only tap to click, and tap with two fingers to right-click. To click and drag, now I just tap with three fingers and drag away - no pressure needed at all. It's so much more comfortable. After a little practice, I could even use it to crop photos."

If you want to use three-finger drag like Susie, you'll need to activate it: go to System Preferences > Accessibility > Mouse & Trackpad, then click Trackpad Options. Click the box for Enable Dragging and select three-finger drag. 

Magic Trackpad 2 review

Magic Trackpad 2 review: Features & ease of use

Setup is easy, which is a good start. The Magic Trackpad 2 comes with a Lightning cable for charging, and using this to plug the trackpad into a Mac pairs it automatically. We plugged the trackpad into an El Capitan MacBook and the process was just about instantaneous - the notification that pairing had been achieved appeared right away, and we could immediately unplug the trackpad and use it wirelessly.

Magic Trackpad 2 review

Once you're set up you've got access to Force Touch, which unlocks the ability to do harder 'Force Clicks' in a variety of contexts and applications.

Clicking harder on a document in Finder activates Quick Look, for instance: convenient, although hardly a game-changer. Force-clicking a word in Safari brings up a definition, and doing the same to a web link pops up a preview of the destination page.

Magic Trackpad 2 review

Actually using these new control features is more challenging. You need to relearn (in some cases) or alter or sharpen up (in some others) the way you perform a lot of fundamental actions, and for a short while you'll find yourself making mistakes. Lazy fingers left resting on parts of the trackpad surface may now activate gestures that weren't available before, for instance, so a little discipline will be called for; and of course it will take time to grasp the expanded range of features.

Partly this is a question of novelty, and an inevitable byproduct of innovation. You will assuredly make fewer mistakes as you get used to the way the Trackpad 2 works. But it's also true that this is overall a less precise execution of the pressure-sensitive concept that the one we've grown used to on the iPhones - which gives a clue as to why Apple didn't attempt to apply the same branding to both sets of products.

As Ochs puts it, "my iPhone is just better at recognising what I mean when I interact with it, from better rejection of accidental touches to better understanding my intent when I hard-press the screen".

Magic Trackpad 2 review

Another problem relates to the difference in interface complexity between iOS and Mac OS X, and to the piecemeal way Force Touch has been implemented in this context.

"One of the fundamental problems with implementing Force Touch on the Mac is that, unlike iOS and watchOS, the Mac has a multitude of input options, including modifier keys and multi-finger tap gestures that don't translate to touchscreens," argues Snell. "The Mac doesn't need a 3D Touch Quick Action menu, because it's already got one - you activate it by right-clicking or control-clicking or (my personal preference) two-finger clicking on a trackpad.

"So if that gesture's already second nature to most users, what do you use a force click for? Right now there's no unified answer - it's a grab bag."

Magic Trackpad 2 review

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Videos: How to use Force Touch on a Mac

To give you an idea how Force Touch works on a trackpad, we made a couple of videos. This one shows the basics of using Force Touch on a Mac, and how it works:

And this one shows some of the more advanced features you can use with Force Touch.

But remember that these are only the tip of the iceberg. New features are sure to be added, both by Apple and by third-party software makers, in the future.

Magic Trackpad 2 review: Which Macs can use the Magic Trackpad 2?

Before we get to our verdict on this product, it's important to point out that not all Macs are compatible with the Magic Trackpad 2.

The official documentation warns that the trackpad requires a "Bluetooth 4.0-enabled Mac with OS X v10.11 or later". We tried it on a Mac running Yosemite (OS X 10.10) and sure enough, it didn't work properly - although, oddly enough, it did work with a wired connection, so you've got that option in a pinch. It was only when we unplugged the Lightning cable that it stopped working.

Clearly the problem is related to the wireless pairing process - and this isn't simply an issue with the version of Bluetooth, which was 4.3 on this particular Mac.

In other words, expect to have to upgrade your Mac to El Capitan, if you haven't already, in order to be able to use this device.

OUR VERDICT

To dredge up a review cliche, Force Touch is a nice-to-have rather than a must-have at this point - as more and more applications add Force Touch features, it's likely to become ubiquitous, and genuinely useful, but at the moment it's just a pleasant gimmick, for the most part.

For this reason we'd be inclined to advise readers to hold off on the Trackpad 2 for the time being, at least as a standalone purchase to supplement an existing Mac setup.

If you're buying a new iMac and this is one of the bundled options you're offered, however, the Trackpad 2 is a better choice than the Magic Mouse 2, so go for it.

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