Synaptics ForcePad

In recent months, a touch controller company called Synaptics has been making some buzz in the tech industry. Synaptics is claiming that their new ForcePad is the most significant development in touch technology since the company invented the first TouchPad in 1995. A claim like this would normally grab our attention, but with Windows 8 focusing on touch interfaces this statement was worth looking into. Legit Reviews was recently able to sit down with Synaptics and try out some of the new products that they are working on. Synaptics recently announced that they will be releasing three new touch-focused technologies for laptops and other mobile devices: ForcePad, ThinTouch, and ClearPad. Basically, Synaptics will be making the touchpads, keyboards and touch displays that are all driven with one piece of silicon for a user experience unlike anything we have ever had before. These new technologies can be used separately or together and will lead to a new era of human-computer interaction.

Synaptics Touchpad

The technology that Synaptics is really focusing on it ForcePad, the breakthrough next-generation TouchPad. As a multi-finger, capacitive TouchPad with variable force detection and a large “modern touch pad” gesture area, ForcePad hopes to redefine the touch interaction experience for notebook and desktop PC users. Forcepad is just part of the puzzle though, as in an ideal system it will be coupled with the ThinTouch keyboard and ClearPad Series 7 display, to deliver the ultimate touch solution for notebook PC and other mobile device OEM partners.

Here is a quick video that goes over the Forcepad in more detail and visually shows you how the FircePad adds a third dimension to touch devices.

Synaptics Touchpad

The ForcePad uses pressure tracking instead of traditional mechanical switches, reducing the thickness of the touchpad as a result. The ForcePad can track up to five fingers and can measure up to 1000 grams of pressure per finger. With the 6-bit, 15 gram resolution it means you end up with 64 pressure levels for up to five fingers. This will give software developers an entirely new parameter to develop for, which is exciting. It also should be reliable as there is no mechanical hinge and tactile button switches like current touchpads use. 

Synaptics Forcepad

Synaptics has been developing the ForcePad for more than a year now and has sent hundreds of external USB units like the one above to developers so they can begin to use and program for this new design. The ForcePad should work with Windows 8 RTM out of the box, which is a huge plus.

Synaptics Forcepad

We were also shown working Intel Core i5 laptops with the ForcePad in the chassis and running Windows 8.  We were able to play games and use the new touch interface straight away.  It was a little different not having the tactile fell of the left and right button switches, but it was easy to get used to.

Synaptics Touchpad

Microsoft Windows 8 will have eight TouchPad gestures available, but there are more available if you use a Synaptics solution.  For example if you use a Synaptics Touchpad you can do two finger TwistRotate, three finger flick and a four finger flick.  If you try out the new ForcePad on Windows 8 you get five more gestures that are only available with the pressure sensors. You can see all the gestures available in the slide above.

Synaptics Forcepad

In the picture above you can see how the software can sense how much pressure each finger is applying to the ForcePad. In games you can move or turn directions by just applying more pressure to one side of the pad or another. We tried out the new gestures, some demo applications and a game title during our afternoon with the ForcePad. We found that the ForcePad was fairly simple to use, but there is a learning curve that needed to get over. We've used a TouchPad for many years and this is to be expected.  Synaptics informed us that after a few days of constant use that users become fully accustomed to the ForcePad.  They also have a software utility that enables click sounds if you are missing the left and right clicks of years past.

The fun with Synaptics didn't stop there, as we were then shown ThinTouch and ClearPad.

Synaptics ThinTouch and ClearPad

Synaptics ThinTouch Slide

Synaptics also introduced a new keyboard technology that was designed for ultrabooks and thin notebooks. Synaptics calls the new technology ThinTouch and for good reason. A typical notebook uses keys that are 3.5-6.0mm thick and the ThinTouch kets are just the downpress of the keys has been reduced down to 2.5mm. This is a 40% reduction in thickness, which means you can have thinner designs or larger batteries! Not only that, but the entire keyboard surface is equipped with a capacitive touch sensor. This means that you can possibly do gestures on keyboards as well as the trackpad. One of the popular trends right now for high-end notebooks and ultrabooks is to use backlighted keys. Synaptics says the backlighting will look better with ThinTouch because the keys will be closer to the lighting system being used. Since the keys are each capacitive touch it means there is an electronic field over the entire surface. This means that you can even do near-field gestures over the keyboard!

The video above was made by Synaptics to show off their new ThinTouch design. Synaptics hopes to have working laptops with ThinTouch for CES 2013 and then be on retail notebooks that are shipping later in the year.

Synaptics Forcepad

We were shown and allowed to try out several individual keys and felt a slight difference between the ThinTouch keyset and some standard versions that are available on shipping laptops today. In the image above the key labeled D is the Synaptics ThinTouch key and notice how much thinner the metal frame and the actual button are! Again, this will reduce the thickness of devices and we are all for that!

Synaptics Clearpad

The final touch solution that we were shown was the Synaptics ClearPad, which are touchscreen solutions for Smartphones, tablets and notebooks. Synaptics ClearPad solutions are available on products that need up to a 17" display! Synaptics is currently integrating the display controller and touch controller into a single chip. Synaptics says that this integration results in much lower cost, power consumption and latency response to touch inputs.

Synaptics Clearpad

We were able to try out the Synaptics ClearPad 4 using the above Qualcomm development platform.

Synaptics Forcepad

From the tests we were shown the single chip solution used with the ClearPad Series 4 and we did notice reduced latency from two chip solutions that we are used to.

It is really hard hard to understand what we are explaining, so we shot a video of the ClearPad demo while it was being shown to us and you can watch it above. In the video you'll see Synaptics use an App called Touch Explorer. This app is free to use on Android devices, but you must have 3rd party app installations allowed on your smartphone or tablet. Synaptics does not have an app for Apple iOS devices. We tried to install it on some older phones like the Motorola Atrix and it wouldn't work, so it's not a perfect app by any means, but it works on most Android devices.

In the video above you'll see that Synaptics is using the HTC One X with the ClearPad 3202 touch controller versus the Motorola Droid RAZR with an Atmel touch controller. There is a pretty big difference between the displays! You'll also see how a cheap AC charger (off the shelf AT&T replacement charger) can wreak havok on a smartphone that doesn't do a good job of filtering out noise.

Final Thoughts & Conclusions:

Synaptics has some really impressive technologies coming out in 2013 and we were impressed by what we saw. We have been reviewing computer hardware components since 2002 and we have never seen this many human-computer interface changes taking place all at once. Synaptics hopes to change the way we interact with computers and after using the ForcePad, ThinTouch and ClearPad for an afternoon it is clear to us that they will.

All of the devices that we were shown are much thinner than the solutions on the market today, which will be huge with Ultrabook and laptop designers. You also have to remember Microsoft Windows 8 is coming out soon, which is a "Touch First" operating system. It appears that Synaptics clearly understands the market and are bringing out the right products at the time when the industry needs them! We were excited by these products, but what do our peers think?  We reached out to Patrick Moorhead, analyst at Moor Insights & Strategy in Austin Texas, to see what he thinks about them.

I think ThinTouch and ForcePad are breakthrough products in that they enable changes to the fundamental PC interaction model that hasn't had much innovation. ForcePad essentially adds a third dimension to the touchpad and removes all mechanical parts, enabling new usage models and thinner designs. ThinTouch not only reduces the keyboard height, but because it is capacitive, can also be used to do near-field are touch gestures and enables a better lighting solution. PC makers need to pay attention to these or run the risk of getting lapped again by Apple on PC human computer interfaces. - Patrick Moorhead (Moor Insights & Strategy)

As you can see we are not the only ones that are excited with what Synaptics is doing and others feel that these are indeed breakthrough products! We will be sure to visit Synaptics at CES 2013 and we can't wait to try out all of these impressive solutions on one device!