Synaptics’ New ForcePad Adds Thinner, More Accurate And Flexible Notebook Interface

The PC hardware industry today is riddled with a lot of similarities between the different hardware, so many PC OEMs are constantly looking for ways to differentiate themselves. One way to accomplish this is through improving the overall PC user experience through new and unique hardware user interfaces. One of those ways has been through innovation on the touchpad, are in the wheelhouse of UI leaders like Synaptics. Synaptics was originally considered a PC ‘touch’ company but have evolved into a fairly broad human interface company with a broad selection of touchpads, fingerprint sensors and touch screen sensors. Synaptics has successfully managed to improve upon these technologies and even combine some of them together like with their ClickPad, ForcePadSecurePad and others.

One of the most recent innovations that Synaptics brought to the market is called ForcePad, which is a touchpad that can sense the amount of force that is being applied to the touchpad, enabling new use cases. I wrote about Hewlett Packard’s implementation here. Synaptics just announced their second generation of the ForcePad, codenamed “Blaze”, which brings improvements to the ForcePad which make it even more versatile and useful in designing a notebook. A lot of these improvements are squarely aimed at making Forcepad adoption easier and more attractive for OEMs looking to reduce their costs of manufacturing while still differentiating from others, including Apple who still has a traditional touchpad.

Hardware improving the user experience

Considering that most PC manufacturers use the same operating system, there aren’t too many opportunities to change the users’ interface on a software level, even though some have tried in the past. The reality is that hardware user interfaces have been the primary driver in improving the overall experience of the PC over the past few years and a lot of that can be directly contributed to touch. Be that touch on a touchpad or on a touch screen, it has helped users better use their PCs. Thanks to Windows 8’s use of gestures for both touch screens and touchpads, there have been opportunities for the PC industry to improve the users’ experience with their Windows-based PCs.

HP EliteBook with ForcePadHP EliteBook with ForcePad

Synaptics’ solution to the user interface hardware problem

Synaptics has been in the touch business for quite some time and they have managed to build out quite a broad array of hardware user interface solutions. Some of these solutions include the regular TouchPad as well as the ClickPad, ForcePad, SecurePad, TouchID and touch screen solutions. TouchID and SecurePad utilize fingerprint sensor technology while ClickPad, ForcePad and SecurePad are all different plays on the touchpad and how Synaptics’ believes they can improve upon it. In fact, they even have a solution called SecurePad that combines a touchpad with a TouchID fingerprint sensor, which helps improve how users authenticate with their PCs without affecting system design. I wrote about SecurePad here. However, the most recent update to Synaptics’ portfolio of technologies comes from ForcePad which is now entering its second generation.

ForcePad simplifies the PC while adding more functionality

Synaptics’ ForcePad has been on the market for some time now, but I remember when they first showed it off as a prototype and how novel of an idea it was. For quite some time touch pads were simply capacitive touch sensors but they did not go much beyond that until ForcePad was introduced, adding a third dimension to touch beyond the X and Y axes, adding depth/force to the touchpad. ForcePad gives the user the ability to scroll and do other tasks on the touchpad without needing a larger touchpad through a combination of gestures and force applied. This solution means that PC manufacturers can accomplish better touchpad experiences on smaller touchpads.

ForcePad could also potentially allow for new application user experiences that might creatively apply the ability to use force for productivity or entertainment. Currently, companies like HP and Lenovo have been in the lead in implementing ForcePad into their enterprise notebooks, bringing the leading edge of user experience innovation back to the enterprise segment.

ForcePad Gen 2 a new ForcePad in many ways

The new version of ForcePad brings a whole host of new capabilities, features and requirements that should make its adoption much easier and broad. First and foremost, the new ForcePad is a whole 1mm thinner than the first generation, coming in at 1.8mm versus 2.8mm. It can be as thin as 1.0 mm if there is reinforcement from the chassis. This makes it optimal for 2:1s where Synaptics says they are the market share leaders today. The new ForcePad also finally brings the ability to directly sense the force coming from a users’ fingers rather than indirectly via four evenly spaced sensors. This required a certain size of a touchpad, meaning that manufacturers couldn’t simply build a notebook with whatever size touchpad they wanted if they wanted it to be a ForcePad. The direct sensing not only resolves this problem, but it also allows for more accurate individual sensing of pressure from each finger even when close together.

There are also system design aspects of the second generation that make it more attractive than the previous generation. Specifically, the ability to have flexible palmrests rather than rigid palmrests is a big deal, giving it applications beyond the standard placement in a standard notebook. There is also no requirement to mount to a palmrest anymore, which gives system designers more flexibility with their designs. It also removes the requirement for empty space under the ForcePad like the previous generation which needed it for deflection. Synaptics also removed the requirement for glass surfaces in their ForcePad, which was more expensive to implement and was more fragile. They now allow for Mylar to be used on the ForcePad for those that don’t wish to use glass without any penalty. There is also the ability to support haptic feedback with the new generation of the ForcePad, allowing some manufacturers to even further differentiate on design with their PCs.

A good touch solution goes a long way

As OEMs look for ways to differentiate their notebooks from their competitors, Synaptics’ ForcePad finally gives them an avenue of differentiation that doesn’t make them run through countless hoops like industrial design or modifying the operating system. They can now claim to have a unique product feature that most notebooks simply don’t have, including Apple’s own highly regarded notebooks which have touchpads with some gesture capability. The reality is that a few dollars separates an OEM from having a plain, questionable touchpad experience that doesn’t get the attention of the customer and a ForcePad solution that makes the customer feel like they have something unique, cutting edge and with added value.

A new touchpad for a new era of the PC

Synaptics’ newest ForcePad touchpad is designed to take all of the improvements to their ForcePad touchpad over the course of its first generation and wind them into its second generation solution. This second generation of ForcePad is designed to address the ever increasing need of PC OEMs to shrink their BOM costs, making their devices thinner and lighter and doing all of this while trying to differentiate from their competitors. These companies are starting to recognize the importance that hardware user interfaces are having on the users’ PC experience and are using solutions like Synaptics’ ForcePad to address them.