Archive for March, 2009

My thumb has a mind of its own

Tuesday, March 31st, 2009

I love getting a new computer! I love unpacking it, unwrapping all the little doodads and gizmos, and setting everything up. The whole process carries the same excitement today that I felt unpacking the first computer I ever got (that I didn’t build myself), a Commodore Vic-20.

I just got a new MacBook Pro.

Ahhhhhh. Very nice, indeed. It even smells good. (Yes, I smelled it. So what?)

This one replaces an aging first generation MacBook Pro. The old one gets too hot now and shuts off unexpectedly. At first it would only happen when operating on battery power, but lately it started happening while tethered to A/C, too. I suspect the added thermal load somehow affects the low voltage detection circuit and it panics. Or maybe it’s protecting some other part from cooking itself to death.

The ‘c’ key on the keyboard stopped working some time ago. I started using an external keyboard, at least when I was at my desk. Do you know how hard it is to write anything without the letter ‘c’? I would keep a ‘c’ on the clipboard in case I needed it. Heaven help me if a system authentication dialog appeared, though, since my password has a ‘c’ in it and those dialogs don’t allow copy and paste for security reasons.

But now I have a shiny new laptop that doesn’t overheat and has a working ‘c’. Atlantis (that’s its name) is faster, lighter, and cooler in every sense of the word.

My experience so far is not entirely positive, though. Every new computer is different from the previous one in a number of small ways and sometimes large ones. Often different is not better, just different.

Take the track pad, for instance. Somebody had the neat idea to make the track pad larger by using the area that used to be taken up by the giant button and putting the button underneath the trackpad. This design has worked beautifully for iPods for many years since the introduction of the ‘click wheel’ concept. It seems to work fairly well for the laptop trackpad, too. The way it works is while you’re tracking around and you need to press the button you just push down on the trackpad. No need to lift your finger and reach for the button. Slick.

But here’s the thing. I’ve spent years (and years) with the previous design. Nobody who’s used that design for more than a few minutes actually lifts their finger from the pad to press the button. They (and I) track around using one or two fingers and use their thumb for the button.

I’ve learned something about my thumb. It doesn’t press. It swipes.

I never noticed before because the giant track pad button was a forgiving target. Only the up and down motion mattered and any side to side action was ignored. Not any more. I keep missing things on the screen. I go to click on a button and just miss it. I aim for a menu item and hit the one next to it instead. (This description reminds me of something my friends cooked up called Gremlins. Remind me to tell you that story some time.)

That’s not the funny part. My thumb doesn’t always swipe in the same direction! It changes depending on what I’m doing! Most often it swipes toward me. Sometimes away from me, or to the left or right. There seems to be a pattern there but I can’t quite pin it down.

All I know is that even though it’s only been a day I can tell this is going to be a problem for me for quite a while. It’s one of those unconscious gestures that I’m going to have to train away. I hope it doesn’t take too long…