OS X Gestures and trackpad hints

In the excitement of the iOS 6 release, I feel like I’ve kind of neglected the Mac. So today I want to talk about gestures. Gestures, which is Apple’s name for the fancy fingerwork you can do on a trackpad as a shortcut for all kinds of cool features, has been introduced slowly over the past half a decade.

These gestures work with the trackpad on your portable Mac as well as with the Magic Trackpad on your desktop. Magic Mouse also has some basic gestures, but the trackpad is where it really shines.

If you find that the trackpad is cumbersome, you might be doing it wrong. I’ve seen many people struggle with this. Apple’s current trackpads are huge surfaces with no button. The entire surface clicks down when you press on it. Remember that it’s hinged at the top so it’s easier to press at the bottom. The main mistake I see is moving the cursor with the index finger as well as clicking with the index finger. Sometimes clicking in the same place, sometimes picking up the index finger and moving to the bottom. What I find to work much easier to to leave your thumb on the bottom of the trackpad and use it to click while your index finger does the moving. This even allows you to click and drag easier – just keep holding your thumb down while you move with your index finger. Just pretend there is a button on the bottom like with the old trackpads.

Basic gestures EVERYONE should know. Let’s start with some of the basics that you probably already know. And if you don’t already know these, they are huge timesavers:

  • Two finger scroll. Instead of hunting for the scrollbar with your mouse, simply position your cursor over the area you want to scroll and then slide two fingers up or down, left or right.
  • Two finger right click. Instead of control-clicking, you can get the equivalent of a right-click simply by clicking with two fingers. If you have an older trackpad with a button that’s separate from the trackpad hold two fingers on the pad while you press the button with your thumb. If you have one of the newer trackpads that’s just a large surface you can just click with two fingers or you can hold two fingers on the surface while you press the bottom with your thumb.

Advanced gestures. Most of these gestures require a newer computer to work. It doesn’t make sense for many people to learn these unless you use your computer a lot and efficiency is really important. These are the defaults but you can customize things in System Preferences as well as see video demos for each gesture. If you use these gestures a lot you might want to keep your fingernails very trim.

  • Switch desktops. If you use multiple desktops or full-screen apps in Lion and Mountain Lion, this could be really helpful to know. To slide between desktops simply swipe four fingers left or right. Bonus tip: This also works on iPad.
  • Mission Control. To access Mission Control (the overview of all open windows, desktops and fullscreen apps), simply swipe four fingers upwards. Swipe back down with four again to close Mission Control, or simply click where you want to navigate to.
  • Mission control for the current app. To see all open windows for the current app, swipe down with four fingers.
  • Notification center. For Mountain Lion’s new notification center you can swipe two fingers from the right bezel onto the trackpad.
  • Show desktop. Position your thumb and three fingers on the trackpad and spread your fingers.
  • Launchpad. Squeeze your thumb and three fingers together.
  • Back/forward. Swipe left or right with two fingers. Personally I turn this feature off because it’s too easy to get confused with switching desktops. I’ve lost too much text on web forms from accidentally going “back”.
  • Lookup definition. Three-finger tap on any word to instantly look up the definition. Don’t click, just lightly tap.
  • Auto-zoom. In some apps like Safari you can double-tap with two fingers (don’t click, just lightly tap) to automatically zoom the text to fill the width of the window. Double tap again to return to normal.

Combining gestures. Apple’s trackpads are so advanced that they can sense multiple things happening simultaneously. For example, while you are clicking and dragging an icon, keep holding your thumb while you swipe three or four fingers across to switch desktops. You’ll notice that your cursor is still holding onto the icon. This way you can work on an email or an iMessage in fullscreen mode and still drag files in from Finder.