Configure Your Mac's Trackpad to Meet Your Needs

Trackpad preferences provide tons of options

Mac trackpad preference pane
The Trackpad preference pane is the place to customize your trackpad settings. Screen shot courtesy of Coyote Moon, Inc.

The glass trackpad on a new MacBook, MacBook Pro, MacBook Air, or the standalone Magic Trackpad, is certainly fun to play in the store. An Apple salesperson will quickly show you how to scroll, zoom, and right-click. But once you get your new Mac notebook or Magic Trackpad home, some of the things you remember doing in the store may not seem to work the same way.

It's not you, but it's not really the Apple salesperson's fault, either. The difficulty lies in how a Mac is configured by default vs. the way most people end up configuring the trackpad. If you would like a few tips on configuring your trackpad, or you just wonder whether there's an option or two you may have overlooked, read on.

Configuring Your Mac's Trackpad

  1. Launch System Preferences, either by clicking its Dock icon or by selecting System Preferences from the Apple menu.

  2. Click the Trackpad preference pane.

Adjusting Tracking Speed

The speed at which the cursor moves across your Mac's screen is a function of both how fast you move your finger on the trackpad and the tracking speed you select.

If you're using a mouse instead of the trackpad, you can also increase and decrease the track speed of that mouse.

You set the tracking speed, from slow to fast, using a slider. Setting tracking speed to the Slow end of the slider will require you to move your finger, further along, the trackpad surface in order to move the cursor. Using a slow setting allows for very detailed cursor movements, but it can also cause maddeningly slow cursor response. It may even require multiple swipes of the finger across the touchpad to move the cursor completely across the screen.

Set the slider to the Fast end and the smallest amount of finger movement will send your cursor whizzing across the screen. Our own preference is to set the slider so that a full swipe of the finger across the trackpad causes the cursor to move completely from the left side of the display to the right side.

Trackpad Single Click

By default, a trackpad is set for a single click to be achieved by physically pressing down on the glass trackpad. You can actually feel the glass trackpad being depressed.

You can also configure the trackpad to accept a single finger tap as a single click. This makes it much easier to produce the single click. Put a checkmark next to Tap to Click to enable the single finger tapping option.

Trackpad Secondary Click

The secondary click also referred to as a right-click, is turned off by default. This is a holdover dating back to the original Mac, which had a single-button mouse. But that was so 1984. To move into the modern times, you'll want to enable the secondary click functionality.

You can use two different methods for secondary clicking. You can either use a two finger tap to produce the secondary (right-click) function or configure the trackpad to use a specific corner that, when tapped by a single finger, produces the secondary click. Try each one out then decide which works best for you.

To enable a two finger tap as a secondary click, place a checkmark in the Secondary Click box.

Use the drop-down menu just below the Secondary click item to select Click or tap with two fingers.

To enable a single finger secondary click, place a checkmark in the Secondary Click box. Then use the drop-down menu under the checkbox to select the corner of the trackpad you want to use for the secondary click.

Trackpad Gestures

There are two basic categories of gestures. Universal gestures are gestures that all applications can use; application-specific gestures are only recognized by some applications.

Universal Gestures

Select the Scroll & Zoom tab in the Trackpad preference pane.

  • Scrolling is performed by dragging two fingers the trackpad. You can scroll up, down, and sideways. OS X supports two different scroll direction referred to as natural or not. Natural refers to scrolling using the same method found in iOS devices. This may seem backward for Mac users, so you can change the preference by placing or removing the checkmark in the Scroll direction box.
  • Two Finger Rotate is an application-specific gesture; not all applications will recognize this gesture. To rotate an object, place two fingers slightly apart on the trackpad surface, then rotate your fingers in the direction you wish to move.
  • Two Finger Pinch is an application-specific gesture; not all applications will recognize this gesture. The two finger pinch lets you zoom in or out on an object. To zoom in, place two fingers slightly apart on the trackpad, then bring the fingers together (pinching). To zoom out, place two fingers together on the trackpad, then spread the fingers apart.
  • Smart Zoom: Double tapping with two fingers will zoom in. Double tapping a second time will zoom out.

    Application-Specific Gestures

    The rest of the gestures are found in either the Scroll & Zoom tab or the More Gestures Tab. Apple has moved gestures between the two tabs a few times, so depending on the version of Mac OS you are using, you will find the following gestures in one or the other tab.

    • Swipe Between Pages allows you to move back or forward on any app such as a web browser that makes use of back and forward commands.
    • Swipe Between Full-Screen Apps allows you to use a swiping motion on the trackpad to switch between any open full-screen apps you may be using.
    • Notification Center defines a swipe motion to open and close the notification panel.
    • Mission Control defines a swipe gesture to open Mission Control.
    • App Expose is used to define a swipe gesture to enter Expose.
    • LaunchPad allows you to quickly define a gesture to open the Launchpad app.
    • Show Desktop makes use of a spreading thumb and three fingers to hide open windows and display the underlying desktop.

    Those are the basics of using the trackpad or Magic Trackpad. 

    There are additional gestures and settings under the various tabs be sure and try them out to see if they are helpful to you. Remember, you don't have to enable every gesture type available.

    Also, be aware that when you see instructions for using your Mac, including here at Lifewire, they will usually reference mouse clicks. Here is the translation for a trackpad.

    • Mouse click: Primary trackpad click or single finger tap.
    • Right mouse click: Secondary tap, either a two finger tap or a single finger tap to a specific corner of the trackpad, depending on how you set your preferences.