Improving the Trackpad: Three Gesture Apps Compared

If your computer has a multitouch trackpad or you own an external one, you probably use two finger swipes to scroll down a page, show the Notification Center and flip through your photos. But why not put your powerful trackpad to some real use with customizable gestures?

Today we’ll be comparing three apps that build on the functionality of the multitouch trackpad and improve it: JiTouch, BetterTouchTool and MagicPrefs. Want to see which one is the best?

The Gist

By now you likely already know this, but let’s go over it really quick. The more recent Macbooks come with a very elegant glass trackpad that can interpret anything you do with it, even multiple gestures at the same time. Your computer implements this multitouch functionality by giving you a few default gestures that you can use in everyday activities, such as:

  • Three-Finger Tap: Brings up the highlighted word in the dictionary.
  • Three-Finger Drag: Moves the current window around.
  • Two-Finger Pinch: Zooms in and out.
  • Three-Finger Swipe: Switches Desktops or Full-Screen Apps
Mac Gestures

Mac Gestures

You get the idea, and there are a few more gestures that you can watch and choose to activate under the Trackpad System Settings. However, if you’re like me, you’ll quickly want to explore the full potential of this amazing trackpad with a little more customization. That’s where three other apps come in that can turn your trackpad into a beast. They are all very similar though, so how do we decide which one’s the best? Let’s pit them against each other.

JiTouch 2

I’ve been a loyal JiTouch user since I got my first Macbook. Now when I work in a computer that doesn’t run it, I feel clumsy and awkward. JiTouch gives you a pretty big list of actions that you can trigger through gestures, and you can then choose which gestures you’d like to associate with which actions. There’s a little bit of everything: managing tabs, quitting apps, opening files, and much more.

JiTouch

JiTouch Preferences

JiTouch also supports the Magic Mouse in a very similar fashion, and it includes settings for customizing the speed and the sensitivity of the gesture detection. What’s even more interesting, is an extra feature that lets you “draw” shapes with two spread fingers, triggering more specific actions like opening new tabs and accessing the clipboard.

BetterTouchTool

The name of this one pretty much says it all, as it is the most popular alternative out there for improving the trackpad. It has been around for a while and it continues to be in active development, which definitely shows. There’s support for Apple Remote and the Leap Motion controller, for example.

BTT trackpad-gestures

BetterTouchTool Setup

BetterTouchTool is also heavily customizable, to the point where it can get overwhelming. There are no default actions, so you’re going to have to set them up by yourself, but you’ll get to tweak several things along the way such as specific apps where gestures should work, alternate keyboard shortcuts for your actions, and even activate window snapping. And the best part? It’s free.

MagicPrefs

If you feel burdened by BetterTouchTool and would prefer the simplicity of JiTouch for the price of free, MagicPrefs is your app. It doesn’t feature a ton of gestures, but it does include a big number of customizable actions that range from opening Spotlight to locking your computer. You can even setup your own actions through AppleScript.

MagicPrefs

MagicPrefs

Just like its competitors, it has support for the Magic Mouse along with the trackpad, and it even has a library of plugins that add extra functionality to the app, like taking an iSight picture with a gesture trigger.

Which one’s better?

Although I’m a fan of JiTouch and I continue to use it regularly, I have to admit it has fallen behind the competition. What was once a fresh and complete app, now stands without active development and with a few Mountain Lion bugs that have made me fall out of love with it.

BetterTouchTool is a recent discovery of mine, and I have come to appreciate it as an extremely complete and powerful tool, even though that’s a disadvantage at times. Using the app sometimes feels sluggish and unresponsive to me, which keeps me from embracing it as my go-to app for implementing extra gestures.

MagicPrefs on the other hand, is a competent free alternative but it feels limited on several areas as it requires a little bit of work to get some actions working, and even then some of them — such as tab management — aren’t readily available.

Conclusion

All three alternatives will more or less give you the same experience, although each one of them has its own specific gimmicks, such as JiTouch’s shape drawing, MagicPrefs’ scripting and plugin capabilities, and BetterTouchTool’s wide list of features.

Although it may not be pretty or easy to get into, BetterTouchTool is clearly the winner given our examination, as its many powerful features make it much more than just an app for implementing touch gestures. But what do you think? Which one do you use and why do you like it? Let us know in the comments!


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