Let Your Fingers Do the Walking: 13 Essential Trackpad Tricks for Mac Users

I’m a fan of the trackpad and I haven’t touched a mouse in years. Why? With the gestures you can use on the trackpad, it makes using your Mac faster, and dare I say more fun. Don’t get me wrong, It took me a long time and a lot of patience to master the trackpad, but it was worth it. Here’s how to put your fingers to work to get the most of out a trackpad on your Mac, and the good news is these gestures aren’t limited to laptop users, thanks to Apple’s Magic Trackpad 2, which brings gesturing goodness to any desktop Mac.

Four Fingers on the Trackpad

The four-fingers-down gestures are dramatic and an easy way to appreciate the power of trackpad gestures, so we’ll start with them.

Say you have a lot of windows open, and who doesn’t on a regular basis, and you want to move them all aside quickly so you can open a file on the Desktop. Place your thumb and three fingers together on your trackpad and then spread them outward. Your windows scurry to the edges of the screen. To bring the windows back, reverse the gesture, pinching your fingers in toward your palm. Once you master this, you’ll wonder what you did without it.

If you haven’t moved windows aside, pinching your thumb and three fingers together instead opens Launchpad, which shows icons for installed apps. Click an icon to open that app, or use the spreading four-fingered gesture to exit Launchpad.

Three Fingers on the Trackpad

Move three fingers horizontally on your trackpad and either nothing will happen, or you’ll switch to a different “desktop space.” This is most easily seen by making an app full-screen. For instance, open Safari and click the green full-screen button at the upper left of the window. Safari takes over the entire screen, including the menu bar (to put it back, hover the pointer at the very top of the screen to see and click the green button again).

Now swipe left and right horizontally to switch in and out of the Safari space. As you make more apps full-screen, they’ll each create their own space. (If you’ve enabled Apple’s Dashboard, you may see it at the far left.)

I personally usually have Numbers and occasionally Mail open to full screen. When I am in the Finder, I just swipe with three fingers to move between the Finder, Numbers, and Mail.

What if you swipe vertically with three fingers? Swipe up to enter the All Windows view of Mission Control, which shows all open windows as thumbnails, plus desktop spaces in the top bar. Click any thumbnail to switch to it, or jump to any space by clicking it. You can also click the plus button at the upper right or drag any window into the top bar to create a new space. To move a space’s apps back to the current space, hover over a space on the top bar and click the close button that appears. To exit All Windows view, swipe down with three fingers.

If you haven’t invoked All Windows view, swiping down with three fingers instead invokes App Exposé view, which displays thumbnails of all open windows in the current app. Click any one to switch to it. Swipe right or left with three fingers while in App Exposé to switch between apps.

Finally, on older MacBooks that don’t have Force Touch-capable trackpads, tap with three fingers on words to look them up, on files to preview them with Quick Look, and more. With newer MacBooks, if you have “Force Click and haptic feedback” enabled in System Preferences > Trackpad > Point & Click, you can instead “force click” with one finger for these features. That involves clicking on something and then pressing firmly without letting up.

Two Fingers on the Trackpad

The two-fingered gestures are easy to get your head around and are a good starting point of you want to try gestures:

  • In Safari, swipe left on a page to go back in that tab’s page history or right to go forward.
  • Also in Safari, tap two fingers on the trackpad to zoom in on the content. Another two-fingered tap zooms back out.
  • In Photos, and some graphics apps, zoom in and out by pinching with two fingers, and rotate selected objects by putting two fingers on the trackpad and turning them. A two-finger pinch also zooms the page in Safari.
  • To open Notification Center quickly, swipe left from off the right-hand edge of your trackpad. Swipe back to the right to close Notification Center. Tis is one of my favorites and I sue this multiple times a day.

Changing Your Preferences

If you need a refresher on all these gestures, open System Preferences > Trackpad. Look in the Point & Click, Scroll & Zoom, and More Gestures panes to see a video for each gesture. You can also adjust which ones are active and how many fingers they require.

With so many gestures on offer, it’s worth your time to explore everything you can do with your trackpad.

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