Synaptics’ most important news is not a device

CES 2014: There were lots of devices but purchases take the day

Synaptics LogoSynaptics was showing off the goodies at CES but the impressive bits were not on display, they were organizational. Many of the prototype technologies the company has been talking about were in real PCs, but the new acquisition was the most important thing.

You might recall Forcepad, the pressure sensitive touchpad that Synaptics has been showing off for more than a year. It is now in a product, an HP notebook, and as you can see from the picture below it is upping the ante for absurdly large touchpads. That said it is an available, force sensitive absurdly large touchpad, is that any consolation?

Synaptics Forcepad in an HP craptop

The best part of any low-end HP notebook…

On a similar note you might recall the Thintouch keyboard from Synaptics briefings past, it is a nice feeling part that has both decent travel and a low Z-height. This is done mainly through angling the direction of travel and it works quite well. At CES, Synaptics threw another curve-ball at the technology with the hinged prototype below. When you shut the lid the keys recess to an almost flat surface so the clamshell can be that much thinner. It is a really slick idea.

Synaptics Thintouch keyboard with retracting keys

Thintouch gets thinner by sinking lower

If that isn’t enough there was another curve-ball in that demo because some of the keys are touch-sensitive. I know what you are thinking, “Synaptics does touch sensors?” but we can assure you they do. Some of the larger keys like space and backspace have embedded touch sensors for gesture recognition. The demo shown was Asian character inputs where you type in some letters and are offered a choice of characters similar to autocomplete. With touch sensitive keys, you can scroll over the space bar to select the character you want without taking your hands off the keyboard. It is a really good idea that has the potential to become the next scroll wheel.

The next two technologies are not new but are really impressive engineering feats using existing touch controllers and LG products. If you have an LG G2 like I do, you understand why the double-tap to wake the phone is a really good idea. LG keeps the touch panel alive all the time to make this feature work, but how they do it without sucking the battery dry in an hour or two is the impressive engineering feat.

Synaptics wouldn’t give away all of the goodies but it is their controller in the G2. The scan rate of the touch screen is lowered a lot to lessen power draw, and the rest is just good engineering. If my experiences with the phone are anything to go by, it works very well. The curved screen LG G Flex also debuted at CES, it is essentially a larger G2 with a curved screen that bends a little. It also has double-tap to wake like the G2. Think about how you would make a flexible, curved touch screen respond to correct touch inputs, then add in doing it at low power levels and you have a real engineering challenge. That said LG and Synaptics did it, it works, and they aren’t saying how.

Last up is probably the most important thing Synaptics has done in a long time, they bought a company called Validity. If you are not immediately familiar with Validity, they are one of two fingerprint reader makers. The other is AuthenTec, or at least was AuthenTec until Apple bought them about six months ago. That leaves one fingerprint reader maker out there, Validity, at least it left them out there until Synaptics bought them.

This leaves the market in a rather curious place, Apple is unlikely to get in to the standalone fingerprint reader market for devices that compete with theirs, so AuthenTec is effectively dead to the market. That leaves Validity/Synaptics as the sole remaining source for fingerprint readers and a lot of companies are becoming very interested in two factor authentication of late. Who can they turn to?

That is why the purchase of those little black strips beside your touchpad is a big deal, there is only one vendor that makes them. Now think of what happens if in a generation or two those readers work better with Synaptics touchpad controllers, or work with the Synaptics controller that you might be using anyway for other reasons. Do you use one controller for both or two? If you use a Synaptics one for your fingerprint capable device, does it make sense to re-engineer the whole device’s input mechanisms to save a few bucks on the non-fingerprint capable SKUs? Can you say Thinkpad?

In short at CES Synaptics delivered on the tech they have been touting for the last two years or so. One by one the demos become devices, then the devices become end-user products, and nothing as yet has disappeared from the roadmaps. That is a pretty good track record but it all pales beside the potential for Validity. With that company in the fold, Synaptics has the entire secure non-iThingy market to themselves and can leverage it extremely effectively. Not a bad place to be.S|A

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Charlie Demerjian

Roving engine of chaos and snide remarks at SemiAccurate
Charlie Demerjian is the founder of Stone Arch Networking Services and is a technology news site; addressing hardware design, software selection, customization, securing and maintenance, with over one million views per month. He is a technologist and analyst specializing in semiconductors, system and network architecture. As head writer of, he regularly advises writers, analysts, and industry executives on technical matters and long lead industry trends. Charlie is also a council member with Gerson Lehman Group. FullyAccurate