The reason I’m not using a mouse or an external keyboard is that I am using Blender primarily while on the road, on airplanes, etc. I’m a former 3D professional who now essentially works in management; I still like to dabble in the toolchain to see how the state-of-the-art is evolving, and occasionally do favours for friends, but I’m not committed enough to buy new hardware or carry it around just for this purpose. I was curious whether Blender could support such casual use; the answer is: basically, no, but I’ve finally forced my way through it and am getting decent results.
For posterity’s sake, in case anybody else stumbles across this thread and wants to know how to configure their MacBook, here’s the trick: enable everything that is disabled by default, and vice versa. No, in all seriousness, here’s a preferences setup that works:
1.) Go to Interface Preferences, and enable Cursor Depth, Auto Depth, Zoom to Mouse Position, Rotate Around Selection, and Auto Perspective. Disable Global Pivot if it is enabled.
2.) Go to Input Preferences, and choose Select with Left, Emulate Numpad, Orbit Style: Turntable, and Trackpad Natural
3.) Save your preferences. Now that you’ve munged your config, don’t try reading the documentation: it’ll only confuse you.
4.) Now you can select objects with a normal trackpad click and change views using the number keys. Orbit the object you have selected by using a two-finger swipe. Dolly by placing the cursor over the spot you want to dolly to, holding down CTRL, and doing a 2-finger swipe. Pan by holding down shift and doing a 2-finger swipe.
So, with that working, I can now set about figuring out how to actually get things done with Blender.
As a meta-comment: it shouldn’t have taken the better part of 15 hours to figure this out. Although I realise that Blender’s interface has come a long way recently – I first played with it a bit back in 1999 – it’s still far, far more obtuse than it has to be. It would be possible for Blender to have a significantly shallower learning curve – and make it much more accessible to dabblers like myself – without sacrificing any of the workflow that dedicated power users require. But since Blender is developed by its community – and its community is a self-selecting of power users who have already climbed the learning curve – this seems unlikely to happen. Which is unfortunate, because it means that Blender will probably remain much more of a niche product than it has to be.
How could it be fixed? By focusing on: discoverability, discoverability, discoverability.
First: Blender should take advantage of what are otherwise universal interface conventions, such as the left mouse button being for selection, and the right button being for contextual menus. Violating these conventions is simply creating a barrier to new users for no purpose whatsoever. (But in that case, how do you place the 3D cursor, you ask? Simple: left-click with a modifier key, or middle mouse button if you have a 3-button mouse. That is objectively the correct way to do things; Blender’s default is objectively the wrong way to do things. Object-selection is a action that is shared with every other GUI application on the OS; by taking advantage of users’ extant muscle-memory for object-selection, your software will be much more accessible. Placing a 3D cursor is not a function that is shared with most other software, so it is reasonable to expect the user to develop some new muscle-memory to support it.)
Second: contextual menus. They’re an amazingly useful interface convention, since they solve the problem of figuring out how the *£(@! to do something to whatever you happen to be pointing at. This is the very crux of the discoverability problem, and contextual menus should be used liberally to address it.
Third: keybindings. Yes, they’re absolutely crucial to any power-user’s workflow, and Blender is right to support them as universally as it does. But it’s wrong to build its documentation around hard-coded keybindings, especially when the software now supports reconfigurable keybindings. The reason is that as soon as a user reconfigures their keybindings – which they may have to do from the very beginning, if they’re using hardware like mine – then the documentation suddenly becomes hopelessly confusing. The correct approach is for the documentation to be based around actions – which, if the GUI is properly intuitively discoverable (eg. with contextual menus), will be easily accessible for the noob, and no less accessible to the keyboard-based power user. An example of an application which gets this balance exactly right is Sketchup – which has a very straightforward, conventional, and accessible GUI, and the ability to customise keybindings for virtually any action. (I’m very much a power user in that application; haven’t touched an icon or drop-down menu for years.) Keybindings are something for pros, and pros will figure it out on their own as they need to (especially if the GUI provides keybinding hints at every opportunity, as it should). Whereas documentation is NOT for pros – so it really shouldn’t be based around keybindings, particularly if they can be changed and thereby make the documentation obsolete.
I think those’ll be my last Blender meta-comments. Back to work now.