9th August 2020

Pointer events

Pointer events are a modern way to handle input from a variety of pointing devices, such as a mouse, a pen/stylus, a touchscreen, and so on.

The brief history

Let’s make a small overview, so that you understand the general picture and the place of Pointer Events among other event types.

  • Long ago, in the past, there were only mouse events.

    Then touch devices appeared. For the old code to work, they also generate mouse events. For instance, tapping generates mousedown. But mouse events were not good enough, as touch devices are more powerful in many aspects. For example, it’s possible to touch multiple points at once, and mouse events don’t have any properties for that.

  • So touch events were introduced, such as touchstart, touchend, touchmove, that have touch-specific properties (we don’t cover them in detail here, because pointer events are even better).

    Still, it wasn’t enough, as there are many other devices, such as pens, that have their own features. Also, writing code that listens for both touch and mouse events was cumbersome.

  • To solve these issues, the new standard Pointer Events was introduced. It provides a single set of events for all kinds of pointing devices.

As of now, Pointer Events Level 2 specification is supported in all major browsers, while Pointer Events Level 3 is in the works. Unless you code for Internet Explorer 10, or for Safari 12 or below, there’s no point in using mouse or touch events any more – we can switch to pointer events.

That being said, they have some important peculiarities that one should know in order to use them correctly and avoid surprises. We’ll make note of them in this article.

Pointer event types

Pointer events are named similarly to mouse events:

Pointer Event Mouse event
pointerdown mousedown
pointerup mouseup
pointermove mousemove
pointerover mouseover
pointerout mouseout
pointerenter mouseenter
pointerleave mouseleave
pointercancel -
gotpointercapture -
lostpointercapture -

As we can see, for every mouse<event>, there’s a pointer<event> that plays a similar role. Also there are 3 additional pointer events that don’t have a corresponding mouse... counterpart, we’ll explain them soon.

Replacing mouse<event> with pointer<event> in our code

We can replace mouse<event> events with pointer<event> in our code and expect things to continue working fine with mouse.

The support for touch devices will also “magically” improve, but we’ll probably need to add touch-action: none in CSS. See the details below in the section about pointercancel.

Pointer event properties

Pointer events have the same properties as mouse events, such as clientX/Y, target, etc., plus some others:

  • pointerId – the unique identifier of the pointer causing the event.

    Allows us to handle multiple pointers, such as a touchscreen with stylus and multi-touch (explained below).

  • pointerType – the pointing device type. Must be a string, one of: “mouse”, “pen” or “touch”.

    We can use this property to react differently on various pointer types.

  • isPrimarytrue for the primary pointer (the first finger in multi-touch).

For pointers that measure contact area and pressure, e.g. a finger on the touchscreen, the additional properties can be useful:

  • width – the width of the area where the pointer touches the device. Where unsupported, e.g. for a mouse, it’s always 1.
  • height – the height of the area where the pointer touches the device. Where unsupported, it’s always 1.
  • pressure – the pressure of the pointer tip, in range from 0 to 1. For devices that don’t support pressure must be either 0.5 (pressed) or 0.
  • tangentialPressure – the normalized tangential pressure.
  • tiltX, tiltY, twist – pen-specific properties that describe how the pen is positioned relative the surface.

These properties aren’t very well supported across devices, so they are rarely used. You can find the details in the specification if needed.

Multi-touch

One of the things that mouse events totally don’t support is multi-touch: a user can touch in several places at once on their phone or tablet, or perform special gestures.

Pointer Events allow handling multi-touch with the help of the pointerId and isPrimary properties.

Here’s what happens when a user touches a screen in one place, then puts another finger somewhere else on it:

  1. At the first touch:
    • pointerdown with isPrimary=true and some pointerId.
  2. For the second finger and further touches:
    • pointerdown with isPrimary=false and a different pointerId for every finger.

Please note: the pointerId is assigned not to the whole device, but for each touching finger. If we use 5 fingers to simultaneously touch the screen, we have 5 pointerdown events, each with their respective coordinates and a different pointerId.

The events associated with the first finger always have isPrimary=true.

We can track multiple touching fingers using their pointerId. When the user moves and then removes a finger, we get pointermove and pointerup events with the same pointerId as we had in pointerdown.

Here’s the demo that logs pointerdown and pointerup events:

Please note: you must be using a touchscreen device, such as a phone or a tablet, to actually see the difference. For single-touch devices, such as a mouse, there’ll be always same pointerId with isPrimary=true, for all pointer events.

Event: pointercancel

We’ve mentioned the importance of touch-action: none before. Now let’s explain why, as skipping this may cause our interfaces to malfunction.

The pointercancel event fires when there’s an ongoing pointer interaction, and then something happens that causes it to be aborted, so that no more pointer events are generated.

Such causes are:

  • The pointer device hardware was disabled.
  • The device orientation changed (tablet rotated).
  • The browser decided to handle the interaction on its own, considering it a mouse gesture or zoom-and-pan action or something else.

We’ll demonstrate pointercancel on a practical example to see how it affects us.

Let’s say we’re impelementing drag’n’drop for a ball, just as in the beginning of the article Drag'n'Drop with mouse events.

Here is the flow of user actions and the corresponding events:

  1. The user presses the mouse button on an image, to start dragging
    • pointerdown event fires
  2. Then they start dragging the image
    • pointermove fires, maybe several times
  3. Surprise! The browser has native drag’n’drop support for images, that kicks in and takes over the drag’n’drop process, thus generating pointercancel event.
    • The browser now handles drag’n’drop of the image on its own. The user may even drag the ball image out of the browser, into their Mail program or a File Manager.
    • No more pointermove events for us.

So the issue is that the browser “hijacks” the interaction: pointercancel fires and no more pointermove events are generated.

Here’s the demo with pointer events (only up/down, move and cancel) logged in the textarea:

We’d like to implement our own drag’n’drop, so let’s tell the browser not to take it over.

Prevent default browser actions to avoid pointercancel.

We need to do two things:

  1. Prevent native drag’n’drop from happening:
    • We can do this by setting ball.ondragstart = () => false, just as described in the article Drag'n'Drop with mouse events.
    • That works well for mouse events.
  2. For touch devices, there are also touch-related browser actions. We’ll have problems with them too.
    • We can prevent them by setting #ball { touch-action: none } in CSS.
    • Then our code will start working on touch devices.

After we do that, the events will work as intended, the browser won’t hijack the process and doesn’t emit pointercancel.

This demo adds these lines:

As you can see, there’s no pointercancel any more.

Now we can add the code to actually move the ball, and our drag’n’drop will work for mouse devices and touch devices.

Pointer capturing

Pointer capturing is a special feature of pointer events.

The idea is that we can “bind” all events with a particular pointerId to a given element. Then all subsequent events with the same pointerId will be retargeted to the same element. That is: the browser sets that element as the target and trigger associated handlers, no matter where it actually happened.

The related methods are:

  • elem.setPointerCapture(pointerId) – binds the given pointerId to elem.
  • elem.releasePointerCapture(pointerId) – unbinds the given pointerId from elem.

Such binding doesn’t hold long. It’s automatically removed after pointerup or pointercancel events, or when the target elem is removed from the document.

Now when do we need this?

Pointer capturing is used to simplify drag’n’drop kind of interactions.

Let’s recall the problem we met while making a custom slider in the article Drag'n'Drop with mouse events.

  1. First, the user presses pointerdown on the slider thumb to start dragging it.
  2. …But then, as they move the pointer, it may leave the slider: go below or over it.

But we continue tracking track pointermove events and move the thumb until pointerup, even though the pointer is not on the slider any more.

Previously, to handle pointermove events that happen outside of the slider, we listened for pointermove events on the whole document.

Pointer capturing provides an alternative solution: we can call thumb.setPointerCapture(event.pointerId) in pointerdown handler, and then all future pointer events until pointerup will be retargeted to thumb.

That is: events handlers on thumb will be called, and event.target will always be thumb, even if the user moves their pointer around the whole document. So we can listen at thumb for pointermove, no matter where it happens.

Here’s the essential code:

thumb.onpointerdown = function(event) {
  // retarget all pointer events (until pointerup) to me
  thumb.setPointerCapture(event.pointerId);
};

thumb.onpointermove = function(event) {
  // move the slider: listen at thumb, as all events are retargeted to it
  let newLeft = event.clientX - slider.getBoundingClientRect().left;
  thumb.style.left = newLeft + 'px';
};

// note: no need to call thumb.releasePointerCapture,
// it happens on pointerup automatically

The full demo:

As a summary: the code becomes cleaner as we don’t need to add/remove handlers on the whole document any more. That’s what pointer capturing does.

There are two associated pointer events:

  • gotpointercapture fires when an element uses setPointerCapture to enable capturing.
  • lostpointercapture fires when the capture is released: either explicitly with releasePointerCapture call, or automatically on pointerup/pointercancel.

Summary

Pointer events allow handling mouse, touch and pen events simultaneously.

Pointer events extend mouse events. We can replace mouse with pointer in event names and expect our code to continue working for mouse, with better support for other device types.

Remember to set touch-events: none in CSS for elements that we engage, otherwise the browser will hijack many types of touch interactions, and pointer events won’t be generated.

Additional abilities of Pointer events are:

  • Multi-touch support using pointerId and isPrimary.
  • Device-specific properties, such as pressure, width/height, and others.
  • Pointer capturing: we can retarget all pointer events to a specific element until pointerup/pointercancel.

As of now, pointer events are supported in all major browsers, so we can safely switch to them, as long as IE10- and Safari 12- are not needed. And even with those browsers, there are polyfills that enable the support of pointer events.

Tutorial map

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