Tuesday, August 31, 2021

libinput and high-resolution wheel scrolling

Gut Ding braucht Weile. Almost three years ago, we added high-resolution wheel scrolling to the kernel (v5.0). The desktop stack however was first lagging and eventually left behind (except for an update a year ago or so, see here). However, I'm happy to announce that thanks to José Expósito's efforts, we now pushed it across the line. So - in a socially distanced manner and masked up to your eyebrows - gather round children, for it is storytime.

Historical History

In the beginning, there was the wheel detent. Or rather there were 24 of them, dividing a 360 degree [1] movement of a wheel into a neat set of 15 clicks. libinput exposed those wheel clicks as part of the "pointer axis" namespace and you could get the click count with libinput_event_pointer_get_axis_discrete() (announced here). The degree value is exposed as libinput_event_pointer_get_axis_value(). Other scroll backends (finger-scrolling or button-based scrolling) expose the pixel-precise value via that same function.

In a "recent" Microsoft Windows version (Vista!), MS added the ability for wheels to trigger more than 24 clicks per rotation. The MS Windows API now treats one "traditional" wheel click as a value of 120, anything finer-grained will be a fraction thereof. You may have a mouse that triggers quarter-wheel clicks, each sending a value of 30. This makes for smoother scrolling and is supported(-ish) by a lot of mice introduced in the last 10 years [2]. Obviously, three small scrolls are nicer than one large scroll, so the UX is less bad than before.

Now it's time for libinput to catch up with Windows Vista! For $reasons, the existing pointer axis API could get changed to accommodate for the high-res values, so a new API was added for scroll events. Read on for the details, you will believe what happens next.

Out with the old, in with the new

As of libinput 1.19, libinput has three new events: LIBINPUT_EVENT_POINTER_SCROLL_WHEEL, LIBINPUT_EVENT_POINTER_SCROLL_FINGER, and LIBINPUT_EVENT_POINTER_SCROLL_CONTINUOUS. These events reflect, perhaps unsuprisingly, scroll movements of a wheel, a finger or along a continuous axis (e.g. button scrolling). And they replace the old event LIBINPUT_EVENT_POINTER_AXIS. Those familiar with libinput will notice that the new event names encode the scroll source in the event name now. This makes them slightly more flexible and saves callers an extra call.

In terms of actual API, the new events have two new functions: libinput_event_pointer_get_scroll_value(). For the FINGER and CONTINUOUS events, the value returned is in "pixels" [3]. For the new WHEEL events, the value is in degrees. IOW this is a drop-in replacement for the old libinput_event_pointer_get_axis_value() function. The second call is libinput_event_pointer_get_scroll_value_v120() which, for WHEEL events, returns the 120-based logical units the kernel uses as well. libinput_event_pointer_has_axis() returns true if the given axis has a value, just as before. With those three calls you now get the data for the new events.

Backwards compatibility

To ensure backwards compatibility, libinput generates both old and new events so the rule for callers is: if you want to support the new events, just ignore the old ones completely. libinput also guarantees new events even on pre-5.0 kernels. This makes the old and new code easy to ifdef out, and once you get past the immediate event handling the code paths are virtually identical.

When, oh when?

These changes have been merged into the libinput main branch and will be part of libinput 1.19. Which is due to be released over the next month or so, so feel free to work backwards from that for your favourite distribution.

Having said that, libinput is merely the lowest block in the Jenga tower that is the desktop stack. José linked to the various MRs in the upstream libinput MR, so if you're on your seat's edge waiting for e.g. GTK to get this, well, there's an MR for that.

[1] That's degrees of an angle, not Fahrenheit
[2] As usual, on a significant number of those you'll need to know whatever proprietary protocol the vendor deemed to be important IP. Older MS mice stand out here because they use straight HID.
[3] libinput doesn't really have a concept of pixels, but it has a normalized pixel that movements are defined as. Most callers take that as real pixels except for the high-resolution displays where it's appropriately scaled.

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