Put your money where your mouse is

Feature

Put your money where your mouse is

Most computer users use a mouse or pointing devices. How do you find the one that’s right for you?

Choosing a mouse used to be simple. They arrived in a bundle with your PC, you plugged them in and you used them. After about six months, they stopped working properly and you went out and bought another one. They plugged into your serial point and, like keyboards, were not considered anything more than functional input devices.

But revolution has occurred. Suddenly pointing devices are being designed for ergonomics or just for fun. The iMac brought a revolution in the way we thought about mice. No longer are users satisfied with grey plastic blobs with two buttons. Wheels, no wires, colours and infra-red have made the mouse as much a fashion accessory as a tool. But like most essential "toys" the new designs can have some unexpected benefits. These include improving productivity and giving extra options for users with special needs.

How mice work

Conventional mice work by the movement of a rubber ball that rolls within a frame as you move it across your desk. The mouse signals these movements to your computer that interprets them as movement on the screen or commands.

The conventional mouse, which generally is grey or white and has two buttons, has several problems. The first is that an oval of hard plastic is not that easy to control and can cause stress on the hand if held for any length of time. Also, the wires never seem long enough which means that they are pulled on and strained very quickly. Finally, they are literally worn out by the erosion of the rubber ball within them. Much like pouring coffee and biscuits into your hard drive will cause damage, mice have to work on a desk that regularly gets covered in dust, drinks and general office detritus.

The new designs

All the new mice have software that enables your computer to recognise their commands and respond appropriately. Many allow you to create shorthand commands (i.e. convert mouse movements to shorthand) and perform frequent commands with one or two clicks. For example, you can instruct your mouse to accept every right click as a cut or paste command.

The wheel mouse enables you to scroll through pages quickly (ideal for surfing the Web), and quickly navigate through long documents. However, as they age, wheel mice do tend to be slightly unreactive when you press the wheel for the scroll function.

For corded mice, you have two choices: the serial or the USB port. For speedy reaction, the USB port is more efficient, but if you can't decide, why not consider one of the cordless mice on offer.

Cordless mice fall into two categories: those that use radio technology and those that favour infrared. Those that use radio technology are claimed by manufacturers to be more reliable than infrared cordless devices. This is because infrared mice, like TV remote controls, require a direct line of sight in order to communicate with you computer. You cannot, for example, use your mouse if your coffee cup is in the way.

Cordless mice work by plugging a receiver into your computer. Your computer then receives low level radio signals from your mouse. These may or may not include secure channels that allow you and your colleagues to both use digital radio technology cordless mice without the signal being interfered with.

The mice tested suffered from an apparent inability to transmit through arms, keyboards, books, cups and so forth, and did not seem up to the job unless you wanted to sit with the transmitter six inches in front of your mouse, which sort of defeats the point of being cordless.

Infra red mice use an optical sensor that scans the surface beneath the mouse, 1-1500 times a second, to track motion accurately. It works on most surfaces (good for those of us that type with a keyboard and mouse on the knee), and doesn't have a mouse ball to get clogged up with fluff and biscuit crumbs. These worked more efficiently over a period of time than digital radio mice. However, for the same reason that regular mice wear out, the infrared mouse will not work as well when coffee stained and covered in a layer of grime.

Ergonomic mice have been around for a few years and the word "mouse" a bit of a misnomer. Most consist of trackballs fitted into an ergonomic hand rest. Logitech are the market leaders in this sort of pointing device and can supply a wide range of styles. Marble Mouse seemed to cover every conceivable need in pointing devices (except the requirement to ditch the cord).

The marble mouse is based on Logitech's shiny red ball (the Marble) icon. This uses marble technology, which Logitech believes will prevent the problems of the rubber ball getting furred up. It is fully customisable and doesn't force you to hold your hand in an unnatural position while using it.

So, are these new designs any better? Well, it depends on how you use them. If you use your mouse primarily for web surfing, or within a small working space, then a wheel mouse will probably help. Cordless mice are great if you want them for show and not for serious work. For serious work, you really need that wire otherwise you will spend an eternity pointing the mouse at the receiver or wondering what it is in your colleague's head that interrupts the signal when you try to direct your mouse through it.

Windows users options

If you don't want to change your mouse, but you do want to use it to its optimum, it's worth looking at your operating systems' options. Windows has a range of customisable functions for mice. To locate these, click START, SETTINGS, CONTROL PANEL and then select MOUSE. If you are using a specialist mouse, you will need to click on the settings for the mouse software, these are generally represented by a mouse shaped icon in the toolbar.

If you are left handed, or prefer to use the mouse with your left hand, simply click to change your mouse from right (default) to left hand usage. To change the speed you need to double click to activate programs simply use the sliding mechanism on the double clicking speed box. You can then test the speed using the test area. Users with less manual dexterity may wish to slow double clicking or change their desktop view to "view as web page". This allows users to launch programs with a single, rather than a double click. If you wish to do this, click START, SETTINGS, ACTIVE DESKTOP, VIEW AS WEB PAGE.

Through the mouse controls, you can change the icons that the mouse produces. There are a range of different settings in this section, but users with sight difficulties may find the Windows Black Extra Large contains the right size and colour contrasts for them. Pointer speed can be changed within this menu and you have the option of turning pointer trails on or off.

Remember that most programs now allow users to use mouse shortcuts. Of particular interest to web surfers is that a right click and a selection of black will save having to negotiate to the buttons at the top of your browser window.

Finally

Mice can make a difference to working practices. Without a scroll wheel, users can quickly tire of scrolling through web pages or long documents. Users with physical restrictions may find a mouse with more functions helps them work more productively.

Aside from the practical reasons, it makes you feel good about using your computer to have a special pointing device. In a world where we are required to innovate on a daily basis, a decent mouse that enables you to work more productively may give you the edge.

Rachel Hodgkins


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This was first published in November 1999

 

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