Of mice and many input devices – trackballs, digitizing tablets – Hardware Review – Evaluation
FEW WOULD CONSIDER USING WINDOWS OR A MAC without a mouse, trackball, or tablet. Sure, it’s possible. But it’s also about as pleasant as having root canal without an anesthetic–not to mention awkward and inefficient.
You probably already know all the reasons why you need something besides a keyboard for working with today’s applications. In fact, your next input device will likely be a replacement for the one that you’re starting to grow tired of, find uncomfortable, or that’s joined the great GUI (graphical user interface) in the sky. Or maybe you’ve just bought a laptop, and you need an able portable companion for your travels–although many laptops’ built-in pointing devices are fine for working on a plane, they fall short when you want to be productive at the desk in your hotel room.
Mice. Today’s mice are better designed for comfort–they slope gently, curve gracefully, and in the process place less strain on your hand and wrist. Other design modifications, such as moving the control ball closer to the front of the mouse, make it easier to maneuver.
Trackballs. A trackball is like an upside-down mouse–the desktop models sit stationary on your work space and are ideally suited for crowded areas. In their portable form, trackballs typically clip onto the side of a laptop computer. The devices have both devotees and detractors. The first group will point out that trackballs are kind to your muscles, requiring only the use of thumb and fingertips and letting you avoid the sweeping arm movements mice often require to get you from place to place onscreen. The second group contends that mice are easier to control–that with a trackball, you’re more likely to overshoot the mark, so to speak.
Digitizing tablets. These days, digitizing tablets aren’t relegated to the world of professional artists and people doing computer-aided design (CAD) work. Digitizing tablets come the closest to emulating the familiar pen or pencil most of us have relied on for years to commit our ideas to paper–the tablet itself is sort of an electronic easel that you typically pair with a pen (not your everyday Bic, of course, but a special device that transmits signals to the tablet). And there are some new small-format designs that are especially practical for serving as your primary menu-picking device as well as being excellent tools for drawing.
What are some of the things you should think about when choosing an input device from among these categories? You certainly won’t pick one based on the applications you use most frequently (unless you’re an artist, in which case a digitizing tablet is the most obvious solution). Any one of these can get you around a spreadsheet, word processor, or database. Choosing an input device is incredibly subjective: You’ll base your decision as much on how the device feels in your hand as you will on where you’ll be doing your computing–on the road, on the desktop, or both–as well as on price or included software.
Technically speaking, a resolution of 150 to 200 dpi (dots per inch) for mice and trackballs gets you good control over cursor positioning; tablets often have resolutions–quite sufficient–of 1,000 lpi (lines per inch) or better. Precise work (freehand drawing, CAD, and so on) may require a higher resolution–300 dpi or more, and the more the better. You can also increase precision by moving a mouse or trackball slowly–many have software drivers that let you determine how much distance the cursor travels in relation to how fast you move the mouse.
In fact, software utilities are a big part of the story–some products ship with software that lets you do everything, from setting the speed of a double click to screen wrapping (which moves your cursor from the top of the display to the bottom with little effort). Often, software will let you swap the functions of buttons to accommodate left-handed use.
An input device is hardly a major purchase. Mice and trackballs cost anywhere from about $35 to $100 on the street. Digitizing tablets up this ante somewhat, to between $200 and $500. When you consider that whatever input device you select will be one of the primary methods used to communicate with your computer, you’ll find that the value of a comfortable tool far exceeds the price you’ll pay. Following are reviews of more than 20 input devices, arranged according to category. (Prices given, unless otherwise noted, are list.)
WIN / DOS / MAC
The Felix, which you can find for about $74, is really more of a hybrid mouse/digitizing tablet. It allows more precise control of cursor movement for meticulous tasks such as writing in script (creating a signature for use in faxes, for example), freehand drawing, and the like.
The 640 dpi Felix consists of a flat plate sealed within a small stationary base. Connected to the plate is a handle that you grip like a pen and move around a tiny square window cut into the middle of the base. Your onscreen cursor mimics these controlled movements exactly. A pair of embedded buttons on the handle lets you easily initiate click procedures.
The Felix points as easily as a traditional mouse and its design also reduces the amount of moving needed. $99; Altra, (800) 726-6153.
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Apple Desktop Bus Mouse II
Apple’s 100 dpi Desktop Bus Mouse II replaces the rectangular design of the company’s original mouse with graceful curves. The mouse–about $65 on the street–is ergonomically designed. By moving the ball nearer the front and enlarging the single button, Apple has made the mouse easier to control and more comfortable to use than its angular ancestor. Fingertips now suffice to manipulate your cursor, making the Bus Mouse a comfortable choice for almost anyone, regardless of individual hand size. As a single-button mouse, the Bus Mouse II is also equally appropriate for right- or left-handed users right out of the box. $79; Apple, (800) 776-2333.
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Key Tronic Honeywell Lifetime Mouse
WIN / DOS
Key Tronic’s Honeywell Lifetime Mouse combines tough construction with near trivial cost (about $40 street), creating a product that should appeal to anyone in the market for a basic mouse. The two-button Lifetime Mouse replaces the traditional ball with a pair of opto-mechanical feet, producing a near maintenance-free mouse that works on virtually any surface.
The 320 dpi Lifetime Mouse has a design that’s less curvy than some. But it maneuvers easily and is comfortable to use, even for extended periods. This is a good input device at a highly competitive price. $50; Key Tronic, (800) 262-6006.
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WIN / DOS
WIN / DOS
The three-button 400 dpi MouseMan is available in both a stationary or cordless model ($64 and $84, respectively, in stores). The MouseMan slopes horizontally downward according to whether you’re left- or right-handed. The two are designed a little differently, with the corded model sporting a more traditional rounded shape and the cordless device curving to a point. The buttons on the cordless model are also wider. This makes them easier to land on, but you need to press them slightly harder than other mice. In a nice touch, a switch on the receiver base of the cordless MouseMan lets you choose any one of four transmission frequencies, a godsend in an environment with multiple cordless appliances.
Logitech’s utility software, which the company bundles with all of its products, provides a wide array of options. For example, it lets you use buttons to initiate frequently used operations–double clicking, copying data to the clipboard, accessing the menu bar, and so forth. Best of all, assigning an operation to a button is a simple matter of selecting the desired task from a dropdown menu. $109 (MouseMan stationary), $149 (MouseMan cordless); Logitech, (800) 231-7717.
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WIN / DOS
The 400 dpi Microsoft Mouse stands out for both its hardware and software.
The newest Microsoft Mouse ($54 street) refines the Dove Bar design of its predecessor, allowing comfortable positioning of your hand and wrist. The mouse glided easily over a mouse pad, responded well to click presses, and provided good physical support.
Even more impressive are the upgraded software utilities. The Mouse Manager lets you fine-tune cursor control to an amazing degree during Windows sessions: Lose the cursor? Just set it so that it pops up in the center of the screen at the press of a button. Want to give your assent to a dialog box? Set snap to so that the cursor jumps to the default Yes option. That and more makes for smooth mousing around. $85; Microsoft, (800) 426-9400.
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MicroSpeed Mouse Deluxe
WIN / DOS / MAC
The 500 dpi Mouse Deluxe is small, massy, surprisingly comfortable to operate, and cheap–about $39 street. Its rounded surface fits comfortably within the hand and it has a solid, precise feel. Its three buttons offer a crisp click. But unfortunately, like some other three-button mice, the included utilities don’t really provide any function for the third button, and most application programs don’t take advantage of it, either. $49; MicroSpeed, (800) 438-7733.
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Mouse Systems NewMouse
WIN / DOS
PC Mouse III
WIN / DOS
The 300 dpi, three-button [A.sup.3] Mouse for the Mac and the PC Mouse III for the PC are identically (and nicely) designed–they feel a little flat, but their buttons are speedily responsive to clicks. They can be found for under $100. Although most Mac software doesn’t take advantage of additional buttons, Mouse Systems’s 3-Button Power utility for the [A.sup.3] Mouse bundles in its own added functionality: You can program buttons to initiate common tasks such as saving a file. Both mice are optical and require a special included pad–an advantage to this is that there’s no ball to keep clean.
The 400 dpi, three-button NewMouse, which goes for about $50 (street), includes a copy of ZSoft/SoftKey’s popular paint program, PC Paintbrush IV. You don’t get utilities to take added advantage of the third button (the same is true of the PC Mouse III), which is probably OK since its small size is difficult enough to get used to. A switch sets the mouse to two-button mode. $67 (NewMouse), $90 (PC Mouse III), $126 ([A.sup.3] Mouse); Mouse Systems, (800) 886-6423.
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The CoStar Stingray trackball’s small size (3.5 by 5 inches) and low profile (1.4 inches) deliver economy of space and ergonomic elegance in equal measure. The buttons, which fill both sides of the unit, are literally always at hand. The 200 dpi Stingray sits horizontally on your desk; your wrist and hand rest nearly parallel to your work surface, as you easily manipulate the Stingray’s small, light trackball and two large buttons. As with many of these devices, lefties and righties can set the button most accessible to them for those everyday click operations. We also like the street price of about $70. $100; CoStar, (800) 426-7827.
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Kensington Expert Mouse 4.0
WIN / DOS
Turbo Mouse 4.0
Kensington’s 200 dpi Expert Mouse and Turbo Mouse are well-designed trackballs–your hand rests comfortably on a downward sloping base; a big, comfortable ball maneuvers you around easily. Roomy buttons at each side are readily accessible to thumb, pinky, or ring finger. Another nice touch is that their removable cable can be repaired if damaged. The Mac version allows you to simply daisy chain a second device, such as a mouse, so you can have both operating at once.
Much of the excitement about these products comes from their software. Utilities transform the Kensington products into smart peripherals. The Expert Mouse, for example, lets you set up a Windows environment in which it recognizes the applications you’re using and automatically executes the appropriate preprogrammed commands for each. You can, for example, program the right key to display the Format menu whenever you’re working in Microsoft Word. With either mouse, you also can specify that certain hotkey combinations move the cursor instantly to predefined display coordinates. If solid hardware and super utilities appeal to you, you’ll find the Expert Mouse and Turbo Mouse to be attractive choices at around $100 on the street. $150 (Expert Mouse), $170 (Turbo Mouse); Kensington Microware, (800) 535-4242.
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WIN / DOS / MAC
The 400 dpi TrackMan ($74 street) stands out for its swirly design and because it’s the only desktop trackball that obliges you to use your thumb to maneuver the cursor. Although this initially seems strange, the TrackMan is surprisingly comfortable. Your fingers are always free to activate buttons, while your thumb provides enough control for most pointing activities. And you can always shift your index finger to the ball when performing such precise tasks as freehand drawing. Another plus: Logitech’s great utility software. $139; Logitech, (800) 231-7717.
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WIN / DOS
MicroSpeed’s WinTRAC and MacTRAC trackballs, about $89 street, offer convenient extras. You rest your wrist on a sloping surface with each, which makes them extremely comfortable to use, and the two main buttons are easy to push from almost anywhere. A third button lets you set up for drag and lock. By default, the WinTRAC’s TrackWheel moves you immediately to the Windows menu bar without forcing you to maneuver the cursor manually. A utility option lets you reprogram the TrackWheel for other uses, such as preprogrammed text input. $130 (WinTRAC), $100 (MacTRAC); MicroSpeed, (510) 490-1403.
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Mouse Systems PC Trackball II
WIN / DOS
The three-button PC Trackball II ($65 street) offers an ergonomic design with a built-in wrist support. Your thumb and fingers may be used interchangeably to roll the ball and click, and its oversize side buttons provide a large target base for worryfree thumb slapping. It is reliable and comfortable but tends to rock on its feet when leaned on or pushed too hard, and there is too much play in the buttons. $85; Mouse Systems, (800) 886-6423.
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WIN / DOS / MAC
At under $200 (street) and measuring just a bit larger than a mouse pad, the PenMouse is cheap (for a tablet) and tiny.
The 1,016 lpi PenMouse provides an active area of four by five inches. Though the product comes with Fractal Design’s Dabbler, a neat drawing package designed for beginners, it doesn’t support pressure sensitivity, which lets you emulate the way you draw with such traditional tools as charcoal for truly artistic effects. That’s a must if you want to learn to dabble like a pro. The cordless, battery-powered stylus has two buttons along its shaft and is well balanced. The feel of the stylus on the tablet itself is somewhat rough, and the cord may seem a bit short if you position your computer slightly away from the desk.
A mouse and the PenMouse pen cannot be active at the same time. The driver provides no way to customize such settings as the function of the two stylus side buttons.
The size and low cost of the Kurta PenMouse should appeal to those who want to replace their mouse with a pen for general applications, and Fractal Design’s Dabbler will be a strong plus for those who want to learn how to draw. $248; Kurta, (800) 543-9598.
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WIN / DOS / MAC
The Wacom ArtZ–a pressure-sensitive tablet with an active area of eight by six inches–stacks up as an excellent choice for artists or businesspeople who want a mouse replacement that can double as a sophisticated tool for computer-based drawing and painting.
The ArtZ’s driver conveniently allows a standard mouse to remain active while the tablet is in use. It also makes it easy to alter nearly every aspect of the ArtZ’s performance: For example, you can customize how the system interprets the pen’s 120 pressure levels to better emulate drawing on paper or change the function assigned to the single button along the shaft of the pen.
The tablet comes with a cordless, pressure-sensitive pen that needs no batteries. That makes the stylus lighter and better balanced than most. The tablet is still small and light enough to rest comfortably in your lap.
This is a class act whose biggest drawback for those looking for a simple pointing device will be its price–about $425 street. $499; Wacom, (800) 922-6613.
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APT Appoint Gulliver
WIN / DOS / MAC
WIN / DOS / MAC
APT Appoint offers a pair of mighty small–and equally noteworthy–mice for the road: the Gulliver and the Thumbelina (both about $55 street).
You slide the Gulliver with your fingertips instead of pushing with your whole hand. Four plastic pads give it amazing stability. APT Appoint claims the Gulliver can be used comfortably at almost any angle on virtually any surface (no mouse pad needed!); based on our testing, we agree. It’s a great companion for portable computing. A lengthy extension cord and a PS/2-to-serial adapter allow the Gulliver to serve plain old desktop duties as well.
There are a few small difference between the Mac and PC versions: For example, the PC version lets you control cursor speed, and it can be turned over and operated like a trackball. Admittedly, a larger, more traditional trackball is easier to control and more desirable for constant use, but it’s a nice option to call on occasionally.
The handheld Thumbelina mouse nestles comfortably even in small hands. Although its minuscule size makes it an ideal traveling companion, its small size and tiny buttons and ball feel somewhat cramped after extensive use. For the true road warrior and perpetual presenter, however, the Thumbelina is well worth checking out. $69 each; APT Appoint, (800) 448-1184.
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Logitech TrackMan Voyager
WIN / DOS
The new TrackMan Voyager trackball, about $80 on the street, is a modern-looking unit that operates in five ways: Its different positions accommodate people who prefer to move the ball with thumb or forefinger, who want to place it on the desk or hold it in hand, and who prefer greater hand support–accomplished by extending the unit’s length by attaching the clip-on plastic carrying case to its base. One of the nicest things about this unit (aside from excellent utility software) is that you can smoothly integrate it with your keyboard actions–no need to clip it on and grasp it whole in hand to get what you want done. $90; Logitech, (800) 231-7717.
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Microsoft BallPoint Mouse
WIN / DOS
The new version of the BallPoint Mouse ($79 street) trackball has sculpted buttons that are easy to find and comfortable to use. It also adjusts to five angles, a nice advantage for on-the-road work, and the rubberpadded underside gives a good finger grip and helps you control mouse movements. With the same software utilities that make the Microsoft Mouse such an impressive tool, the BallPoint Mouse is a big hit for the wandering worker. $109; Microsoft, (800) 426-9400.
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