An easier way to operate a laptop


April 01, 1991|By Peter H. Lewis | Peter H. Lewis,New York Times News Service

Executives who use laptop computers and the Windows graphical operating system often have a problem. One can operate Windows software using typed keyboard commands, but Windows really requires a mouse.

Mice, in turn, require room to roam, and the person sitting in the next seat on the plane or train might not understand why your hand keeps sliding over onto his or her thigh.

The Microsoft Corp., which created Windows, has now developed a less peripatetic mouse for the traveling executive. The Ballpoint Mouse is a palm-size trackball that attaches to the side of most laptop or notebook computers.

The Ballpoint is the product of two converging phenomena in the personal computer industry: the popularity of laptop computers and the sudden success of Microsoft's Windows software, which has a point-and-click command structure.

The Ballpoint Mouse, which resembles a miniature hinged toilet seat with one hemisphere of a ball sticking up through the lid, is essentially an upside-down mouse, fastened to the keyboard of the computer by clamps. The user cups a hand around the Ballpoint and rolls the protruding ball around with a thumb, which causes the cursor on the computer screen to move correspondingly.

The Ballpoint uses the same Microsoft Mouse Driver as its deskbound cousin; the driver is special software that makes sure the computer knows about the pointing device.

A "compass" feature in the driver's Ballpoint control panel lets the user change the orientation of the cursor movement so that no matter where the Ballpoint is mounted, left, right or front, the cursor moves in the proper direction.

The Ballpoint's physical design is quite clever. It attaches to the rim of the computer keyboard by a clamp with two metal hooks that can be tightened by thumbscrews, and it comes with two sets of longer hooks that will fit almost any laptop keyboard design.

The clamp hugs the computer, and the Ballpoint itself inserts into the clamp. It has a breakaway connection that in theory will keep it from ripping out the side of the laptop if it is accidentally bumped.

Finally, the Ballpoint is hinged. It can be tilted on a plane from horizontal to vertical and used wherever a user is comfortable.

One problem with the Ballpoint is that the ball is too small; it is difficult to manipulate with precision. I am more accustomed to the Kensington Turbomouse trackball, which is the same size and heft as a billiard ball. The Ballpoint ball, in contrast, is about the size of a big marble.

The Ballpoint has the same theoretical degree of control, or resolution, as the popular Microsoft Mouse: 400 points per inch. Rolling the ball 1 linear inch will move the cursor across 400 pixels, or points, of the screen. The VGA screens used by many new laptops are 640 points horizontally and 480 points vertically, so a flick of the thumb can send the cursor scurrying across the screen easily.

Another potential drawback is that the Ballpoint might inadvertently cover the disk drive slot on some laptop models with right-side drives, which would be inconvenient. We tried moving the Ballpoint to the front of our laptop but found that it got in the way.

Microsoft contends that the Ballpoint can serve double duty as a desktop trackball, but it is simply too puny for serious duty. For those who are switching to desktop trackballs, the best choice remains Kensington's Expert Mouse (for IBM PC and PS/2 compatibles) and its Macintosh counterpart, the Kensington Turbo Mouse.

But the Ballpoint is the best solution yet to the portable mouse problem. It is unobtrusive, and with a little practice one might become proficient with it. The Ballpoint carries a list price of $175, about $50 more than Microsoft's free-range Mouse. It comes with its own carrying case, which is handy because most computer bags will not accommodate the laptop with the Ballpoint attached.

Officials of Microsoft, which is based in Redmond, Wash., say they are working with several computer makers to see if a standard Ballpoint connection can be incorporated directly into the laptop casing. That would create a more stable base and eliminate the need for the thumbscrews.

Microsoft says it will refund the purchaser's money upon return if, within 30 days, the owner is not satisfied with the way the Ballpoint fits the computer.


Brainstorming by computer in business meetings may be more effective than brainstorming face-to-face, according to a recent study by researchers at the Queen's University School of Business in Kingston, Ontario. The research, published in the February issue of the Journal of Applied Psychology, raises the possibility that online conferencing and electronic mail may be more productive than conventional meetings at generating ideas.

In the Queen's University experiments, 80 men and 80 womewere divided into groups that either wrote their ideas on paper or used computer terminals.

"Most individuals in electronic groups seemed to enter their ideas at will throughout the session, whereas several non-electronic interacting groups effectively became smaller when one or two people dominated the process from the outset," the researchers noted.

The electronic interactive group was able to display all the group's ideas on a screen, which the researchers think may have improved the group's memory, leading to greater stimulation.

Ideas were also displayed anonymously, which may have encouraged members to express ideas they might have withheld face-to-face.


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