Laptops' pointers a real pest

July 26, 1999|By Mike Himowitz

I got mail this week from a man who's shopping for a laptop computer and wants to know which one has the best pointing device.

The answer is simple: none of them. They're all bad. In fact, the first guy who comes up with a really good replacement for the mouse will retire very young and very rich.

There's a good reason for this. The mouse is very good at what it does. It works the way we do. We all know how to point at something and we all know how to push a button. That's exactly what a mouse does -- it translates natural movements into instructions that the computer can understand.

I learned how good the mouse was more than a dozen years ago, when we first considered buying Apple Macintosh computers to produce graphics for the newspaper. I took our art director to the local dealer, sat him down in front of a Mac Plus (hot stuff in those days), and started a program called MacPaint.

The artist had never used a computer before, and he was skeptical, not to mention a bit apprehensive. But when I showed him how the mouse worked, he drew a few tentative lines and squiggles and then got one of those looks on his face that told me a light bulb had just gone on somewhere. Five minutes later, he printed out a perfect, if not exactly flattering, caricature of the boss. The boss was not amused -- but he bought the Mac.

I understand that the mouse isn't a perfect pointing device. Use one six or eight hours a day without stopping to stretch or exercise, and you'll wind up with all kinds of wrist, arm and hand pains -- and possibly serious nerve damage. But the same thing happens to people who spend too much time typing, plucking chickens or boning beef.

Over the years, designers have come up with dozens of would-be replacements for the mouse, from trackballs to mini-joysticks to touch pads. Most of these gadgets, in miniaturized versions, have been built into laptop computers. None of them works very well. They're difficult to control and make your fingers work too hard.

That's the bad news for laptop shoppers. Now the good news: it doesn't really matter.

On the back of almost every laptop is a small, round port into which you can plug a standard mouse. When you turn on the laptop, it will probably recognize the mouse without intervention on your part. Even if it doesn't pick up the presence of the mouse immediately, you can tell Windows to use an external mouse through the Control Panel. With a mouse, you can forget about the trackball, or pointing stick or touchpad.

OK, OK, you say there's no way you can use a mouse on a plane. You're right. But think about it -- even if you're a frequent traveler, what percentage of your laptop computing occurs while you're flying? Most of the time you're probably using a laptop on a table in a hotel room or an office desk. They all have plenty of room to use a mouse.

A mouse isn't an expensive accessory -- a cheap one goes for $15, a great one for $50. It only weighs a few ounces, and it will squeeze into your laptop bag without a fuss. Why torture yourself with whatever horrid pointing device the laptop manufacturer provided?

If you have to use your laptop on a plane, or somewhere else where a mouse isn't workable, Windows offers a variety of keyboard shortcuts that can replace much of the mousing around that we do. In fact, these shortcuts are useful even when your mouse is plugged in -- they're much faster than clicking and dragging.

For example, if you're working with a word processor or spreadsheet, you can highlight text or numbers by holding down the shift key and pressing one of the cursor keys. Once you've selected text, you can cut it by holding the Ctrl key while you press the letter "X." To copy it, press Ctrl-C. Then you can paste it elsewhere with Ctrl-V.

Nor do you need a mouse to access the menus at the top of a Windows program screen.

You'll notice that each menu heading (such as File, Edit and View) has one letter underlined. If you hold down the Alt key and tap this letter, the menu will appear. For example, if you press Alt-F in any Windows program, the File menu will drop down. You can then use your cursor keys to access any menu choice or look for more underlined letters in the menu commands. Pressing one of those letters will execute the command. If you have more than one program running, you don't need to click the mouse somewhere to switch between them.

By holding down the Alt key and tapping Tab repeatedly, you can move instantly from one program to another. To minimize all programs and return to your desktop, hold down the Windows key and press the letter "M."

Once your desktop is visible, you don't need your mouse to launch another program. Just tap the Windows key and release it to bring up the Start menu. Then use your cursor keys to navigate among the choices. When you reach the program you want, hit Enter. There are many more shortcuts -- too many to list here. Just remember that if you're buying a laptop, don't worry too much about the pointing device it employs. You'll only have to live with it for an hour or two at a time, and with a little Windows savvy, you can avoid most of that torture.

Concentrate on the quality of the screen, the feel of the keyboard or other features (processor speed, weight, hard disk storage) that are far more important.

Pub Date: 07/26/99

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