New mice fit hand better, in safer way

January 31, 2000|By Mike Himowitz

If you spend a lot of time in front of a computer, you've learned that the most important parts of the system are the ones that connect to you directly.

You can live with a slow processor or disk drive, but a bad keyboard, mouse or monitor can sap your productivity or even imperil your health. Having survived one nasty bout with carpal tunnel syndrome, and being of middle age, which means my eyes aren't quite as flexible as they were, I tend to pay more attention to these gadgets than most people.

This time around, we'll deal with mice. Not long ago, keyboards were the primary culprits in cases of repetitive stress injury, but thanks to Web browsers and an avalanche of graphics programs, we probably spend as much time pointing and clicking today as we spend pounding on keys.

While mice were meant to be intuitive -- we all know how to point at something and push a button -- the design of the mouse itself has evolved over the years. The first models, which appeared on Apple's Lisa and Macintosh computers in the early 1980s, were flat and squared off, which made them uncomfortable and even dangerous to use over a long period of time.

Gradually, mice became curved to fit the shape of the hand, and Microsoft revolutionized mouse design entirely a few years ago with an asymmetrical mouse indented on the left side to accommodate the thumb of right-handed users. (Lefties were out of luck and for the most part, mouse makers still ignore them.)

Over time, I've found that the biggest problem with mice is that they're a one-size-fits-all solution. As a result, most are compromises that wind up fitting no one. What you need is a mouse that fits you, so that you can rest your hand on it and guide it across the desktop without having to squeeze it constantly to keep control. If your hands, like mine, are relatively large, the mice that come bundled with most PCs aren't big enough.

Microsoft's Intellimouse Explorer ($75 list, about $60 on the street) is big enough for adults -- about 30 percent larger than the average mouse. It also incorporates new technology that eliminates moving parts. This means you don't need a mouse pad, and you'll never have to clean it out to keep it from skipping and jerking.

Instead of using a rubber ball that rolls across the desktop to detect motion, the sleek, silver Intellimouse uses a light-emitting diode that checks its position on the desktop 1,500 times a second. A tiny on-board computer uses these readings to calculate movement and pass that information to the cursor on your screen. A glowing red "taillight" at the bottom of the case tells you that the Explorer is working, although this is primarily a cute design element.

Like Microsoft's other Intellimouse products, the Explorer is asymmetrical, with a left indent that favors right-handers. In addition to the two standard buttons split by a scroll wheel, the Explorer offers two buttons built into the indent. Like the others buttons, they're programmable -- by default they send Forward and Back commands to a Web browser. I thought they were mounted a little too high to reach without groping, but people with smaller hands may find them easier to click.

Overall, this is one of the most comfortable mice I've ever used. It feels good in your hand, and the wheel -- which you can use to scroll up and down through a document -- offers a better sense of control than any other mouse I've used. On the downside, the Explorer's turtle shape makes it hard to pick up, but since you're not limited to the confines of a mouse pad, you won't have to pick it up as often. It will work with any version of Windows and hooks up to your PC through a the standard mouse port or the USB ports on newer machines.

Another excellent option for the heavy-handed is the Logitech Mouseman Wheel. This $40 mouse has been around for a couple of years and uses standard ball technology, but it's large enough and superbly designed to fit the hand, with indents on both sides that make it a bit easier to grip and lift than the Explorer and probably make it more comfortable for lefties. The Mouseman has only one programmable button mounted in the left indent (set by default to initiate smooth auto scrolling) but it's set closer to the desktop and easier to reach than the Explorer's.

The Mouseman Wheel is available in PC and Macintosh flavors (Macs need a USB port). If you've bought a new Mac recently and hate the little puck-shaped mouse that comes with it (an ergonomic crime perpetrated in the name of style), the Mouseman is a good choice.

In short, the Intellimouse Explorer and the Mouseman Wheel are superbly designed mice. While Microsoft's new LED technology is cool, it's not essential -- if you're looking for a new mouse that will give your hand a break, give both a try and pick the one that feels best to you.

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