IT'S EASY TO get mad at Microsoft. The barrage of worms, viruses and Trojan horses that have made life miserable for millions over the last few months is testament to a flaky Windows operating system that needs someone to pick it up by the scruff of the neck and shake some sense into it.
But Microsoft does some things very well, and without a lot of fanfare. Although the company makes most of its billions from software, its lesser-known hardware division has a history of turning out first-rate mice and keyboards.
True, it's hard to get excited over new entries in this market. These devices have been around for a long time. In fact, Microsoft introduced its first mouse 20 years ago, although no one noticed at the time because the only computers that could really take advantage of mice were Apple's Lisa, and later the Mac.
Today, everybody who owns a computer has at least one keyboard and mouse, so it's mostly a replacement market. But they do wear out, and replacing cheap, badly designed models with good ones can help avert injury - or at least make your life much more pleasant.
Lately I've been test-driving the Mercedes of Microsoft's new line, the Wireless Optical Desktop Elite. The $105 package includes the Wireless Intellimouse Explorer and Wireless Multimedia Keyboard Elite, which were scheduled go on sale together and as separate items at the end of September.
The main downside to these otherwise excellent products is that they only work with Windows XP or Windows 2000 Professional. There's no reason for this, other than Microsoft's desire to drive customers away from Windows 98 and ME - older but serviceable releases that still run on millions of computers. Neither device incorporates any features that the older versions can't handle.
That said, if you haven't tried a wireless mouse or keyboard, the technology has distinct advantages and disadvantages. In Microsoft's Elite package, the devices share a single, black, egg-shaped receiver that can plug into a PS/2 or USB port (Microsoft wisely recommends using a PS/2 port if your computer has one.)
The obvious advantage of wireless technology is that there are no wires to clutter your desktop. Since it can operate up to 6 feet or so away from the receiver, you can easily kick back in your seat with a wireless keyboard on your lap. Microsoft's receiver comes with an admirably long cable, so your computer can be shoved under a desk or table without requiring extensions.
On the minus side, wireless equipment requires batteries (two AA's for the mouse and three for the keyboard). If they die, you're outta luck. Microsoft claims its technology extends battery life to six months, but whether it's one month or 12, you can always count on batteries to die just when you have an important paper or report due. So keep spare batteries on hand - and if you're likely to forget this kind of detail, stick with wired models.
The five-button, optical Intellimouse Explorer shows superb attention to detail and ergonomic design - as long as you're a righty. It's large enough to fit comfortably under the hand, so it doesn't require a death grip - you can just rest your palm on it and slide it. Sculpted indentations on both sides and flutes for the fingers on the two main buttons make the mouse easy to control.
Like many upscale mice, this one uses optical tracking technology instead of the traditional rubber ball. Optical mice have no moving parts to gum up, and they free users from the restricted space of a mouse pad.
The combination of ergonomic design and optical tracking makes the Intellimouse Explorer (and similar designs from Logitech and other manufacturers) a good bet for preventing, or at least reducing, arm and wrist injuries.
The new wrinkle in this year's Intellimouse is the Tilt Wheel, a redesigned scroll wheel that you can nudge from side to side to scroll horizontally through oversized Web pages or spreadsheets - a function that pressing the scroll wheel activated in earlier models.
In this version of the software, pressing the scroll wheel switches between active windows - such as a Web browser, Word document or spreadsheet. Since hitting ALT-TAB on the keyboard does the same thing, with more control, it's hard to see where the big gain is.
Still, the scroll wheel itself is smooth and positive, without the ratchety feel of earlier designs. And all five buttons are programmable - if you don't like Microsoft's notion of mouse behavior, you can fashion your own. For example, one of the side buttons can cut text while the other pastes it.
I'm sure an inordinate amount of engineering went into the Tilt Wheel, and it's a nice feature - but nothing I'd give up a perfectly good mouse for. On the other hand, if your old mouse is wearing out or the one that came with your computer is small and gives your hand cramps, the Intellimouse Explorer may be as good as it gets right now.