By Stephen H. Wildstrom Back when computer mice relied on a big rolling ball to sense motion, their design was largely dictated by the need to accommodate the bulky mechanism. Now that all but the cheapest mice have switched to an optical sensor that uses a tiny camera to sense movement, designers have gained a lot of freedom, and new shapes and functions are blossoming.
One of the more interesting new products is the Ultra Cordless Optical Mouse from Gyration (www.gyration.com), which fills the empty spaces of a desktop mouse with a rechargeable battery and gyroscopic motion sensors. When used on a desk or other flat surface, the Gyration behaves like any other cordless mouse except that it comes with a base into which you set it to recharge.
This is a little bit of a mixed blessing, since if you forget to charge it for several days, you'll eventually find yourself with a dead mouse, and you won't be able to bring it back to life just by popping in a couple of fresh double-A's. You'll have to give it a half-hour or so to regain a working charge. On the other hand, you won't have to pay for all those batteries.
SWING TO CLICK. However, when you lift it off the desktop and press a triggerlike button set into a notch on the bottom, the whole nature of the device changes. The solid-state gyroscopes inside let it move a cursor around a display just by tracking your hand and arm motions. The standard $79.95 model works at a range of up to 30 feet from the radio receiver plugged into your PC's USB port. The $179.95 Ultra Professional model extends the range to 100 feet and includes software that lets you use the mouse to annotate the screen and to launch programs and perform other functions with preset gestures.
I found the Gyration products excellent as standard mice and relatively easy to use in their in-the-air mode. However, they're a bit heavy and somewhat awkward to maneuver. If I were doing a lot of presentations that required off-the-desk mouse control, I would favor the more comfortable $249 RemotePoint RF Cordless Mouse, a device shaped like a TV remote that uses a rubber thumb pad to move the mouse.
The minuscule sensor used in optical mice and the fact that they'll work on just about any reasonably flat surface has made a new breed of miniature mice for laptop use practical. While they aren't as comfortable to hold as full-size desktop mice, they're a lot easier to pack and often are still better that a laptop's touchpad or pointing stick for precise mouse control.
SHRUNKEN MOUSE. The $50 Super Mini Optical Mouse from Atek Electronics (www.atek.com) is the smallest of the bunch, measuring just 2.5 inches by 1 inch. I found it was actually a bit too diminutive for comfort, but people with smaller hands may find it just right.
Market leaders Microsoft and Logitech both also offer mini-mice. The $35 Microsoft Notebook Optical Mouse (www.microsoft.com/hardware/), about 3.5 inches long and 2 inches wide, looks like a standard Microsoft scroll-wheel mouse that got left out in the rain and shrunk. I found it a good compromise between compactness and comfort. The $40 Mouseman Traveler from Logitech offers similar features but with a different shape -- it's a rectangle with a curved top to fit your hand.
All of these portable mice offer similar performance, since all are based on the same Agilent-designed optical sensor. All plug into a USB port but can work with older PS/2 mouse ports with an adapter. And all can be used with either Windows or a Mac. Wildstrom is Technology & You columnist for BusinessWeek. Follow his Flash Product Reviews, only on BusinessWeek Online