Building A Better Mouse

Ask PC buyers to name the key features they would most want on a new desktop computer, and they'll surely mention a swift microprocessor, generous supply of random-access memory (RAM), spacious hard drive, and sharp color monitor. Far down the wish list--if it shows up at all--is a souped-up mouse. Indeed, it's hard to muster excitement over a pointing device. Just about every new PC comes equipped with a mouse from Microsoft, Logitech, Kensington, or some no-name brand. By now, the little device that choreographs the blinking cursor has become ho-hum.

Yet heavy PC users should not take these computer critters for granted, especially as the species proliferates. The breed incorporates the conventional mouse, cordless mice, trackballs (basically a stationary upside-down mouse), and finger-controlled touch pads. There is even something for the smallest family members: Microsoft brought out EasyBall last year, a huge, yellow trackball aimed at 2- to 6-year-olds.

THUMB SUPPORT. With increased attention being paid to repetitive stress injuries (RSI) of the hand and wrist, many companies are trying to design better-fitting, ergonomically correct mouse products. The new Contour Mouse from Contour Design in San Ramon, Calif., is available in three sizes: a large version built for individuals with hands over 7 1/2 inches long (from the first crease of the wrist to the tip of the middle finger), a smaller model for hands less than 6 3/4 inches, and a midsize mouse that fits hands in between. Contour claims the precise fit gives the hand and fingers better support. Among the other ergonomic features are three elevated buttons shaped to reduce excessive strain on the fingers, a thumb support on the side, and a hump on which the palm can rest.

"You can't run in the Olympics in one-size-fits-all shoes," and you shouldn't have to conform to a particular mouse, maintains Dr. Emil Pascarelli, a professor of clinical medicine at Columbia University's College of Physicians & Surgeons, and co-author with Deborah Quilter of Repetitive Strain Injury: A Computer Users Guide (John Wiley & Sons, $14.95). Pascarelli says buyers should try out several mice in the computer store. See what feels right, he says, and don't hesitate to return a mouse if any discomfort ensues.

Placement of a mouse is also critical. Pascarelli believes a pointing device should be situated as close as possible to the PC keyboard, and at the same level. Both the Cirque GlidePoint and the Synaptics Touche Touch Pad, which are thin, stationary devices slightly larger than a floppy disk, fit neatly next to the keyboard. You gently slide a single finger across a small smooth surface area, and the cursor moves in tandem.

The touch pads require an adjustment period. To select an object--the equivalent of a left click on a regular mouse--you tap a finger once on the Cirque or Touche surface area. Two taps equal a double click. To "click and drag," you tap twice but hold the finger down and glide it along the surface on the second tap. Folks who would rather avoid the fingertip tap dance can press real mechanical buttons next to the smooth surface.

`ERASER HEAD.' Fingertips still do most of the work with Interlink Electronics' new DeskStick, a contraption that resembles a wide-bodied mouse but stays in place like a trackball. People place their palms on the top and extend an index finger to control a tiny, pressure-sensitive VersaPoint "eraser-head" pointing device, such as the one found on many notebook computers. Two large buttons on either side of the eraser head let users perform the requisite clicking functions, though I found it difficult to drag.

Interlink also recently unveiled a product for people who want to put distance between themselves and their PC. Users aim the RemotePointPlus cordless mouse at an infrared, battery-powered receiver hooked up to the serial port on the back of the computer--in fact, it must be installed in addition to a regular mouse.

The handheld device has a range of 40 feet and requires a clear line of sight to the receiver. On the remote itself is a 360-degree cursor control button, plus extra programmable buttons that can be used to launch programs, save files, and so on. As such, RemotePoint Plus is useful for anyone giving a presentation or for just kicking back and surfing the World Wide Web. This is one mouse you can get excited about--even if the cat could care less.

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