Eeeek! A Better Mouse

These low-cost mice, trackballs, and pads let you go way beyond pointing and clicking

Mice get no respect. I'll bet you never thought about the mouse that came with your computer--most likely, a Microsoft model--until accumulated cookie crumbs and potato-chip grease left you in need of a replacement. Well, it's time to stop taking for granted those "pointing devices," as they are known in the trade. I'm not about to argue that a better mouse can change your life. But manufacturers have taught the old mice some useful new tricks.

WEB NECESSITY? One big change is to make it much easier to scroll through screens, a need greatly expanded by the popularity of the World Wide Web. Clicking on scroll bars requires a lot of mouse movement. Last year, Microsoft added a little wheel to its $80 IntelliMouse. Turn the wheel with your finger and text scrolls up or down. A couple of other tricks let you make text "auto-scroll," TelePrompTer- style, or zoom in on part of a spreadsheet.

Unfortunately, these features work only with programs designed to use them. That has mainly meant Microsoft Office 97 and Internet Explorer 3.0 or 4.0. Mouse pioneer Logitech (510 795-8500) has helped with software that allows you to scroll in any Windows 95 or NT application, though autoscroll and zoom are still limited to software designed for the features. Logitech products that incorporate scrolling include the $30 First Mouse+ and $55 MouseMan+. (The latter suffers, says this southpaw, from being a very right-handed design.) IBM offers a variation: In place of the wheel, the $60 ScrollPoint uses a little stick of the sort found on ThinkPads for scrolling. The stick is located between the two buttons in the same place as the wheel on the Microsoft IntelliMouse. And the $50 Internet Mouse from Kensington Microware (415 572-2700) adds up-and-down scroll buttons to the two standard Windows buttons.

The trackball--sort of an upside-down mouse that stays still on your desk while you turn the ball--is another alternative. Microsoft recently added an $80 version with a wheel right next to the trackball for scrolling. And Logitech has just come out with the $100 TrackMan Marble FX. The Marble uses optical sensors instead of mechanical rollers to track the motion of the ball. This makes it all but immune to the skin oil and other contaminants that can cause trackballs to malfunction.

If you like the touchpads used on many laptops, you'll love the $70 VersaPad from Interlink Electronics (800 340-1331 or 805 484-1331). It combines a touch-sensitive pad with horizontal and vertical scroll bars and five buttons that can be programmed to handle such Windows functions as cut, paste, and save file. The pad can be manipulated with a stylus rather than your finger for greater accuracy.

Computer artists have long known that the best way to draw on-screen is to use something as close as possible to a real pen or brush. Now WACOM Technology (800 922-9348 or 360 750-8882) and Key Tronic (509 927-5273) have introduced $90 mass-market graphics tablets, which until now have cost anywhere from $200 to $3,000.

The tablets are similar in design. Moving the pen on or near the tablet surface moves the cursor. Each point on the tablet represents a point on the screen, so if you move the pen to the upper left, that's where your cursor appears, regardless of where it was when you started. (They can also work in standard "mouse mode," but this largely defeats the purpose of a tablet.) Tap the pen tip to click the left mouse button, and use a button on the barrel for the right. Each tablet plugs into a serial port and lets you continue using a standard mouse, too.


ARTISTIC CONTROL. The Key Tronic NotePal offers a second, programmable, button on the pen barrel, and its pen is tethered, making it hard to misplace. The WACOM PenPartner has a big advantage, though, in applications such as Adobe Systems' Photoshop that support it: As with a real brush, pressing harder on the pen produces a fatter line. This gives you a level of artistic control you just cannot achieve with any other type of device. In addition, the top of the pen serves as a handy electronic eraser.

The tablets take some getting used to. Drawing on the pad while viewing the results on the screen is different from drawing on paper, but I found that once I got the hang of it, I could draw far more precisely than with a mouse.

The fact is that the mouse that came with your computer or any replacement you buy for it will do the basic pointing job just fine. But these inexpensive tablets, trackballs, and enhanced mice offer useful features that are well worth a try.