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A Mouse Is Not Just A Mouse

aminaajmSince I wrote a column on mouse evolution back in July, I’ve had a chance to see new species in action and I’ve come to some conclusions.
The two alternatives I’ve worked with are Rollermouse, a trackball from CH Products in San Marcos, Calif., and Felix, a considerably more unusual alternative from Altra, a family-owned company based in Laramie, Wyo.
Rollermouse is a direct swap for an ordinary serial-port mouse. Microsoft Windows was able to detect and use it with no installation process whatsoever, other than telling Windows which serial port to look at.
I found using a trackball to be generally satisfactory. The movements are as intuitive as those of a mouse, even though the trackball moves in more dimensions than the mouse does.
But I’m now back to a regular mouse, for three reasons. The most significant, to be fair, is that I needed my serial port back. But there were two other problems with the Rollermouse.
One was Rollermouse’s irritating tendency to drift. I couldn’t see the ball itself rotating, but the cursor on the screen nevertheless went on its own little adventures. The other problem was that I didn’t like the placement of the Rollermouse’s buttons.
At first glance, this looks like silly fussiness on my part, but I fear the problem is endemic to trackballs.
The significant problem isn’t that I, personally, didn’t like Rollermouse’s placement of its specific buttons. The problem is that, compared to a mouse, there are a lot more possible ways to configure a trackball, and consequently a lot more ways not to please a lot more users.
I tried a number of trackballs at Comdex. All put their buttons in slightly different places.
As a result, each was likely to please some users and displease others, making a satisfactory choice difficult, especially for a corporate standard. Mouse designers have less choice about where to put the buttons, and consequently less chance of not pleasing users.
Felix is a mouse of a different species altogether. It consists of a sculpted pedestal a half-inch thick and about the size of a diskette, with a little squared-off mushroom rising from it, something like a joystick.
You hold the mushroom between your thumb and middle finger, and move it in the X and Y directions anywhere within an inch-square cutout area on the top of the pedestal. The mouse button is a little switch on top of the mushroom that you push with your index finger.
Felix has the same advantage as a trackball: It stays in one place and doesn’t hide under the papers on your desk.
It has one other important advantage: Because its little square maps directly onto the screen, movements of the mushroom translate into absolute screen positions. In a Macintosh or Windows environment, Felix’s driver software takes useful advantage of this feature by allowing a quick and direct movement to the window-close box or to the expansion-contraction box in the corners of the active window
I’ve used Felix for only a couple of hours because it’s currently only available for the Macintosh, and I’m not a regular Mac user. But PC Week’s art department is entirely Mac’d, so I asked John Avakian, who’s responsible for a lot of the graphics you see on these pages, to try it out.
John used it for several days, and liked it a lot. That, in my book, is a solid recommendation. (He stopped using it because of a small mechanical problem, which Altra acknowledged and assured me has been corrected in the current production version.)
I don’t think Felix is for everyone. Specifically, I suspect user satisfaction will be in inverse proportion to the size of user hands, since its main control is fairly small.
But I’m certainly looking forward to the PC version of the product, due out in the spring, so I can judge for myself. So far, I’m impressed.

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