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Pointing the Way with USB Mice, Part 1

The iMac introduced Universal Serial Bus (USB) technology to the Macintosh line – along with a puck-like USB mouse that’s become a frequent target of criticism. The iMac also marked the disappearance of the trusty Apple Desktop Bus (ADB), so third-party mice and input devices wouldn’t work with an iMac without add-on converters. Apple’s push toward USB ubiquity – combined with the iMac’s considerable popularity – has caused pointing device manufacturers to release a flood of USB pointing devices for the Macintosh, all designed to stand in for Apple’s default USB rodent.

I’ve had the good fortune to be privy to the development phases of several USB mice and to witness the maneuvering of driver development. Sorting through the sizable collection of pointing devices here in my office and making a few acquisitions yields a cross-section of all of the major offerings.

Catching Mice of All Sizes — With mice, size and shape matter. The mouse, in many ways, personalizes the user’s computing experience. Given the number of hours that professionals spend at their computers, the mouse must be conducive to good work habits and promote healthy wrist positions. There is likely a user for every mouse shape and size, and only you can decide which mouse shape and size are best for you, based on your individual anatomy and work habits. Fortunately, CompUSA, BestBuy, and similar venues have updated their sales displays to include demo mice that users can try for size and feel. Still, I’ve bought and put in my closet more mice than I care to count.

Currently, most high-end USB mice have similar feature sets. Multiple-button devices reign. Scroll wheels have mushroomed in popularity. Ultimately, though, the mouse driver is what provides the fluidity of workflow and user interface that make up the user experience. These drivers, where the real magic occurs, can be evaluated with some degree of objectivity.

My company, samespace, is a consulting firm that specializes in marketing and business development. As a result, we use our Macs for a variety of common tasks from email and Web browsing to graphic design and page layout. This creates a grueling test track for input devices that also offers a varied application environment in which to test the custom mouse drivers that are bundled with today’s USB devices.

UniMouse… Original or Extra Crispy — When Contour Designs first introduced the UniMouse, they led the market with a three-button replacement for the iMac puck. It’s a mouse of solid design that’s a bit beefy, something that many users love. I never could use it comfortably, but my wife loves hers, oddly enough, given that her hands are significantly smaller than mine.

However, the driver software that shipped with the original UniMouse was awful. It required you to place a custom extension in the System Folder, but offered no configuration options. Changing button settings required you to replace the Contour extension with another pre-programmed one. You set mouse speed via the Mac OS’s Mouse control panel.

Since then, the UniMouse has evolved to include UniMouse Overdrive, a customized version of Alessandro Levi Montalcini’s USB Overdrive that gives the user far more control over individual key definitions and unifies the mouse speed setting to the same control panel. UniMouse Overdrive works well, though its user interface is arcane, suffering the same eccentricities of the shareware version of USB Overdrive (discussed in part 2 of this article). The mouse buttons are now fully customizable. We configured our iMac for a click from the left button; the right button Control-clicks to bring up contextual menus, and the middle button calls up a household favorite application switcher. For those who prefer scrolling, UniMouse Overdrive supports an auto-scroll function that works in most applications. Additionally, UniMouse Overdrive supports application specific sets, enabling the user to define mouse functions unique to where they are most needed. Overall, UniMouse Overdrive is simple, clean, and workable, but mostly a huge improvement over Contour’s original effort.


Kensington MouseWorks… Mostly — Kensington Technology Group has updated their venerable MouseWorks software to include support for USB devices. I’ve now tested it with both their Orbit trackballs and a USB scrolling mouse. Kensington has just released a spate of new devices, including two new scrolling mice and a multi-button trackball that should perform similarly.

MouseWorks behaves as expected when configuring the buttons or ballistics curves for the pointing device. Ballistic curves change the rate at which the mouse responds to movements (for instance, the mouse can be set to move further based on faster motions), thus providing the finest degree of control offered by any driver reviewed.

For those who need more buttons than their physical device provides, MouseWorks supports chording of the mouse buttons, enabling the user to define buttons clicked together as though they were a single additional mouse button. Also, MouseWorks provides a cursor that snaps to the default button of dialog boxes, along with several other functions that improve pointing precision on large displays or at high cursor speeds.

MouseWorks offers numerous configuration options, including support for both scroll wheels and scrolling with mouse movement. Wheel-based scrolling support in MouseWorks 5.3 is vastly superior to the previous version of the software. With the previous release, some applications didn’t scroll at all. The latest release fixes this, resulting in consistent scrolling in most applications. You can now adjust scrolling speed, but I found that even on the fastest setting scrolling continued to feel sluggish. This sluggish scrolling combines with Kensington’s ample buffer to make overscrolling (a condition where the window keeps scrolling well after the wheel has stopped) a common occurrence. Also, scrolling works exclusively on windows that lie beneath the cursor, which can be inconvenient on large displays since it forces the user to point at the window they wish to scroll.

Support for application specific sets is excellent. Kensington has developed this functionality through the previous generations of MouseWorks. The current iteration allows for fluid application changes without unexpected hiccups. Application sets work well enough that users can enforce similar interfaces upon disparate applications by using the extra mouse buttons as simple macros.

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More Mice Everywhere — In part two of this article, I’ll cover the rest of the litter of USB mice and drivers, including Logitech’s MouseWare, the XLR8 Point-and-Scroll mouse, Microsoft’s IntelliPoint, and USB’s ubermaus driver, USB Overdrive.

[Warren Magnus is the brains behind samespace, a marketing and business development consulting firm. He also serves as sponsorship chair and webmaster for the MacHack software developers’ conference.]


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