Those of you who have been reading TidBITS for years may remember that back in 1992, I had a bout with carpal tunnel syndrome. I beat it with proper ergonomics and addressing the psychological stresses in my life, but I’ve retained a fascination with alternative keyboards and pointing devices that promise to reduce pain from repetitive stress injuries.
So, when I saw a press release from Contour Design claiming that their RollerMouse Station reduced discomfort and pain by 47 percent in the call center of a major U.S. pharmaceutical company, I was intrigued enough to ask for a review unit. It came a few days later, and I’ve been using it for a couple of months now. In short, it’s a good pointing device, although, like most pointing devices, it isn’t for everyone.
Physical Design — The RollerMouse Station is essentially a pointing device built into a wrist rest, all attached to a two-piece plastic tray that holds your keyboard – you can see a picture of it on Contour Design’s Web site. The pointing device sits between a pair of gel-filled wrist rest pads right below the spacebar on your keyboard, and it offers a roller bar, three buttons, and a scroll wheel.
The buttons do more or less what you’d expect – the left one performs a standard single click, the middle button does a double click, and the right one selects contextual menus (essentially a Control-click). The scroll wheel scrolls the window underneath the cursor (at least in Mac OS X), and pressing the scroll wheel activates a button that performs a standard single click.
The interesting part of the pointing device is the roller bar. It’s covered with rubber for guaranteed grip, and it rolls extremely easily. Rolling the bar up and down moves the cursor appropriately, and the entire roller bar slides left and right to provide that range of motion. You can even press down for yet another standard single click, and a dial on the underside of the RollerMouse lets you adjust the force necessary to activate the roller bar’s button.
All the functions I’ve described so far are built into the firmware of the device. It’s truly plug-and-play, with no software to install or configure. And that’s fine, as long as you’re happy with these defaults.
Software? What Software? Unfortunately, my experience with the RollerMouse began unpleasantly, for several reasons. The most serious concern I had immediately after plugging it in was that the roller bar hit its left and right edge well before the cursor made it to the corresponding side of the screen. That’s because I always use a pair of monitors, and the RollerMouse is clearly designed for a single-monitor system. (Those lucky sods with 22-inch and 23-inch Apple Cinema Displays would have exactly the same problem – it’s related to the pixel dimensions of your Desktop, not the number of monitors).
My second problem was that although I’ve never used all the buttons available on my Kensington TurboMouse Pro, I do like to assign a button to go back in Web browsers, and I occasionally define other buttons for specific tasks. But Contour Design simply doesn’t offer any software for adjusting cursor speed or redefining button actions. Plus, Mac OS 9 doesn’t support scroll wheels. However, there turned out to be a solution – USB Overdrive – as Contour Design’s tech support suggested quickly when I raised these concerns.
USB Overdrive, a universal driver for USB pointing devices and game controllers, comes from Alessandro Levi Montalcini, a long-standing Macintosh shareware developer. Alessandro’s code even underlies many of the drivers distributed by manufacturers of mice, trackballs, and other pointing devices. With USB Overdrive, you can adjust cursor speed and acceleration and assign a wide variety of functions to different buttons, even limiting those custom button assignments to specific applications. I’ve never needed it before, since Kensington’s MouseWorks has provided similar features for the TurboMouse Pro trackball I use, but it was clearly time to give USB Overdrive a try.
Alessandro is still working on USB Overdrive X, which will offer Mac OS X compatibility, but I didn’t see any alternative to relying on the current beta. It’s still a bit convoluted to install, but seems to work well. I bumped cursor speed to the 160 dpi setting (the default seemed to be about 400 dpi), and instantly I was able to make the cursor cover my entire Desktop. A couple of quick tweaks later and I had my buttons configured as well, though not quite how I wanted them. USB Overdrive X could identify and control the RollerMouse’s left and right buttons separately, and it lets you pick which button to attach to the scroll wheel’s button, but the RollerMouse’s middle button was hard-coded to perform a double click with the left button, and the roller bar’s button was also locked into being a left button single click. USB Overdrive X couldn’t touch those two buttons without also modifying the behavior of the left button itself. I ended up using the scroll wheel’s button for the Back command in Web browsers, which was problematic only because the tension on the scroll wheel’s button is very high, making it quite difficult to click.
Actual Usage — With those problems out of the way, I unplugged my TurboMouse Pro and forced myself to use the RollerMouse. At first, I tried using my thumb on the roller bar to control the cursor, which seemed to make sense, since the roller bar is right below the keyboard’s spacebar, and if I could use my thumb, I’d barely have to shift my hands off the keyboard at all. Unfortunately, that required either that I click with my left hand, something I had trouble learning (although I’m considering trying it again, since it seems like a good way to divide effort between my hands), or that I click using the roller bar’s button (which is a left button single click). A nice idea, but pressing down on a roller bar that rolls and slides with almost no pressure at all made the cursor jump just as I wanted to click. I almost managed to learn single clicks, but double clicks and clicking and dragging were beyond my manual dexterity, even after a week of use.
After that approach failed, I went back to the technique I’d used with the TurboMouse Pro – running the roller bar with the index finger of my right hand, and clicking the left button with my thumb. It requires a little more movement of my right hand from the typing position, but it’s still easy, and I was totally comfortable with the RollerMouse after only a day or two of this technique. I use the right button for contextual menus a fair amount, and for the first time, I’ve actually started to use and like the scroll wheel (the scroll wheel location on the TurboMouse Pro – above the trackball – put it out of reach for me). The scroll wheel isn’t as smooth as the one on a Microsoft mouse I have around as well, but it’s much less stiff than the TurboMouse Pro’s scroll wheel. I can tell I’ve become addicted to the scroll wheel because it doesn’t work in Classic applications, and I’m constantly trying to use it to scroll in Nisus Writer, the main Classic application I still use regularly.
So has the RollerMouse reduced my discomfort and pain by 47 percent? No, although I wasn’t in much discomfort to start with, so it’s not surprising. I have noticed a change in the soreness I get in my right arm – it used to be related to reaching further to the right to get to the trackball, whereas now it seems to be related to keeping my right arm pointing more to the left when I’m using the roller bar and left button. It’s just enough different from the typing position that I notice it by the end of the day.
I haven’t tried using my left hand to control the roller bar, although from what I can tell, left-handers will find it easy to do so. USB Overdrive would be particularly helpful then, since it would let you swap the functions of the left and right buttons if desired.
Trackpad Comparisons — Upon reflection, my finger technique with the RollerMouse is identical to the one I use with the trackpad on my iBook. It’s not entirely surprising, since the RollerMouse extends out from the front of your keyboard much the way the trackpad and wrist rests extend out from the front of the keyboards on PowerBooks and iBooks. There’s even a laptop predecessor to the RollerMouse: the Outbound Laptop and Outbound Notebook, early portable Macintosh clones, both used the Isopoint Trackbar, which was essentially the same idea as the RollerMouse’s roller bar.
So if there’s room for a trackpad between the RollerMouse’s wrist rests, would a trackpad work better than the roller bar? It would eliminate the problem of hitting the physical limits of the roller bar when moving left and right, since you can always pick up your finger and move it back to the middle of a trackpad when you hit the edge. But in the RollerMouse’s favor, the roller bar is really smooth and easy to use, even when your hands are a little sweaty (a common summer occurrence for me).
For some reason, the trackpad has never taken off outside the laptop world – ALPS sold the GlidePoint, a stand-alone trackpad a while back, and Adesso makes a split keyboard with an integrated trackpad that’s still seemingly available. Contour Design might do well to investigate manufacturing a trackpad-based version of the RollerMouse Station – the reduction in moving parts could help lower the cost as well as making the product instantly familiar to a large audience accustomed to trackpads on laptops.
Rolling the Dice — Should you buy a RollerMouse right away? It’s not cheap at $190 (available direct from Contour Design or from TidBITS sponsor Small Dog Electronics), and although it worked extremely well for the work I do (email, word processing, Web browsing, and so on), I worry that it wouldn’t do as well in situations where you need highly accurate control, such as with some types of graphics work or certain games. Not surprisingly, that’s often true of trackpads as well.
That said, if you’re experiencing discomfort or pain related to mousing, the RollerMouse is definitely worth a try, since it changes both your arm position and the type of motion necessary to move the cursor. Make sure to ask about return policies if you find it doesn’t match your preferred working style – input devices are highly personal and what works for me may or may not be as comfortable for you.