Going Optical

Thankfully, the hockey-puck mouse has gone the way of the 5 1/2-inch floppy and the telephone-cradle modem. In the wake of the Apple Pro Mouse and the Microsoft Intellimouse, the new trend is to go optical.

Optical mice don't use roller balls; instead they work by reflecting light off a flat surface below an optical sensor. Because they don't have any moving parts that can become dirty, optical mice are potentially more accurate than the old roller-ball variety. In addition, they don't require a mouse pad.

While all the optical mice in this roundup use similar technology, they are set apart by varying degrees of functionality, which was determined by software and number of buttons. The mice come in a number of different button/scroll wheel configurations, and all have software for customizing button functions. The more buttons a mouse has, the larger its potential to perform multiple functions.

The Kensington Mouse in a Box Optical and Mouse in a Box Optical Pro deliver top-notch customization in application-specific ways, through their standout software. For example, users can customize the right mouse button to control-click in Adobe Photoshop, but to double-click in Microsoft Word. The Kensington software, MouseWorks, is easy to navigate, using tabs and pull-down menus to control mouse settings. Additionally, users are able to define keys to make the mouse scroll slowly or only scroll in a straight line -- these features are particularly appealling.

The Microsoft Trackball Optical and Microsoft IntelliMouse Optical also feature robust software, dubbed Intellipoint. Like MouseWorks, Intellipoint enables users to define program-specific actions to the mouse. Each button can handle a variety of user-defined options: cutting and pasting, opening Sherlock and the Finder, and double- and control-clicking. The Microsoft mice are particularly adept at auto-scrolling-a handy feature when reading long text documents onscreen.

Although it's an improvement upon previous incarnations, Logitech's software, MouseWare, doesn't compare to the software offered by Kensington and Microsoft. While unique features like the WebWheel enable users to quickly access commonly used Web navigation options, MouseWare primarily adds flash over substance. Virtually all of its features (Back, Reload, Stop, Search, Web E-mail, Shopping, Sports, and News) are already available in most browsers. Additionally, users are unable to define program-specific commands.

With the ioptijr and ioptinet optical mice, Macally offers better mouse software than Logitech. The ability to launch e-mail clients and Web browsers with a single mouse click are especially useful features. There is one tremendous inconvenience with the ioptinet optical mouse, however: its software is packaged on a mini CD, making it useless for slot-loading iMac and G4 Cube owners. Fortunately, as with the ioptijr, Macally makes the software available for download online.

Also compact, the Countour Design MiniPRO mouse has excellent software thatallows users to define program-specific functions. For example, mouse clickscan be set to launch KeyQuencer macros and commands, to open items, toperform keystrokes, and to launch URLs. Plus, users can choose from up to 15different mouse tracking speeds or use the default speed setting from themouse control panel. The only downside is that the Countour Overdrivesoftware does not come packaged with the mouse, but must be downloaded fromCountour's Web site.

Button Up

The more buttons a mouse has, the larger its feature set. The Microsoft Intellimouse Optical, Microsoft Trackball Optical, and Kensington Mouse in a Box Optical Pro each sport four buttons plus a scroll wheel that can act as an additional button. The Logitech MouseMan Wheel has three buttons with a scroll wheel. The Kensington Mouse in a Box Optical, Logitech Wheel Mouse, and Macally ioptinet and ioptijr each have two buttons and a scroll wheel. In contrast, the compact Contour MiniPRO, with two buttons, and nary a scroll wheel to be found, is a good mouse for PowerBook users.

With such a variety of optical mouse configurations to choose from, buttons boil down to a matter of personal preference. While some users just can't live without a scroll wheel, others find multi-button mice inconvenient. Likewise, users have to decide which mouse makes a good fit. A mouse that might feel natural to one person could be awkward and uncomfortable for another. Personally, I found the Microsoft IntelliMouse Optical the most naturalfit for my hand, both in terms of shape and button position.


Optical Mice Compared

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