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Switched On: Mighty Mouse has some wrongs to right


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Every Wednesday Ross Rubin contributes Switched On, an opinion column about consumer technology, multimedia, and digital entertainment:

In the early days of Mac versus Windows flame wars, the debates about secondary mouse buttons often quickly degenerated into something that looked like the end of the Dr. Seuss classic The Sneetches. Both sides would split hairs over what became an arbitrary issue of personal preference. (This was in stark contrast to the debates over the use of function keys. Now that was a war worth fighting!) Once Apple adopted USB, Mac users gained access to a number of very good multibutton mice from Logitech, Microsoft and others and the argument seemed moot. Mac users who saw the benefit of such mice could get them, and those who didn't need the extra functionality soldiered on with one finger.

Still, for many years even after the arrival of Mac OS X, which supported multibutton mice out of the box, Apple held its ground with the one-button mouse. It did this even though it had supported right-click-friendly features such as contextual menus since at least the days of System 8. Now, as Apple has brought out its (corded) first multibutton mouse, it's treated its reversal with atypical facetious self-depreciation on its Web site: "Alas the fate of the one-button mouse in today's multibutton world. Who has time for intuitive, elegant design when there is so much clicking to do?" Behold Mighty Mouse, the namesake of the animated resilient rodent celebrating his 50th anniversary this year. Apple is using the name under license from Viacom, otherwise known as Mighty Media.

How has Apple, previously a one-click pony, fared in its first four-button derby? Most importantly for veteran Mac users who consider second buttons on mice as superfluous as second tails, Apple has done an extraordinary job of preserving the simplicity of the one-button mouse. For Mac users, particularly if you�re right-handed, Mighty Mouse will replicate the functionality and feel of Apple�s old reliable out of the box. (Perhaps future versions will include a way of determining what side of the keyboard they�re on and switch the default �left-click� button automatically.)

Apple uses touch sensors to determine which side of the mouse is being clicked, but Mighty Mouse still delivers a tactile depression just like its �buttonless� predecessors. This right-click sensor works well as long as you remember to lift your left finger. However, if you�re used to resting your finger on the left-click button, Mighty Mouse may not respond to a right-click.

Apple is not the first company to create a mouse that includes a 360-degree scrolling device. IBM-branded mice with Trackpoints have done this for years. Apple�s Scroll Ball requires less pressure than a mini-joystick but doesn�t have the traction of a ridged scroll wheel. While at least one promising alternative would obviate reintroducing a mechanical Scroll Ball, the ball works very well. Apple is targeting the flexibility toward users of programs such as Photoshop, who will certainly derive benefit, but the ball is also useful for scrollathons like real-time strategy games.

The side buttons, though, are really where Mr. Trouble hangs around. First, they are a bit counterintuitive in that they both activate the same function; the multiple placements accommodate lefties and righties. The buttons are also a bit stuff. While they can be activated with the thumb with a bit of effort, Apple suggests squeezing the mouse. This, however, results in an uncomfortable tightening of the hand muscles or reorienting of one�s hand for a stronger grip. Simply making the side buttons easier to press with the thumb would save the day.

If Apple decides to make Mighty Mouse standard equipment, it will lower yet another barrier for would-be switchers from Windows. As an aftermarket product, it holds its own. It may not work as well on the sea as on the land, but it gets the situation well in hand.

Ross Rubin is director of industry analysis at NPD Techworld, a division of market research and analysis provider The NPD Group. Views expressed in Switched On, however, are his own. Feedback is welcome at
In this article: features, switched on, SwitchedOn
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