Mac 101: Adjusting your mouse and trackpad speed

Michael Jones
M. Jones|12.06.10

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Mac 101: Adjusting your mouse and trackpad speed
Mouse and Trackpad SpeedMore Mac 101, our series of tips and tricks for novice Mac users.

If you've ever used the trackpad on a PC laptop connected to an external monitor and noticed how many times you have to swipe your finger across the pad to get the mouse cursor from one screen to the other, the end result can be quite frustrating and tiresome. Of course, the same thing can easily happen if you hook up an external display to your MacBook or iMac, although it usually is not as obvious thanks to the larger surface area that Apple has designed into recent trackpads. Luckily, this can be easily corrected on any Mac in just a few simple clicks.

Before we dive into the settings, though, let's talk about what is causing this to happen in the first place. Although we often take it for granted, one of the most astonishing aspects of using a mouse with a computer is the fact that you only have to move your hand by a couple of inches, while the pointer on the screen moves from one end of the screen to the other -- even if the screen is over 20" wide. This feat is accomplished by a simple mathematical conversion being done in the background that measures the distance the mouse (or your finger, if using a trackpad) moves and multiplies that by a specific factor to determine how far -- and in what direction -- to move the cursor on the screen.

Read on to find out how to give your mouse (or trackpad) a speed boost.
This factor is called the Tracking Speed, and it can easily be adjusted to your liking. You'll want to start by opening the System Preferences application. If you often switch between using a mouse and a trackpad, you'll be pleased to know that OS X allows you to set separate tracking speeds (as well as several other settings) for mice and trackpads, so you won't have to update your settings whenever you change devices.

The settings for the mouse can be found under the Mouse preference panel, and they are pretty straightforward:

To adjust the tracking speed, simply drag the slider at the top left of the window to the left to lower the speed, or to the right to increase it. Slower tracking speeds give you more control over the mouse pointer, but the pointer will not move as far and may require you to reposition the mouse on the pad if you are attempting to move your pointer very far on the screen. Higher speeds will allow the pointer to easily move from one end of the screen to the other, but it will make it more difficult to constrain the pointer to a small area of the screen, which may be troublesome for detail-oriented work such as working with images. You can easily experiment with the effects here; the pointer will immediately follow the new tracking speed when the slider is changed, so move the mouse around and see how it feels. If the pointer jumps around too much, drag the slider to the left a notch or two and try it out again. If it feels sluggish, drag it to the right.

There are some other settings here that control other speed factors, such as how far a page scrolls when you scroll using the wheel, ball or buttons on your mouse, and how rapidly you must click the mouse for the computer to recognize a double click.

If you're configuring a Magic Trackpad, there are many more options available, but the same basics apply. The tracking speed will not affect the speed of your gestures, it just affects the cursor speed when using the trackpad as a pointer.
Now that you know how to rein in your mouse or trackpad pointer, feel free to experiment with the settings. Most of them will take effect immediately, so you can easily try them out and make changes if desired. If you are using a two-button mouse, take extra care not to accidentally reverse the left and right buttons, or it may be a little awkward changing the setting back!
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