January 06, 2011


Microsoft Arc Touch Mouse. Windows 7, Vista or XP (excluding XP 64 bit). Microsoft. $69.95.

Microsoft LifeCam Studio. Windows 7, Vista or XP/SP2. Microsoft. $99.95.

     Microsoft Hardware remains a kind of “little engine that could” within what is, lest we forget, the world’s largest software company. Never a huge profit center for the company – although it is profitable – and never a big drain on resources within the context of so gigantic a parent firm, the hardware division has chugged along for many years, consistently producing top-quality, innovatively engineered products that are increasingly designed for niches within the computing world and that fill those niches with both style and substance. The Microsoft Arc Touch Mouse is a perfect example of Microsoft Hardware at its cleverest. There is nothing else on the market like it. It lies absolutely flat, looking very much like an iPad or small iPhone (clearly by design, although Microsoft engineers would not likely admit that they were following the design lead of arch-rival Apple). It is solid black, shiny at the top and matte, with a velvety feel, at the bottom. It weighs almost nothing (well, a couple of ounces) and fits easily in a pocket or purse – and it works like an iPad or iPhone, operating in ways never seen before in mouse design.

     To turn the mouse on, you bend it. Yes, bend the whole thing in the middle – the tough metal spring, similar to ones that have proved functional and highly durable in previous Arc Mouse designs, is invisible within the body of the mouse. The Arc Touch Mouse uses a tiny transceiver, identical to the one that comes with Microsoft’s Arc Keyboard line, to connect to a laptop through a USB port. And laptops or netbooks are the units for which it is intended – the whole design shrieks portability (or rather whispers it: this mouse is elegant and understated, not loud at all). The mouse uses Microsoft’s trademarked “BlueTrack” technology, which lets it perform on all sorts of surfaces. And how it performs is really what sets the Arc Touch Mouse apart. The left side of the glossy black part of the mouse is for left clicks, the right side for right clicks (these areas are addressable, as are all the input portions of the mouse, but few users are likely to change their default settings). Between the left-hand and right-hand sides is a rectangular grey flush-with-the-surface button with a small raised line in the middle. This flat surface takes the place of a scroll wheel and does more than any scroll wheel on the market currently can. Gently flicking a finger up or down scrolls up or down – as on Apple’s products – while tapping at the top or bottom of the button pages up or down. And tapping in the middle, where the line crosses the button? A double tap on that line creates what Microsoft calls a “middle click,” which can do all sorts of things (and, like all other areas of the mouse, is addressable by the user). The default setting is worth keeping for a while, because “middle click” does different things under different circumstances. Microsoft points out that, in Internet Explorer, it opens a link in a new tab – without mentioning that it does the same thing in Firefox, IE’s biggest competitor. So it is worth fooling around with “middle click” for a while, just to see what it will do and where. It does nothing at all in some circumstances, though, and if those are important to you, just reconfigure what the button does or turn off “middle click” altogether. If you keep it, however, also try double clicking and holding – then you get what Microsoft calls “middle drag,” which can give you the AutoScroll feature or, again, something else, depending on the program. Using this mouse and exploring its possibilities is actually fun – something users will rarely find with input devices these days – and the slick, elegant design makes the Arc Touch Mouse a pleasure to carry around rather than a burden (the transceiver, incidentally, adheres to a magnetized area on the back for transport; and the mouse runs on two AAA batteries, which should last for months – Microsoft supplies the first pair). The one irritating thing about the Arc Touch Mouse is an odd little dull clicking sound, like that made by the spokes of a wheel when something slightly obstructs them, that you hear whenever scrolling up or down with the central button. Probably intended to be a variation on the clicking of a traditional mouse wheel, the sound is almost subliminal at first, but if you do a lot of scrolling, it can become a little grating – and cannot be turned off. Silent scrolling would have been better; but everything else here is so good that few users are likely to complain.

     Nor will there be many complaints about the excellent Microsoft LifeCam Studio – except about the price, which is distinctly high. This is a product for a more limited audience than the Microsoft Arc Mouse, because built-in video cameras are standard on so many PCs these days and are low-cost options on most of the rest. The built-in cameras, though, have plenty of limitations: their quality is not high, their field of view is usually small, and if you want to show someone (say, on Skype) something outside the camera’s view, you have to turn or pick up the whole computer – an irritant, and potentially a risk if you need to carry it to display what you want to show. Any external video camera eliminates at least some of the problems with the built-ins, but the Microsoft LifeCam Studio does so with more elegance and better engineering than others. It is, in fact, over-engineered, having a 1080p HD sensor – which will produce better video than most computers and computer users will ever need, and better than many units will be able to display. The camera is packed with features that require close integration of the computer user with Microsoft offerings for maximum usefulness – making it an excellent buy if you want those features and a less-excellent one if you do not. In particular, Microsoft LifeCam Studio is designed for full compatibility with Windows Live Messenger 2011, whose HD widescreen video calling lets users share photos while chatting and leave video messages instead of voicemail. These are very nice features if you want a Microsoft-intensive video-calling experience. If not, Microsoft LifeCam Studio offers fewer benefits – although it does work just fine with Skype, Yahoo! Messenger and AOL Instant Messenger. And by any standards, its capabilities are impressive; in fact, in many ways it is as good as a standalone video camera. Its 16:9 widescreen video recording works smoothly; its microphone has noticeably higher fidelity than those of other cameras intended for use with computers; and it even has a tripod-compatible stand in addition to the flexible one that lets you position it anywhere on a notebook or desktop PC. Yes, the tripod stand works, and yes, the camera does a fine job of producing video when used on a standalone basis. Microsoft Hardware also stands behind its products: both Microsoft LifeCam Studio and Microsoft Arc Mouse come with three-year warranties.

     Cost may be an issue for some users considering Microsoft Arc Mouse, but is unlikely to be a determining factor in whether or not to buy it – it works so well, has such interesting features and, to be blunt about it, looks so cool and so much like an Apple-designed product that its price will likely be only a minor element for many people contemplating a notebook-mouse purchase. Microsoft LifeCam Studio, though, is a more complex case. If you are committed to a Microsoft online experience, and in particular to Windows Live Messenger 2011, the camera will add a great deal to your daily online life. If you are lukewarm about using Microsoft’s software for most online purposes, but want a camera that can easily double as an offline video camera under many conditions, that too would be a good reason to consider Microsoft LifeCam Studio. But if all you are looking for is a good-quality webcam to replace a lower-quality built-in – or to use with a computer that does not have a built-in at all – then this Microsoft powerhouse will likely be too full-featured and too costly to be a worthwhile purchase. Even if that is the case, though, you will likely find yourself admiring it when you choose something else – because both the camera and the Microsoft Arc Mouse are strong evidence that the company, often referred to in investment circles as “Mr. Softy,” has hardware ideas that are as good as those of anyone else in the business, and often noticeably better.

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