November 22, 2006


Microsoft Natural Wireless Laser Mouse 6000. Microsoft. $79.95.

Microsoft LifeCam NX-6000. Microsoft. $99.95.

     Everyone knows about Microsoft’s domination in operating-system and business-application software, and computer users tend to love or loathe the company because of the ubiquity of its products and the fact that it dominates so many software sectors.

     But under most people’s radar, inspiring no fear or loathing and not as much attention as it deserves, is the hardware part of Microsoft, which consistently turns out high-quality, competitively priced enhancements for PCs (and some for Macs) – and is actually in the forefront of the development of certain product features.  This is the Microsoft that more people should know, and two of its new offerings show why.

     Microsoft Natural Wireless Laser Mouse 6000 is one of the strangest-looking mice you are likely to see.  Rounded, with a surface elevated much more than is usual in a mouse, and with a vertical right side – like the dropoff of a cliff at the ocean – it looks tall and ungainly.  But darned if the thing doesn’t work beautifully and, after a short period of adjustment, feel so comfortable that other mice seem like aberrations.  It turns out that this mouse has been very carefully thought out.  The rounded and elevated shape lets your fingers relax and curl instead of sticking out nearly straight – that straightening is associated with hand cramps and tiredness after long use of a mouse.  The strange-looking vertical right side lets your hand rest on the desk while your fingers use the device (this mouse is only for right-handers).  There’s a thumb scoop on the mouse’s left side, an inch above the desk, which turns out to be just the right height to keep your hand in a sort of “handshake” position – which is supposed to help prevent carpal tunnel syndrome by minimizing pressure on nerves in the carpal-tunnel area.  It’s impossible to be sure, without long-term use, how well this mouse protects against carpal tunnel syndrome, but it is possible to say that users who have often experienced hand tiredness and cramping after marathon computer sessions will find their hands feeling surprisingly relaxed if they use this mouse instead of one with a standard shape.  It has some neat operating features, too: an “instant viewer” tool that displays all open windows at the same time, so you can switch from place to place easily, and a two-color battery-life indicator that is much more convenient than the typical battery-life software programs provided with other wireless mice.  This mouse works on both Windows and Macintosh computers, too.  And it is compatible with the new Windows Vista operating system.

     Because computer users are so accustomed to the shape of traditional mice, it does take some time to adapt to the Microsoft Natural Wireless Laser Mouse 6000, but once you do so, you will find it hard (and perhaps painful) to return to a standard mouse.  The adaptation time is a minor concern.  But there are a couple of others: this mouse is not available bundled with one of Microsoft’s ergonomic keyboards, which is a shame – perhaps that is a cost decision, since the mouse is not inexpensive (another factor to consider).  Also, the mouse is rather ungainly to use with a laptop, and is not available in a smaller size for traveling – it may not be possible to put the ergonomic features into a smaller mouse, but it would be nice to see Microsoft try.  And how about a version for left-handers?  The biggest problem with this product, though, is that you can’t buy it just yet: it won’t be widely available until January.  Strongly consider using a holiday gift card for this mouse in the new year – your right hand will thank you.

     A Microsoft hardware product that you can buy right now – although it is for Windows laptop PCs only – is Microsoft LifeCam NX-6000.  This is an enhancement to the computing experience rather than an improvement in a necessary function.  And it happens to be a lot of fun.  Many companies make webcams, and a lot of them cost less than this one.  But Microsoft packs a lot more into this top-of-the-line, wired LifeCam than you’ll find elsewhere.  The camera not only delivers 2.0 megapixel video but also works as a still camera with impressive quality (7.6 megapixels interpolated).  It’s got an easy-to-use attachment base that you can secure with one hand; a collapsible lens that lets you carry the camera as easily as a keychain drive (which it resembles); a 3x digital zoom; and a wide-angle lens with automatic face-tracking feature, for ease of use (you can actually teleconference with this camera – it’s not a toy, even though it’s fun to use).

     However, to get the most out of this camera, you’ll have to use Microsoft software as well as this hardware, and not everyone will be comfortable with that.  The advantages to doing so are many.  This LifeCam has a one-touch-blogging feature for easy posting of photos – but it is designed for Windows Live Spaces sites.  It has easy-to-use dashboard controls – but they are for the Windows Live Messenger interface.  It has a very clever feature called Windows Live Call Button, which lets you see which buddies are online so you can quickly initiate video calls – but it works only with Windows Live Messenger.  Every feature on the Microsoft LifeCam NX-6000 works well, and the camera’s small size, easy-to-use attachment base and convenient portability (in a nice touch, a carrying case is included) are big pluses, and are big pluses for this camera no matter how you connect to friends, family and colleagues.  But it is certainly true that Microsoft – which, after all, is primarily a software company – has optimized the camera in such a way that users need to use some Microsoft connectivity programs to get the maximum possible benefits from this piece of hardware.  Yes, this LifeCam is compatible with all major instant-messaging software, and works well with programs other than Microsoft’s.  Still, your personal feelings about Microsoft software may determine just how good a value you consider this LifeCam to be.  It’s certainly a worthy competitor for anything else now on the market – and its video and still-picture resolutions are top-of-the-line.

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