May 05, 2011


Microsoft Express Mouse. Windows 7, Vista or XP (excluding XP 64-bit) or Mac OS X 10.4x-10.6x. Microsoft. $19.95.

Microsoft LifeCam HD-3000. Windows 7, Vista or XP/SP2. Microsoft. $39.95.

     Being over-engineered can be a good thing, or not so good. The concept involves building in more features or more complexity than the vast majority of users will ever want or need – or creating something with far higher quality than most people will be able to use. Since technology continues to advance rapidly, today’s over-engineering may turn into tomorrow’s simple adequacy; and over-engineering that comes at a reasonable price may be something people enjoy having even if they never use (or even understand) all the available features. But finding the right blend of engineering quality and pricing is never easy for any company, not even one as large as Microsoft, whose outstanding hardware division – although a small part of the total firm – consistently turns out top-quality products but does not always make ones priced at a level that will entice people to buy them. Over-engineering is the key. Superb mice with multiple functionalities for use in presentations, excellent cameras with 1020p HD capability, are nice to have and highly impressive technical achievements. But they are also comparatively expensive, and in an era in which so much hardware is throwaway (or at least replace-frequently), Microsoft’s excellent offerings may simply cost too much for the added value that their top-of-the-line technical specs provide.

     Hence the thinking behind two new company offerings. Express Mouse (as in “express yourself,” not as in “express vs. local”) is a wonderfully functional, full-featured mouse that comes in half a dozen bright, attractive colors, is easy to use right-handed or left-handed, has a completely smooth surface (rather than one split between left and right buttons), and costs no more than $20 (with discounts widely available). No, it does not do absolutely everything that the top-of-the-line mouse products from Microsoft do, but it comes surprisingly close, with fully programmable left and right buttons plus a scroll wheel that can be used for “middle click” functions (where available) and can also be programmed in a wide variety of different ways. Not quite as little as some notebook mice, Express Mouse is significantly smaller than traditional mice designed for desktop use, and in fact it works quite well with any hardware setup as long as you have a USB port close enough to take advantage of this mouse’s generous-length (34-inch) cord. So yes, this is a corded mouse, USB-powered, not quite as flexible as a wireless model – but also priced a lot lower and not requiring any batteries. Completely symmetrical in design, it works equally well for left-handers and right-handers – no one will have to compromise between efficiency and comfort with this unit. On the other hand (or is that the third hand?), because of the vagaries of desktop and laptop design – specifically because of USB port placement and the number of ports available in units from different manufacturers – it may turn out that the mouse is more practical on one side of a given computer than the other. So know the layout of your USB ports before buying (or make life simple and get an inexpensive multi-port hub). And enjoy choosing a color. The colors of this mouse are super-bright and are used for the cord, scroll wheel and even the Microsoft name on top of the unit: each mouse is primarily white, but the color wraps around the sides, appears on top, and extends out via the cord all the way to a conforming color for the USB connector. The colors available are grey, red, dark green, pinkish purple, and two blues called “ultramarine” (darker) and “coast” (lighter). All are pleasing to the eye and stylishly integrated into the mouse. In fact, the stylishness of this mouse is one of its best points: it may be inexpensive, but it looks really good. Another of its best points is functionality: it does just about everything a user could want a mouse to do, seamlessly and unobtrusively, and can be used for many hours without producing hand fatigue or even the slightest twinge of looming carpal-tunnel syndrome. Express Mouse is, in short, engineered exceptionally well for its functions and priced low enough so that it could be called over-engineered – in the best possible way – when considering its cost.

     Microsoft’s LifeCam HD-3000 aims for a narrower market niche, since it works only on Windows PCs, not Macs – and will be of interest only to users whose computers do not have built-in webcams (although it is far superior to the built-ins, few people who got a camera when they bought a computer will likely want to add an additional piece of hardware). Webcams have not quite reached the near-throwaway level of mice, but the LifeCam HD-3000 is very well priced at $40 (with discounts available), and like the Express Mouse, it provides nearly all the functionality of units costing twice as much or even more. Like other Microsoft webcams, it is, unfortunately, optimized for use with Windows Live Messenger, which for many people will not be the program of choice. But the LifeCam HD-3000 works quite well with Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and other sites, so a commitment to Microsoft’s entry is scarcely necessary. The LifeCam HD-3000 is a breeze to set up, with a universal base that neatly fits any computer – laptop, notebook or desktop. Like any external camera, though, it is clunkier and more visible in use than any built-in camera – an inevitability of design. Still, there is undeniable sleekness to the “widescreen” appearance of the camera – a subtle indication that it takes video in a 16:9 ratio. The LifeCam HD-3000 uses the same “TrueColor Technology” as Microsoft’s more costly models, which works just as well here as elsewhere, producing sharp pictures and true-to-life colors under a wide variety of lighting conditions. The video is not at the absolute highest 1080p level – it is 720p – but although this is a cost-driven compromise, it is unlikely to make very much difference to most users, since the visual difference between 720p and 1080p is quite minor in the vast majority of computers. What Microsoft’s hardware division has done here is produce a reasonably priced, very high-quality camera whose market reach will inevitably be limited by the facts that so many people have computers with built-in cameras and that this unit works only on Windows PCs. People within that fairly narrow target market will get a real bargain with this unit, which is well engineered (if not necessarily over-engineered), sturdy, attractive and fully functional at a level just about as high as the level of far costlier webcams. It is not for everyone, to be sure; but it is sure to do a very good job for computer users looking for a high-quality external webcam at a particularly reasonable price.

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