October 17, 2013


Microsoft Sculpt Ergonomic Mouse. Windows 7/RT/8. Microsoft. $59.95.

Microsoft Touch Mouse. Windows 7/8. Microsoft. $79.95.

     Microsoft is often condemned these days for being insufficiently creative, for resting on past laurels and allowing its two cash cows – operating systems and the Office suite – to carry it along despite a lack of innovation. The criticism is overstated and unfair, as generalizations tend to be, but it has some validity when it comes to software, since Microsoft itself has admitted missing the widespread move away from desktops and laptops to portable devices for the consumption side of computing. Of course, the creative side of computing still requires the power and screen real estate of desktops and laptops, neither of which is going away anytime soon. Handheld devices just don’t have the necessary power or visual punch required for truly creative endeavors – but of course the vast majority of people are information consumers, not information creators.

     Still, when it comes to providing tools for the creative, Microsoft remains as strong as ever, and this is especially evident in its hardware division, not so much in the well-publicized if somewhat underwhelming Surface tablet but in such mundane but crucial equipment as the mouse. Despite all the talk about touchscreens being the wave of the future – talk accelerated when Windows 8 showed up as touchscreen-friendly but cumbersome for traditional, non-touchscreen use – the creators of content (without whom the consumers of content would have nothing to consume!) still work most efficiently and effectively with keyboard and mouse. And Microsoft still makes some of the best of both you can buy anywhere.

     Two new Microsoft mice show just how creative and forward-looking the company continues to be in this field. The Sculpt Ergonomic Mouse is a right-hand-only, tilt-wheel-equipped wireless unit with an unusual curved design that requires holding it somewhat differently from other mice – but that repays the not-very-steep learning curve by making it possible to use the mouse for an essentially unlimited period without developing carpal tunnel syndrome or any pain in the hand, wrist or forearm. The mouse is on the high side – part of what users must become accustomed to – with an angle that quickly comes to feel natural once you start using the device. Diagrams included with the mouse show how to hold it and how not to, and they make positioning simple. Both the mouse and its packaging are triumphs of modern industrial design: even the box in which it comes is elegant, and mercifully free of the horrendous plastic covering that so many products came in just a few short years ago. The included batteries and tiny wireless transceiver are packed inside the mouse itself, beneath an oval magnetic cover that, when replaced, is the unit’s bottom panel. It is a very simple and neat design.

     The black plastic of the thumb scoop in the Sculpt Ergonomic Mouse has a matte finish, while the rest of the upper portion of the mouse is shiny – lending the unit an unusual two-tone look while also making the thumb-rest area extra-comfortable. Atop the thumb rest is a Windows button that provides instant access to the Start screen for users running Win8; for Win7 users, the button brings up the Start menu. There is a helpful Back button as well, although its position takes some getting used to: it is initially difficult to click it without also depressing the right-click portion of the mouse. The tilt wheel, on the other hand, is quite easy to use, and it allows left, right, front and back scrolling. The distinctive shape of this mouse is somewhat reminiscent of the shape of trackballs, which never really caught on with most users: its height and rounded appearance make it more ball-like than traditional mice, and it is also larger than most. But the size difference is not significant in office work – although anyone who does a lot of traveling may want to leave this mouse behind and carry a smaller one on the road. Easy and pleasant to use and very easy to forget altogether once you adjust to the hand position and become accustomed to the feel of the unit, the Sculpt Ergonomic Mouse quickly becomes second nature and allows users to focus entirely on their work and creativity – which is just about ideal, especially for people who must spend long hours every day at a computer. This is a piece of hardware that becomes nearly transparent as you work with it: your focus shifts from it to the work you are doing, and it quickly becomes an extension of your hand, arm and mind rather than a tool whose needs intrude on your own.

     The user experience is quite different with the Touch Mouse. This is an ambidextrous unit and a sleek one, long and low – almost sports-car-like – and with a gently knobby finish unbroken by curves, buttons or wheels. It comes with a wireless transceiver plus a cable to be used with desktop units: the cable runs from the CPU to the desktop, so you can plug in the transceiver close to the mouse for optimal signal strength. Microsoft is really taking care of the creative, desktop-using community here.

     This mouse uses touch scrolling – which, like virtual keyboards on smartphones, may take some getting used to for some people, but which eventually becomes easy and natural-feeling. Nearly the entire surface of the Touch Mouse is touch-sensitive, putting it in line with Microsoft’s increasing commitment to touch as an input method. It is the input system that makes this mouse so distinctive – and the system changes based on which operating system you are using. The idea here is to use one, two or three fingers, plus your thumb, to control what the mouse does. In Win7, one finger (the index finger for right-handers) lets you scroll, flick or pan, and you can vary the speed of screen motion by varying your finger speed – and tap to stop whatever you have started. Using two fingers at the same time – index and middle for right-handers – gives you side-by-side windows or lets you maximize or minimize. The middle finger is positioned above a line that runs down the middle of the mouse, so knowing where to place it is easy. Using three fingers at once – index, middle and ring placed left to right for right-handers – shows all open windows at once, or reveals the desktop. And you use your thumb, placed at the left side of the mouse for right-handers, to go forward or back.

     These are not intuitive movements or uses; as a result, the learning curve for the Touch Mouse is steeper than for the Sculpt Ergonomic Mouse. However, as computing in general moves further toward a touch-based model, the Touch Mouse approach will seem increasingly natural, and those who already use touchscreen equipment will find themselves quickly becoming comfortable with this mouse. Users not yet familiar with such equipment will split into two groups, one finding the gestures and motions easy to learn and frequently more useful than traditional mouse moves and the other finding them unnatural and unwieldy.

     Before deciding which group you fit into, you should consider what operating system you are using and what you will be using in the near to medium term. The reason for this is that the Touch Mouse controls are different under Win8 from what they are in Win7. Microsoft has accomplished something really interesting here by adapting the same piece of hardware to two different operating systems. The functions are certainly related, but they are different enough so anyone moving from one OS to the other will notice immediately. Under Win8, a right-handed user positioning his or her fingers the same way as in Win7 will find that one finger is a content-management control: you slide the finger in any direction to scroll, and flick it in any direction to scroll more quickly. You manage apps using two fingers together: sliding your fingers left displays the Win8 Charms (search, share, devices and settings); sliding them right switches through all open apps; sliding forward and backward shows app commands. In Win8, using three fingers gives you zoom control: slide forward to zoom in and back to zoom out. And the thumb position is used to move through apps – sliding right to go forward and left to go back. Again, these are not intuitive moves and not ones comparable to those used with other mice – but anyone using Win8 will catch on very quickly, because the Touch Mouse fits naturally into the Win8 environment to a greater extent than it does into Win7. Therefore, this is a mouse whose utility is likely to increase for anyone who decides to upgrade to Win8 and later operating systems. Furthermore, the Touch Mouse, although not ergonomic in design, has a low, sculpted shape that makes it comfortable to use for long periods. It does not provide as much comfort when used for many hours as the Sculpt Ergonomic Mouse does – but on the other hand, it is lighter, smaller and easier to carry along when you travel, and that can be a significant advantage for those who work from multiple locations.

     There is, of course, no single mouse that is just right for all users – which is why Microsoft’s hardware division makes so many different ones in so many different designs. The creativity of industrial design in this part of Microsoft’s business has never diminished and shows no sign of doing so now. There have been some recent arguments that the mouse itself is on the way out as an input device – touchscreens and (perhaps) touch pens, it is argued, are the wave of the future. But just as the death of the PC has been vastly and inaccurately over-reported, so the disappearance of the mouse is unlikely to occur anytime soon. The media in general have a difficult time distinguishing between the needs of the creators of content and the desires of content consumers – of whom there are, of course, vastly more. Yes, content users are increasingly turning to handheld devices and away from computers, keyboards and mice; but if those consumers want to continue receiving new content and upgrades of the old, they are going to remain dependent on a host of creators for whom desktops, laptops, keyboards and mice have an ease of use that makes them the preferred tools of the trade. Microsoft may have been late in joining the rush to new forms of hardware and software for information consumers, but it serves the creative community well and has never stopped doing so. The Sculpt Ergonomic Mouse and Touch Mouse are two examples of how important Microsoft remains for those who traffic in creativity.

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