Have you ever had a four-year-old try to tell you a knock-knock joke? A knock-knock is universally understood as a straightforward, five-step transaction that begins with “Knock knock” and ends with “Dwayne the bathtub – I’m dwowning”. But by the time the kid gets there, the narrative has been embellished beyond recognition. It was a simple, taut and effective piece of comedy before she started ‘improving’ it with pirates, vampires, and a sparkly pony named Eric.
(Oh, come on. What? She’s crying? Really? OK, look, if she wasn’t prepared for a frank appraisement of her work, then she shouldn’t have asked me what I thought about the joke.)
I wish the folks at Apple who design mouses could learn from little Courtney’s example. Every time they come out with a new model, its most important functions are buried under unicorns and talking doorknobs that only speak Italian.
A mouse is such a simple device. Move it on your desktop and the mouse pointer moves. Click a button or two to select. Tickle a wheel to scroll. Above all, it needs to fit comfortably in your hand, and you should be able to orient your fingers on it without taking your eyes off the screen. Yet Novelty always seems to trump Functionality in an Apple mouse’s design.
Honestly, I can’t think of a single good Apple mouse released this millennium. Ideologically, they’ve all been covered with spray-glitter and rainbow stickers. None of them have remained on my desktop long enough to pick up any scratches or lose the kinks in its USB cable. Why did the Mighty Mouse and its ‘the body is the button’ forebears make dragging so damned hard? Now we have the Magic Mouse, which seems like a cool idea: the whole top is a multitouch input that recognises the same swipes and gestures as a MacBook trackpad.
I love the concept. But I need to know if I can click and drag with the thing. I’d also like to figure out if I’ll do the same thing with Magic Mouse that I did after 30 minutes with its precursor, the Mighty Mouse: I disabled the silly touch-sensitive feature that triggered Exposé every time I rested my hand on it.
No grand gestures
Is the Mighty Mouse as useful as the Kensington Expert Mouse? I don’t know why trackballs have fallen out of vogue. I love the iPhone’s interface because it simulates the physics of inertia so well. A trackball doesn’t need to simulate it. Flick the Kensington’s cueball and its mass keeps it spinning; nudge the pointer a few pixels or warp-factor it from one side of the screen to the other – either one is a natural, controlled gesture. Big, fat, clicky buttons are always under the finger of your choice. The ball is surrounded by a scroll ring that can be twirled lazily and with precision. It’s not particularly cool looking. Unless you replace the standard trackball with one painted to look like a glossy, realistic severed eyeball. Which you can do, I happily report.
Is the Magic Mouse as innovative as the Wacom Bamboo Pen & Touch? Instead of taking the multitouch trackpad off a MacBook and putting it on top of a mouse, Wacom put it on a compact tablet. All of those familiar fingertaps and gestures work, right on your desk’s surface. There’s a pen, too. The pad isn’t big enough to let you draw the cover of next month’s Wonder Woman, but the pen’s a bonus when someone emails you a document that needs to be signed and returned.
Let’s dial expectations back: is the Magic Mouse as invisible to your workflow as a basic mouse that costs a third as much?
Maybe you don’t even want to ‘improve’ the mousing experience. All I really want is a device that fits in my hand comfortably, has two buttons where they ought to be, and is as precise and responsive as a reasonably sober mongoose. I want to feel as though my hand is moving the pointer, not operating a USB device that interacts with an operating system.
Wheely well done
My favourite mouse is as basic as things can get: it’s the Microsoft Wheel Mouse. You get a left-clicky and a right-clicky, with a wheel in the middle and high-resolution optical tracking. And that’s it. List price: about 15 quid.
Microsoft didn’t innovate with this mouse. That’s to its credit. Its daring decision was to use hardware that costs 10.5p per unit instead of the one that costs only 7.2p, and a rubberised scrollwheel that’s manufactured in a two-step process instead of one. It feels like quality. And it fits my hand superbly. Bonus: I can’t accidentally activate Exposé by grabbing the Wheel Mouse wrongly. I don’t know why Microsoft doesn’t include that in the feature list on the packaging.
Apple’s new Magic Mouse is different enough that I’ll need to spend several days with it before I figure out my opinion. If it stays on my desk after a week or two, it’ll be such a victory that I’ll commission an epic tapestry to mark the event.
How did Apple earn this reputation? It’s justly famous for paying close attention to interfaces and industrial design. It’s not Bang & Olufsen – a company so committed to obtuse style that when you see one of its gadgets in a bathroom you don’t know whether to shave with it, make a phone call on it, or jab it into the toilet and start scrubbing.
Macs should come with the best, most comfortable mouse out there. It should feel like soft clay contoured to your hand. With every motion and click, it should reassure you that it’s done precisely what you intended for it to do.
It’s important. The mouse is the most tactile part of the user experience. In its way, the mouse is the concierge to the entire user experience. From the Mighty Mouse backward, the Mac’s concierge has greeted the user dressed in sweatpants and a stained undershirt and, not bothering to put down the source of those stains as it waves you in, asks you if you don’t mind staying in a room that hasn’t been cleaned yet.
The problem is easy to fix. Apple seems to think that bringing in a mouse that acts like Harry Potter is the way to go. Ever since I bought my first Wheel Mouse, I’ve been confident that the right man for the job is Harry Porter. (You wouldn’t know him. He used to work at the copy shop near my office. There was nothing flashy or remarkable about him except for the fact that he did his job perfectly.)