Apple Computer is the design champion of the computer world. But the company has had one blind spot: the mouse. From January 1983, when it introduced the industry’s first mouse, through last month, Apple insisted on producing mice with just one button and no scroll wheel.
Meanwhile, the rest of the computing word had long discovered that a scroll wheel and a second button — the right-click button — have lots of utility and are very easy to master. Apple’s archrival Microsoft has been making two-button models since its first mouse hit the marketplace a few months after Apple’s in 1983, and models with a scroll wheel since 1996. The scroll wheels make it easy to wade through long screen displays, and the right button produces a drop-down menu with actions appropriate to whatever is on the screen.
On Tuesday, Apple finally gave in — sort of. The company released an optional, add-on mouse called Mighty Mouse that allows right-clicking and scrolling. But in a stubborn homage to the old dogma, Apple designed the Mighty Mouse so it looks like, and can work like, a one-button mouse. Those clashing design goals make the Mighty Mouse harder to use than competing mice.
Meanwhile, Microsoft has also brought out a new mouse in the past few weeks, the Wireless Optical Mouse 5000. It isn’t as slick-looking as Apple’s new entry, but it’s better, in my view. The Microsoft mouse has an innovation: It allows you to instantly magnify any portion of your screen without zooming into the whole display. That’s a great help to people doing detail work, not to mention to the increasing number of baby boomers with declining vision.
Both of these new mice are primarily designed to work with each company’s own computing platform. Each will also work on the other’s platform, although some special features, like the Microsoft magnifier, don’t carry over. Apple’s Mighty Mouse costs $49. Currently, the new Microsoft mouse is only available bundled with a keyboard in a set that tops $100. It will be sold separately for $54.95 starting next month.
Microsoft’s new model is cordless, like most modern, premium mice. Apple’s Mighty Mouse is tethered to the computer with a cord, like most low-end models.
As with all of Apple’s mice in recent years, the Mighty Mouse has no visible buttons. The entire top surface of the shiny white mouse operates as a giant button. In single-button mice, this works fine and is kind of cool. But it makes it hard to do a right-click. So Apple built touch sensors into the Mighty Mouse that detect whether you are pressing its left or right side.
Macintosh fan sites on the Web are already hailing this as another of Apple’s brilliant design coups. It’s not. In my tests, I found that the design makes right-clicking slower and clumsier than on a typical Microsoft or Logitech mouse with real buttons. (These non-Apple mice work perfectly on Macs.)
In separate tests with separate Mighty Mouse units on separate computers, my assistant Katie Boehret and I found that right-clicking with the Mighty Mouse was unpredictable. Sometimes it worked, sometimes it didn’t. We needed to press the right side repeatedly to get a single right click, slowing us down and annoying us, well, mightily.
If you have Apple’s latest operating system, you can set up the Mighty Mouse so both sides act like a left mouse button, in effect turning it into a one-button mouse. Apple ships it that way so as not to shock one-button mouse lovers who have been living in a cave.
The scrolling function on the Apple mouse is also somewhat compromised in the name of design. Instead of the tried and tested scroll wheel, Apple embedded a tiny “scroll ball” in the top of the Mighty Mouse. It allows you to scroll vertically, horizontally and even diagonally. It looks cool, but I found it inferior to a scroll wheel and could never get it to work diagonally.
Another Mighty Mouse feature works much better: If you squeeze the sides of the mouse, it launches the Mac’s excellent Expose feature, which shows every open window in miniature on one screen. This works only on Macs with the latest operating system.
The right-click button and the scroll wheel on the wireless Microsoft mouse worked quickly and surely every time, even on a Macintosh. But the key feature of the Wireless Optical Mouse 5000 is the magnifier button. You just click this little button on the mouse’s left side, and instantly a rectangular area around the cursor opens to magnify that portion of the screen below. The rest of the screen remains normal.
You can expand or contract the magnifier window, or increase or decrease magnification. To dismiss the magnifier window, you just click the button again. This feature is especially great because instead of being just a temporary viewer, the magnifier window is an active area of the screen. You can work in it just as if it were in normal view — clicking, typing and selecting.
So, stop the presses: Microsoft has beaten Apple on hardware design, at least in this one case.
Write to Walter S. Mossberg at email@example.com