About a year ago, I decided to kick my post-University sedimentary life style, and once again become a badminton superstar. So I joined a club, got my old gear out of the unopened cardboard boxes in the cellar and went off to train two times 3 hours a week just like 12 years ago.
At the beginning I was slow and uncoordinated, just like the middle-aged computer guy who is trying to relive his youthful glory days ought to be. After each training session I was so exhausted that you had to drag me off the court. I would feel awful for at least half a week and more often than not I still felt achy from the last session when the next one came along.
After a while though, I got a bit fitter, I stopped hurting so much, my feet went about their business without complaining quite as much and I was getting close (okay, not that close) to my old performance levels. The first match arrived and I did ok, the second came along and it went fairly well and before I knew it I started winning us much as I was losing and in a word, I was back. The rest is history. Or not.
The only ache that refused to go away was a little burning sensation in my heel. I had been using my old squash shoes from 1995 until then. You know the "no cushioning, no shock absorption, ultra-flat sole variety that is a lot like running barefoot but with shoes on. In my defense, that's actually quite a good choice for badminton because you spend a lot of time on your toes and a light flat shoe is pretty much ideal for quick turning without spraining your ankle.
Unfortunately, I am no longer 18 and by the time I got expensive, well cushioned, badminton-specific shoes, my doctor called it quits and told me to stop playing for a least a year. Apparently I have an inflamed achilles heel and "those things can snap you know".
What's all this got to do with the Kensington Expert Mouse and more specifically with version 7.0?
Well, the moral of the story is that the gear you use makes a difference to how likely you are to injure yourself. Had I started out getting myself new badminton shoes, I might not have ended up with Achilles heel problems. Then again I might have pushed even harder and still got myself injured, so equipment alone won't get you a free "out-of-jail" card.
In this column, I will be reviewing all kinds of ergonomic gear for your computer work. Some of you may find the jump from competition sport to humble key pressing and mouse clicking a bit much to take. Well, actually it isn't such a large jump.
Whilst the forces involved in athletic movements are obviously much stronger, the muscles and joints that you use when working on your computer are much smaller and more delicate. What's more, you're not likely to play badminton or go running 8 to 12 hours a day, every day.
In a previous post, I did a quick calculation that got you to 1.8 million key presses a year; that's a lot of little shocks on fragile little joints and ligaments. In this first ergonomic gear review, I'll be looking at my latest ergonomic toy, the Kensington Expert Mouse 7.0 for Windows or Mac.
Well, first of all, it's not a mouse, it's a trackball and that's a good thing. Mice are by their very design likely to result in repetitive strain injury sooner or later. There are probably mouse than keyboard-related RSI problems. The tell-tale "my right hand hurts more than my left" sign points right at a mouse injury.
Anyway, it's a trackball, but please don't picture one of these tiny little marble sized things that used to adorne laptops a few years ago. The Expert Mouse has more in common with a pool 8 ball. The whole mouse is somewhat super-sized as far as pointing devices go. It measures a hefty 5 by 5.75 inches (around 12×15 cm) and is a good deal larger yet if you include the wrist rest.
Anyway, it's a trackball, but please don't picture one of these tiny little marble sized things that used to adorne laptops a few years ago. The Expert Mouse has more in common with a pool 8 ball.
The whole mouse is somewhat super-sized as far as pointing devices go. It measures a hefty 5 by 5.75 inches (around 12×15 cm) and is a good deal larger yet if you include the wrist rest. The trackball itself is surrounded by 4 large buttons and circled by Kensington's Scroll Ring.
When your hand rests on the trackball in the middle, your fingers falls quite naturally onto the 4 buttons. The button at the bottom left is far away the easiest to use and is (by default) mapped to the single click. Your thumb rests comfortably on it, so you'll probably do most of your clicking with the thumb rather than with the fingers. A sound decision given that it's your strongest "finger".
The top right button, which (again by default) mapped to "double click" is also easy to reach. In order to comfortably reach the top left and the bottom right buttons, I usually have to move my hand. The bottom right button does the right click and the top left button is a "click and drag" affair: when you click it, it select the item under the pointer and goes into "drag lock". The drag ends when you click the button again.
This is ergonomically sound thinking because it avoids the awkward "I'm holding down the mouse button while trying to move the pointer" problem. In fact, this is one of the neatest things about trackballs in general: you never run out of desk space. With a mouse once you've reached the edge of the work surface you need to pick it up and reposition it in the middle, not a great idea in general ergonomic terms and outright impossible while keeping a mouse button down.
The button themselves are heavy duty affairs with a distinct micro-switch feel to them. They produce a very distinct "click" sound that leaves you in no doubt about what you've done.
The Scroll Ring that surrounds the trackball is a new variation on the familiar scroll wheel. Unlike most scroll wheel implementations, this one makes perfect ergonomic sense. The typical Microsoft Mouse scroll wheel placed between the left and right button really forces you to adopt a very awkward finger position which is positively begging for long-term problems (bye bye middle finger).
The Scroll Ring does its job perfectly and is probably my favorite feature on the device. The ring has a slightly rubbery feel to it and you can turn it comfortably using all five fingers together or just with a single one. The surface of the ring is covered in little indentations into which your fingernails slip comfortably. I gives you the impression of working with a high precision microscope dial.
The ring moves by small very distinct notches. Scrolling through text feels very natural right from the beginning. You leaf through multiple screens by just continuously turning the ring. I love it. In fact it reminds me of a more precise version of Apple's iPod click wheel.
Some people are turned off by the admittedly fairly cheap "plastic-on-plastic" sound that the ring makes when it moves. Yes, I think Apple would probably have done a better job getting the sound right, but then again they make the worst mice in the world (pretty as they undoubtedly are).
Now to the real price: the trackball. As I said, it is huge. It is also surprisingly heavy. The Expert Mouse 7.0 uses optical sensors and the ball itself is just dropped into the hollow space in the middle. It moves with very little noise or friction. It provides a good solid feel, something that is often missing from trackballs. Moving the ball with your fingers is comfortable and it has precise feel.
Most often when you use a trackball and you give it a good strong spin, the pointer will jump around the screen in an uncontrolled fashion until the ball comes to a halt several turns later; this is the trackball equivalent of banging your mouse on your desk in frustration 🙂 With the Expert Mouse it takes some effort to get the ball spinning and the pointer remains very "collected".
I tried the latest beta release of Kensington's MouseWorks software for Mac OS X, which did its job very competently. The software allows you to remap the buttons, adjust the mouse speed (you can actually customize the acceleration curve which again adds to the scientific instrument feel), define application specific actions, etc.
One feature that is still absent is the ability to simply place the pointer automatically on the default button of a dialog box. This is a feature that used to be ubiquitous on Mac OS 9, but I have never yet seen it on OS X. What a shame!
What else is in the box? A USB to PS/2 adapter for older Windows machines and of course the wrist rest. The wrist rest is fairly large and covered in firm, but soft, fake leather and it does its job. In use, it is comfortable and I would personally recommend leaving it on.
Well, this is certainly the best trackball that I have ever used. It has a very no-nonsense built-to-last design philosophy. The ball itself is as precise as it is comfortable. In my opinion the Scroll Ring is the best implementation of the familiar scroll wheel design yet. The buttons are ok, but I find them a little bit too stiff to push comfortably. Of course, if they were any less stiff, you would end up pushing them by accident while rolling the trackball, still they are not my favorite feature.
In summary, this device has found a permenant place on my desk for the time being.
I only got it a few days ago, so I'll keep you posted on how it works out long term.
The price. Oh yes. It's not really cheap at $99.99 in USB/PS2 and $119.99 in its wireless incarnation. Then again, you get what you pay for.