OrthoMouse Review


My interest in ergonomic hardware was triggered in the late 1990s when I contracted a bout of tendonitis while writing up my PhD, working full time as a Research Assistant and starting out with publicspace.net concurrently.

Nothing focuses the attention more than pain and the prospect of ending your IT career before it’s even started. I made a lot of changes both to how I work and the environment that I create for myself to work in. In those years, “human factors” were beginning to become a big thing and the awareness of Repetitive Strain Injuries (RSI) was rapidly growing.

Back then, I learned to type using the dvorak keyboard layout, got myself a “proper” ergonomic keyboard (Kinesis Advantage), dabbled in voice recognition (a lot of my thesis was dictated into Dragon NaturallySpeaking) and tried pretty much every pointing device out there.. settling finally on the FingerWorks iGesturePad which has become the grand daddy of the iPhone (and as rumors have it the iTablet/ iSlate, etc.).

Since the late 90s, while ergonomic design has entered the main stream, there have been few ergonomic products of particular note and the companies specializing in such gear seem to have fallen on hard times. RSI, while it hasn’t gone away, has gone out of fashion.

It was in that context that when I came across the “Ortho Mouse” I jumped at the opportunity to test one. Here was a product that seemed to break the mould of computer mice and promised some real health advantages.

The “unboxing” of a new piece of kit has become a bit of a review ritual these days. With Apple’s products this is of course usually a special treat. You feel like you’re getting a boutique item presented to you and even companies such as Wacom have started doing a nice job.

Ergonomic gear usually falls flat on its face in this department. Usually it comes straight from its Chinese factory cardboard box filled with little “chips”. In a word, the experience is more “organic food produce” than “Cartier watch”.

The OrthoMouse doesn’t come in a cardboard box but in a nice looking but much maligned “rigid plastic clamshell” package. I usually hate those things because it’s impossible to get the product out of it without cutting yourself somehow which kind of is the point given that it is first and foremost used as an anti-theft device. Luckily, the OrthoMouse doesn’t fail at this first ergonomic hurdle. The packaging is only held in place by the pressure on its rim and comes open very easily without having to apply more than a gentle push. So don’t open it with box cutters, knifes or scissors!

Just in case, you do come across more “traditional” clamshell packages, here are some safety tips for opening such packages (try the can opener technique).

The packaging itself is quite nice, not up to Apple standards, but it does a good job of explaining the main benefits of the product, looks good and it even let’s you put your hand on the mouse to get a “feel” for it before buying it.

Once opened the package contains the mouse, several plastic shells that can be used to adapt the mouse to your hand size and form along with a mini-CD that contains the documentation and some instructional videos. There are three plastic “prolongers” for small, medium and large hands and two “upper adapters”. I’ve got small hands, so I put on the small prolonger and that seemed quite nice already (I like “puck” style mice anyway).

Connecting the mouse to your Mac is as simple as attaching it to the nearest USB port and the default settings are just fine.

My first impressions were very positive. The mouse fits well into my hand and it rests in the typical “vertical mouse” relaxed neutral position with zero tension in your hand.

With “normal” mice (Mighty Mouse, Magic Mouse, Microsoft mouse, Mac “puck”, etc, etc.) the palm of your hand lies pretty much flat or “horizontally” on the mouse. This seems intuitive until you try a “vertical” mouse where your hand is the “handshake” position.

This position is much more comfortable to work in and leaves your forearm and wrist in a neutral position avoiding much of the discomfiture that often ends up in tendonitis and carpal tunnel injury.

What is noticeable to a long term vertical mouse user is that the OrthoMouse isn’t fully “vertical”. Meaning you have to rotate your forearm a little bit towards the body after all. This intrigued me at first but a quick look through the manual revealed that the grip mimics the traditional hand writing position where the thumb and the index finger hold the pen in a pincer position. I can’t vouch for whether this is better than the “vertical” position advocated by vertical mice, but it certainly feels “right” and gives you a feeling of precision that is sometimes absent in vertical mice.

The next thing that is noticeable is that there is no scroll wheel or little trackball, etc.. instead the OrthoMouse uses two micro-switches on the side of the mouse that you activate by moving your thumb up and down. Moving your thumb up will scroll upwards, moving it down will scroll down. The scrolling continues until you release the switch by moving your thumb back into the middle. The desired speed is selected through the number of clicks: clicking once and holding will result in a very slow scroll, clicking twice and holding results in a “normal” speed and beyond three clicks you get into fast territory. This sounds a bit odd, but in practice feels quite comfortable and intuitive. There’s also no problem with accidentally hitting the switches with your thumb; your thumb rests quite comfortably on the body of the mouse and it takes no effort to keep it there. The switches are responsive and take little effort to activate.

The OrthoMouse is a three button mouse and the third button rests just under the top of your thumb, which can be usefully mapped to Exposé. The two main buttons lie in the entirely intuitive index and ring finger positions and the buttons extend all the way from the knuckle to the tip of the fingers so you can use the entire length of your fingers to click. The microswitches again are of good quality and produce a clearly audible clicking sound.

The body of the mouse features high-grip textured surfaces across most of its surface and is made of a light weight plastic material. This doesn’t exactly give it a quality feel (our brains tend to associate heavier as being better) but it does help with the ergonomics by minimizing the effort required to move it across your desk. Even on a less-than-optimal surface the mouse also slides very easily and the tracking and sensitivity are good. The manufactures have even gone the extra mile and provided an “ultra-flexible” cord that “minimizes resistance to displacement”.

I can vouch for the result being vastly superior to the Apple “Magic Mouse” which on the hotel table (velours top!) that I wrote this on had huge problems with its tracking. The OrthoMouse worked just fine.

Having now worked with the mouse for well over a month, it has become my preferred input device. It’s comfortable and intuitive to use and just blends into the background. Precision tasks as well as general pointing and clicking tasks can both be performed without any problems. From a purely tactile point of view, it’s not as satisfying to move around as the Evoluent VerticalMouse, which feels a bit heavier and looks more aesthetically pleasing.

The “OrthoMouse” is a great compromise between proper ergonomic design and everyday practicality. Its industrial design emphasizes function over aesthetics without producing the medical equipment look that so often makes people shy away from such devices.

If you already suffer from a repetitive strain injury, this mouse is definitely worth a try even at its comparatively high price point of $109. If you don’t already have problems, now is probably the best time to make sure that it stays that way.

Wacom Bamboo Pen & Touch Review

I started my quest for the ultimate input device more than a decade ago when I had a bout of tendonitis as a result of spending too much time on the computer, using the wrong techniques with the wrong hardware..

One of the results of all this was of course MacBreakZ, our “Personal Ergonomic Assistant” for the Macintosh.

Another was a constant stream of high-tech gadgets making their way through “Frank’s Ergonomic Testing Lab”.

Unlike many other people, I have always had a soft spot for track pads rather than mice. A track pad doesn’t need shifting around endlessly, it can do without buttons (which is nice for those fingers) and it’s super fast to just move the pointer around quickly in between bouts of typing. On the downside, they are imprecise and absolutely, categorically no good for anything to do with graphics or where you need pixel accurate positioning.

A lot of track pads are plain rubbish, especially those dreadful things on many cheap “netbooks”, so it’s no wonder they have a bad reputation. There are also some quite astonishingly good trackpads around, my all-time favourite easily being the Fingerworks iGesture Pad, which is a direct ancestor of the iPhone multi touch interface (Apple bought FingerWorks). They are no longer available, but seem to be sold at something of a premium for $999 these days! If you are interested, I’ll sell you mine at that price!

Anybody who wants to do anything graphical will of course want a digital tablet and over the years I have owned a ridiculous number of different models, most obviously from Wacom. The problem with tablets is easily described.. they rock at doing graphical stuff, but suck at anything else. The reason for this is that you need to put the pen down (or on its stand) each time you use the keyboard turning everyday tasks into an ordeal.

I always use the tablet for a few weeks and then it disappears rapidly into its box never to be opened again.. still next time will be different won’t it?

Sadly the same is also true for track pads. They usually stay next to my keyboard for at least a year, then get shoved back into their box when I start doing a lot of pixel-perfect stuff again.

Why not have both? A pen for pixel perfect work and a touch pad for quick clicks? Besides the space problem on your desk there is no reason why this shouldn’t work.. which is precisely why when Wacom announced their new Bamboo Pen and Touch Tablet, I had to have one.


The Wacom Bamboo Pen and Touch Small Tablet combines a jumbo sized track pad that allows you to move the pointer with your fingertips with a “small” tablet that takes pressure sensitive pen input and throws in a few function keys and multi-touch gestures for good measure. In essence it’s a FingerWorks iGesture Pad with pen input. What could be better?

My first worry was that the drivers wouldn’t work properly. This is pretty much a Wacom trademark: great products, awful drivers, lots of crashes. Luckily so far everything seems to work just fine (as long as you don’t count the Bamboo Scribble handwriting recognition software that comes with the tablet, use Mac OS X’s “Ink” if you must).

As a long time Intuos user, I’m used to paying a lot of money for a tablet, but to also get great results. The Bamboo model range is much more accessible and well.. not of the same quality. The pen tracking is fine, the pressure sensitivity is okay, but it’s all a lot cheaper than the Intuos range.

The track pad is indeed large and works reasonably well, but bears no comparison with either FingerWorks’ or Apple’s efforts. On the FingerWorks track pad, you can roll your fingertip to make the pointer move just a little. On the Bamboo this does exactly nothing. You need to move the whole finger or nothing at all. In other words, as a trackpad it’s at the imprecise end of the spectrum, which would be a fatal flaw if it wasn’t for the fact that you also have the pen for precisely those kinds of tasks!

If you look at the entire package and factor in the sub-$100 price tag, it’s a great little input device. It is a tablet and offers all of the advantages of a tablet and it is also a track pad and offers most of the advantages of that type of device as well. Combined, you get a device that is fine for run of the mill pointing and clicking tasks, but also let’s you draw and supports tasks that require more precision.

You are left with a perfectly adequate (in fact more than adequate) input device for a wide range of tasks, but you can’t help thinking that there are better track pads and there are better tablets out there. It’s a bit like a washer/dryer, it doesn’t wash as well as a proper washing machine and doesn’t dry as well as a proper dryer, but cost less and takes up less space than having two separate devices 🙂

In future, Wacom will probably add multi-touch to its premium Intuos range and then we might very well get the best of both worlds at the kind of price that this entails. For now the the Wacom Bamboo Pen and Touch Tablet is the only game in town.

I had expected Apple to leverage the FingerWorks iGesture technology that it acquired to greater effect on the desktop. If it worked fine a decade ago, why not offer a separate track pad for the Mac? We keep hearing about the combined pen and touch input for the fabled Apple Tablet, so I had kind-of-expected Apple to release something more exiting than the Apple Magic Mouse, which is basically a multi-touch trackpad on top of a mouse, but without the ability of moving the cursor with your fingertips.

In my view, it’s a strange decision because multi-touch on top of a mouse doesn’t really give you very much. Especially when your keyboard and its vast number of shortcuts is only inches away. After all if you want to navigate forwards and backwards the cursor keys on your keyboard do a perfectly good job. The pinching gesture and scrubbing gestures might be more interesting, but all this would be so much more intuitive on a track pad.

In the end, I think it’s a matter of Steve Jobs liking mice.. and not track pads.

Anyway, I ordered mine today for my “testing lab”, so I’ll be put right soon 🙂