BOOT CAMP 238 (13/08/02)




I am willing to bet that many of you reading this are still using the standard issue mouse, keyboard and monitor that came with your PC. And why not, they were ‘free’ and they work perfectly well?  Whilst there’s no disputing the fact that supplied peripherals are more or less guaranteed to work with your computer it’s equally certain they will be the cheapest models the manufacturer reckons it can get away with and what’s more they could actually be making your PC harder to use, restricting access to useful features in your hardware and software and there may even be health and safety implications.


Over the next three weeks we’ll be looking at some of the aftermarket options and alternatives that can make your PC more efficient, productive and comfortable to use and we’ll begin this week with that most basic of input devices, the mouse.


It can be very difficult to go back to using a bog standard PC mouse once you’ve sampled the alternatives but before we get too involved with size, shape and button layout there are two features that you should give a high priority to when auditioning a replacement and they are an optical pickup and a scroll wheel.


The optical pickup has to be one of the major milestones in mouse technology, banishing at a stroke the frustration of the jerky mouse pointer and the bi-annual cleaning ritual. Traditional ‘ball’ mice rely on opto-mechanical sensors registering the movement of a large rubber ball as it travels over the surface of the mouse mat. The ball acts like a magnet to the dirt and grime on the mat, depositing it on the sensor rollers inside the mouse until a thick disgusting crust stops the sensors working smoothly. An optical mouse senses movement by measuring changes in a reflected beam of light projected from the underside of the mouse. There are no moving parts, no dirt pickup and it never needs cleaning (well, hardly ever…) so pointer movement is forever smooth.


The scroll wheel is another major innovation and it greatly simplifies moving through long documents, spreadsheets and web pages and once you’ve got one on your mouse you’ll wonder how you ever managed without out it.


Mouse ergonomics are vitally important but it is clear from the multitude of designs that there is no universally agreed shape or layout. The only way to tell if a mouse is right for you is try a few for size down at your local computer shop where there’s usually a few on display. Don’t rush it, place your hand over the mouse in as natural a posture as possible and note where your fingertips come to rest. If you have to bend or move your fingers any distance to locate the right and left buttons or the wheel then it can become tiring to use. Check the button and wheel actions, do they feel smooth and positive, is there good tactile feedback from the switches, i.e. a healthy ‘click’? This is an important test because demo mice in shops receive a real battering from customers and kids and if they can survive that they’ll survive anything. Don’t be swayed by fancy extra buttons and functions – apart from a scroll wheel – it’s unlikely that you’ll ever use them.


Cordless mice are fine in theory but some points to bear in mind are that they are far from ‘wireless’ and you will actually end up with more cables and adaptors plugged into the back of your PC. Cordless mice need power and if this comes from a disposable battery it’s going to incur running costs, which could be significant if the battery in question is a small expensive type and only lasts a few weeks. Rechargeable types are obviously better but then you will have to find room on your desk for the charging station and pickup module. Finally, consider interference, radio frequency or ‘RF’ types can be affected by cordless telephones and other wireless gadgets you may have or nearby radio transmitters. Infra-red types may also be affected by other devices including TV and VCR remote controls, PDAs and laptops.


A few older mice and PCs use serial port connectors but nowadays the vast majority use standard PS/2 ‘mini-DIN’ plugs (the socket and sometimes the plug is coloured green, to avoid confusion with the purple keyboard connectors). Some recent mice have a USB plug, which can help cut down cable clutter by plugging into suitably equipped USB keyboards (see next week’s Boot Camp).   


When you get your new mouse home you may well find that you can just plug it in and it will work straight away without any intervention from you. The drivers included with most recent versions of Windows are perfectly adequate for the vast majority of mice, including ones with scroll wheels but models with special features and extra buttons often come with their own driver and utility discs, which you should use, especially if the mouse pointer movement is erratic or cannot be controlled form the Mouse setup utility in Control Panel. The custom driver should also be used if you encounter any problems with the pointer freezing or programs crashing. It’s also worth checking the mouse manufacturer’s web site for the most up to date driver, especially if you are using Windows XP.


Finally, while you are at it treat yourself to a new mouse mat, especially if your present one is getting a bit grubby or ragged around the edges. Rather than pay through the nose for some tacky designer item or an advertising freebie why not make your own? Most PC and stationary suppliers have custom mouse mat kits that let you use an image of your choosing, photographs of the family or a picture you’ve shot with your digital camera or scanned into your PC. 


Next week – keyboards





A small program that tells Windows how to communicate with an item of hardware or a peripheral



A pair of rollers, inside the mouse -- in contact with the ball -- are connected to a perforated disc through which a beam of light shines. As the discs rotates the beam is interrupted, the resultant pulses are counted by optical sensors and interpreted by the PC as movement



Personal Digital Assistant – small pocket-sized computer, usually with a touch screen, for storing contact and address details, usually with simple handwriting recognition and word processing facilities, more advanced models also have email and internet utilities



Here’s a neat little trick for organising the icons in the Quick Launch toolbar next to the Start button (Windows 9x and XP). If you (or your programs) have been adding icons they’re probably all jumbled up but you can easily sort them into alphabetical order by switching the Quick Launch toolbar off, then back on again. To do that right click on an empty part of the Start bar, select Toolbars and deselect Quick Launch, go back and reselect Quick Launch and if they appear extra large right click into the Quick Launch toolbar. Select View and Small Icons.

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