BOOT CAMP ARCHIVE 2004

  

 

BOOT CAMP 350 (02/11/04)

 

Mice and Keyboards

 

Here’s a couple of interesting but useless statistics. In a typical year the mouse on my work PC travels around 88 miles at an average speed of 50.9mph (see Tip of the Week); during the same period I estimate that I pressed the ‘E’ key on my keyboard around 300,000 times. Your mileage may differ but the point is these two components work incredibly hard and for the most part they are very reliable and often outlive the computers they are connected to. 

 

Considering how much time we spend using these devices I am always surprised by how many people use the mouse and keyboard that came with their PCs, which are often the cheapest and sometimes the nastiest models manufacturers can get away with.

 

Keyboards in particular play a vitally important role in your comfort whilst using your PC and for those of us who spend the best part of the working day sat in front of a computer screen, using the wrong keyboard can also have health implications. I speak from experience and for several years suffered from painful wrist and finger joints, which disappeared within days of changing to a different keyboard.

 

Awkwardly shaped mice can also add to the strain but the biggest problem has to be the progressive jitter and stagger in ‘ball’ type mice as dust and fluff accumulate on the internal movement sensors. If you haven’t already done so I recommend that you switch to an optical mouse, preferably a ‘wheel’ type that lets you scroll rapidly through documents and menus. Basic models like the Genius PowerScroll Optical can be found for less than £12. However, with several hundred and possibly thousands of different models of mouse and keyboard on the market choosing the right ones for your way of working can be a daunting prospect.

 

It’s not simply a question of ergonomics, over the past three or four years mice and keyboards have undergone a minor technological revolution with added functionality, ostensibly to make your life easier…

 

In practice some innovations are just more things to go wrong or conflict with Windows but in amongst the gimmicks there are some genuinely useful features. Wireless or cordless operation is a case in point and eliminating the tangle of wires and cables frees up more space on your desktop and helps reduce coffee cup spillage. Early cordless mice and keyboards are best avoided as they suffered from a whole range of drawbacks, including awkward installation, interference to and from other devices and short battery life but most of the problems now seem to have been ironed out and recent models like the Vivanco Optical FM ‘Hot Rod’ wheel mouse (around £35) is small, comfortable and easy to install using a tiny receiver module that plugs into one of your PC’s USB ports.

 

Aside from reducing desktop clutter cordless keyboard and mice also allow you sit further from the screen, and with PCs now migrating into the living room and in some cases using the TV as a display device it means you can surf the web or check your emails from the comfort of your armchair (though I wouldn’t recommend this kind of setup for serious work). Incidentally, if you do decide to go for cordless connectivity for both the mouse and keyboard I suggest that you buy both items as a matched pair to avoid interference problems.

 

On a more general point, when buying a new mouse don’t be swayed by lots of extra buttons, the standard right and left keys and a scroll wheel are all that you really need. You will probably never get around to programming or customising the buttons and more often than not, you will waste time cancelling windows or menus that pop up as your fingers accidentally click the function buttons.

 

Keyboards, whether wired or cordless are very much a matter of personal taste but it is essential to try before you buy, ideally on a desk with you seated in an office chair at the correct height. Split-field, curved panel ergonomic keyboards are undoubtedly more comfortable to use for long typing sessions but they can take a little getting used to as your fingers learn to adapt to the new key positions. Nevertheless, if you’ve ever experienced any kind of hand or lower arm discomfort whilst typing they really are worth trying. Key pressure and ‘feel’ are also very important. Short travel keys with little or no cushioning increase the impact on finger joints and may leads to RSI they can also become tiring to use after quite short periods. Models with built-in wrist support are worth shortlisting or try a ‘gel’ type wrist pad, though these can become a bit sweaty in hot weather.

 

At the moment the choice of ergonomically shaped keyboards is a little limited as this style seems to drift in and out of fashion but I am a big fan of the Microsoft ‘Natural’ range and they’re not expensive with prices starting at less than £20 from on-line retailers. In common with many recent keyboards designs they incorporate a number of extra function keys including dedicated buttons for launching your browser or email programs, accessing multimedia files and adjusting the volume.  

 

When was the last time you changed your mouse pad?  When they get dirty or frayed at the edges most of reach for the nearest advertising freebie or novelty mat bought for you last Christmas but these are often poorly made or the shiny surface allows the mouse to ‘skate’, making the pointer more difficult to control. Plain fabric covered surfaces are much better for precision mousing. The traditional rectangular shape is also less than ideal since mouse movement tend to be more side-to-side, in a gentle arc, rather than up and down. Rounded kidney-shaped mats are a lot easier to use and you will find a range of designs in many computer retailers for between £5 and £8.

 

Next week – Online games

 

 

JARGON FILTER

 

OPTICAL MOUSE

Speed and direction of movement is measured using a image sensor chip that analyses changes in patterns of light, emitted by an LED in the base of the mouse, reflected from the mouse pad

 

RSI

Repetitive Strain Injury -- painful condition resulting from damage to joints bought about by frequent or continuous physical impact

 

SPLIT-FIELD

Keyboard with the keys divided into two sections, angled slightly to better match the position of the fingers

 

 

TIP OF THE WEEK

A!K Mouse Off-Road is a fascinating little freeware utility that monitors mouse movement, measuring the distance it travels (metric or imperial) and its speed across your mouse mat. The program sits unobtrusively in the System Tray and you can get an instant readout by hovering the pointer over the icon and you can change the colour and opacity of the optional desktop display window.  The program works in all versions of Windows and the download is only 380kb. For your copy go to: www.sixfiles.com/dbase/mof

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