Of mice and men, and trackballs, too

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All the mice tested
Top: Aukey, Steelcase (wired gaming). Bottom: Anker, EV, Logitech, Kensington (from the left, seen from the back)

Late last year, I purchased another laptop to separate my work and recreational uses. After a long search in stores, and a lot of online reading and comparing models, I decided to get an MSI gaming rig (an entry level in their pantheon, admittedly). That process got me thinking again about how we buy and sell computers.*

Computers are, for the most part, sold like muscle cars: what’s under the hood gets the attention. The processor, ram, speed, drive capacity all get writ large in ads and promoted in stores. But it’s all a bit misleading. For most uses – surfing the web, email, some word processing or spreadsheet work, non-graphics-intensive games, shopping on Amazon, that sort of thing – any modern computer or tablet will do. 

Today’s smart phones and tablets have bazillions more processing power in a single handheld device than a room full of bulky, freezer-sized IBM 360s had a few decades back. I ran games, word processors, spreadsheets and more on Atari and other eight-bit computers that couldn’t out-compute a modern digital watch, let alone an i3 laptop (and that’s a weak sibling to the i5 and i7). Those seemingly limited Chromebooks and bargain-priced laptops are really monsters of computing muscle compared to what we used only a couple of decades back.

Yes, the hardware specs matter if you have processor-heavy work such as graphic design, video or music editing, 3D animation or graphics-intensive gaming. But for the most part what should really matter when you’re choosing a computer are where you interact the most:  the input/output devices: the screen, the keyboard and the mouse/trackpad. That’s where you’ll spend the most time and get the most sensory response from.

All the mice tested
Top: Aukey, Steelcase (wired gaming). Bottom: Anker, EV, Logitech, Kensington (from the left, seen from the front)

I recently decided to change my mouse. Or mice, rather, since each laptop has its own. In part it’s because after many hours a day spent with one, my wrists and fingers can be tired and sore. I only use the inherent trackpads when I don’t have access to a mouse because I find them inefficient and clumsy.

Arm twistingI’ve favoured wired, gaming mice in the past for several reasons. First, a wired connection is consistent where a wireless might be susceptible to interference (and gaming mice have excellent but often long cables). Second, a gaming mouse usually has a lot more features than a regular mouse, including programmable buttons, more levels of speed and sensitivity. Third they offer better (longer lasting) buttons and scroll wheel, built for constant clicking and wheeling. And fourth, from long experience, I’ve learned not to buy the cheapest mice: they are generally less durable and less accurate than those from recognized companies.***

Traditional mice have the same basic problem for me and many other users: they force the user’s arm to be held for long times in a position that can encourage strain and wear. Part of my work includes graphic design that needs precision control, and part includes copying and pasting text and links from one monitor to applications on another, so the cursor travels a fair distance. More standard uses include document processing in word processors and spreadsheets. I’m on the computer many, many hours every day. And I find my arms/wrist hurting all too much these days.

I decided to look at something different: ergonomic mice, including vertical mice and trackballs. Here’s what I discovered, and my review of each.

As is my wont, I spent many hours reading reviews and watching YouTube videos about such mice and trackballs, and examining specs and images. And as always the result of which was a smattering more knowledge but not a secure sense of which might best suit my own needs everyone seems to have conflicting opinions). So I decided to try several – all of them wireless (the Steelseries wired gaming mouse in the pictures was already owned and my main device before this) because I wanted the flexibility of being cordless.

I can only do limited testing: simply by using them in my day-to-day applications and games. I cannot test the accuracy of their claims to DPI, polling rates, sensitivity and so on. I did try the different DPI setting on each, and there is a noticeable difference between highest and lowest settings on all of them.

Anker vertical mouseFirst up: the Anker wireless vertical mouse. This was an inexpensive ($30 on Amazon.ca) option for me to test vertical mice, yet one of the best. It’s lightweight, tall, but has a modest base and width (at least compared to others like the EV). It looks like a shark fin.

It works with a small USB dongle and two AAA batteries, and runs perfectly as soon as the dongle is plugged in, without need for other software. That’s a minor drawback if you want to program your buttons or scroll wheel (middle button) for specific uses, although apparently other driver software or some generic mouse drivers will allow you to change them if it’s really necessary.

The design is smaller than some of the competition for this growing market. The base is about the size of a small, portable laptop wireless mouse, although the fin makes it appear larger. It sits comfortably in my hand, although my pinkie rests on the mouse pad. This is actually a bonus for me, because it anchors the mouse and prevents any sudden, large or accidental movements.

There is a back and forward button for browsing, although their location above the thumb and indistinct feel require me to stop and look at the mouse to find them (and they’re not programmable to any other uses). The DPI button lets me switch from 800 to 1200 to 1600 DPI. These resolutions are good for most applications (I generally stay in the lowest DPI), and fine for my style of gaming, too.

It also goes to sleep after eight minutes of inactivity – a nice battery-saving touch (awaken by pressing any button).

This is so far my favourite of the bunch, and the most vertical. It’s light, easy to maneuver, comfortable and – best of all – inexpensive, but not quite perfect. I wish the scroll wheel was stiffer: I can feel the notches, but it’s mushier than I like for my productivity and graphics uses. And I’d like to be able to program the back/forward buttons for other apps because they’re not ideal size or location for their fixed use. Were I to redesign this mouse, I’d replace these buttons with a side-scrolling wheel like Logitech has on some devices.

Getting used to the hand position took only a few minutes and now it feels more comfortable and natural than my older mice. The angle of the mouse (which means the angle of my resting hand) still slants a little more to the left than I would like, however, and I would raise the left side by at least 10 degrees or perhaps as much as 20 for my maxim comfort.

I had not expected quality from a $30 mouse, but I was pleasantly surprised. Similar models to this sell in computer stores for about $50-$75.

Kensington Expert TrackballThe second one I bought was the Kensington Expert Trackball. Trackballs have been around at least as long as computer mice, and offer alternate ways of moving around the screen (still very popular among some circles). The big difference between these devices and regular mice is that they remain in place, while other mice need space and a suitable surface to move about (both, however, need space for your arm or part thereof).

The bigger the ball, the better the control: more precise movements can be made to the cursor’s position than with small trackballs. This design lets me use my fingers, rather than my thumb as the Logitech demands (see below) and they’re better at control than my thumb. And if control is what you want, then this does the job.

It also has four buttons – two above, two below the ball – and the top and bottom pairs can be chorded to act as a fifth and sixth button, plus it has a handy scroll wheel around the ball to move up and down web pages or documents. The Kensington software allows me to programs these buttons for both general and program-specific use, as well as set sensitivity and inertial scrolling. I found reducing the sensitivity helped my accuracy.

The buttons come programmed as the typical right, centre and left buttons, but I quickly programmed the top two as backward and forward for browsing. The large size of the buttons is a plus because you can tap them easily without having to search for them as with some other mice. On the other hand, I found myself stopping to look for the top buttons simply because I wasn’t used to using them.

The Kensington ball sits in its socket by gravity alone. This makes it easy to remove and clean, but means you have to be more careful when transporting the device, to avoid the ball falling out.

The biggest problem with this trackball for me is its size. It’s huge, and requires more space than I have in my work area without some serious rearrangement. Plus it’s so tall, for me it requires the included wrist rest (which means MORE space is needed), otherwise my hand bends at an uncomfortable angle. In my own workspace, my whole arm doesn’t rest on the table, so I struggle to keep my arm up and my wrist aligned properly – after a day at the computer, this gets tiring. Might not be a problem where users have more room to work.**

The wrist support seems like a design afterthought. It attaches by two small plastic prongs and too easily detaches if you lift the mouse. As long as it sits on a desk without moving, it’s fine, but I swap computers and mice in the same space at least once daily, so this was an annoyance because I’m also trying to make sure the ball doesn’t fall out when I move it.

I like using the Kensington, and it’s solidly made, but because I’m not accustomed to it, my work was slower than it is with a mouse. And the process of click-and-drag takes some practice because I have to hold the left mouse button down with my thumb, but my forefinger. I found it almost impossible to work on a complicated graphic in CorelDraw where I needed to move and clone some elements. And for gaming? Okay for some turn-based games, but I found myself flailing around with an RTS.

As much as I wanted to like this, it’s not the device for me. I realize my performance will improve with use and familiarity, but I suspect it’ll be a Kijiji offering soon.

Logitech Ergo MXThe Logitech Ergo MX trackball mouse was a more successful attempt to fit a trackball to my uses and space.

It’s a side-mounted thumb-controlled ball and the footprint is much smaller than the Kensington. However, the smaller ball size and my less-coordinated thumb meant I wasn’t as accurate with this device as with the latter. That improved with use, however. This model is the next generation from the venerable 570 trackball that is still available (the balls are interchangeable).

Unlike the Kensington, the ball is held in a small socket that prevents it from falling out. You need to insert a pencil underneath to push it out for cleaning (trackballs and their all sensors require regular cleaning, somewhat more often than mice do).

The Ergo has a metal plate underneath that can be flipped to change the angle from 0 to 20 degrees (no in-between settings, though). The Best Buy version comes with a second base platform that will extend that to 30 degrees (see next photo), but also raises the height of the mouse. After some experimentation, I found the standard 20 degree setting worked best most of the time, but I did use the platform often enough I was glad to have it.

With the thumb ball, my tendency was to keep my thumb raised, rather than resting on the ball. This was exacerbated at 30 degrees and proved uncomfortable and tiring after a short while. I have to learn to rest my thumb on the ball.

Logitech Ergo MXThere’s a lot to like in this mouse. First is the “accuracy” button right above the thumb position. It severely reduces the cursor movement, making it easier to precisely position it, albeit more slowly. There are no DPI settings, but you can reduce the pointer speed in the Options software, as well as set the sensitivity of the precision button (and there’s a whole basket of “gesture” features you can use instead of the precision feature, but I’ll leave that for you to discover).

It has a nice scroll wheel with a good feel, and even accepts sideways motion. That gives it two more “buttons” you can customize. Be forewarned: the travel distance on the wheel for the sideways button activation is small and I found myself pushing down on the scroll wheel instead of sideways rather often. I got these buttons to work on many of the choices in the application list (like volume up/down or open the documents folder), but not as the default scroll left or right function.

It can connect via USB dongle or Bluetooth. You can even connect it to two devices simultaneously and switch between them with a button just below the wheel.

Logitech’s quality is evident everywhere in the design and build, with the exception of the dongle – there is no holding place for it on the mouse, as with every other one I tried. A serious oversight that make it less portable than I had hoped (you can buy third-party carrying cases for it, but that adds to the cost of an already expensive mouse).

The forward and back buttons are nicely located just left of the top of the left mouse button. That makes them easy to find and feel, although I wish Logitech had some more to make them stand out – a different surface or a little larger/higher would help.

I found it much easier to get accustomed to using this trackball than the Kensington, in part because it had a more mouse-like design. I was, again, slower with it than with a mouse and less accurate with my thumb control, but still able to do a lot more with it because of the way my fingers sat over the buttons. I still found some of the operations in CorelDraw to be awkward, though, and when I wasn’t paying attention, I frequently tried to move the mouse like I would a standard mouse.

It works with some games too – okay with the turn-based strategy and sim games I prefer (with a bit of practice, mind you), but not for RTS or FPS types – without a LOT more practice. The hand position isn’t as upright as with the Anker, though, and I found my thumb tired after a day’s use. But it felt better than with the Kensington.

Software to manage the Ergo and assign keys is available for download (it’s very good for my needs, although some Logitech users whined about it not being as good as earlier software). On the other hand, it was the only device that offered to install the software without me having to go online and find it. The number of choices for assigning keys is impressive. However, you have to turn on the application specific settings to assign specific keys for those uses (it’s off be default).

Plus the Ergo is rechargeable, so no batteries are needed. And I really like the feel of the surface material. This device has kept me interested in trackballs and I will continue to work with it until I have built up more familiarity and confidence with it.

EV MouseThe wireless EV mouse from Human Ergonomics was my second vertical device, but of a markedly different design. I’ve seen this advertised or reviewed as the “Edota” mouse too. I’m not sure who came first, but the design is redolent of the more expensive Evoluent mouse.

First: it’s much bigger than the Anker. The base is considerably wider – noticeable in my small workspace. The mouse is a slight bit more vertical than the Anker, too, so my wrist feels slightly less stressed. However, the fatness forces my hand to be slightly more open.

Unlike the Anker, there is downloadable software to assign buttons, although unlike the Kensington and Logitech with their application-specific options, there are only five profiles, with limited options for the keys. You can also set wheel scroll and double click speeds in the software. Like the Anker, it shuts down after eight minutes of non-use, and needs a button click to wake up.

There are four DPI settings: 500, 1,000 (default), 1,800 and 2,500, all selectable through a button on the top.One of the better design choices is the location of the forward/back buttons: above and below the thumb position, so they are much easier to find and activate without having to stop what you’re doing and hunt for them.

And whereas the Anker’s right and left buttons are small, the EV’s are wider, especially the right one, which can easily be activated by my ring finger, it’s that wide. This doesn’t matter too much unless you take your hand off the mouse a lot: on the EV, it’s easier to immediately find the buttons.

There’s a little ledge on the rightmost side to rest your pinkie on, but it also contributes to the mouse’s width. I don’t use it consistently, because it forces my fingers together. My hands are relatively large and I like to have my fingers more widely spread, but maybe I just need to get used to it. The logo also has an LED and can be lit – merely battery-draining eye candy. But the best thing is that this mouse is also rechargeable. USB dongle for connectivity, only.

The hand position on the EV is generally comfortable, but the shiny surface for the thumb rest is a questionable choice. It makes my thumb’s front sweat, albeit only a small amount, but it’s noticeable after I’ve been using it a while, and I tend to pull my thumb away from that surface to prevent this.

I like the EV mouse, but would prefer a narrower model without the shiny bit: I keep banging the left side of the base into my laptop’s edge (yes, my space is THAT cramped). Until such time, the Anker remains the better choice for my limited space.

Update: The scroll wheel became noisy (squeaking annoyingly) and rough less than a week after I started using it, which makes me wonder about its build quality and longevity. There’s no easy way to open the case to lubricate it. I emailed Edota and asked for advice on repairing it, but all they could do was tell me to return it. So it’s on its way back and the mouse will get a poor review on Amazon.

Aukey MouseThe Aukey mouse is more of a traditional flat design, just with the left side raised what feels like less than 20 degrees. It feels small in my rather large hands – not the smallest mouse I’ve used, but not the size I prefer. The Amazon selling page advertises it as “more comfortable than a vertical cordless mouse,” but really I don’t see how. It feels only marginally more comfortable to me than any other small, horizontal mouse.

It uses one AA battery (not included), and offers a wider range of DPI settings than the others: 800, 1,200, 1,600, 2,400, 3,200 and 4,800. The downloadable software lets you customize the buttons, speed and sensitivity, and save five different profiles. The button options include some Windows options like mail, and several editing (cut, paste, etc.) options. The forward and back buttons are a bit easier to reach and feel than the Anker’s and have a much better tactile response, too.

The wheel and the logo light up with a little coloured LED, if you set the switch to do so, but there are not controls to change colours or blink rates on it, like on the Steelseries. Personally, I turn this off to preserve battery life. Connection is through a USB dongle.

Construction seems sturdy – it has some heft to it. The scroll wheel feels solid and notches are easily felt (moreso than with the Anker). It would be a nice mouse if I wanted to stay with a horizontal one, but for my hands it is a bit small and the angle a bit too low. Should Aukey ever make a vertical mouse, I suspect it will be a good one with a similar build quality: I would be very eager to try it. But this isn’t the mouse I’m looking for.

– – – – – –
It’s a small experiment so far,  and I will get others to test. I’m convinced a vertical mouse is the best option for me, but which one – I’m still deciding. I’ll continue to go back and forth between the Ergo and Anker, and keep the Aukey as a backup should either fail. I’ll assign the Anker to the gaming rig, the Ergo to the work laptop and keep on practicing with the trackball so I become more proficient.

And I’ll stick with wireless too – the reliability of wireless connections is much improved, and many of these devices let me crank up the polling rate for even better response time (a gaming issue). 

In the meantime, I recommend you also try a vertical mouse to see if it improves any issues with repetitive motion, carpal tunnel or the other stress-ergonomic-related issues. You may be as pleasantly surprised by the comfort level as I was. And if you still prefer a more traditional design, try the Aukey.

~~~~~

* My other laptop is an Acer Aspire V with touch screen. I much prefer its keyboard to the MSI’s. The keys seem better placed and spaced, especially the delete, arrow keys, Windows and others. Home and End keys are separate, while on the MSI they share function with the page up/page down keys. The MSI has a cool lit keyboard that changes colours depending on the action in the game, and which can be customized, but that’s just bling. Also, the MSI has only one USB port on the right side of the chassis, while the Acer has two. As a right-handed person, this is a bit more awkward because I’m always plugging and unplugging USB drives and other devices from them. For work and typing, the Acer wins, but for gaming, the MSI does (better graphics card, more RAM, faster processor)
** My workspace basically allows for my hand and wrist to rest on the table while the arm from the wrist to the elbow is suspended. I know: it’s an ergonomic disaster. Hence this post.

*** No, I don’t use a console controller for gaming. I use a mouse and keyboard. I have been tempted to try a controller, but I suspect most of the games I play would not support it, or would not take advantage of its features as would a racing or platformer game, neither of which I play.

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