Microsoft IntelliMouse ® Explorer 4.0A
for PS/2 and USB
designed _ in Redmond, WA

Pointing device preferences are a very personal business. Before I get stuck in to examining the latest iteration of Microsoft's flagship computer mouse, I suppose I should probably give you some background on my own mousing history.

I started out with a Naksha serial mouse (which I can remember very little about, apart from the fact it had three buttons - Google draws a blank save for a couple of mentions in Amiga mags). I then used a Logitech Pilot for many years, until the buttons eventually wore out. Next was a Logitech Wheel Mouse Optical (which I excitedly bought at release in 2000), which essentially carried on the strengths of the Pilot, with the addition of a very clunky scroll wheel. I currently use a Logitech MX510 'Performance' Optical Mouse (which has rubberised sides and a shell made of shiny blue 'bowling ball' plastic) which is probably the best mouse I've ever used. (It has eight buttons, for goodness sake.)

My basic philosophy is that a mouse should be an unobtrusive, narrow*, symmetrical** (I've yet to hear any good reason for a mouse not being symmetrical. It's a tool, not a glove.) lightweight puck with responsive buttons that allows for precise movements. The IntelliMouse Explorer 4.0 is basically none of these things.

I've carped about Microsoft mice before, hoping that people would at least agree that (in the post-beige era at least) they're merely tolerable for day-to-day computing tasks, but not exceptionally precise or comfortable. Their 'ergonomic' design seems to have been based on biometric data taken from the late Andre the Giant. And regardless of how many times per second they sample, they still aren't capable of pixel-level work. (Maybe this is due to horrible drivers, as even the Intellies with the same internal components as their Logitech equivalents suffered this problem.)

With the IntelliMouse Explorer 4.0, I no longer have to rely on (what lesser men might consider) nitpicking to make my case. This mouse has design flaws that are immediately evident. It's wider and stubbier than the version 3.0, with two hollows along its body for resting your index and middle finger. The optical IntelliEye™ is a good inch and a half too far back, so you end up basically steering the mouse with your wrist while your fingers splay out on the deck like sluggardly Belgian tourists.

The shape isn't painful, but it's a little awkward, and there's nowhere for the ring and pinky fingers to rest. I found myself turning the mouse over in idle moments to adjust my grip. (Oddly, the mouse doesn't seem to detect when it's been lifted from a surface. The light will flash rapidly and the cursor jerk around spasmodically if it's placed on its back.) Bear in mind that this is all in comparison with the version 3.0, which I'd just about grudgingly learned to live with (at work), at least until the wheel became permanently jammed up with crud.

So far, so nitpicky, you might think. However the fatal flaw, the Achilles heel, the Death Star exhaust port if you like (get on with it) is located, with delicious irony, in the very feature that was supposed to be the version 4.0's big innovation: the Tilt Wheel. The Tilt Wheel is essentially a normal (in fact, very nice) scroll wheel, housed in a cradle that can be nudged left and right like a tiny, extremely unresponsive digital joystick.

Obviously, this is quite pointless (occasions where you need horizontal scrolling in day-to-day tasks are rare***) and not even very well implemented (it's obviously not as precise as the vertical scroll wheel, and works in little bursts instead of scrolling smoothly). But the inexcusable problem that it introduces is that it makes middle-clicking almost impossible. You can feel the mouse clicking, but usually nothing happens first time, unless you jam down the wheel for about a second and a half. As you can imagine, this makes applications that make heavy use of the middle button (i.e. tabbed browsing) extremely heavy-going. Tasks where the middle button needs to be held down (many games) are completely out of the question.

Maybe I have a faulty mouse. Maybe I am just resistant to change. Maybe I have yet to be exposed to the killer app for horizontal scrolling, or haven't learnt the knack to middle-clicking without spraining my wrist and swearing. (Update: I seem to have adjusted to this now, although sometimes the middle button just decides to die for a few seconds.) Maybe it's part of a sinister plan to get rid of middle-clicking and so frustrate the designs of the Mozilla Foundation. One thing is for sure though: I'll be taking an old Logitech mouse in to work tomorrow.

* The thumb and little finger should grip the sides of the mouse. The body of the mouse should not press against the ball of the palm.

** Or, as symmetrical as fashion will allow. The ubiquity of the IntelliMouse family has made symmetrical mice look 'old-fashioned' in the eyes of the average consumer. The only one Microsoft have released for a while is their Optical Mouse by S+arck, a coffee bean-shaped lump of chrome designed by Phillipe Starck that's essentially the same shape as the Logitech Wheel Mouse Optical.

*** I suppose you could map it to the left- and right-turn controls in MAME to play the world's smallest 'authentic' version of Hang-On.