Computer mice are anything but peripheral

Image: Evoluent VerticalMouse
Evoluent's VerticalMouse 2 ($80) uses a shape that supports keeping the hand in an upright position and eliminates twisting of the forearm.Evoluent

It’s hard to think about a computer without an external mouse, even though touchpads on laptops — like the one I’m using now — have made it not as essential as it once was.

If you’ve been around PCs for more than a few years, you’ve probably gone through your fair share of these peripherals. About 25 years ago, I started with a PC that didn’t even have a mouse.

Then, in college I used an Apple computer with a basic one-button mouse, and soon that mouse was a natural extension of my hand. Later, I started using laptops, and I discovered how a touchpad could replace a mouse. But I have always used a mouse at work.

This nifty little device helps navigate our way around a screen —and provides the input. (Think about trying to get around on a keyboard alone; or when the cursor is stuck or the mouse isn’t working. You know what a chore it can be.)

The mouse has been around longer than I’ve been alive, something I didn’t realize. Inventor Douglas Engelbart came up with a version of it in the 1960s we’d scarcely recognize now. It looked like a crude toy, but it was way ahead of its time.

Inside a wooden shell built by his collaborator, Bill English, were two metal wheels perpendicular to each other to move along one axis. That was the granddaddy of the computer mouse we know today.

The “mouse” part of the name came from the device’s cord. In 1970, Engelbart filed a patent for an "X-Y Position Indicator for a Display System.” You can see why a “mouse” would be a catchier name.

Stanford University’s Sloan Project MouseSite documents Engelbart’s achievements while he was at the Stanford Research Institute in Menlo Park, Calif., from 1962 until the mid-1970s.

In the site’s final report, released in 1997, principal investigator Tim Lenoir writes, “The vision Engelbart and his group articulated was decades ahead of its time and has only been fully appreciated since the development of the Internet.”

The move to optical
This mechanical mouse was replaced by the optical mouse, which uses light sensors and no rolling parts to work in a smoother fashion.

I’m grateful for the invention, as is a whole world of computer users, but it’s taken a lot of trial and error to find a mouse I like.

I started developing some wrist problems. Luckily, I always had helpful HR people who were concerned about that, so I was always able to try out new mice.

I discovered I really liked the scroll wheel. Seems like such a little thing, but it makes such a big difference, when you don’t have to use the on-screen scroll bar.

You can go with something as basic as Microsoft’s Wheel Mouse Optical ($20), which is small and sleek and it does the trick with three buttons. ( is a joint venture of Microsoft and NBC Universal.)

That mouse was fine — for a little while. Then I started noticing my co-workers’ mice, and I started feeling something familiar tingling in me — gadget envy.

Their mice had side buttons, to backtrack on a page without hitting the browser’s back button. That shortcut I liked. Trackballs, like the one on the Logitech Trackman Wheel (starting at $29.95) stirred my imagination, reminding me of countless hours playing Centipede.

Apple's Mighty Mouse ($69) has a Scroll Ball with sensors, and just requires a touch of the finger.

Apple’s current Mighty Mouse goes back to a very simple design, but its four buttons are built in as part of the unit, and it feels very organic, using a finger touch. It takes some getting used to, but once you do, it’s a breeze.

But despite these very ingenious designs, I noticed my wrist still felt off.

A vertical mouse approach
I tried out an Evoluent VerticalMouse ($80) and it was a revelation. This mouse looks pretty intimidating next to the streamlined appearances of other models out there.

But, unlike seemingly everything else in the gadget world, smaller is not necessarily better when it comes to mice.

I found having a mouse like the Evoluent forced my arm into a neutral position because of how much higher it was than a regular mouse. The Evoluent mouse is a little more than 3 inches tall, about twice the height of a regular mouse. In that position, my arm didn’t twist.

Not only did the pain go away, but I switched from being a righty to a lefty, changing up all my buttons to accommodate the move, mostly at first to spare my right arm from more strain. But now I’m so used to it, it’s strange using a right-handed mouse.

The Pantera II Mobile Mouse ($25) is made by the same company that makes the Swiss Army Knife.

The grip on the Evoluent is also working for me, in that it’s like shaking someone’s hand, something that seems very natural. I’m still not crazy about the wires, though. So maybe I need to switch to the wireless version.

Or maybe I’ll give the Microsoft Wireless Optical Mouse ($40) a shot, try the Logitech Cordless Trackman Optical Mouse ($60), or consider the very visually appealing Pantera II Mobile Mouse ($25), made by Wenger, maker of the Swiss Army Knife.

I haven’t yet become a convert to mice for the laptop, mostly because the computer usually is on my lap, and I don’t want a peripheral to clutter it up. Still, I might try it out.

I just know that when I go into work every day, I’m appreciative of this little, but essential, peripheral that is anything but.