Sunday, December 17, 2006

The New York Times
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December 17, 2006

A Mouse on a Mission in the Document Maze

FIFTEEN dollars buys a respectable computer mouse these days, though game aficionados can pay far more for the sophisticated types that fight gun battles against monsters.

Now there’s a high-end mouse designed not for those shooting games, but for an activity far more fearsome: handling the vast pile of reports, Web pages, spreadsheets, e-mail threads and other materials that the average desk jockey can face each day at the office.

The new mouse does all the work of a standard model, while also letting the user skim rapidly through lengthy documents to reach a desired spot in seconds. It does this with an unusual scroll wheel that can be flicked with a forefinger; the text on the computer screen immediately starts flying past, but stops on a dime when the wheel is tapped. The speed is adjustable to let users see exactly where they are in the document.

The mouse can dart horizontally or vertically through a report or a spread sheet, switching at any point to line-by-line scrolling. Such quick changes of gears can add up to big savings of time.

The mouse, called the MX Revolution, is made by Logitech, a Swiss manufacturer of game mice and other computer-input devices. Within the mouse is a heavy, finely balanced wheel that spins through distances that would normally require many scrolling motions and many minutes.

The MX has its drawbacks. For one, there is no version for lefties. And, even for a fancy mouse, it’s pricey: the suggested retail is $99.99. But many early adapters say that once they’ve used this hypermouse, they can’t go back to slower devices.

Erik Khoobyarian, a lawyer in Sacramento who reviewed the mouse for Logitech before its release in August, now always has the MX at hand. “It’s a small change, but it’s made me more efficient,” he said of the mouse’s ability to scan quickly.

He particularly values the MX when he is reading long cases or articles online. “The job goes a lot faster,” he said. He also uses it for speeding through spreadsheets. “I fly to the section I want,” he said, “and then scroll more slowly.”

The mouse has another new feature he likes: a thumb-wheel mounted horizontally on the left side, meant for users who have many computer windows open at the same time. With a click, it shows a vertical list of, for instance, active Web pages, searches and e-mail; a nudge of the wheel takes him from one window to the next.

“It’s a treat to use,” he said — quicker than typing “alt tab” on the keyboard, or clicking on tabs at the bottom of the screen.

Richard McCowen, a research assistant professor of psychology at the University of Memphis, uses the MX, which he bought online at, to zip through the thousands of lines of computer code that he writes as part of his job. “One of these pages can be 3,000 lines long,” he said.

He lets the wheel spin freely, then scans the display to find the part of the code that concerns him. “Once I’m near the right spot,” he said, “I click to go into line-by-line mode.”

There are more traditional ways to speed the trip through a document, including the age-old technique of pointing the cursor at the scroll bar on the side, grabbing an icon and pulling on it to move the screen vertically or horizontally.

But that method entails a minor but steady interruption. “If you are editing, you have to move your gaze from the text to the side each time that you need to grab the scroll bar,” said Ravin Balakrishnan, an associate professor of computer science at the University of Toronto whose work includes research on computer interfaces. “Your visual attention is divided from the document.”

Other scanning techniques are available. Microsoft’s AutoScroll function, for example, permits users to scroll quickly by pressing a control on the mouse and then sliding the mouse along the desktop.

The Logitech mouse comes with software that buyers can use to customize the controls — for example, the speed or acceleration of horizontal or vertical scrolling, or the number of lines shown with each click. The software also allows users to reassign the functions of most of the controls. For instance, one button on the mouse lets users begin a search of any highlighted word or phrase with one touch — but it works only on Google, Yahoo, or Yahoo LiveWords. If this isn’t useful, users can reassign the one-touch button to one of many other functions.

The MX is cordless and operates up to a distance of about 30 feet. It has a rechargeable lithium-ion battery and a built-in laser. The laser illuminates the surface beneath the mouse so that each of its movements can be photographed and sent on to the computer, even on tricky surfaces like high-gloss wood veneer.

Installation is simple. First, the mouse is placed into its charger for a few hours so the battery will be ready to go. Then it’s just a matter of moments to install the software, which is in the box for PCs and is downloadable on the Web for Macs. The wireless receiver that picks up the transmissions from the mouse plugs into an available USB port on the computer.

A brief set of instructions explains the new controls, like the main scroll wheel, the thumb wheel and the one-touch button. If you want to customize the controls or learn about the more standard functions of the mouse, you’ll find the information only on the software guide, which takes 10 minutes, or perhaps slightly longer, to read.

Other cordless laser mice are on the market. They include Microsoft’s Wireless Laser Mouse 8000 ($75 to $90), introduced in September. The 8000 does not have a hyperspeed scroll wheel like the MX’s, but can be operated easily by both left- and right-handers. It is not compatible with Macs, whereas the MX works with both Macs and PCs.

The MX is not designed for true game fans, said Erik Charlton, senior product manager at Logitech. During idle periods, the mouse “sleeps,” or reduces the stream of images it customarily transmits to the computer. This sleeping prolongs battery life, but results in a tiny lag when the resting mouse is put back into motion. Such lags might give pause to a gamer suddenly pursued by a monster, Mr. Charlton said.

But the mouse does have one gaming feature incorporated into its desktop persona: low-friction feet that are coated in a generic version of Teflon. The feet glide extremely smoothly and rapidly over a desktop.

Even users whose monsters come in the form of 40-page reports should find this nearly frictionless movement a constant pleasure.