Things I’ve Missed

I was lazy last week and didn’t write anything here. Funnily enough, the world kept turning and interesting and significant things kept happening. Here’s what I missed:


New hardware for Lion


Along with the new OS today, Apple released brand new MacBook Airs, Mac minis, and thunderbolt-equipped Cinema displays. The new Airs are easily the biggest story, with massive performance gains and i-series processors. Interestingly, the minis also lost their optical drive. Definitely a sign of things to come.

On a related note, the white MacBook has finally been discontinued. I have mixed feelings about that, since I own the previous generation MacBook, but it’s obviously inferior to the Air. Rumor has it the white laptop is still available for education, but it’s clearly deprecated.

5 days of magic

I’ve wanted a mouse for a while now – not because I hate my trackpad (I prefer it to any mouse,) but for the precision and control it brings to certain projects. With Lion on its way to release, I also needed a way to use all those snazzy new multitouch gestures with my aging laptop.

So Friday morning I headed up the street and dropped a cool $70 on a Magic Mouse. It’s exactly what I thought it would be. Gorgeous exterior, solid construction, nice heft, silky smooth texture. It’s also rather limited and not as ergonomic as it could be. In other words, this mouse is exactly like every other Apple product. After all, isn’t that what you’d expect?

While paying for my new toy in the campus tech store, one thing crosses my mind: “Boy this is expensive for a mouse. I really hope it’s worth $70.”

Unpacking the clear display box is enjoyable as usual. Apple really knows how to present its products. The thing looks fantastic sitting there on the glass table – if Apple made spaceships, this would be a prototype. Too bad it can’t track on the clear surface. Time to find a mousepad.

My housemate gets home from class and walks through. “What is that? That’s a mouse? How does it work?” He sits down and watches me use it for the next hour. This is by no means a typical reaction when one buys a new mouse. Still, the mouse looks so good that I’m somehow not surprised.

My roommate is impressed. What about me? The gestures are a bit awkward. It doesn’t feel very comfortable in my hand. It tracks slowly. I hope I won’t regret this purchase later. Better stay enthusiastic so my roommate is suitably awed. This is an Apple product after all.

I remember reading about some programs that enable custom gestures for this. MagicPrefs and BetterTouchTool look good, so I try each one out. MagicPrefs is simple yet comprehensive, with a clear interface. Unfortunately, it doesn’t let me combine modifier keys with my gestures. This is something I want. I trash it and switch to BetterTouchTool. It’s almost arcanely complex – I can’t even tell if it’s an app or a prefpane (or both). But it performs well and offers helpful descriptions of every option. An hour later I’m stroking my new toy with every finger, poking it in strange places, and trying to figure out what a tip-tap is.

Too complex. I remove half the gestures, keeping only the things that I normally do with my right hand on the keyboard. Skipping songs in iTunes: check. Navigating Safari tabs: check. Swiping between stories in Reeder: check. This is getting better now, but my hand is starting to feel cramped.

Time to go to class. I need my laptop today anyway; why not bring the new mouse? I pack it up in the box it came in. When I get to lecture, the apex of the arc is slightly scratched. Looks like this is the same material as the old glossy iPods. Mental note: cover the top when I travel.

At work in the afternoon, it’s as useful as I imagined it would be. Definitely much better for image editing than the less precise trackpad. It still feels uncomfortable to use for long periods, but I’m getting a sense of how to hold it.

By the next day, I finally have BTT configured to a decent amount of gestures that are easy and intuitive to perform. The mouse is coming into it’s own. I don’t have to think about it anymore – I even start missing it when I use my trackpad. That’s a petty good indication of how I’ve adapted to the new input device. But should I have to adapt at all when given a new mouse? In one sense, I think Apple could have done a better job making the Magic Mouse easier to use and more hand-friendly. In another sense, I recognize that switching to any other system would have been a disruption of my routine. I use a lot of custom keyboard shortcuts designed for my right hand poised just above the trackpad. I would miss those no matter what mouse I used. And one thing’s for sure: after mastering the gestures, there’s no way I would want a normal non-multitouch mouse over the Magic Mouse.

It’s a question of tradeoffs and muscle memory. I work so long at my computer that my hand can inevitably cramp up, regardless of the position I’m in. This mouse only helps by giving me a way to change my hand position every few hours. Sadly, it doesn’t seem any more comfortable over time than a trackpad. Maybe it’s even worse. Also, my hand is trained by long experience with the trackpad – single finger scrolling does not come easily to me. It’s difficult to get over the habits I’ve mastered for four years. I’m getting there, but I still don’t feel as efficient the mouse as I do with my usual trackpad and key commands.

Will I use the Magic Mouse all day? No. Will I return it and go back to my trackpad 24/7? No. There’s a use for each, and I fully expect to use the mouse whenever a trackpad just won’t cut it. It’s probably a testament to the MacBook’s best-in-class trackpad that those occasions are few and far between. If I had a newer laptop with a multitouch pad, I doubt I would have bought the mouse. As it is, I expect to keep this laptop around for years to come. I don’t regret my purchase at all. The mouse is just a little less magical than it might have been.

EDIT: It’s been a long while since I wrote this post; a month and three days in fact. I’m here to tell you that I love this mouse now. I still love my trackpad too, but I’ve become a dual input device sort of guy. I use each one when I feel like it, and the Magic Mouse is a permanent part of my desk. What made the difference? Turning off right click. Seriously. The size and shape of the mouse makes me want to naturally rest my index finger on the right side, so eliminating the traditional right click got rid of my hand stress. I just set up a three-finger click to be “right click” in BetterTouchTool, and then I fell in head over heels. Try it – I don’t think you’ll be disappointed.