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Microsoft Touch Mouse

Microsoft this year will ship three touch-capable mice, including the Arc Touch Mouse, which I reviewed in January, and the upcoming Explorer Touch Mouse, which Microsoft says will ship in September. But those two units offer only a small touch-capable surface, in the center of the mouse, where the scroll wheel is usually located. If you're looking for a pure, multi-touch mouse, only Microsoft's latest creation, the Touch Mouse, will do. Also, you need to be using Windows 7: The Touch Mouse is not designed for previous Windows versions at all.

Like the Apple products on which it appears to be modeled, the Touch Mouse offers a large, multi-touch surface that extends over the entire top of the mouse. This surface can be pressed with a satisfying click for both left and right mouse clicks, but all other actions require multi-touch gestures. Some of these are quite successful and easy to use, some not so much.

Before getting to that, let's take a short side trip and examine the Touch Mouse packaging, which is also very Apple-like in its presentation, as you can see in my previously published Touch Mouse photo gallery. There's a lot of complex packaging to overcome, and a crazy number of doo-dads in the box, including a wireless nubbin (or "nano transceiver" as Microsoft calls it), a USB cable for the nubbin if you plan to use it with a desktop computer, batteries, a battery cover, and a weird set of internal mounting bits that were for some reason necessitated by the packaging. Just taking this thing apart so I could use the mouse took longer than I would have liked.

Once I finally uncovered and assembled all the pieces of this little erector set, set-up was actually pretty simple, and it triggers the download of the very latest Microsoft Mouse software, which is of course required for the new device. This software enables the special features of this particular mouse, which are accessed via a new Touch pane in the Mouse control panel. Nicely, this panel includes a helpful side-mounted video demonstration of the new features, too, so you can get up to speed.


And there's a lot to learn.

If you've been paying attention to what Apple's done with Mac OS X "Lion" (see my review) with regards to multi-touch gestures, you won't be surprised to discover that this functionality in the Touch Mouse is modeled after that, but not as full-featured. But I'd also point out that Lion's multi-touch gestures make more sense--a lot more sense--on a trackpad than they do on a mouse. And the failings of the Touch Mouse on Windows are thus similar to using, say, a Magic Mouse on Lion.

Each multitouch gesture is accompanied by a small onscreen animation at the location of the mouse cursor, which is used to indicate the gesture that was received. So for example, if you swipe three fingers upwards on the mouse surface, three small sky blue lights will appear below the mouse cursor with a motion animation suggesting upwards movement. This way, you get a visual confirmation of what you did, and it's unobtrusive.

The Touch Mouse offers a variety of gestures, using the following number and types of finger swipes:

1 finger. You can scroll in a document or web page by swiping a single finger up or down the center of the mouse's top, an activity I've found to be inaccurate and unreliable, and I much prefer the physical scroll wheel on my Explorer Mouse (BlueTrack) for this behavior. You can speed up scrolling by flicking that finger in either direction, which is even more inaccurate and generally causes the document or web page to simply move directly to the top or bottom, respectively.

You can also use your thumb to trigger the browser- (or Explorer-) based Go Back and Go Forward actions. This is likewise tricky: Your thumb must be located on the side of the mouse, where it would sit in normal usage, but above the crease that demarks the top, touch-sensitive part of the mouse. (The top surface extends down over much of the left and right side of the mouse as well.) By flicking up, you can trigger the Go Forward action; flicking down with the thumb triggers Go Back. Again, I have much more success with the Explorer Mouse, which features physical and easily-tapped Go Back and Go Forward buttons.

2 fingers. Two finger gestures are used for window management, meaning there are various two finger gestures related to minimizing, maximizing, and snapping the currently selected window. To maximize the window, sweep two fingers vertically "up" on the mouse (towards the front). To minimize (or restore a maximized window), sweep two fingers "down" the mouse (towards you). To snap a window to either edge of the screen, sweep two fingers left or right, respectively. (If the current window is already snapped, it will move to the correct "next" position, if that makes sense.)

These gestures are interesting because there is no similar functionality on most mice; I instead use keyboard commands to achieve these results. (You can also click window buttons and drag and drop windows as well, of course.) And they do work well enough.

3 fingers. Here, we get into interesting territory, and not just because I have large hands. You can use three finger swipes to manage all of the onscreen windows at once, albeit in limited fashion. If you swipe down on the mouse surface (towards you), all windows will be minimized, showing the desktop. This works as if you had tapped WinKey + D, or clicked the Show Desktop button in the taskbar, though doing it again will not reverse the effect. (Which is pretty dumb, frankly, since the mouse doesn't offer any way to reverse what you just did.)

An upwards three finger swipe is likely to be more controversial. This launches what Microsoft calls the Instant Viewer, or what Apple fans would call Exposé. In the user guide, this gesture is referred to as "show all open windows," which is true enough, but it's not the opposite of Show Desktop. And in case you're not sure why I think of this as a half-hearted Exposé rip-off, let's just mull over this screenshot for a second:


In classic Microsoft fashion, this view is not as full-featured as Exposé, but on the other hand it's also easier to use. (And to be a bit fair, Microsoft has offered views like this as part of previous versions of its mouse software.) It just shows whatever windows are open, and lets you navigate to one by clicking it. As I noted previously, there's no gesture that will reverse the Show Desktop action, but this display will at least show you minimized windows, so you can use it to manually find the one you want and click on it.

OK, so we have one, two, and three finger gestures, and depending on how you count, it's basically seven or eight things to remember, which is probably on the high end of expectations for the typical Windows user. How does this compare to what Apple offers natively in Lion? Just looking at Apple's Lion promotional materials, there's a lot more in OS X, including application switching, tap and pinch zooming, application launching, and more. It's just the more mature system when it comes to multi-touch.

On the other hand, that additional functionality brings with it complexity and the lack of discoverability, and any Mac user that wants to master this stuff will need to seek out instructions (which Apple includes in the product) and practice. Those who do so will be rewarded with efficiency, and I've seen some friends zipping through the apps on their Macs like Tom Cruise in "Minority Report." It's pretty impressive. (Though again, trackpads work better for this than a mouse.)

Put simply, a mouse isn't an ideal device for multi-touch navigation, and the Touch Mouse suffers for the same reasons Apple's Magic Mouse does. The basics work fine, for the most part, but once you attempt to anything more complicated than a click (like trying to move Back in a web browser), you really have to pay attention. And that's not how a good mouse should work.

And while this isn't a huge deal, I also think that smaller mice are ergonomically inferior and perhaps even dangerous for anyone that suffers from Carpal Tunnel or similar issues. And the Touch Mouse is definitely smaller than my preferred Explorer Mouse, which is large and has seemed to alleviate these problems. (For me at least: your mileage may vary.)

If you simply must have a touch-capable mouse, and use Windows 7, the Microsoft Touch Mouse fits the bill. But it's not as full-featured as what's available on the Mac, and not as nice as using Lion with the Magic Trackpad, largely because a trackpad is a better interface for multi-touch gestures. The Microsoft Touch Mouse is a beautiful piece of hardware. But it can't see it finding its way into my daily use.

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