Touch and Go

If you have a mouse problem, this Cat® could be your answer.

I am overly attached to my computer mouse--there, I've said it. I cup, grip, push, pull, and otherwise maneuver it merrily all day long, clicking left and right, deftly flinging the cursor, and scrolling with abandon. I keep its pad clean. Sometimes, deep in thought, I think I caress it. I make this confession--providing clearly way too much information--in order to admit at the outset that I have a bias, perhaps even an unhealthy one.

Not knowing this about me, marketers at Salt Lake City-based Cirque Corp. recently sent me a device called the Smart Cat Pro®, the latest in the company's line of touchpads for desktops, designed specifically as an alternative for the conventional mouse. It functions similarly to the touchpads built into laptops and myriad other devices in which you can control screen navigation simply by gliding your finger on the pad, tapping it when you'd otherwise be clicking a button on a standard mouse.

"All consumers are now becoming aware of touch products--from dishwashers to the iPhone," says Cirque Vice President Doug Moore. "The use of touch is a natural way of interacting with electronic devices, and the touchpad is the basis of this revolution to come."

There's no denying the ubiquity of touch products or the fact that ours is in many ways a pad-based society. My laptop, like most, came equipped with a built-in touchpad. I even tried using it. Before the end of the week, though, I went out of my way to purchase a laptop-ready mouse just to restore order to my world. I'm happy to report that, since then, the technology has progressed.

Danger Mouse?
Ken Tolman, Cirque's desktop products sales manager, says that ergonomic concerns account for about 80 percent of all desktop touchpads the company sells. Customers often are seeking to replace their conventional mouse out of necessity after suffering a mouse-induced repetitive stress injury such as carpal tunnel syndrome, he says.
"If you think about it, as you're using a mouse you tend to drift with it, and you have to pick it up and put it back down in the central area, repositioning it repeatedly," Tolman says. "With the touchpad, that never happens. Instead of moving your wrist, elbow, and shoulder as you do with the mouse, all you're moving around with the touchpad is your finger--maybe a little motion in your wrist is all that's required."

Merely gripping the standard mouse or holding it in a fixed, rigid way for extended times also can lead to problems, he says. So can the repetitive motion of just reaching the finger to click. Touchpad users, on the other hand, can more easily shift positions and the fingers used to accomplish tasks with no arm movement necessary. Tolman adds the caveat that for the mouse enamored like me, it likely will take practice and conscious habit breaking to achieve the finger agility needed to finesse the touchpad: "Just understand that there is a learning curve here that you have to allow for, because it's totally different than the mouse," he says.

Sleight of Hand
During my test drive of the Smart Cat Pro, I found that the most comfortable way to use it was to hold the unit in one hand while using the fingers of the other to manipulate the on-screen movements. I was undoubtedly involving too much elbow and shoulder in the action, but the controls were intuitive and the speed and sensitivity of the navigation felt at least a generation beyond what I had experienced with my own laptop's pad.

Tolman says that heightened sensitivity is the result of the unit's low-friction "capacitive touch" technology, which requires only the slightest touch to effect movement. The "resistive touch" technology found in other touchpads (apparently including the one built into my laptop) requires push-down force to make two surfaces come together. Even with the capacitive touch, however, I occasionally did not experience the quick response to "precise finger movements" that Cirque advertises, and at times the Cat's functioning seemed, well, finicky.

As a test, I tried using a plastic-capped pen on the touchpad to effect the movements, but results were sketchy at best. Tolman says this is because the sensitive circuitry inside is made to respond to an object that is at least the size of a finger and anything less just has trouble registering. Cirque separately sells a lightweight aluminum stylus that works well, he says, because it has a brass tip of sufficient width.

The Smart Cat Pro is 4 inches by 4.4 inches, with a touch area that's 2.5 inches by 2.1 inches--larger than most standard laptop pads. In the upper right-hand corner of the touch area is a textured triangular space on which you can tap your finger to mimic a mouse's right click. Tapping the larger pad area twice replicates the left double-click on a standard mouse. Tapping your finger on the pad and holding down allows highlighting and dragging. A feature called GlideExtend® lets you momentarily lift and reposition your finger without dropping or deselecting the highlighted text or file, which is useful when your finger has reached the edge of the pad.

Two large buttons situated below the touch area serve as the equivalent of left and right mouse buttons, presumably as backups in case you get tired of tapping on the pad. I never got used to their positions, and when the unit was flat on the desk, clicking them was awkward. At the left of the touch area are four customizable hotlink keys that can launch applications, open files, or execute specific functions, but to make these keys work you have to first install the GlidePoint® driver software that comes with the unit.

The Cat's Meow
It is this "intelligent software" that sets the Smart Cat Pro apart, or at least raises it to the level of a deluxe, five- or six-button programmable mouse. Among the added functionality the GlidePoint driver provides is advanced scrolling, enabling horizontal as well as vertical movement, and a zoom function that magnifies or shrinks your documents with a flick of the fingertip. It enables you to adjust cursor modes, sounds, and other settings, too. According to the installation guide, these advanced features will not function as designed on Macs, but users of Windows® 2000/XP are limited only by their imagination for customizing. The unit I received, which uses a USB connection, retails for $74.95; another Smart Cat Pro model is $69.95 and uses a PS/2 connection, like the standard mouse hookup of yore. Both come in either black or white and include the driver software.

As nifty as I thought the product was, after my trial usage I promptly returned to my trusty few-frills mouse. For me it still seems the more natural option; we've been together so long, it's like an extension of my hand. If it ever starts giving me a problem, though, I'm bringing in the Cat.

This article originally appeared in the October 2007 issue of Occupational Health & Safety.

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