Windows XP / Beginners

Choosing a mouse - or alternatives

Mice are probably available in more varieties than any other computer accessory. You can get mice with special ergonomic profiles, colored mice, transparent mice, special mice designed for kids, and on and on.

Optical mice now rule the roost. An optical mouse uses a light source and sensor to detect movement over a flat surface. It has no rolling ball to slip or stick, and it rarely needs to be cleaned. You may find this particularly helpful if you have furry pets, and your mouse tends to get clogged by their hair.

Some folks prefer a trackball to a mouse. A trackball is a stationary device with a large ball resting in a cup on the top. You operate it by turning the ball with your palm or thumb.

Some folks like to use a graphics tablet instead of or in addition to a mouse. You control software with a graphics tablet by touching its surface with a special stylus. Unlike a mouse, the graphics tablet detects position, not motion, so you can literally point at the item you want. You can even write or draw with the stylus. Graphics tablets are popular with serious users of photo editors and other graphics software, and they're becoming more popular since Microsoft started producing "digital ink" programs like OneNote that can read what you write, to a first approximation anyway. Many of these applications have special graphics tablet support and can detect the amount of pressure you're applying to the stylus. Thus you can press hard to draw a wide line, for example, or lightly to draw a thin line.

Tablet PCs - the kind that are designed to be used with a stylus and (almost invariably) OneNote - aren't for everyone. Some people love them. Most people don't get used to them. I count myself among the latter. If you ever think about buying a Tablet PC specifically for its note-taking capabilities, try to borrow one for a day or two before you plunk down the cash. You may find that the reality doesn't live up to the glitz. Or you may find that you love it!

A touchpad is similar to a graphics tablet, but you control it with your fingertip instead of a stylus. You "click" by tapping the pad. A touchpad is very convenient for moving the pointer around the screen, but because most people's fingers are less pointy than a stylus, it's not very good for drawing or writing. Touchpads usually are just a few inches long and wide, and cost $20 to $50, whereas graphics tablets are larger and cost $100 or more.

Touchpads are available with a serial interface, a USB interface, or the funny round plug used by most keyboards and mice (called a PS/2 connector). You can also buy a keyboard that has a touchpad built in, and which needs only the keyboard's usual connector. And, of course, touchpads and belly buttons (er, pointer sticks) are common on notebook computers.

All mice designed for Windows computers are compatible with Windows XP. Specialized devices such as graphics tablets may require special drivers; make sure the device you buy is Windows XP compatible.

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