A sleek, modern wireless mouse is visibly more advanced than the boxy pioneering models from decades ago. All types of mouse do the same basic job, regardless of the technology that goes into them, but differences in design and technology have led to many different computer mouse varieties. Another thing they have in common, besides function, is grammar: The Oxford Dictionary says the plural can be mice or mouses, and either one is perfectly correct.
Conception of the Computer Mouse
The history of the computer mouse goes back farther than you might think. It was originally demonstrated by Stanford engineer Douglas Engelbart in 1968, well before personal computers arrived on the marketplace. The underlying idea of a mouse was simple enough, though, and clear even in the mainframe computer era. Navigating around a computer screen with keystrokes is clumsy and complicated, but pointing at what you want is a skill simple enough even for infants. The mouse provided a practical way to do that.
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The Basics of How a Mouse Works
A computer mouse has to do three things:
- It needs some way to detect the motion of the mouse as you move it.
- It must recognize the click when you press a button.
- It needs to communicate that information to your computer.
In the five decades since Engelbart's demonstration, mouse designers have found several different ways to achieve those three goals. The result has been many different types of computer mice, even though their primary function remains the same.
Types of Mouse by Mechanism
One of the most fundamental changes over the years has been in how mouses detect your motion. Engelbreit's original mouse was a wooden box with two large wheels to translate its motion into electrical signals. That basic idea has since been replaced by several newer technologies.
- Electromechanical Mouses: When the mouse first became an essential accessory in the 1980s, it used a refinement of Engelbart's mechanical mouse. Instead of wheels, the mouse had a heavy rubberized ball which could roll in any direction. Two rollers inside the mouse recorded the ball's motion and transformed it into electrical signals, while a third roller provided tension to keep the ball pressed firmly against the other two.
- Optical and Laser Mouses: More modern mouse designs use light, in the form of high-resolution LEDs or lasers, to track the movement of the mouse. They've proven more reliable than mechanical mice because of their lack of moving parts to break or need cleaning, and improvements in both the hardware and software have made it possible for mice to be much more accurate and sensitive.
- Specialty Mouses and Mouse-like Devices: In some specific situations – while you're at a screen giving a presentation, for example – you may not be able to use your mouse on a flat surface. Manufacturers have evolved various mouse-like devices using accelerometers that can be used in these situations, translating the motions of your arm through the air into movements of your on-screen pointer. Because it's a niche scenario, these aren't widely known or used.
Differences in Connection Options
There's been a similar evolution in how the different kinds of computer mouse attached to the computer itself. Before the IBM PC made personal computers a business tool, the mouse was often designed to connect to a joystick port. The PC didn't come with one of those, so manufacturers came up with a range of alternatives.
- Serial Mouse: The IBM PC didn't have a joystick port, but it did have an RS-232C or serial port for communicating with other devices. When the mouse first became mainstream in the 1980s, early models from Microsoft and Mouse Systems were often designed to attach to this port. Serial ports came in 9-pin and 25-pin versions, but a serial mouse would work on either of those connections with an appropriate adapter.
- Bus Mouse: The problem with connecting through the serial port was that it was often used by other devices, such as external modems. One way around that issue was to use a bus mouse, which came with its own controller card. The card was installed into a slot on the computer's expansion bus – hence the name – and then the mouse was plugged into it. These often had a proprietary interface, so they couldn't easily be moved between computers.
- PS/2 Mouse: When IBM introduced its PS/2 series of personal computers, it introduced a new, standardized port for the keyboard and mouse. These so-called PS/2 ports were small, round connectors, usually color-coded so you knew which device to install where.
- USB Mouse: When the USB interface was first defined in the 1990s, one of its design goals was to provide a single port that could be used for any peripheral device including a mouse. Any types of mouse that still use a cord typically continue to use a USB connector.
- Wireless Mouse: Cords can be messy and inconvenient, so wireless mice were an obvious next step. Some conventional designs plug a small wireless dongle into the USB port and use that to communicate between the mouse and the computer. An alternative approach uses the Bluetooth wireless protocol to communicate between the mouse and the computer. Modern laptops and tablets typically have Bluetooth built in, so a Bluetooth mouse doesn't require a dongle.
Switches, Buttons and Wheels
The third task a mouse has to carry out is the click, which is how you position the pointer and how you select or move things on the screen. The switches need to differentiate between clicking and letting go, or holding down on the button to drag items on the screen. The switches themselves have improved over the years and now typically require only the gentlest of touches.
The number and function of the mouse's buttons evolved as they became more widely used. In the 1980s, Apple's Macintosh used a one-button mouse, Microsoft sold a two-button mouse, and Logitech marketed a three-button mouse. Added buttons translated to more versatility: Windows users could use the second button to right-click and open up context-sensitive menus, and Logitech's three-button system allowed users to set up custom combinations of buttons that could be programmed to act as shortcuts or to do specific functions.
Most mainstream computer mice settled on a hybrid design by the mid-90s, with left and right buttons and a scroll wheel mounted between them. The scroll wheel made it possible to scroll up and down the screen rapidly, and when pressed, it worked as a Logitech-style third button. Specialized mice for gaming and other demanding uses may provide additional buttons, which can be programmed for specific tasks.
The Question of Sensitivity
One crucial detail with any mouse is how far it moves for a given amount of motion on your desk. That's usually measured in dots per inch (dpi). It's not a straightforward thing to get right. On a big, modern high-resolution screen, ideally, a small movement of the mouse would still be enough to move your cursor from one side of the screen to the other. Unfortunately, that's counterproductive if you need fine, accurate control of your pointer, in which case you want a relatively large hand motion to make a small on-screen motion.
The usual solution is a control your mouse driver or operating system calls acceleration. If you make a slow movement, your mouse gives you fine, accurate control. If you make a fast movement, it speeds up and crosses a much larger portion of your screen. That's fine for general use, but gamers, engineers and other demanding users need better control. High-end mouses address that need by providing one or more buttons that switch between high- and low-dpi modes as needed.
The Question of Ergonomics
Ergonomics, or human-friendly engineering, is another ongoing issue in mouse design. Using a mouse all day can cause repetitive stress injuries, and there's no easy fix available. The simplest answer would be changing the mouse from left to right periodically, but that's not easy for users to do.
Most brands offer their various types of mouse in large and small sizes to fit users' hands comfortably, but that's just a starting point. Wrist rests to improve hand posture are sold separately, and some brands build them into the design of the mouse itself. Gaming mice often come with adjustable weights, letting users tailor the mouse's heft and balance to suit their personal taste. Manufacturers have also experimented with other radical designs, like vertical configurations, but those haven't found wide acceptance in the market.
Mouse Alternatives Bring Ergonomics, Versatility
A number of other pointing devices can take the place of a mouse, whether you're looking for better ergonomics, improved control or just simple convenience.
- Trackball: You could think of a trackball as an old-school mechanical mouse turned upside down, so the ball is on top. You control your cursor by rolling the ball with your finger or thumb, and then you click with buttons built into the base. Because you use your thumb rather than your wrist, it's a good option for users with carpal tunnel issues.
- Trackpoint: The trend from desktop to laptop computers created a need for mouse alternatives that were laptop friendly. One option is the trackpoint, a small rubberized button that sits between the home keys on the laptop's keyboard. You can move it with the index finger of either hand without taking your hands away from their normal typing position, which makes the trackpoint highly efficient. Clickable buttons are at the bottom of the keyboard, below the spacebar, where your thumbs can reach them. A trackpoint is mostly found on IBM and Lenovo computers.
- Touchpad: The touchpad is the most common mouse replacement for laptops. It works much like a touch screen, with your finger moving the on-screen cursor. You click by tapping the screen or using a physical button, depending on the design of the touchpad. Modern versions support a range of tapping and swiping gestures using multiple fingers, making them arguably even more versatile than the mouse itself.
- Stylus or Pen: A stylus or pen takes the place of a mouse when it's used on a touch-screen device, such as a tablet, touch-screen laptop, convertible laptop/tablet devices, and high-end mobile phones. It's more precise than a fingertip, and some devices add special features by measuring how hard you've pressed against the screen. You click by tapping the stylus on the screen, and some models have built-in buttons as well.