Kensington took its time bringing an optical version of its venerable Turbo Mouse to market. The Turbo Mouse was the original multi-button ADB trackball, introduced back in the late 1980s with two buttons and evolving through the late 1990s into a four-button, do-everything wunderkind of a mouse. Unfortunately, Kensington didn’t rush to produce a USB version once the iMac hit the market, leaving users stuck with the imperfect solution of a USB-ADB converter or—heaven forbid—even worse, the stock iMac mouse. Finally, when it got a USB version to market, the rest of the market had moved on to the optical mouse, and Kensington’s renamed Expert Mouse was behind the times again.
The latest revision of the Expert Mouse, version 7.0, has been out for about a year, and it fully lives up to its billing as the “ultimate trackball.” With USB connectivity, optical tracking, four programmable buttons, a brilliantly conceived “Scroll Ring,” an included wrist rest, and a billiard-size trackball, this mouse is the whole package.
Let’s get one thing out of the way: the Expert Mouse is the epitome of all things trackball. It’s the latest offspring of the original trackball mouse. If you’re a trackball-hater, approach this review with an open mind. Don’t hate the player. Hate the game—and Kensington’s game is not to be hated lightly.
A good mouse starts off with one of two things: either it’s dead simple or it has great software. Apple has always taken the dead-simple route. Kensington takes the opposite tack, with incredible software that makes an otherwise complex mouse quite easy to use.
Software has traditionally been a Kensington strong point, and the latest version of MouseWorks for Mac OS X
is no exception. The only drawback is that third-party mouse support has disappeared. (A little-known secret on the Classic Mac OS was the fact that Kensington’s ADB MouseWorks software was amazingly supportive of non-Kensington devices, sort of like an ADB version of USB Overdrive
.) It’s hard to find fault with Kensington for failing to re-implement this feature when it rewrote the software from scratch for Mac OS X.
MouseWorks will be immediately familiar to anyone who has used the Classic version, except it’s now implemented as a preference pane rather than a control panel application. Separate tabs are provided for button assignments, scrolling control, click speed, and—best of all—acceleration, which allows for a fantastic degree of fine tuning. There is excellent help and documentation, which are thankfully no longer the rarity they once were. Buttons can be assigned on a per-application basis, giving the user limitless possibilities for individual behavior in each application. This comes in especially handy for media pros, though almost every power user can, in time, make good use of it.
As with all good software, the default settings are sensible, too, though most folks will probably find the default scrolling speed and cursor tracking a bit too slow. Unlike Classic versions of MouseWorks, the new version bases these values on their corresponding global system preferences, so if you find yourself wanting to turn it up to eleven, make sure you’ve adjusted the settings in the Keyboard & Mouse preference pane first. Conversely, if you find it turned up to eleven and a mere tap of the mouse sends the cursor all the way across your screen, make sure the Keyboard & Mouse settings aren’t too high.
There seems to be one minor bug with the software under Mac OS X 10.3: plugging or unplugging the mouse seems to activate the screensaver within about 20 seconds. There doesn’t appear to be any rhyme or reason to this behavior, but it’s fairly reliable and happens almost every time.
Let’s move on to the mouse itself. The great benefit of this long line of trackballs has always been the size of the ball, which allows for much better cursor control than, say, the built-in trackballs on 100-series PowerBooks or the thumb-balls used on Logitech and Microsoft’s widely tolerated optical trackballs. If you’re soured on trackballs because of bad experiences with another model, rest assured this is one area where size does matter, and the Expert Mouse could well change your opinion.
The included wrist rest is a nice touch. Though wrist-rest mousepads are a dime a dozen now, the pleather-covered dense foam makes for a comfortable and stable support. Just don’t plan on taking it off. It snaps into its two mounting holes very tightly, and it’s pretty tricky to remove. The leading edge sticks up a little higher than it should, which is mildly uncomfortable. Moving your hand up on the mouse a bit helps, but doesn’t entirely avoid the problem. Of course, if you already have a wrist-rest mousepad, this should be a non-issue.
Kensington sensibly attaches a six-foot cord, putting the Expert Mouse within reach of even the worst hide-the-tower-under-the-desk setups. This cord is no longer detachable, as the ADB cable on the Turbo Mouse was, nor is there a USB pass-through on the Expert Mouse, though there’s admittedly less reason for one with the proliferation of USB hubs on the desktop. Though not tested for this review, a wireless version of the Expert Mouse (using proprietary RF, not Bluetooth, unfortunately—maybe in version 8.0?) is available for an additional $20, if you’re the type who hates any cord clutter and loves to use batteries.
Tracking is accurate and generally smooth, although not as precise as I remember the Turbo Mouse being under Mac OS 9 on my Wall Street, especially at slow tracking speeds. Fortunately, with the optical pickups, you’ll never have to worry about the ball sticking or the horrible thunking sounds the ball bearings in the old Turbo Mouse could make when dirt and dust got into the mechanism. Trust me, with heavy use, this happened more often than you might think, and the Turbo Mouse required fairly frequent cleaning. It’s one of the disadvantages of a trackball, with its upward-facing mechanism that collects whatever gravity drops on the ball.
Scrolling with the ring is very comfortable and feels quite natural, since my ring finger and thumb rest on or near the scroll ring anyway. It is not, however, as smooth as the tracking is. In fact, it’s noticeably jumpy at times. The scroll ring has very shallow detents that seem to exacerbate this problem, much like the soft clicking you feel on most scroll-wheel mice. At least some of the blame can be laid at the feet of application developers, though. Scrolling is noticeably smoother in Safari than in either Camino or Eudora.
Finally, those four glorious, programmable buttons are all within easy reach for maximum clickability. Even reaching over the massive trackball to chord is no problem, as your hand settles into a natural spread over the top of the mouse.
When I dropped $120 on a Turbo Mouse back in 1999, I did so sight unseen and without having tried it. Call it instinct. With the $20 price drop and superior features, the Expert Mouse is an even better value than its grandfather was, because the experience is markedly improved. While a lot of people might say $100 is too much for a mouse, a lot of people haven’t given the Expert Mouse a fair shake.
Kensington is one of the very few computer or peripheral makers to offer a fully transferable five-year warranty on anything, and their technical support has been highly praised in the rare case that it’s necessary. Do whatever you can to experience this mouse, and then try to argue it isn’t the best trackball—and maybe the best mouse—ever made. Well done, Kensington. Well done indeed.