Ben Dodson

Freelance iOS, Apple Watch, and Apple TV Developer

The Apple Magic Mouse: Necessary upgrade or expensive luxury?

Apple recently announced the introduction of their latest peripheral, the Magic Mouse (so called due to trademark problems with the existing "Mighty Mouse" name). The new mouse offers the same multitouch features as found in the trackpads of recent MacBooks and of course the iPhone and iPod Touch. But is it any good?

Previous Apple Mice

The previous model (the "Mighty Mouse") was a complete disaster in my opinion and the only Apple product apart from the Tiger Xserve that I have never been able to defend (even as a devout fanboy). The main problem was that the scroll button (or 'nipple') would get clogged with dirt so easily that it would invariably stop working after a couple of weeks heavy usage. The official Apple solution to this (which has since been pulled from the KnowledgeBase) was to turn it upside down and bang it in your palm! Whilst it had a couple of benefits in terms of OS X integration (such as activating Exposé by squeezing) these features quite often generated more problems than they solved (such as activating Exposé by accidental squeezing). So how does the Magic Mouse differ?

Design

The Magic Mouse has no buttons, no squeezing, and no cable. Like the unibody MacBooks, it has gone for a simple look using the minimum number of parts; one piece of aluminium and one piece of glass. It is incredibly short (in terms of height) compared to other mice whilst being slightly longer than others. With no distinguishing buttons and a symmetrical shape, the only visual aid to placing it the right way round is the standard Apple logo displayed on the top. In my opinion, the design is beautiful yet simplistic (as you would expect from any recent Apple product) but would look at home in a museum of modern art. Not many people care about the aesthetics of a mouse (which is strange considering it's prominent location in most homes) but now I've had this on my desk, I'd find it very difficult to go back to something uglier.

Before you've even got it to your desk you are struck by the beauty of the device. The packaging is incredibly similar to the new iPods (which makes a lot of sense) but it still amazed me to see just how little packaging was used.

Apple Magic Mouse packaging

It is difficult not to pick up the Magic Mouse in the Apple Store and not be impressed with the way it is packaged. This is how all packaging should be in the modern world - I'm not talking just about technology (although there is large scope for improvement) but in everything from food to clothing. Smaller packaging means not only that you can put more product in a store but also that you save fuel from transportation (as you can move more units in the same lorries / boats leading to less trips) and minimise wasteful plastic packaging. I was impressed when I found out that the mouse came with batteries (very rare these days) but even more impressed when I discovered they were already in the device which was simply turned off. This saves a huge amount of space and more plastic.

Functionality

As other commentators have noted, there is no "wow" moment with this mouse. By this, they mean that the majority of Apple products have that initial euphoria when you use it for the first time (e.g. when you first unlock the iPhone or when you lift the MacBook out of it's stunning packaging) but this mouse doesn't have that. You just use it. However, what it does have is a strange sensation roughly after an hours use when you try to go back to using a normal mouse. You find the scrolling isn't as intuitive and that you've been using the multitouch features without even thinking about it. It is a very easy mouse to get used to and it is that which provides the "wow" as you realise you have been completely taken in.

In terms of setup, it's a standard bluetooth mouse so a quick trip to the "mouse" page in Settings will have it set up in know time. As of the time of writing, you need to download an update via "Software Update" to take advantage of the multitouch gestures but when OS X 10.6.2 is released it will be built into the OS by default. The only negative here is that the update is 62MB which is a little excessive - this is most likely due to the videos that show you how to use the gestures in a similar way to the videos found on the MacBooks to show you how to use the trackpad. In any case, setup is quick and painless.

At present, there are very few actual uses of the multitouch. Clicking is performed by a physical click (not just tapping as per the trackpads) but there is only one button. The multitouch comes into play by detecting where your finger is on the surface and then linking that up to whether it is a primary or secondary click - this is very useful if you are left-handed or ambidextrous (as I am) as you can quickly switch the mouse to your other hand and it still feels comfortable thanks to the symmetrical design. The only other two uses are scrolling (a simple case of moving your finger around on the surface - you can go up, down, left, right, and diagonal which is useful for zooming in photos, etc) and the two finger swipe which lets you go backwards and forwards through browser history and photos. Apple also point out you can zoom into a page by holding the control button on the keyboard and swiping your finger up and down but this has always been possible by holding control and using a scroll wheel so I wouldn't describe it as a unique function.

Criticism

There appear to be two main criticisms of this device if you read the forums or the reviews pages on the Apple Store; size and functionality.

A lot of people have found the size uncomfortable as it's so much shorter than previous mice. However, I note that most of these reviews were from people going to their local Apple Store and trying it rather than at home. I had read these reviews and so when I got to the store I made a point of squatting down to try it as the benches in the store are very low (meaning you're not holding the mouse as you normally would). This made a huge difference to how it sat in my hand and so I think a lot of these reviews just stem from this problem. I would never buy a mouse that cost this much money without trying it out first but it is important that you try and recreate how you would use it as much as possible.

The second problem of functionality is much more valid in my mind. For a multitouch device, this mouse uses a woeful amount of multitouch features. When it was first announced I was expecting all the features of my trackpad such as pinch, rotating, zooming, 3-4 fingered swiping, and maybe a few extras as well. Without this option (and the customisation that goes with it) there are just too few buttons for a lot of consumers. The squeeze buttons on the Mighty Mouse may have been annoying to some but at least it gave you a way to control Exposé from your mouse - something that can save a lot of time over the course of a day. Likewise with no middle button control you can't get to your dashboard or spaces easily (or use it like a PC mouse for opening new tabs in browsers).

My theory on this lack of functionality is that Apple know they are going to get negative reviews that focus intently on this issue. They will therefore release an update in a month or so which fixes it and adds full multitouch support which will then write off all of the negative reviews. In this way, they are able to choose the negative issue that people will focus on safe in the knowledge they can resolve it later on and make it seem that everybody loves the device. People who had an issue with the device can't then say "x is bad about it" as their original review will have focused on the multitouch issue as the only negative. From what I've seen of Apple's marketing machine (one of the best in the world to my mind) and my studies of politics, this is exactly the kind of controlled negativity that I would expect. I guess we'll see if I'm right in a month or so!

Conclusion

So is the mouse worth £55 (or $69 - strange currency conversion there...) - at the moment I would say no simply due to the lack of features supported by the multitouch. If these are corrected in a future update (and I'm confident they will be) then this will be one of the finest mice on the market, but at the moment it feels as if it's full potential is being restricted. There is no question that this is a beautiful device, but the functionality needs to match the aesthetics before I can fully endorse it.

Update - 11th Nov 2009: I was recommended BetterTouchTool by @ricklecoat which is a free app that enables some extra features of the mouse. For instance, my Magic Mouse now reveals my desktop when I slide two fingers up / down and does Exposé when I tap (yes tap, not click) with three fingers. Has improved my productivity no end!

Gallery

I've put together a few shots of the unpacking of the Magic Mouse as well as comparing it with a few of my older mice. Check it out on Flickr.

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