Keeping an eye on optical mice

Optical mice are pretty cheap these days, but are they worth buying to replace traditional ball mice? Take a look at a few pros and cons and then share your experiences with optical mice.

Optical mice prices are falling. And that is good news for support techs who spend much of their time cleaning and repairing the more common ball mouse. Consider the lack of moving parts in an optical mouse, and you can see how optical mice could be a boon for the help desk.

An optical mouse can now be purchased for about $20, and even less in bulk. Compare that to around $10 for a ball mouse and the associated support costs for each.

The narrowing difference in cost combined with a possible reduction in support costs may equal an improved cost of ownership, but there isn’t much research on the topic. That’s why we would like to know about your experience with the cost of supporting optical mice versus ball mice. Tell us what you think in the discussion below or send us a note.

In this article, we’ll discuss situations where optical mice don’t perform well and include a case or two where optical mice were a support department’s dream.

Optical mouse shortcomings
There are a few circumstances in which an optical mouse is probably not the ideal candidate to substitute for a ball mouse.

The surface that the mouse rides on can be one problem because optical mice use a small camera and a light source to detect movement—and the direction of that movement.

From discussions in several Internet news groups, optical mice do not function well on glass, mirrored, or shiny surfaces. In fact, there were discussions that some mouse pads with glossy coatings on the surface are too reflective for the mouse’s camera.

Certain colors can also cause problems with the sampling rate of optical mice, typically in the range of 1,500 samples per second for Microsoft’s optical version of its IntelliMouse.

I use the optical IntelliMouse and inherited a colorful mouse pad from someone who once used an optical mouse.

The pad’s design features a psychedelic pattern with a particular shade of purple in the center. When my mouse glides over that color, it freaks out and functions erratically.

I’ve also seen a phenomenon that is mentioned in a review of the IntelliMouse that was published on TechRepublic last year titled "Will mighty IntelliMouse save your day?"

In that review, one of the early adopters of the optical mouse noted that when he clicked a mouse button, it sometimes functioned like a double click and would highlight areas as he moved the mouse. This may have something to do with the ClickLock feature in the IntelliMouse’s setup software that can be set to activate when the mouse button is held down momentarily.

Justifications for adopting optical mice
Even with these few caveats, optical mice are highly sought after by end users who hear others rave about how easily the optical mouse glides across hard surfaces.

In the discussion that followed the IntelliMouse review, several users described the optical mouse as being much more precise in graphics applications, and several game players claimed higher kill rates.

Happy end users aren’t the best economic justification for purchasing optical mice, however, except in the most enlightened of organizations. Is there any benefit to an optical mouse to justify its higher purchase cost?

There are at least two possibilities that could impact total cost of ownership:
  • Reduced costs associated with supporting remote users
  • Longer product life in adverse operating conditions

This first suggestion comes from TechRepublic’s support guru Ted Laun. Supporting remote users would be easy if cleaning a mouse were as simple as releasing the mouse ball and wiping it clean. But properly cleaning a malfunctioning mouse requires something more.

The most common problem isn’t that there is a big ball of fuzz inside the mouse interfering with the ball’s rotation. Usually the problem has to do with a buildup of gunk on the rotating wheels within the mouse body. While this gunk can be scraped clean by someone who has a certain amount of dexterity and the patience of a saint, it is best cleaned with an appropriate cleaner and swab.

Laun believes that optical mice, with their lack of moving parts, would eliminate—or significantly reduce—the most common mouse-related support problems.

Environmental conditions also can provide a justification for moving to an optical mouse.

TechRepublic contributor Michelle Hutchinson works in a plant where computers and mice are bombarded with airborne particles generated by the manufacturing machinery.

“We were replacing mice all the time because they would stop working from being filled with the lint and dust. We switched to optical mice and no longer have that problem,” she said.

While the costs of replacing mice may not be high, eliminating the repeated support calls, cleaning, and replacement of mice adds up over time, Hutchinson noted.

Is there a better mousetrap?
Are optical mice worth the added expense? Have optical mice become inexpensive enough to make them worth advocating from a support perspective? Are they working for you and your support desk? Or are they more trouble than they are worth? Tell us what you think in the discussion below or send us a note.


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