Two Important Things Every Mac User Ought to Know
(or, "A Few of my Favorite Mac Things…")

April 23rd, 2004
Episode #17

I meet a lot of people including a surprising number who tell me they're new to the Mac. Invariably, conversation turns to computers and they almost always ask if I have recommendations for a new Mac user. Rather than make up something new each time, I figured I'd write a column (or columns); then, in the future, I can just send the URL(s), and provide the whole story, complete with pictures. So, without further ado, here are the first two things I think every Mac user ought to know:

About the Mouse

I believe one button on a mouse is at least one too few buttons. And while it's likely Apple would argue -- they've never (to my knowledge) shipped a multi-button mouse with any Mac -- I'm not sure they'd argue that hard or long about it. Why not? Well, mostly because Mac OS X and most Mac OS X applications support two-button mice without installing drivers. Just plug in any two-button USB mouse and it'll work. The second button acts as a Control-Click, perfect for bringing up contextual menus without using both hands.

But wait; there's more! If your two-button mouse also has a scroll wheel, the Finder and many other OS X apps support it without installing any drivers. Turn the wheel and the page scrolls. (Alas, while most scroll wheels can also act as a button when you press down on them, neither OS X nor most OS X apps support this button automatically so you'll have to install the mouse's Mac OS X drivers to get this third button to do anything useful.)

I've been very happy with Microsoft's new Wireless IntelliMouse Explorer 2.0 which I find even better than the previous model (which I also loved). The new edition has the same comfortable shape, which fits my beefy hand perfectly, and offers the same five buttons -- two on the top, two on the side, and one on the scroll wheel (when you push down on it).

There are three new or improved features; my favorite is the new tilting scroll wheel (also available in other Microsoft rodents). It moves in every direction -- side to side for horizontal scrolling, forward and backward for vertical (e.g. normal) scrolling, and up and down for clicking. This new tilt wheel rocks (pun intended), and I use it a lot in programs such as Photoshop or InDesign, where I tend to zoom in and scroll around often. It's a new feature and, in my humble opinion, the coolest advance in mouse technology since, well, the scroll wheel. It took me a day or two to get used to, but now I'm hooked.

The software makes it easy to configure each button; mine work as follows: The left button clicks; the right button Control-clicks (a.k.a. "right click"); the scroll wheel button Option-clicks; and the two buttons under my thumb send Command-] and Command-[, the keyboard shortcuts for Next and Previous in the Finder and many Web browsers.

The Microsoft Mouse software rocks and is easy as pie to use.

The second new feature is more an improvement than a new feature, but I like the fact that the IntelliMouse Explorer 2.0 offers three times the battery life of a competing (Logitech) cordless mouse. After three weeks of using it 24/7 the batteries still report their level is "Good," which it is; my other wireless devices (a Kensington Trackball and another older Wireless IntelliMouse) barely go a month between battery changes.

Finally, both the wired and wireless IntelliMouse Explorer 2.0 (and other Microsoft mice) now come in several new designs including my favorite, an iridescent green and ever-so Matrix-like paint job they call "Night Vision," shown at left in the picture below:

Three Microsoft mice. (Photos courtesy Microsoft.)

The middle design is known as "Immersion," and the one on the right, (a different mouse model with only two buttons and a tilting scroll wheel) is called, "Groovy."

(You can also vote for your favorite mouse design.)
Street price: Under $50.
More info.

About the Keyboard

I believe that Apple makes great computers, but their mice and keyboards leave me cold. As I just explained, the mice have never had enough buttons on them to please me and the keyboards just don't feel right to me, or at least they haven't since my favorite keyboard of all time -- the Apple Extended ADB Keyboard, commonly referred to as, "the Battleship Saratoga," because it was roughly the size of a small aircraft carrier -- bit the dust ten years ago.

Sure, it was ugly, and used far too much precious desk space. But it offered that perfect combination of key bounce and key resistance that I (and, apparently, many others) found near-perfect.

Alas, that keyboard used the old ADB bus to connect to your Mac, and has been discontinued for many years. Since that time I've tried dozens of replacements and ultimately found my second-favorite keyboard, the one I've been using since the Saratoga bit the dust.

It's the Microsoft Natural Keyboard Pro, an ergonomic USB keyboard almost as big as a Saratoga but with more keys and buttons. And it was almost as good as a Saratoga.

Alas, not long after I discovered it, the Microsoft Natural Keyboard Pro was discontinued. So I tried some other Microsoft ergonomic keyboards and while they were quite nice, and offered the same excellent keyboard driver software and special keys and buttons I loved so much in my Natural Keyboard Pro, none of them felt exactly right. Even the Natural Multimedia Keyboard shown below (US$44.99 from Amazon), which was almost a clone of the Natural Keyboard Pro I loved, didn't have the same key-feel.

Microsoft's Natural Multimedia Pro keyboard came close, but no cigar. (Photo courtesy Microsoft.)

So I scoured the Internet and bought what were perhaps the last two, "new-in-the-box," Natural Keyboard Pros on earth. The bad news: They were, "brown box stock," so they have big blue Dell logos which means I'll almost certainly want to spray paint them before putting them into service.

Or not… It seems I may not need them after all because I recently found a keyboard that feels so similar to my old, nearly forgotten Saratoga that I almost cried.

Made by the Matias Corporation (which also makes the excellent iPod Armor aluminum carrying case) the Tactile Pro is a keyboard built with the same Alps keyswitch technology used in the Apple Saratoga keyboard.

I requested a review unit and used it for a few days. While it did indeed feel fantastic and very much like the Saratoga, my fingers had become used to the split ergonomic design of the Natural Keyboard Pro, and while the Tactile Pro was very nice, I felt it was slowing down my typing.

In my line of work, the faster I type the more money I make. So I reluctantly returned to my Microsoft Natural Keyboard Pro. I had almost forgotten the entire incident when I read Adam Engst's rave review of Tactile Pro a few weeks ago in TidBITS.

So I gave Tactile Pro another try and am I ever glad I did. The problem was that I hadn't given the Tactile Pro a long enough tryout. Because I'd been using a split "ergonomic" keyboard for so long, it took almost a week before I was used to the key layout. This shouldn't be a problem for most users -- the Tactile Pro is the size and shape of an Apple Pro Keyboard (the one that comes with most current Macs) and has an almost identical key layout, so you will be comfortable using it after only a few minutes.

Matias Tactile Pro looks like a stock Mac keyboard but feels like a Saratoga. Pure bliss. (Photo courtesy Matias Corp.)

In a word, the keyswitches are amazing. They bounce "just so," and I seem to type faster and make fewer mistakes. But the Tactile Pro has one other great feature: Every key has its Option and Shift-Option characters printed right on the key caps. So you'll never forget where to find the ™ or © or • characters again. That's so sweet! (Thanks for pointing it out, Adam!)

The only drawback I can think of is that the mechanical keyswitches are noisier than the cheaper (but quieter) membrane keyswitches in most modern computer keyboards. It's fine with me; I kind of like the clicking and clacking (except when I'm on the phone -- I can't pretend to be listening while I'm actually working anymore).

But that's a small price to pay and in my admittedly noisy office, not a problem.

After three weeks I'm typing faster and more accurately and with less hand fatigue. Bottom line: These keys have the perfect amount of bounce and resistance and the Tactile Pro is the best Mac keyboard I've used in years. With its 5-year warranty and solid, built-to-last construction, I couldn't recommend it more.

Tactile Pro. S.R.P.: $99.95. Matias Corporation.