I’ll admit it: I didn’t expect to like the new Mighty Mouse from Apple. Obviously, Apple’s previous single-button mouse was lacking, but with so many excellent mice on the market, did we really need another one? But I was intrigued by the Scroll Ball, which promised to make breezing through music applications like Logic Pro. Could this little ball make a believer out of me — and make me give up my beloved Logitech mouse? After weeks of testing, I’ve got the answer; read on for CDM’s obsessive review.

The Mighty Mouse is a $50 mouse replacement that works with both Mac and Windows. Unlike the previous Pro Mouse, for now it’s available in a corded model only — no wireless. I plugged it into both my Toshiba laptop and my desktop G5 running Tiger: on both, it works out of the box without drivers. (Windows 2000 / XP required for class-compliant USB support.) On the Mac, you’ll get additional features by installing software from the included CD.

The Mighty Mouse has some similarities with the previous Apple mouse: the basic shape and look are the same. But the new mouse adds support for function of up to four buttons, and features a scroll ball for horizontal and vertical scrolling on both Mac and Windows.

Apple Goes Multi-Button

On first inspection, it looks like the Mighty Mouse has one button like its predecessors, but you can configure it for function with up to four buttons. The left and right sides of the topshell can work as left and right buttons for two-button operation. There are two side buttons, but they function as one: you either squeeze both sides at once, or press one side with your thumb (on the left or right, depending on whether you’re left-handed or right-handed). By clicking at the top of the scroll ball, you can use the ball as a fourth “button.”

Unlike other mice, though, none of these are real buttons. The only surface that actually moves is the topshell, but instead of acting as a single button as on previous Apple mice, sensors in different locations record right, left, top, or side clicks. Apple says this is enables lovers of one-button mice to maintain the simplicity of the single button, while users who want additional buttons can configure them as needed. Clearly, this lets Apple keep its clean industrial design, without unsightly cracks around the buttons (and keeps you from having to dig grime out of mouse cracks). This decision can have non-aesthetic benefits, too, however. For those of us who work 12 or 14 hours at a time at the computer, it encourages flexible hand positions, reducing repetitive strain; I found as a result the Mighty Mouse was very comfortable to use. The topshell mechanism also feels firmer than the previous mouse. The only problem is that I found myself sometimes accidentally right-clicking instead of left-clicking, since there’s no physical feedback for where to place your fingers; a click near the center can often trigger the right button.

By the way, there have been complaints about the fact that you can’t use the side buttons as separate buttons: trust me, you won’t want to. Since they’re pressure-sensitive, rather than real buttons, it would take too much force to trigger the button other than with your thumb or a squeeze to the sides. It’s fun to trigger Exposé or Dashboard on the Mac using the side buttons, anyway. I found the software included perfect for my needs and was too lazy to do anything else (see “My Button Assignments” at the bottom of the story), but some may want other software for customizing how buttons work in different apps, using a tool like USB Overdrive (see links).

Having a Ball

So far, there’s not really any reason to spend $50 on the Mighty Mouse versus almost any other mouse from makers like Microsoft and Logitech. But the real star here is Apple’s 360-degree scroll ball. For vertical scrolling, it works just about like any other scroll wheel, once you get used to its small size. But for horizontal scrolling, it’s simply the best design ever.

The problem is, prior to the Mighty Mouse, no one had really worked out horizontal scrolling. Most PC-centric mice, if they have horizontal scrolling at all (and most still don’t), use a rocker mechanism. It works, but it’s nowhere as intuitive or quick as vertical scrolling. By employing a ball, Apple has made horizontal scrolling as easy as vertical scrolling. And, of course, that’s great for timeline-based apps like audio software. I found myself scrolling quickly through applications like Logic Pro, Ableton Live, Final Cut Pro, and DVD Studio Pro. Once you start scrolling sideways this easily, you won’t want to go back. I even found myself using horizontal scrolling in apps I hadn’t thought about, like Cycling ’74 Max/MSP and Jitter and Apple Quartz Composer.

Apple’s product manager confirms that there are in fact tiny speakers contained in the mouse for feedback. While they make sound, the major function of these speakers is to provide tactile feedback, especially for the pressure-sensitive side buttons and ball. The tactile sensation of the ball is a bit strange at first (it absolutely terrified my girlfriend when she tried it), but once you adjust, it makes scrolling more accurate. Apple has really packed the feeling of a full-sized trackball into a fingertip-sized space. You can fully control speed for delicate or turbo scrolling. I’ve tried virtually every scroll wheel and other contrivance on the market, and quite simply, this is the best design.

Test Drive
I really expected to go back to my Logitech after a week or two of novelty, but I haven’t. The Mighty Mouse has totally won me over because of its horizontal scrolling capability. It’s definitely a mouse that takes some adjustment: at first, it was hard to get used to the feeling of the scroll ball, and particularly to the lack of specific mouse placements. I found myself accidentally clicking on a fairly regular basis. After a few days, though, I began to get the hang of this mouse, and it was well worth the wait.

The Mighty Mouse is clearly the best mouse for scrolling, but I can’t leave out a couple of criticisms. If you do like additional mouse buttons, you may find the four buttons limiting, particularly when Exposé really demands three buttons of its own. It’s optical tracking, while good, isn’t as good as my Logitech MX500; it does skip on some surfaces and the tracking doesn’t feel quite as tight as the best Logitech mouse. Lastly, while it’s a no-brainer to stick this in a laptop bag, a Bluetooth cordless model would be better for compact travel.

That said, any downside is easily overshadowed for audio use by the comfort, ease, and speed of the brilliant scroll ball. Sure, you could run your audio software with a dedicated shuttle controller like the Frontier Tranzport or Contour Designs Shuttle Pro, but even then it’s nice to have horizontal scrolling ability on the mouse so you don’t have to reach to another device all the time. The mouse isn’t for everyone: mice are about as personal as hardware gets, so try this out before you buy if you can find a local Apple Store, or buy it from a store with a liberal return policy. And while I find cordless models’ battery life annoying at my desk, Apple really does need to introduce a cordless model for users on the go. But after all these years, Apple has finally gotten mice right again.

At a glance:
Pros: Brilliant scroll ball perfect for pro apps. Multiple buttons (finally). Feels great.
Cons: Limited to four buttons. Doesn’t track as accurately as high-end Logitech mice. No cordless.
Verdict: There’s no better mouse for pro audio & music users — the scroll ball is simply perfect. If you’ve been waiting to buy, fear not.

My Button Assignments:
Left/right buttons: Normal function (yeah, I’m a rightie)
Scroll ball click: Show desktop (Exposé)
Side button: Dashboard
Apple’s product manager likes to assign the top button to application switching so you can easily scroll through open apps, but I’m a loyal cmd-tab man myself.

Mighty Mouse Dissection with David Kushner [Apple Matters] (photo shown courtesy Apple Matters, check out their extensive story for lots more like it!)

News: USB Overdrive extends Mighty Mouse capabilities [Macworld.com]

Mac Gems: Mightier Mouse [Macworld.com]

Modify Mighty Mouse horizontal scrolling in Firefox [macosxhints] — this completely stymied me at first; by default horizontal scrolling moves forward/back in Firefox. With the fix, it works like a charm — even better than Safari, I think.