As Wi-Fi–and laptops, netbooks, and other mobile devices–become more ubiquitous, users from kids to adults find themselves suffering from injuries ranging from carpel tunnel syndrome to “BlackBerry thumb.” The second in a series of features and reviews on the ergonomics of Wi-Fi-induced mobility, here we review an ergonomic input device.
As the popularity of mobile computing explodes, more and more people are spending large amounts of time working (and playing) on laptops and netbooks that lack full-sized keyboards or mice. Experts recommend employing external mice, keyboards, and other input-peripherals whenever possible to help reduce the risk of repetitive stress injuries, such as carpel tunnel syndrome. In our quest to find the best, we took a look at the Cirque Glidepoint Smart Cat Pro ($74.95) touchpad to see how it stacks up as a pain-reducing alternative to the built-in touchpad on our IBM ThinkPad. We also tested it as a mouse-replacement for a desktop user (with big hands).
Cirque has been in the touchpad business since the beginning. In fact, the company invented the first capacitive (no-pressure) touchpads nearly two decades ago. The form factor of its branded off-the-shelf (versus custom and OEM products) hasn’t changed much in the last decade. The Cirque Glidepoint touchpad we used in 1996 looks virtually identical to the one Cirque shipped us to test for this story.
Pictured left, Cirque Glidepoint circa 1996. Right, Smart Cat Pro, circa 2008.
On the plus side, it worked well then and it works well now. On the downside, it’s not exactly cutting-edge in its design. We don’t expect anyone would buy this item for its looks, but since we are most interested in its function, its lack of style certainly isn’t a dealbreaker.
The version we tested is compatible with Windows 2000, Windows XP, and Windows Vista, as well as Mac OS 8.5-X. It ships with driver software and an installation guide on CD-ROM.
We found that the set-up was easy, quick, and intuitive. We were able to sort it out without actually using the manual, which to our minds, is the mark of a good product.
Although we are right-handed, we set up the USB touchpad to work with our left hand, in order to reduce the strain on our RSI-hampered right hand. We are not coordinated enough to switch to using a mouse with our non-dominant hand, but with the Smart Cat Pro, we were able to successfully transfer the bulk of our fine-motor-mousing skills to our left hand. (Hurrah!)
From an ergonomic perspective, this was a big bonus because the less repetitive motion one does with an injured appendage, the less likely one is to exacerbate or re-injure it.
In addition to our tests, completed with the left hand on a laptop, we also put the Smart Cat Pro into the hands of a right-handed desktop user, who worked the device with his right hand.
“It works perfectly,” said our tester, who did not want to give up his Smart Cat at the end of the eval period. “I just plugged it into my USB port and without even installing any drivers, it recognized it.”
Our tester, who does graphic design work from his XP-based PC, was pleased that the Smart Cat didn’t interfere with his mouse, either. He was able to use both, so that if he required the familiarity of his mouse to complete an operation, he still had that option. We found the same thing, and even used it in conjunction with a wireless mouse and keyboard, along with our built-in touchpad, and had no conflicts.
Performing delicate operations was “great,” according to our tester, and the four mechanical buttons were helpful to him, although he would have preferred if the buttons were at the top (to be reached with fingertips), rather than at the bottom, closer to the thumb.
He found the size of the touch area (2.5 x 2.1 inches) to be “great,” as well. And took advantage of the easy zoom.
For our part, we agree that it’s a useful and easy-to-master device, but would also like to see the buttons moved to the top of the frame. At first, we also loved the special touch zones, which can be programmed to perform functions, such as launching an application or opening a folder, but in the end, we felt less enthusiastic about them because they tend to spontaneously trigger events. One might merely intend to move one’s cursor, for instance, only to find one has accidentally launched one’s browser.
We also struggled to wrangle the overlong USB cord into submission. It’s hard to fathom why anyone would need six feet of USB cord for an input device that, presumably, would never be more than arm’s length from one’s system.
Despite the long cord, clunky design, and touchy hot keys, we recommend the Cirque Glidepoint Smart Cat Pro to both desktop and laptop (or netbook) users who are looking for a more ergo-friendly input device than whatever came built-in to (or shipped with) their device.