Playing CAD and Mouse

30 Nov, 2013 By: Heather Livingston,Robert Green

Cadalyst Labs Report: Cadalyst Labs navigates the maze of input device options for users of 2D and 3D computer-aided design.

Asking, "Which mouse is best for CAD?" is a lot like asking, "Which software is best for CAD?" The answer depends on the type of work you're doing, your budget, and your personal preferences. These days, your choice of mouse isn't limited by compatibility issues; those are largely a thing of the past. You're free to base your decision on your individual work style and what you find comfortable. Whatever your requirements may be, the market offers a good number of input devices to choose from.

Following a recent Cadalyst poll that asked, "What type of input device (besides the keyboard) do you use at your primary CAD workstation?" Cadalyst Labs decided to take a closer look at the various types of input devices, the tasks that best suit them, and their features and benefits. In the second half of this feature, CAD-management expert Robert Green evaluates a handful of new products and explores how well they meet the requirements of CAD users.

Cadalyst Poll Results:What type of input device (besides the keyboard) do you use at your primary CAD workstation?

General Features

Selecting an input device requires choosing between corded and wireless models, and if you're shopping for a push/pull–type mouse, you'll also need to decide between laser and optical tracking.

Corded vs. wireless. Comparatively few input devices on the market today have cords, but plenty of options still exist for those who prefer that old-fashioned connection, shun batteries, or want to save a few dollars. Wireless input devices, which send signals to the computer via a wireless receiver plugged into a USB port, won't get tangled up on the desktop or need to be repositioned because they reached the end of the cord; the downside is limited battery life and the prospect of having batteries die at a critical moment — although an increasing number of wireless mice can be charged via a micro-USB cable.

Optical vs. laser. A push/pull–type mouse relies on optical or laser technology to track the device's position as it moves around the desktop. The key differences between the two options are precision and price. The more dots per inch (dpi) a mouse can track, the more sensitive and accurate it is. Laser mice, which track more than 2,000 dpi, navigate sharply through tasks and typically cost $20–$50. They are ideal for precise CAD work but can be too sensitive for standard office and e-mail applications. A typical optical mouse tracks 400–800 dpi, so it can be a little less responsive but is a reliable choice for nearly any task — and can be had for $10–$20. Laser mice tend to track better on a greater variety of surfaces, whereas optical mice can lose functionality on rough or uneven surfaces, glass, and shiny materials such as highly polished granite.

All in all, the optical mouse will function at its best when used on a mouse pad alongside your workstation. CAD coordinator Curt Moreno says, "At a bare minimum, no CAD workstation should be without a trusty optical mouse, even if it is just standing by as a more custom device is used daily."

Standard Mice

Although many CAD users still rely on a keyboard for left-handed controls and a mouse for right-handed input (or vice versa for lefties), the mouse and ribbon menu have taken over as the primary method of command execution in a CAD environment. The standard mouse — whether laser or optical, corded or wireless — remains the most popular choice among CAD users, with more than half of Cadalyst poll respondents using it as their primary input device. The most valuable benefits of the standard mouse are its adaptability to almost every type of task and its ease of use, regardless of whether you're working in CAD or responding to an e-mail message. In addition, standard mice are typically less expensive than 3D, programmable, and other specialty versions. And choices abound: An army of hardware providers — including Belkin, Dell, HP, Kensington, Logitech, and Microsoft — offer a huge variety to support the needs of practically any user.

Programmable Mice

Programmable mice are outfitted with buttons that the user can customize (via a software interface) to perform tasks, such as cycling through open windows or executing multistep CAD operations. Some standard mice and 3D navigation devices have integrated programmable buttons for one-handed use, but many users opt to use a programmable device in one hand and a standard mouse in the other. The downside of programmables includes a higher price point (typically $60–$100) and ergonomics that some users find disruptive. If you're not accustomed to using all your digits to input commands, you could experience discomfort or even stress injuries as you adjust your mousing technique. Manufacturers include Anker, Logitech, and Razer.

Moreno uses the World of Warcraft Cataclysm, an 11-button MMO gaming mouse from SteelSeries. "I enjoy the heft and build of this mouse as well as its programmability," he explains. "The mouse is about 20% larger than the standard optical mouse, and it has a braided cable that is extremely long."

As Moreno pointed out, many programmable mice are designed for gamers, and accordingly, their software makes it easy to assign common gaming functions to buttons. Assigning CAD functions, however, will likely require more time-consuming, manual effort. Be sure you fully understand how that flashy gaming mouse will function for CAD work — or play it safe and stick with a traditional programmable model.


Mouse Alternative Promises Comfort for CAD Users

What's black and white and "Re:d" all over? It's the latest version of the RollerMouse from Contour Design. Optimized for CAD use, the RollerMouse Re:d ($265) promises precise cursor control that increases user productivity while decreasing stress on the neck, shoulders, elbows, and wrists.

RollerMouse Re:d is positioned at the foot of the keyboard. Users control the roller bar with their fingertips.
RollerMouse Re:d is positioned at the foot of the keyboard. Users control the roller bar with their fingertips.

"With the new tracking technology, Contour Design has redefined precision, so it's not really relevant to discuss dpi anymore," says CEO Steven Wang. "Dual laser sensors track the motion inside the roller bar and give you the most accurate pointing device you can get." It's that improved precision that makes Re:d the first RollerMouse suited to CAD work, and the larger surface gives users more control when pointing, rolling, or clicking.

Also beneficial for CAD users: "When the rollerbar reaches the end of travel, the cursor goes into autodrive and keeps traveling toward the end of the screen," Wang says. "This is a helpful feature on large and multiple screens, because there is no need to lift and pan the mouse to move across the screens. The adjustable cursor speed button makes it easy to slow the cursor when even more precision is needed."

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