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.


Once the darling of the desktop, trackballs seem to be fading from use these days. Only 10% of Cadalyst poll respondents said they prefer the trackball, a statistic that is backed up by the limited number of models available. However, there are some great reasons to give one a try if you haven't done so yet.

Unlike a mouse, the trackball remains stationary; its roller ball sits nestled on the device, so you don't need as much space to use it. Not having to move the mouse around the desk means you'll experience less arm fatigue throughout the day. Cursor movement is controlled via your fingertips or thumb. The smaller movements required to relocate the cursor make trackballs more precise and sensitive than standard mice, as well as more ergonomic. In addition, the trackball is larger than most mice, so it can provide a more comfortable experience for those with large hands. On the negative side, trackballs can be uncomfortable for small-handed users, can take extra time to master, and are more expensive than traditional mice, running $35–$135. They are available from ITAC, Kensington, Logitech, and others.

3D Navigation Devices

Among the Cadalyst readers polled, 3D mice were the second-most popular input devices, with 12% of respondents preferring them. Available with and without programmability, they are ideal for 3D modeling environments and are said to provide a more natural, intuitive way to interact with digital 3D content. By gently manipulating the controller cap, 3D mouse users can simultaneously pan, zoom, and rotate 3D models or camera position while using a standard mouse or input tablet with the opposite hand to select, create, and edit.

This two-handed working style is reported to increase productivity and quality of design work for users. A 2008 study by the Technology Assessment Group, "The Economic Payback of 3D Mice for CAD Design Engineers," found that more than 84% of CAD design engineers experience a noticeable or significant improvement in their product designs and their ability to detect design problems as a result of using 3D mice. The average productivity gain reported by CAD users while using 3D mice was 21%, and the typical payback period for 3D mice was reported to be less than one month.

Patrick Davis, a virtual design and construction manager, prefers the 3Dconnexion SpacePilot for his building information modeling (BIM) work. Models also are available from companies including SpaceControl and Novint, and prices range from $99 to $399.

Ergonomic Mice

If you suffer from repetitive stress injury (RSI) or carpal tunnel syndrome but prefer the functionality of a standard mouse, an ergonomic mouse might be your answer. A well-designed ergonomic mouse will keep your hand resting in a neutral position, reducing strain and preventing or minimizing the types of movements that can cause RSI. If such a device works for you, it would be well worth the $35–$120 investment. Models are available from a variety of companies, including 3M, CST, Ergoguys, Evoluent, Goldtouch, and HandShoe Mouse.

To Each Their Own

Clearly, there's no single best mouse for everyone — in fact, there are probably several great options for any given individual. Your choice will depend on the software you use, your preferences regarding features and overall feel, your physical needs, your budget, and more.

Concludes Moreno: "Like anything, I feel that the choice of input devices relies more on the use case rather than the market, and any single market has multiple use cases. For instance, an architectural drafter may use a [3Dconnexion] SpacePilot for building the bulk of a massing model and structure in Revit. Then he or she may switch to an optical mouse for fine detail work, or to a Wacom tablet for a stylus interface with [Autodesk] 3ds Max to artistically texture and render his models. Finally, he may use something like the Leap Motion gesture controller to have finer control over the model in presentation or review with clients."

Armed with this general overview, the product evaluations that follow, and some dedicated research, your pursuit of the perfect solution need not be a game of cat and — well, you know.

Product Reviews

Cadalyst editors selected seven devices to be evaluated by Robert Green, a contributing editor and CAD-management expert. Editors chose a variety of devices to fit a range of budgets, keeping prices at less than $100 (with one exception). The included models are all PC compatible and readily available from standard online retailers.

Our review process involved assessing installation on a desktop workstation and a notebook PC, and putting each device through its paces with 2D and 3D CAD applications.

Pricing shown for each device includes the manufacturer's retail price and, in most cases, the lowest price we found from a reputable online retailer at the time of publication (listed in parentheses). Warranties and return policies are provided by manufacturers and could vary for devices purchased from other sources.

Covered in this review:


3D Motion: Control without a Controller

More input devices are available to computer users today than there are keys on a keyboard, but a new technology has jumped into the market that aims to replace digital doohickeys with digits — that is, fingers.

3D motion controller

Not to be confused with touchscreen technology, the Leap Motion 3D motion controller ($79.99) allows humans to interact with their computers by moving their hands and fingers in space. A 3" USB controller sits on the desktop, sensing when you point, wave, reach, and grab, then translates those gestures to control 3D software.

Leap Motion is Windows- and Mac-compatible and is supported by a variety of games and other software available in the Airspace app store. At press time, one CAD-related option was already available: Autodesk's free plugin for Maya 2014 modeling and animation software lets users control almost any aspect of Maya using Leap Motion, according to the description.

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