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The Mouse That Soars


TECH & YOU PODCAST

I had to stifle a yawn last month when a Logitech International (LOGI) spokeswoman called to schedule a meeting so she could show off the company's latest mouse. Over the years, Logitech has delivered plenty of innovations to make this time-honored device more versatile. But at this late date, is there really any way to build a better mouse?

The answer became clear a week later, when I actually got my hands on Logitech's cordless, rechargeable MX Air mouse. At $150, it's their most expensive model so far, and it really does change the definition of a product most of us use every day. More like an airborne remote control than a traditional mouse, it eliminates the need to make cramped dragging motions on a flat surface next to your keyboard. Instead, you can surf the Web, play games, and control a home theater PC from up to 30 feet away. This turns out to be a more natural way to interact with many devices.

Like the controller on Nintendo's (NTDOY) Wii game system, the MX Air stuffs a lot of advances into a little package. It has motion-sensing technology from Hillcrest Labs, including a gyroscope that senses the nose of the mouse angling up and down or side to side, and an accelerometer that tracks the device's movement in any direction as you point it at the screen. This mouse always knows which way is up, so you don't have to worry about holding it perfectly level. And an onboard processor is constantly crunching motion data so it can filter out things like a slight shaking of your hand.

IN THE FEW WEEKS I'VE SPENT playing with the product, I've found that some things take practice. Positioning the cursor and clicking on tiny text or icons when standing away from the screen can be tricky. But I had no trouble hitting any of the large icons on the home screen of Windows Vista or Mac OS X. And as a lefty, I was pleased to discover that the mouse works equally well in either hand. For PC users, there's additional software that lets you set different ways of moving the mouse in the air to perform tasks using Microsoft (MSFT) Office applications, Adobe (ADBE) Photoshop, iTunes, and WinDVD. In no time, I figured out how to wave the mouse like a baton to turn up the volume on an iTunes song, launch YouTube (GOOG) videos, and flip through Yahoo! (YHOO) news tabs.

There's also a cool-factor at play. Wielding the MX Air is like holding a work of art. Crafted with help from Design Partners in Ireland, it looks a bit like an elongated teardrop, with an onyx finish and silver trim on the bottom. When you move the mouse, amber lights just below the surface illuminate buttons for play/pause, volume, back, or select. Logitech also replaced the ubiquitous scroll wheel with a thumb-operated swipe pad. It lets you move a page up or down on your PC screen and emits clicking sounds that speed up as you scroll more quickly through the pages. I was a little concerned about interference when I learned that the MX Air eschews Bluetooth wireless in favor of an alternative standard that runs on 2.4 GHz radio spectrum—the same as Wi-Fi, microwave ovens, and other gizmos. But I've had no trouble so far. Logitech says that's because the mouse senses when there's interference and hops to a slightly different frequency to avoid it.

The MX Air hints at the kinds of things Logitech may be planning in the area of home electronics. Taking a page from Apple, the company made the whole experience completely intuitive, allowing users to be up and running in a matter of minutes. Over time, I expect to see both better software support for the Mac and other products that will really be able to take advantage of gesture-based commands. Given Logitech's proven ability to surprise, we may all soon find ourselves fighting over the mouse instead of the remote.

Steve Wildstrom is on vacation.

For past columns and online-only reviews, go to Technology & You at businessweek.com/go/techmaven/

By Cliff Edwards


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