MicroTracker Mouse PadReview date: 10 July 2002.
Last modified 31-Jan-2008.
What the world needs is a new kind of mousemat.
OK, maybe that's not what the world needs. It might have been what the world needed when mousemats were all 'orrible peeling dirty sponge-rubber-backed wetsuit-fabric monstrosities, but now there are a plethora of hard and semi-hard textured plastic mats (and some even more exotic products). If you want a tough, slick, precise mousing surface, you should be able to find one to suit you. Even free promotional mousemats are likely to be half-decent these days.
Into this quite-well-served market comes the poetically named Central Trading Agency, with their MicroTracker. Which, to give CTA credit, is genuinely different from all of the other mats on the market. It's not just another Everglide clone.
The MicroTracker is a floppy rubber-backed mat, with a fuzzy pseudo-suede surface. The surface fabric is made from microfibre (or "microfiber", for those who prefer the American spelling), which means it's particularly soft, yet still highly durable.
Microfibre isn't a special distinct substance. It's just a generic name for any synthetic fibre that's finer than silk, and for the cloth that's woven out of such fibre. Because of the super-fine weave of such cloths, they're very soft and lightweight, and they also breathe well and are surprisingly tough. The fine weave also makes microfibre very good material for making dusters. Among other things.
Exotic mousemats tend to be a lot more expensive than ordinary mats, but the MicroTracker's only $US6.95 plus shipping, which you can hardly complain about. As I write this, there's a special offer for US and Canadian shoppers - you can hit the on-line store and buy a set of two MicroTrackers (in brown, green, grey or red) for the price of one.
And, at the moment, American Science and Surplus has MicroTrackers for $US4.95.
I really wish that company would ship outside the USA. Just look at the stuff they sell.
But I digress.
According to CTA, the MicroTracker mat has a number of advantages. It's supposed to offer super-precise tracking, for a start. It's alleged to be "Easier on the Hands and Wrist". You can even use the thing to clean your computer screen, if you like - microfibre is used for camera lens cloths and various other optical cleaning gear, so that's plausible enough. And CTA also say it "Keeps Dirt Away From Mouseball".
To which the obvious reply these days is, of course, "what mouse ball?"
I don't even have a working ball mouse around here any more. I've got pointer-pushing rodents galore, but not a single opto-mechanical one. Oh, OK, the server in the cupboard has a scungy old ball mouse on it, but that's no good for testing anything. Everything else is optical.
Here's my everyday mouse, a Microsoft Intellimouse Explorer 3.0 (reviewed here), on the MicroTracker. The mat's quite big enough for even porky mouses like this one.
Wait. Hang on a minute. I do still have a pointer control device with a ball.
Boom-tish. Attempt at humour concludes.
(I review the Logitech TrackMan Wheel here, by the way.)
Optical mouses haven't exactly conquered the world, but for all but the most undemanding of pointer-control tasks, they're now the obvious choice.
Originally, an "optical mouse" was one with a quite dumb optical pickup peering downward out of it. It had to be used on a specially patterned mousemat so that the pickup could tell how it was moving.
These days, an optical mouse is a mouse with a little camera chip in it that takes from 1500 to 6000 pictures of the surface below the mouse per second. An oblique-illumination LED (the red light under all of these mouses) accentuates the surface texture. The camera chip uses some quite serious Digital Signal Processing hardware to translate the differences between successive surface images into data on how the mouse is moving.
These modern optical mouses work on all sorts of surfaces - anything that isn't transparent, translucent or reflective should be OK. And they work vertically or upside-down, too. So, in a pinch, you can use them on your leg, or on the side of a desk, or whatever. There's no ball to get dirty, and dirt on the pickup lens is very, very seldom a problem.
Optical mouses are more expensive than ball mouses of similar mechanical quality, but you're now talking only about $AU50 for a variety of perfectly all right Taiwanese-brand opticals, versus about half that for the cheapest decent ball mouse. $AU25 extra per mouse ain't much, particularly when it saves you from having to chip scurf off rollers after a month or three. Even fancy brand name opticals like the Explorer 3.0 aren't that expensive.
CTA claim that the MicroTracker makes mouse ball dirt a thing of the past; maybe they're right. Optical mouses solve that problem better, though.
Fortunately, CTA acknowledge the existence of optical mouses, and claim the MicroTracker "keeps dust and scratches" off them. Well, dust hardly matters to an optical, and scratches aren't going to be on the lens - but I guess scratched-up mouse feet are something of an issue, particularly for people who just use their optical mouse on a bare desk.
The MicroTracker's suede finish means it has a definite "grain" - the little fibres lie in a definite direction, and you can drag a finger across it and ruffle them up.
The above picture is of a bit of ruffled-up mat only 17mm (two thirds of an inch) wide...
...and this one's of a bit of the mat only 2.05mm wide. Click it for a view of a 4.1mm wide bit of mat at the same magnification.
Yes, I do have a rather nice macro lens for my new camera, thank you for asking. Better than 3450 pixels per inch. From a camera, not a scanner.
But I digress, again.
The minuscule fibres are strong and firmly rooted in place, which means the MicroTracker shouldn't wear down to baldness unless you use it a very great deal. The extreme smallness of the fibres is what makes them a very good dust trap; dust particles work their way down into the pile, and stay there.
Exactly how long it'd take to cake up a MicroTracker with so much hand salsa that it actually looked dirty, I don't know. But as with other microfibre products, you can just rinse the MicroTracker with water and let it air dry, and then it should be pretty much as good as new.
My everyday mousemat is an Everglide Giganta (reviewed here). I switched to it after my fUnc Industries sUrface1030 (reviewed here) bit the dust. I liked the goofily-named sUrface1030, but after 14 months of hard use, the rubber part went too wiggly for the thing to lie flat. I wasn't so in love with the fUnc that I'd actually pay for another one. The Giganta's a perfectly all right substitute.
The fact that I use an Everglide mat should tip you off to the fact that I like my mousing experience on the slippery side. I am not alone.
Gamers, in particular, almost all want slick mousemats. Very slick mousemats. Hard plastic, lightly textured to reduce the amount of contact between mouse feet and mat, and possibly with further friction-reducing tricks like silicone spray or Teflon tape. I squirt silicone oil on my Giganta now and then.
Gamers may also remove the metal weights from their mouse, if they've got a mouse that comes with them; the weights make the mouse feel more solid and comfort people who're used to the extra mass of the steel ball in the middle of an opto-mechanical mouse, but if your aim is to minimise the difference between moving your empty hand around on the mat and moving your mouse, then they've got to go.
For this sort of person, the MicroTracker is pure distilled horrible-ness.
It is like unto attempting to play games while tarred and feathered.
The suede surface of the MicroTracker is very high in friction, compared with a hard plastic mat. If effortless mouse movement is what you want, the MicroTracker is not what you want.
I wouldn't like to play games with my mouse on a MicroTracker, either, but I don't loathe the thing. Yes, it's got a great deal more friction than my siliconed Giganta, but it actually feels pretty nice, if you're not whipping the mouse around like crazy. The friction is very consistent, which aids movement precision; if you're doing fine graphic design work with your mouse, this may be exactly the kind of mat you need. And my Intellimouse Explorer, unsurprisingly, tracks immaculately on the fuzzy surface.
You can feel the grain in the MicroTracker's suede finish. If you put it on your desk in the usual alignment with the long axis left to right, then there's no friction difference moving the mouse left or right, but it'll be a bit harder to move the mouse fore or aft, depending on which way around you've put the MicroTracker. The difference isn't a big one, though, and it's easy to get used to. After a little while, I hardly noticed it.
I also like the MicroTracker's fuzzy feel. Smooth suede that stands only about three millimetres proud of the desk is superior to hard plastic that's eight or nine millimetres tall. The Giganta is so big that it's not hard to set yourself up so you never feel the edge of the mat, but smaller hard plastic mats invite serious crimes against ergonomics if you're not paying attention, or using accessories.
If your computer room's hot enough that you're sweating profusely then perhaps a suede mouse mat isn't such a great idea. But right now, in the middle of the Australian winter, I dig the fuzziness.
Am I still using the MicroTracker?
I like a light mouse, I like to play games now and then, and my Explorer tracks fine on the Giganta. It tracks fine on practically every mousemat, of course, not to mention carpet, canvas and, if I decided I wanted to destroy its feet, sandpaper.
If you're a demanding mouse user who for some reason still has a ball mouse (perhaps because you've got a very exotic one), and you don't mind a rather high-friction mousing experience, then a MicroTracker could be well worth checking out.
If you use an optical mouse, it's a bit less compelling, but still somewhat interesting - and as long as you're in the States, it's not as if the thing's expensive to buy or ship, particularly with the current two-for-one deal.
Worst case scenario, you get a quite nice screen-cleaning cloth (or cloths...) with an odd rubber backing.
The MicroTracker isn't my cup of tea, but it might be yours. It's genuinely different, and it pretty much lives up to the hype.
Review MicroTracker kindly provided by Central Trading Agency.