By BRIT HUME and T.R. REID

Now more than ever, this is the era of WIMP computing (Windows, Icons, Mice and Pointers). The most powerful system with the most comfortable keyboard and the brightest screen can be made unbearable if you're not comfortable with whatever device it provides to move that little pointer around the screen.

We've had an opportunity lately to sample a number of pointing devices and there are some interesting new products out there, as well as some tried-and-true old ones that still do a good job, and at prices you may find attractive.

Microsoft, whose best-known entries in the hardware business have been its mice and keyboards, has set the current standard for desktop pointing devices with its Intellimouse. This is similar to a standard three-button mouse, but with one difference: there is a little wheel located between the two keys.

If you roll the wheel with your fingertip, it acts as a scroll button, moving you at whatever pace you choose through a document or a Web page. Push it, and a small, circular icon appears. Move the pointer above or below the icon and the page or document will scroll by itself. The farther above or below the icon you set the cursor, the faster the data scrolls.

Like other Microsoft mice, the Intellimouse is a good product, which operates smoothly and is durable. It is not, however, a bargain at about $80 by direct-mail discount.

There is a niche market here for other vendors, and Logitech, as it has before, has a competing product with many of the same features and a price about 30 percent less at under $60 by direct mail. It's the Logitech MouseMan Plus, a sleek desktop mouse with a sculpted shape that fits one's hand more comfortably than any mouse we've tried.

It, too, has a wheel between its two buttons and it functions more or less exactly as the Intellimouse does. In addition, the Mouseman Plus has an extra button located on the thumb side near the base of the unit. It can be programmed to be whatever the user wants, from the start button to a function key, to the escape key. Nice.

Both the Intellimouse and MouseMan Plus come with their own "driver" software that enhance the standard Windows 95 mouse drivers in a number of ways, from providing more choices of pointer sizes and shapes, to adding a number of other handy features. Both, for example, have a nifty "snap-to" feature (Logitech calls it "smart move") that moves the pointer automatically to the most likely choice in a dialog box.

The result is that when you hit the "shut down" button on the Windows Start menu, for example, the dialog box that appears asking if you want to shut the computer down already has the mouse pointer set on the "yes" button. You can move it to another option, of course, but most of the time this feature saves you trouble.

Logitech's driver software has many more pointer choices than Microsoft's, including the option of making your pointer black instead of white. Many users find a black pointer easier to spot against the white background provided by most application software.

Neither of these devices, alas, is much help to a laptop user who is simply not comfortable with the eraserhead or touchpad provided on a typical portable computer. Microsoft, which used to sell a portable trackball called the "Ballpoint Mouse," has withdrawn from that market.

Logitech, however, still sells its "Trackman Portable," and it could be just the thing for frustrated laptop users. It's a trackball that snaps onto the side of a laptop keyboard, sticking up and to the side. Your hand rests comfortably along the rounded top edge of the device, with your thumb on the ball that moves the pointer. The right mouse button is on the edge, just where your index finger rests, and the left mouse button is just below the trackball. It is quite easy to adjust to.

Perhaps best of all, there is a third button just above the trackball which just happens to work with the software provided with the MouseMan Plus so that it activates the automatic scrolling feature of the MouseMan Plus. So if you use the MouseMan Plus with your laptop when you're not on the road, some of its features will be available when using the Trackman Portable while traveling.

You can find the Trackman Portable for less than $50 by direct mail and it can sometimes be found for less than $25.

If all you want is a simple, reliable, inexpensive desktop mouse, Logitech's First Mouse (about $20) competes with Microsoft's Home Mouse (about $30). Both are fine, but you can get Logitech's First Mouse Plus, which has the scroll button, for about $30 as well.

T.R. Reid is Rocky Mountain bureau chief of the Washington Post. Brit Hume is managing editor of Fox News in Washington. You can reach them in care of the Washington Post Writers Group, 1150 15th St., Washington D.C. 20071-9200, or you can e-mail T.R. Reid at trreid@ix.netcom.com, or Brit Hume at 72737.357@compuserve.com.

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