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Wednesday, Nov 29, 2023

Computer Column



It could be one of the longest-running soap operas in the world of personal computers one that the TV networks might call “As the Trackball Turns” or “Pursuit of a Pointer.”

It’s the endless search for the best mouse to use on a laptop.

Virtually all desktop PCs have a standard mouse, a palm-sized oval gadget that works great on a desktop. So huge amounts of money, research and ingenuity have been devoted to the quest for a pointing device that can be used where no desktop is available.

The first successful solution was the clip-on trackball. This thing stuck out from the right or left side of the laptop. You would spin the trackball with your thumb to move the cursor around. We loved this device. But most people evidently found it too big, or just didn’t like clipping or unclipping the thing every time they opened or closed the computer.

In the early ’90s, we had a marvelous Compaq Contura laptop that had a small trackball mounted on the screen panel, above the keyboard. This, too, worked great for us. But this approach has disappeared, evidently because trackballs are too sensitive to stand up to the rough treatment that laptop computers have to endure.

About six years ago, IBM came up with a new idea the so-called “TrackPoint,” a tiny lever that sticks up at the center of the keyboard, with two mouse buttons just below the space bar. This system, still used in many laptop models, is small and light, both key concerns for laptops.

Its greatest advantage is that you can move the cursor around without ever removing your hands from the keyboard. But there’s a great disadvantage: When you type fast, you keep hitting those mouse buttons instead of the space bar, with unpredictable results.

The latest trend in laptop pointers is the built-in touchpad. This is a flat surface, measuring about 2 inches on a side. You slide your finger around this square, and the cursor slides around the screen following the direction of your finger. On some touchpads you can write with a stylus, so you can enter signatures or drawings into your computer. These things take some getting used to say, 30 minutes or so but then they are powerful.

If your laptop doesn’t have a touchpad, you can buy one (about $60) that plugs into the mouse port. We use a typical model, the “EZ-Pointe Elite” from PC Concepts (800-735-6071). It has four mouse buttons, but the best thing about it is that you never actually have to worry about those buttons. You can click or double-click anywhere on the screen with a light tap on the touchpad itself.

This makes a giant difference in speed and convenience, because you don’t ever look at the touchpad; you just keep your eyes on the screen and tap your finger when the pointer gets to the right spot.

Presumably, the recurring drama “As the Trackball Turns” will eventually produce other approaches to the portable mouse problem. For now, there’s the TrackPoint-style lever and the touchpad. These choices are always personal, but we prefer the latter.

Plagiarists take note

Readers around the country have chastised us for something dumb we wrote in a recent column on CD-ROM encyclopedias. As in most such cases, the readers are right.

We noted that Microsoft’s Encarta encyclopedia makes it easy “to lift text and pictures and drop them into a research paper.” Teachers and professors have complained to us that this sentence seems to condone the unfortunately common practice among students of poaching material straight from an encyclopedia and using it verbatim. That’s plagiarism, and nobody should condone it.

We should have said that a student can use drag-and-drop techniques to extract quotes or pictures from Encarta, which can then be inserted with full attribution into a paper which the student writes. We also should have noted that the clever programmers who designed Encarta have created a technological barrier to cut plagiarism. When you copy from Encarta to a document, a footnote or credit line is automatically inserted into that document.

As we have pointed out to the students in our household all of them regular Encarta users to steal material from Encarta without attribution is not only dishonest but seriously stupid. Encarta, the world’s best-selling encyclopedia, is so well known today that almost any teacher will instantly catch any student who copies it directly.

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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