Death to Gaming Mice

Dear [Insert name of gaming mouse producer here]: You suck. I can say this with some authority after testing your crummy products for over 20 years. Not only have you managed to create a mountain of useless plastic scrap and punched a hole in the ozone layer the size of New Jersey, but you've also crippled me.

The original idea a few weeks back seemed simple enough: Do straight-up, side-by-side reviews of the Microsoft SideWinder X8 and Razer Mamba wireless gaming mice--both hot-looking products. But plans change. We're taking a slight detour to the doctor's office first.

You know how people always refer to carpal tunnel syndrome and RSI when warning about working at the computer too long? Well, thanks to a lifelong love of games, I'm now a casualty. Man down. Death by WASD--and by slickly designed peripherals that had promised me a millisecond-faster advantage over the competition. The results: two wrist guards and a one-way ticket to physical therapy. Suh-weet! Fortunately for you, I've learned a few things about ergonomics and maintenance as a result. My misery is your chance to learn--and, I hope, your chance to catch any problems you might have early on.

Take a Break

Whether you're playing a game or working, you need to stop. Get up. Go soak up some of that sunlight you keep reading about. The problem is, it's so easy to get lost in blowing things up, or conquering the universe. Whatever. I'm using time-management software to snap myself back to reality. Break Reminder, a free download, is a countdown timer. I have it configured to go off every 30 minutes and force me to take a 3-minute break by locking the keyboard. If you're into single-player games, the lockout is a little (okay, a lot) abrupt; it kicked me to the desktop while I was playing Fallout 3. Start trying to run this program during a heated Team Fortress 2 match or World of Warcraft dungeon raid, and you're only going to cheese off your buddies; nobody needs a teammate who goes MIA every 30 minutes, so just keep that bit of gaming etiquette in mind. (You can adjust the program however you see fit, but my physical therapist advises me that people shouldn't use a computer in the same position for more than an hour at a time without a break--even if you feel fine.)

Do Some Stretches

Stretching exercises
Plenty of places provide basic exercise advice--so long as you know where to look. At work, ask HR. They have reams of booklets, and are more than willing to help you out. I have 'em taped up all over my office these days. Online, you'll find plenty of experts ready to provide their input. Now it's my turn. But first, a bit of advice: If you're doing any exercises on your own and it starts to hurt, stop. See an expert to make sure 1) you're doing it right and 2) you don't have a more serious problem.

Stretch one: Pray. Extending your fingers and placing your palms together in front of you, put your elbows out and gently press your hands together. For the proper form, think somewhere between "Zen prayer" and "evil genius."

Stretch two: Hands down. First, extend your left arm and hold your left hand parallel to the floor, palm down. Take your right hand and place it across your left one. The four fingers of your right hand should be on the back of your left hand, with your right thumb pressed against your left palm's base. Gently push your left hand downward. Now, switch hands.

Stretch three: The double chin. The proper sitting posture at your desk is an "L" shape. Your ears should be over your shoulders. If you're leaning into your computer at all, you're straining your neck. To ease that, start with your head craned slightly up and forward. Now, slowly bring your head back and tuck a little to make a double chin.

Those are just a few basics--but if you want to send me that $25 co-pay, I won't fight it. As I said earlier, though, consult a real expert to learn the right exercises for you.

Know Your Mouse--And Your Limits

Proper mouse handling
The one thing that kind of surprised me when I first went to physical therapy: I've been holding my mouse wrong. All these years, I'd fully rest my hand flat down on whatever mouse I was testing and press the buttons--many times near the first knuckle of my index finger, since I have a chronic case of "goon hands." Bad idea! You're supposed to hit the buttons with your fingertips. If doing that doesn't feel comfortable or your hand simply doesn't fit properly, don't buy the mouse!

With all that in mind, let's see about those mouse reviews....

The Wireless Gaming Mouse Deathmatch: Mamba vs. SideWinder

Newly reeducated in the ways of the mouse--and wearing RSI gloves that make me look like a UFC contender--I'm ready for combat. The Razer Mamba and Microsoft SideWinder X8 wireless mice may now step into the octagon.

Razer Mamba packaging
Presentation
Winner: Razer Mamba

The Mamba comes in a honking, huge plastic display case. Do they expect me to store this in a museum dedicated to the gaming gods? Once you lift the lid and daintily pull out the separate mini-shelf boxes, you can piece together your peripheral. A little overboard? Maybe. Green? Doubtful.

Razer Mamba
Style/Construction
Winner: Razer Mamba
Without a doubt, the Mamba is the sexier of the two. Razer simply gets the feng shui of mouse design, going for curves and rubbery textured surfaces, while making sure it feels a little more substantial. The result falls somewhere between a luxury Lexus and the 2009 Batmobile. I especially like the fact that if you don't want to go with the stylized display charger for the Mamba, you can easily plug the charging cable directly into the mouse for a full-on wired experience.

One other bit of good news: Both mice have on-the-fly speed-adjustment buttons sitting on top, next to comfortable mouse wheels. Some bad news: Neither mouse suits southpaws. Extra adjustment and action buttons camp where the right thumb has easy access. The SideWinder X8, in contrast to the Mamba, feels more like a Transformer toy when I grip it. That said, I have to give points to Microsoft for stacking the thumb buttons on top of each other (a smart move that puts less stress on the thumb), and for including a recessed QuickLaunch button that opens the Game Explorer window in Vista.

Software
Winner: Microsoft SideWinder DX
Microsoft wins a truckload of points for flexibility and ease of use. You want to monkey with what each button does or set up complex macros? Easy, just go to the Mouse section of the control panel, and you're in business. The Mamba, on the other hand, doesn't have as many assignable buttons, but its macro assigning is fairly sweet: You can record time delays, mouse movements, and keystrokes. Add on top of that the fact that you can store those moves in the mouse's on-board memory so that whenever you're on the road it'll take your custom macros with you. One warning: You'll encounter slight hiccups with the 64-bit drivers for the Mamba--you'll need to employ a little extra TLC for it to work.

Performance
Winner: Razer Mamba
The SideWinder slides along at a fairly fast max of 4000 dpi--the Mamba, 5600 dpi. How much does that matter (unless you're in a pro-level competition tournament against a team of Red Bull guzzlers)? Diddly. I mean, the 5600 dpi was way too fast for my tastes. What does matter is whether a mouse works on a number of different surfaces and how long the thing will last between charges. Both mice boast BlueTrack technology, and that tech works as its makers say on everything from wood and fabric to metal. Where the heck do these guys think I'm using my mouse--the floor?

The other thing that impressed me is that both mice worked equally well plugged in or wireless. I saw no drops in accuracy. In fact, I tried plugging in my trusty Logitech G9 wired mouse, and the wireless units kept up just fine for my gaming needs. Last, but not least, is the battery life. The SideWinder claims about 30 hours with a single AA NiMH battery. The Mamba promises 72 hours of use with its lithium ion battery--try closer to 40, even with firmware upgrades. Still, the longer battery life is just enough to give the Mamba an edge.

Microsoft SideWinder X8
Ergonomics
Winner: Microsoft SideWinder X8
The Mamba feels largely ambidextrous (save for the previously mentioned righty-oriented thumb buttons) and works fairly well in a pinch. Unfortunately the sloping hump in the middle forces my large hand into using the mouse the wrong way (according to my physical therapist). The chunkier, clunkier X8 fits my hand better and lets me naturally tap buttons the way I'm supposed to--but the SideWinder is even more righty-biased than the Mamba. If Microsoft refines its design a little more and maybe adds a silkier texture, it would have a clear victory rather than squeaking past. Again, though, let me say that your mileage will absolutely vary if your hand is smaller than mine.

Overall Value/Price
Winner: Microsoft SideWinder X8
Neither mouse is exactly cheap--the choice just comes down to how much you're willing to fork over for the latest mouse flavor that'll no doubt be replaced in five months with more features and glowing lights, sporting a goofier name. The Mamba sells for $130. The SideWinder goes for $100. In a competition this close, you have to make the call on what matters most to you. Savings? Comfort? Something else?

Don't just take my word for it--or any reviewer's word for it. Your mouse preference is a very subjective and personal thing. If you're on the market for an input device, head down to the local electronics store for a little hands-on time.

Me? I just want a mouse that fits my Frankenstein-y mitts.

Need even more nerdity? Follow Casual Friday columnist and PC World Senior Writer Darren Gladstone on Twitter (gizmogladstone) for game-swag giveaways, odd links, and time-wasting tips.

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