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It will be up to Windows 8.1, expected to debut as a public preview this summer before becoming commercially available in the fall, to address this problem. In the meantime, Microsoft has extended two small olive branches to users disillusioned by touchscreens, unfamiliar shortcuts and hidden Charms menus: new, Windows 8-optimized mice.
Compatible with Windows 7 and Mac OS X but designed specifically for Windows 8, the Sculpt Mobile Mouse and Sculpt Comfort Mouse both include a button that allows users direct access to the Start screen. Whatever agility Windows 8 offers is more evident on touch-equipped models, which allow adept users to swipe and tap their way through menus and apps. By making the Start screen an organic part of a familiar action, the mice are intended to extend that fluidity to users of non-touch hardware.
[ What else do Windows 8 haters need to be happy? Read Windows Blue: Restoring The Start Button Isn't Enough. ]
Aimed at on-the-go laptop, ultrabook and tablet users, the Sculpt Mobile Mouse is tiny, with rubber strips on the side to make it easier to grip. It's able to track over almost any surface thanks to Microsoft's BlueTrack technology. It also includes a scroll wheel that allows both up-down and left-right movement, making it potentially useful for mobile devices with small screens. The Windows 8 tie-in stems from a button behind the scroll wheel. If tapped once, the button takes users to the Start screen. If tapped a second time, the button opens the app most recently used.
The Sculpt Mobile mouse wirelessly connects to laptops, desktops and other devices via a USB dongle that can be stored in the mouse for storage when not in use. It will go on sale later this month for $30.
Though the Sculpt Mobile will work with any Windows 8 device that has a USB connection, desktop users will probably prefer the Sculpt Comfort. This mouse is larger than its sibling and connects wirelessly via Bluetooth. It has a touch-sensitive button on the side that not only duplicates the functions of the Sculpt Mobile button, but also allows the user to scroll through open applications by running his or her finger along the button's surface. It will be available in June for $40.
In a broad sense, Microsoft's new mice could do for non-touch Windows 8 users what Apple's Magic Trackpad has done for its iMac base: let them embrace new UI elements organically, while still relying on their familiar routines. It's an imperfect comparison, if for no other reason than iMacs are more usable without Trackpads than Win8 PCs are without touch. Microsoft also already has a few touch-sensitive mice on the market. Given that none of these has helped the OS's popularity with desktop users, it's not clear how many people are interested in mice with Start screen-linked buttons.
Still, taking a cue from the iMac-Trackpad partnership sets a reasonable expectation for Microsoft's mice. The Trackpad is useful but not transformative, and that's probably the most that Windows 8 users can expect from these new mice.