"Help! My mouse is dying."
The plaintive voice on the phone reminded me of a 6-year-old whose pet was about to give up the ghost.
But it was a friend who was having trouble with the little pointing device that makes user-friendly PCs so friendly. He had discovered what may be the weakest link in today's computer systems.
I've never had a mouse that didn't give me trouble somewhere down the line. This can be a real problem, because when your mouse dies, you're plumb out of luck if you're working on a Macintosh or an IBM PC running Microsoft Windows. Graphical interfaces are designed for pointing and clicking. Yes, theoretically, you can survive in Microsoft Windows by using the keyboard. But theoretically, you can survive a nuclear war, too.
Fortunately, you can keep your mouse working longer and better with the proper care and cleaning
First, a bit about how mice work. Most mice packaged with home and small business systems today are mechanical. The working mechanism consists of a ball that rolls over the desktop as you move your hand and rotates against two small wheels inside the plastic mouse housing. Those wheels turn the movement of the ball into electrical impulses that travel over the cable to the back of your computer. The electrical signals translate into the movement of the mouse pointer on the screen.
The main enemy of the mouse is dirt. Even a surface that looks clean can be a repository for all kinds of invisible grit and grime particles. As the mouse rolls across the surface under the pressure of your hand, the ball picks up that grit and transfers it to the directional wheels inside.
To prevent problems, clean your work surface regularly. It's also a good idea to invest in a mouse pad, a small, quarter-inch-thick piece of the stuff they use to make scuba divers' wet suits. The mouse pad provides a little friction for the ball, which can otherwise slip on a smooth desktop, and a soft cushion so that the ball doesn't flatten under the weight of your hand.
You can get a plain-Jane mouse pad for $4 or $5 at the checkout counter of most computer stores. Designer models (up to $20) feature pictures of everything from the Star Trek crew to the latest swimsuit models. I gave my wife a mouse pad that looks like a big Hershey bar. Now she gets hungry every time she sits down at the computer.
Unfortunately, no matter how fastidious you are, enough grit will eventually build up on the directional wheels inside the mouse to keep them from making clean contact with the ball. When this happens, you'll start to notice that the mouse pointer on your screen doesn't always move in concert with your hand. It may move too slowly, or skip around when it should be moving smoothly.
That means it's time for some spring mouse cleaning. This is not rocket science, but you should be careful. Turn the mouse over. You'll usually find a round protective cover with a hole in it to let the ball touch the surface of the desk. Most covers can be removed by pressing on them and rotating counterclockwise.
When the cover is off, turn the mouse right side up and let the ball drop into the palm of your hand. I generally clean the ball with alcohol, then with a little tap water. That's the easy part.
Now look inside the mouse and find the two white directional wheels. Chances are good you'll see a streak of caked-on black grit down the center of each one. Your job is to remove the dirt.
Over the years, I've found the best way is by rotating the wheel and scraping gently with a fingernail. This is a little harder than it sounds because the wheels are spring-mounted and tend to move away from your finger. If you press too hard, you can damage the spring mechanism. But with enough patience, you can get rid of the grime and restore the wheels to their original state.
Now drop the ball back in and replace the cover. Chances are good that the mouse pointer will scamper about the screen with its usual dexterity -- and go where you want it to go.
Regular cleaning will keep your mouse happy for a long time, but eventually the insides of the mouse will just wear out, or something will break. You have to expect this. The mouse gets a lot of wear and tear, and it's far more open to outside contaminants than any other part of your computer.
When a mouse does die, or becomes so arthritic that no amount of cleaning will get it working properly, throw it away and buy a new one. You'll pay anywhere from $12 to $100.
This is one case in which money almost always buys better quality. The bargain-basement PC my kids use came with a mouse made by the El Cheapo Mouse Works and Storm Door Co. It lasted six weeks under their ham-handed caresses. I figured it was stupid to spend big bucks on something they would probably work to death anyway, so I replaced the old mouse with a $14.95 special. That one lasted a month. I bought another one. Another month.
I began to get the idea. This time I bought a Microsoft Mouse, which was about $80. Haven't had a problem since. I bought another one when the mouse on my own machine lost touch with reality.
This isn't a Microsoft commercial -- but I have been happy with the product, and I haven't been replacing mice every six weeks. Other big manufacturers such as Logitech also make excellent mice. Expect to pay at least $50 for a decent one.
If you're placing a Macintosh mouse, all you have to do is plug in the new mouse. But a new mouse for a PC will come with a new driver -- a small memory resident program that handles communication between the mouse and the PC.
Some mice also come with sophisticated software for use with specific DOS applications as well as special drivers for Microsoft Windows that play tricks, such as moving the cursor back onto the left side of the screen when you move it off the screen to the right, and so on.
You can go through the hassle of installing this software if you really want the new features. But over the years I've found that most mice are compatible with Microsoft's original mouse driver. If your old mouse was Microsoft-compatible and you don't care about the fancy new stuff, just turn the computer off, plug the new mouse in and turn it on again. Chances are pretty good that it will work. And if it ain't broke, don't fix it.