In a lot of PC publications, it’s the CPUs, video cards and other internal hardware that gets all the attention, with input devices relegated to a few pages here or there in the reviews section. But why should that be the case? Input devices are, after all, your point of connection to your machine. As keyboards, mice and game controllers have evolved over the years, so has the way we control and interact with our computers. That’s why we’ve chosen to give them the respect they deserve—by compiling a list of 50 of the most important, memorable, or just downright wacky input devices from the past, present and future of computing.
We’ve arranged our retrospective into logical sections: mice, keyboards, game controllers, and miscellaneous peripherals. Within each section, we’ve arranged the input devices chronologically, so read through from the beginning to get a sense for each devices history, where it’s at today, and where it’s going in the future. Are there any that we missed? Post your favorite PC peripherals in the comments section!
The sexier side of input devices: The Logitech CyberMan 2 was featured on the cover of the December 1997 cover of Boot, which would later become Maximum PC.
In 1952, scientists in the Royal Canadian Navy built a device that could detect the rotation of a 5-pin bowling ball. This device, later known as the trackball, would go on to be a major early competitor to the mouse . Sadly, the trackball has largely been made obsolete by the mouse and the trackpad, appearing in few commercial products other than BlackBerry smartphones and the Apple Mouse.
Any discussion of significant input devices would be incomplete without mentioning the very first mouse, designed by Doug Engelbart in 1963. The mouse, which was actually built by Bill English, had two perpendicular wheels on it bottom side, allowing it to detect movement on the X and Y axis. Its innards were encased in a hand-carved wooden shell, with room for a single button. A humble beginning for a fundamental component of the computer revolution.
One of the few alternatives to the traditional mouse to gain any real traction in the market, gyroscopic mice (or “air mice”) use an internal gyroscope or accelerometer to detect the motion of a mouse-like device held in the air and translate it to cursor movement. We’d never want to game on one, of course, but for navigating a home theater PC from the couch, they’re pretty darn handy.
Sure, it may not be the flashiest line in the world, but you’ve got to hand it to the Microsoft Intellimouse series—it’s proven to be adept at popularizing features that would go on to become ubiquitous.
Case in point—the original Intellimouse, introduced in July 1996, was the mouse that made the scroll wheel mainstream. Designed to make reading web pages easier, it was a forward-thinking technology that’s now featured in nearly every mouse sold today.
In the late 90’s, Logitech came up with an interesting concept: why not bring force feedback to the mouse? They partnered with Immersion Corp, a haptics-focused company to license technology to incorporate force feedback into their mice. The first product to be released to market was the Wingman Force, a good example of when innovation is stifled by poor execution. The Wingman delivered on its promise of novel force feedback, but delivered the experience by binding the mouse physically to the mousepad, giving it a very limited range of motion.
Not being able to life the mouse off of its pad was a deal-breaker, so Logitech returned to the idea with its iFeel line of mice two years later. This time around, the iFeel looked and felt more like a traditional mouse, and was actually pretty fun to use. With the proper software installed, users could feel bumps when hovering over icons on their desktop, or when they moved files and folders around in Windows. Unfortunately, the concept never took off for gaming. Immersion later filed several lawsuits against game console manufactures for using patented rumble technology in their gamepads – which is likely the reason the first generation SIXAXIS didn’t incorporate Dual Shock rumble effects.
The Boomslang was the mouse that introduced the gaming public to the idea of a “gaming mouse,” with the flashy appearance and high pricepoints that persist to this day. Although the Boomslang’s 1000 dpi sensor may seem downright paltry compared to today’s 5600 dpi Mamba, it was a big step up from the 200-400 dpi mice of its time.
The Boomslang was such a gaming icon that Razer released an upgraded 10th anniversary edition in 2007, complete with modern internals in the classic Razer chassis.
Just four years after bringing the scroll wheel to the masses, Microsoft scored another big win with the Intellimouse Explorer, which was the first mainstream optical mouse. At the time, in our January 2000 issue of Maximum PC we wrote that optical mice just “weren’t our cup of tea—we like mice with balls.” That statement sounds totally ridiculous now, of course, which just goes to show the Microsoft had picked another winning technology.
Not everyone realized that optical mice didn’t actually use lasers – they use LEDs for tracking. That’s why Logitech’s MX1000 was such a big deal – it was the first mouse to actually use a red laser for high-resolution tracking, a boon for gamers that demand accuracy from their gaming mice. The laser tracking technology meant that tracking could be done on a variety of surfaces where LED mice couldn’t navigate. Accuracy clocked in at 800DPI, and Logitech boasted surface sensitivity to be 20 times better than optical counterparts. In practice, the MX1000 was a champ for gaming and everyday use. Add in other features like wireless functionality, rechargeable lithium-ion battery, tilting mouse wheel, and ergonomic design and it’s easy to see why this was the best mouse for its time.
While the gaming peripheral market has been largely devoid of innovations of late, Zalman’s FG 1000 is notable for its interesting take on the gaming mouse. Targeted at FPS players, the FG1000 tracks surfaces like a traditional 1000DPI optical mouse, but users hold it like they would a pistol grip. The “trigger” buttons were under your index and middle fingers, and the mousewheel was under your thumb. In our testing, we noted that the unconventional grip gave us increased horizontal accuracy, which helped in shooters. But the mouse was too small for most hands, and vertical movement strained our wrists.
The Orbita is another mouse that attempts to break out of the two-dimensional mold, by functioning as a giant dial, allowing for smooth, continuous zooming and scrolling. This smooth rotation alleviates the jerky motions associated with a middle-finger mouse wheel, where you have to move your finger back to the top every time you spin it half way.
Unfortunately, it also borrowed the decidedly non-ergonomic saucer-shape of the Apple puck mouse, and had to be calibrated to be used. Those factors, combined with the fact that most people seem to be ok with the scroll-wheel for their mouse-spinning needs, has meant the Orbita has yet to see wide-spread adoption.
The Logitech Performance Mouse MX is one of the latest developments in the never-ending evolution of the computer mouse into something more sensitive, more ergonomic, and more able to track on just about anything. Able to track near-flawlessly even on glass, thanks to two-laser “Darkfield” technology, the Performance Mouse MX is just further proof that by 2015, mice will be able to track on cellophane, aerogel, and Mac users’ solidified feelings of smug self-satisfaction.
After a history of dubious, oddly-shaped, one button mice, Apple has come up with a unique input device in its Magic Mouse. Not the first “touchmouse,” (the older Mighty Mouse uses capacitive sensors to detect which side of the mouse is pressed) the Magic Mouse IS the first multitouch mouse, and also the first to allow navigation with mouse-surface touch gestures—by swiping on the surface of the mouse with one or two fingers, users can scroll in any direction and navigate forward and back through webpages. Also, though it’s still not exactly ergonomic, it is a significant step up from previous Apple mice in terms of comfort and ease of use.
A chorded keyboard is a keyboard that allows the entry of a large set of keystrokes with only a small number (5 to 20, generally) of keys. This is accomplished by “chording” keys—assigning keystrokes to combinations of button presses. What chorded keyboards lose in terms of ease-of-use and typing speed, they make up for in mobility, and the ability to operate one-handed.
You may also remember handheld chorded keyboards (called “keyers”) as the input device-of-choice of the cringe-inducing “wearable computer” crowd.
The Model M series of keyboards, manufactured by by IBM, Lexmark, and Unicomp, variously, is one of the few bits of beige-box era computing hardware that maintains a dedicated following to this day. Where other keyboards may be satisfied with a single, deafening CLACK per keystroke, the Model M managed to produce two, thanks to its patented “buckling spring” key mechanism, which provided a level of tactile feedback that some typing enthusiasts swear has never been beaten.
Combine that audio-haptic response with rock-solid durability, and you’ve got one of the few truly “classic” keyboards.
The honor of “first split ergonomic keyboard” doesn’t go to Microsoft, but rather to the TONY! Keyboard. But for most PC users, Microsoft’s Natural Keyboard was their first exposure to an ergonomically designed keyboard. Some people swore by it, others thought is a bizarre curiosity (In 1994 the New York Times wrote “The Microsoft Natural Keyboard looks surreal, as if it had been fished from the seas bloated, warped and whitened”). But no matter what you thought at the time, you’ve got to admit Microsoft’s design had legs—the company still sells popular ergonomic keyboards, fundamentally the same shape as the original Natural Keyboard.
Back during the heyday of the PDA, there was a lot of demand for portable keyboards, which inspired the likes of the laser keyboard, as well as the flexible/rollable keyboard. These badboys let you do all your typing, then furl them up and take them on the go. The problem? Even when you roll them up, they’re still way too big to carry anywhere except in a laptop bag or backpack, meaning that they’re only marginally useful as a portable input device. Oh, and typing on rubbery, flexible keys is exactly as comfortable as it sounds.
Ahh, the laser keyboard. What more perfect example exists of the kind of technology that looks great in the pages of SkyMall, but sucks in reality could there be? Sure, they look neat, with a bright red keyboard projected onto your desk, but as you might expect, typing on a keyboard with no tactile feedback whatsoever is pure torture.
We’ve seen lots of ergonomic keyboard designs in our day, but in terms of sheer zaniness, the SafeType Vertical Keyboard takes the cake. Shaped like a regular keyboard that’s been snapped in three and glued back together all wrong, the SafeType is meant to allow you to type with your hands in a natural, neutral thumbs-up position. With a pair of sideview mirrors attached just for fun, this vertical keyboard had just the right combination of goofy looks and unfamiliarity to ensure that it never caught on.
Yes, you read that right, the orbiTouch is a keyboard… Without any keys. And not in the same way that a laser keyboard doesn’t have any keys, but in a you-type-without-actually-pushing-any-buttons-honest-to-God sort of way. How does it work? It has two sliding disks with ergonomic handles, which can each be pushed to one of eight different positions. By chording the two disk-positions together, up to 64 keystrokes can be produced, in a supposedly ergonomic way. Of course, anything that requires a fundamental shift in the way a person thinks about typing probably isn’t going to win the hearts and the minds of the masses. Bravo for the effort, though.
The Das Keyboard is a line of keyboards produced since 2005, most notable for the lack of key labels. Ostensibly, this is to promote touch-typing, though in reality it’s purely for geek cred.
Newer models of the Das Keyboard come in both labeled and non-labeled versions, and features clicky, tactile mechanical keyswitches, making it a popular choice for hardcore typing enthusiasts (yes, all 15 of them).
Do you ever find yourself trying to play your favorite computer game, but losing out on points because you just can’t remember what keys to push? What if, for just $20 per game, you could have a set of custom keyfaces to remind you that W is forward and R reloads? What if each keyboard had cool graphics, for you to stare at whilst losing at Medal of Honor? Would you be interested in that?
The Optimus Maximus is the long-delayed OLED keyboard from the Art Lebedev Studio. Its promise was exciting: a keyboard with a full-color OLED screen on every key, that changed in real time to indicate the key’s function. In game, it would show the controls, and in an app, it would show the hotkeys.
In execution, the Optimus Maximus isn’t so exciting. The OLED screens look good (if a bit small), but the key action is too stiff for extended typing, and the price tag was off the charts. A miss, for sure, but a promising look at what keyboards might look like in the future.
The Gravis PC Gamepad didn’t look revolutionary—in fact, it looked like a blatant ripoff of the Super Nintendo controller—but it was. It was the first gamepad available for IBM compatible PCs, and it let a generation of early PC gamers experience d-pad delights like Commander Keen.
The Microsoft Sidewinder raised the bar when it came to gamepads. It offered it all: plenty of buttons—6 face buttons and two triggers, a responsive digital d-pad, two digital triggers, and the most comfortable, ergonomic form-factor to date. Better still, because of its immediate popularity the Sidewinder because a sort of default gamepad for games, and nearly all games that could be played with a gamepad came with a Sidewinder control profile, making it that much quicker to get into the action. The design was so successful that it’s survived to this day, in the form of its clear descendant, the Xbox 360 gamepad.
Microsoft’s SideWinder line produced some real stinkers (we’ve covered a few in this article already), but it also was responsible for some instant classics. The SideWinder 3D Pro is undeniably in the latter camp. With a total of 8 buttons, a hat switch and a throttle slider, and a rock-solid twistable joystick, the SideWinder 3D Pro is a gaming controller classic, and the way MechWarrior was meant to be played. Later versions, such as the Precision Pro and Force Feedback Pro would introduce more ergonomic design, and force feedback to the mix.
If you were a PC gamer in the mid-nineties, you probably bought or wanted to own a CH Products FlightStick Pro joystick. The ambidextrous FlightStick Pro was one of the finest flight controllers to be had. Its basic construction made it instantly usable to anyone, and though it was limited to four keys, the small footprint let it fight nicely next to your keyboard. The tension of the stick was also pitch-perfect, provided by finely tuned gimbals. One of the best aspects of the FlightStick Pro was its longevity – we used ours for years after its initial release.
The SpaceOrb, originally manufactured by SpaceTec IMC, was an early attempt at a “6 Degrees of Freedom”(6DoF) controller. This means that the controller gives you the ability to maneuver in 6 dimensions: forward/back, left/right, up/down, pitch, yaw and roll. It accomplished this through the use of black plastic sphere awkwardly tacked onto a more traditional gamepad. By pushing, tugging and twisting the sphere, you could control 3D space however you wanted.
Unfortunately, the SpOrb never found a permanent place in gamers’ hearts, as very few games other than Descent clones made use of all 6 degrees of motion. It did, however, find an unexpected fanbase in 3D professionals, such as modelers and animators.
So far, we’ve covered a couple of peripherals that tried to take over for the mouse and keyboard as preferred shooter controller. Where those failed, the Panther XL succeeded. Or sort of succeeded. It didn’t actually become more popular than the mouse and keyboard, and it wasn’t necessarily better, but it was a damned solid controller, and a lot of fun to use. The Panther XL was composed of a large base with an ergonomic joystick and a trackball. In it standard configuration, the joystick controlled the player’s movement, while the trackball controlled where the player looked. The ball was proportional, meaning that if you wanted to turn 90 degrees to the right, you spun the trackball 90 degrees to the rights. This high degree of control made the Panther XL a popular choice long after it ceased production in 1998.
Today’s rumble-enabled gamepads pale in comparison to true force-feedback peripherals of late-90’s PC gaming – the first of which was CH Products’ Force FX joystick. When you plugged the Force FX into an open serial port (remember those?), compatible simulation games were given a jolt in gameplay. The Force FX had six force feedback effects that could range in magnitude, duration, and direction to give you the feeling that you were actually piloting a plane or driving a tank. A vector force effect yanked your hand to simulate G-forces, dual-axis vibration conveyed bumpy roads and rumbling engines, and a spring stiffening effect simulated increasing airplane throttle. This innovation paved the way for more popular force-feedback joysticks, including Microsoft’s Sidewinder Force Feedback Pro.
The CyberMan 2 gamepad was Logitech’s second foray into 6-degrees-of-freedom controllers, after the mostly-overlooked CyberMan 1. The CyberMan 2, unlike a traditional gamepad (or even a 6doF gamepad, such as the Space Orb) is meant to be used with both hands, laying flat on the desk. The right-hand controller is the 6doF control, which you push, pull and twist to move. The left side of the controller features 8 bindable buttons located around an ergonomic hillock for your palm.
Almost a decade before the PlayStation’s much-hyped SIXAXIS controller made its debut, Microsoft toyed around with the idea of a motion-based gamepad with its Sidewinder Freestyle Pro. The Freestyle Pro was launched at the peak of Sidewinder’s dominance in the game controller market, so many gamers were surprised by how disappointing the FreeStyle Pro turned out to be in practical use. The movement control – pitching and rolling – wasn’t precise enough for flight simulators, and the only game that you could really use it with was the bundled Motocross Madness.
Though recent offerings like the Ergodex DX1 and the Zboard have popularized the “customizable keyboard,” they certainly weren’t the first to offer game-specific, programmable keyboard layouts. To bestow that honor, we have to go back to 1997, to the Saitek PC Dash.
The PC Dash was a flat panel with a matrix of touch-sensitive buttons. The keyboard’s frame was on a hinge, letting you clamp a paper command sheet over the buttons, labeling them with game-relevant commands and graphics.
The Frag Master is another misbegotten game controller born of the ill-advised notion that people would prefer to play first person shooters on something other than a mouse and keyboard. With two handles, gamers were meant to grasp the Frag Master in both hands and slide, twist and tilt their way to Quake victory. In addition to the problems inherent to the mouse-and-keyboard replacement category, the Frag Master didn’t work particularly well, making its fate an easy guess.
If you’re not familiar with TrackIR (and most people outside of the hardcore flight and driving sim crowd aren’t), it’s an optical motion tracker that sits on top of your computer and enables head-tracking in games. It allows you to, for instance, look around the cockpit of your virtual fighter plane just by turning your head. To get a feel for how TrackIR works, check out this video of somebody playing ARMA 2 with TrackIR headtracking. Though it’s a pretty niche product right now, and only works on certain games (and very few shooters, besides ARMA), it shows some real promise and is definitely worth a look if you’re into sim games.
One look at the Dual Strike, with its matte-black and shiny-olive-green color scheme, should be enough to tell you that this is a turn-of-the-millennium Microsoft Sidewinder product. Shaped a bit like two Wii nunchucks fused together with a trackball in between, the Dual Strike was designed for first person shooters. It allowe you to move with a directional thumbpad, and look around by swiveling the two controller halves. Even though the Dual Strike was pretty decent, by most accounts, it put the wielder at a competitive disadvantage against mouse-and-keyboard-using opponents, and that was enough to keep it off most gamers wishlist.
For a period of time, you couldn’t thumb through an issue of a computer magazine without seeing reviews for one or two new racing wheels. It’s hard to pick just one from such a stable of fine (and in some cases, not-so-fine) peripherals, but one truly stands out in our memories: The Force RS Wheel. One of the earlier force feedback wheels, the Force RS got it just right with a large comfortable wheel with faux-leather grip, a solid pedal base, and no floaty “dead zone” when the wheel is centered. Also, for its feature-set, its price was unbeatable.
The Strategic Commander is another black sheep in the Microsoft Sidewinder family. Designed as a companion for real time strategy games, the strategic commander is shaped like an oversized mouse, to be held in the gamer’s off hand. With 10 surface buttons and a 3-axis sliding base, it was meant to give you fast access to hotkeys and camera movements. Though the Strategic Commander did work more or less as advertised, it simply wasn’t able to replace the keyboard as left-hand input device of choice for strategy gamers.
Belkin’s Speedpad n50 was the first gaming peripheral that was specifically made for first-person shooter players. Intended as a keyboard replacement, the Speedpad had just 10 keys to give you basic WASD functionality. Your palm rested on an ergonomic surface, and your thumb had comfortable access to a directional pad. The n52 added another row of 4 keys as shooters got more complex, and the latest n52t3 re-release updated the look for contemporary aesthetics (ie. matte black and blue lighting). Imitators like the WolfKing Warrior gamepad tried to improve on the N52’s features by incorporating even more keys, but it wasn’t until Logitech released its G13 gameboard that we found a worthy modern-day successor to the Speedpad.
Filed under O for “Original,” the Ergodex is a keyboard with the ultimate in customization—the ability to put keys wherever you think they should go. That’s right, the Ergodex is just a flat surface, with adhesive keys that can be placed and replaced in any layout you want. Not designed for actual typing (it’s smaller than a regular keyboard, and only comes with 25 keys by default), the Ergodex is meant for gaming or other hotkey-intensive applications, like Photoshop. With excellent key-action and a great macro system, this is one unusual input device we’re sorry didn’t take off.
It may gall some PC-purists that Microsoft has successfully positioned a console controller as the defacto Windows gamepad, but at least the USB version of the Xbox 360 controller is one of the most solid and comfortable pads on the market. With two analog sticks, two analog triggers, and a full 11 buttons, the Xbox 360 Gamepad has everything you need to play most console ports like Batman: Arkham Asylum, and most games come with pre-profiles for the controller.
The Wii Remote (Wiimote) is an odd beast. Part airmouse-like gyroscopic sensor (indeed, the technology is licensed from Gyration, famous maker of PC airmice), part IR-sensing pointing device, and part angular rate sensor (with the MotionPlus peripheral), the Wiimote is designed to provide comprehensive motion control for games. Whether the controller has been good or bad for the state of gaming is arguable, but its runaway success is not.
And for us PC users? At least we get some pretty cool hacks out of the deal.
Taking the idea of force feedback to a new level, the Novint Falcon is a sort of 3D mouse, where you push a sphere around in 3 dimensions, while the Falcon, shaped like a big cone with robot arms, pushes back. The net effect is that you can “feel” objects in virtual 3D space. It’s fun to use, and well-built, but like most giant, expensive peripherals, the Falcon hasn’t seen widespread adoption.
Project Natal is the code name for the motion- and voice-recognition technology that Microsoft hopes will extend the life of their Xbox 360 platform for years to come. Here’s what we know about Natal now:
• Using High definition cameras and directional microphones, it will be able to precisely detect motions and voice commands.
• It may be integrated with Windows at some point in the future.
• It’s likely to launch around November of next year.
• Peter Molyneux is developing a game for it, which will almost certainly be a tremendous disappointment for everybody.
You might think of the touchpad as an input device most commonly associated with the laptop, as the slayer of the trackball and the pointing stick, but they’ve actually been around longer than that. As far back as 1983, Apollo built touchpads into keyboards, as seen in the picture above. Though perhaps doomed to be made obsolete by the touchscreen, the touchpad still holds a place dear to our hearts.
The term “pointing stick” is the generic descriptor for the whole class of rubber doodads that we prefer to call “mouse nubbins.” Known more specifically as TrackPoint, Pointstick, StickPoint, and similar others, these are the little rubber caps found on laptop keyboards that allow you to maneuver the mouse by applying slight directional pressure. Once a dominant mobile input device, the pointing stick has largely been replaced by the touchpad, though some laptop models still offer both.
There’s no written rule that says a mouse has to be used with hands. The NoHands mouse is a pedal-based controller that lets you control your desktop cursor by moving your feet. You use one foot to rock on a pedal to navigate the pointer, and the other foot is used for left and right clicks. Besides the obvious use of the NoHands mouse for users with carpal tunnel syndrome or other wrist injuries, we know a few people who use foot-operated controllers in addition to hand-driven mice, such as for activating macros in games or even as a hidden boss key.
It’s difficult to imagine the graphic design industry without the presence of Wacom tablets. Since 1983, Wacom has been developing and improving graphic tablets that have changed the way artists work with computers. In addition to their pressure-sensitive surfaces and pen digitizers, Wacom also licenses their technology for Tablet PCs. But the most notable Wacom product in recent memory has to be the Cintiq, which combined a computer display with digitizer. The tablet/screen hybrid idea let artists draw directly on the display surface, so they could instantly visualize their work. Since launching the line with 15” Cintiqs in 2000, Wacom has improved its technology work with tablets up to 21”, with a resolution of 1600x1200.
File this under “emerging technologies.” Over the past five years, researchers have been experimenting with various forms of eye-tracking technologies that will let users control their computers with their gaze. In 2006, a Queen’s University study tested gamer satisfaction using an eye-tracking mod for Quake 2 and Neverwinter Nights, reporting that 83 percent of subjects felt an increased level of immersion when using their eyes to replace the mouselook function in game. In 2007, researchers at the Blekinge Institute of Technology repeated the experiment using a mod for Half-Life 2. Once again, players reacted positively to the test. No consumer hardware or software has been announced to take advantage of eye-tracking technologies, but it’s something we’re looking forward to trying out in the future.
The OCZ Neural Impulse Actuator, which debuted last year, is the first in what will most likely soon be a crowded market for commercial mind-computer interface devices. In other words: it lets you play games with your mind, by detecting changes in the electrical fields in your brain. The really amazing thing? It actually works—after just a little bit of practice you can run around and shoot your gun by variously thinking, straining, and furrowing your brow. Sure, it’s not good enough to actually win a game yet, but it’s an incredibly promising first step.
If the SpaceOrb is the past of 6DoF controllers, the SpacePilot Pro is its future. Logitech , who folded the SpaceOrb’s makers into its 3DConnexion brand, has fully embraced the potential for 6DoF in 3D design and modeling. With more than 20 buttons, a built-in LCD for controlling program functions and a $400 pricetag the SpacePilot Pro is professional hardware through and through. Still, it’s still hard not to want one, just a little.