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Manufacturer: XTracPads
Min OS X: Any Version

XTracPads Fat Mat
September 25, 2007 | Bryan Clodfelter

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“Why do I need a mouse pad? I already have a __________ [insert the name of your favorite motherboard sapping, laser-powered death ray here].”

If we’ve trained you well, here at Inside Mac Games, that should be the first question that entered your mind when you saw this article. And not without reason--after all, you clearly don’t need a mouse pad to achieve impressive mousing results on most surfaces. Nor is this a recent development: one of my most vivid computer-related memories is nearly a decade old, centering on the gleeful purchase of my first optical mouse, and coincidentally, my dog’s initial bafflement at the strange new rubbery chew-toy that landed at his feet a few minutes thereafter. While the tracking ability of that old, plastic dinosaur was downright pitiful compared to the equipment that we take for granted today, it felt like heaven to a user tired of jamming mechanical mice and ugly, restrictive mouse pads. That brings us back to the original question: should we reconsider mouse pads, and if so, what has changed in the last few years? Thankfully, here to help us with these questions (and more) is XTracPads, who have volunteered a sizable chunk of their product lineup to our not-so-tender ministrations as we try to unravel the mystery behind the resurgence of this somewhat forgotten portion of the computer hardware industry. Today, we’ll be taking a close look at the XTracPads Fat Mat--a soft black mouse pad whose Brobdingnagian proportions, mighty durability, and excellent performance blew away the notion that cloth-based mouse pads are a relic of a bygone era.

Mouse Pad 101
Since this is Inside Mac Games’ first review of a mouse pad in a few years, a quick primer on basic mouse pad construction is essential. Before we can do that, however, a (very) brief retrospective on the subject of why so many users found classic mouse pads so insufferable is in order. Frankly, mouse pads of yore had almost nothing going for them--they were restrictively small (8” x 8” was the most common size), usually picked up all sorts of nasty hand grime, slid all over the place, and the cloth-based models had a tendency to peel after a period of time. As optical mice entered the market, mouse pads were often associated with the aggravating limitations that plagued the now-outdated technology of that period, and as such, were hastily done away with. However, rather than dying out shortly after the turn of the century, mouse pads have evolved and reemerged over the past few years. Whereas mouse pad manufacturers in the eighties and nineties were strictly limited to giving the rubberized ball within the mouse something to grip, today’s optical mice have somewhat freed developers to look beyond tracking ability (which is still their primary focus) to the interrelated concepts of mouse speed and control. Simply put, by varying the type and spacing of surface texture patterns, experimenting with coatings, and choosing from an assortment construction materials, manufacturers can provide users with a mousing surface that feels as slick as glass, as rough as fine-grain sandpaper, or somewhere in between. Over the years, this has resulted in three distinct types of mouse pad construction (what I’ll refer to in the future as soft, semi-hard, and hard) and two surface texture designations: “control” and “speed.” For now it is sufficient to be aware of the terminology involved, because, in this review and others to follow shortly, we’ll be putting nearly all of the combinations to the test.

Before we continue with the review of the Fat Mat, the obvious question of “why,” posed in the introduction, is still waiting to be addressed. As previously mentioned, today’s mice obviously do a fine job at uncovering enough surface detail to move a cursor on just about anything. However, what is not quite as obvious is the fact that the amount of detail that they can resolve is a constantly-fluctuating quantity. If you’ve ever tried to do precision work (like drawing a perfectly straight line) with a mouse, you’ve probably discovered that a phenomenon called “spot jitter” can introduce a frustrating degree of inaccuracy in your movements. While laser-powered mice do extremely well in these tasks, unintentional jumps of a couple of pixels are still practicable. What a mouse pad does for the user, in short, is to present the optical sensor of his or her mouse (be it infrared or laser-powered) with a consistent, easily recognizable pattern that eliminates the tiny dead zones and spot jitters caused the even the best desks. While it may be difficult to detect and easy to discount these diminutive sources of inaccuracy, after using a good mouse pad for a little while, the difference becomes abundantly clear. When combined with the highly underestimated advantage of having a large, perfectly consistent surface for a mouse to travel upon, the gain acquired from eliminating randomized errors in tracking quickly leaves “the last 1%” arena that many users, often swayed by early optical-mouse marketing campaigns, might still consign the mouse pad to.


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