More Means for Multitouch

If you've used a recent MacBook trackpad, an iPhone, a Palm Pre, Microsoft's Zune HD, or one of several new all-in-one PCs running Windows 7, you are probably familiar with the concept of "multitouch," the ability to use multiple fingers simultaneously to achieve different tasks.

For example, when looking at a photo or Web page on an iPhone, one can "pinch" the image using two fingers to zoom in or shrink the image, and "spread" two fingers to zoom out or magnify the image.

Until now, it has been difficult to add multitouch functionality to computers that don't have it included on their screens or trackpads -- though Dell, for example, recently began shipping a multitouch monitor.

Now, there are two less-expensive devices that can have you pinching and swiping like a thief stealing diamond dust.

Apple's Magic Mouse is the follow-up to its Mighty Mouse that introduced the notion of not having distinct buttons for left and right clicks.

Now, Apple has taken that design to the next level by making nearly the whole surface of the mouse (at least that part above the Apple logo) a multitouch surface.

Multitouch Lets You Use Multiple Fingers to Navigate

That means that, in addition to using the mouse to move the cursor around the screen, you can drag two fingers across the top of the mouse to scroll through Web pages, large photos or other documents, even spreadsheets.

For those who have some trouble seeing small objects on the screen, holding down the control key and swiping one finger down the surface of the mouse allows one to zoom in to a point on the screen and then zoom back out by control-swiping up.

Magic Mouse cannot be squeezed to activate Expose or other Mac features. And in order to make its surface more trackpad-like, the Magic Mouse has a low, flat surface; it may be the lowest mouse ever shipped with a PC.

I found using it to be more comfortable and efficient than Mighty Mouse overall, but feel free to test drive one at an Apple Store to see if it works for you.

Alas, there are no pinching and spreading gestures as there are on the iPhone or Mac trackpad, and there's even less than that on a PC, where the Magic Mouse loses its magical powers and functions as just an ordinary mouse.

Multitouch Options Available on PCs

PCs are not out of the multitouch makeover, though.

Wacom, a longtime supplier of tablets used by artists to draw on the computer as they would on a piece of paper, has created the Bamboo Touch series.

The black tablets support a variety of multitouch gestures, including the pinching and spreading that is on smaller trackpads.

Wacom also includes four buttons on the tablet that can be assigned to a variety of features. The company offers the Bamboo Touch for the same price as the Magic Mouse, and a $99 version that can be used with fingers or a stylus for finer control and drawing; the stylus slips through a small tag at the end of the tablet for storage.

The Bamboo Touch is an effective alternative to the old mouse, but it takes up a fair amount of desk real estate. It would be more at home next to most laptops if, for example, it could be used vertically. But it's clear that the former lack of ways to use multiple fingers to navigate a computer is now no reason to be touchy.

Ross Rubin (@rossrubin on Twitter) is director of industry analysis at The NPD Group (@npdtech on Twitter). He blogs at The NPD Group Blog as well as his own blog, Out of the Box.