A Windows Disadvantage They Don’t Talk About!

October 15th, 2009

The conventional wisdom on both sides of the computing platform wars is that Microsoft Windows is basically a decent operating system that struggles but fails to match the Mac OS. Of course, you can’t ignore the prevalence of malware and the billions and billions of dollars Windows users have lost as a result of security issues.

You could also discuss rampant driver conflicts, and the draconian upgrade process to go from Windows XP to Windows 7. But these are problems that usually have solutions. In the first, you wait for Microsoft or a third-party company to deliver compatible software. For the second, buy a new PC. That’s what Microsoft wants you to do, because they’ll get far fewer phone calls from disgruntled buyers seeking help.

The real problem with Windows, however, is usability. That’s a subject that the PC-oriented reviewers at Consumer Reports magazine never dare touch. They don’t put people into little one-way glass rooms to see how they fare handling routine tasks, nor do they conduct surveys, so their reports about personal computers remain fatally flawed.

What’s strange about the particular shortcoming I’m about to discuss is that Apple solved the problem with the very first Mac in 1984, and Microsoft clearly isn’t paying attention, despite spending tens of billions of dollars to make Windows into a reasonably stable, productive operating system.

I’m talking about mouse tracking!

I can see where most of you are wondering what I’m talking about and it may well be that you don’t notice any such problem, one that has existed in every single version of Windows I’ve ever used. It doesn’t get any better, and fortunately it hasn’t gotten any worse. But why are the tech pundits ignoring this serious shortcoming? What about Apple when they create those Mac versus PC ads and online comparisons? It’s not there, and you wonder if maybe they’re afraid that Microsoft will wake up to the existence of the shortcoming and do something about it.

Indeed, I pretty much put this question in the back of my mind, until David Biedny reminded me of it during my interview with him for this week’s episode of The Tech Night Owl LIVE.

I’m even going so far to say that very few of you ever notice this problem. It’s not terribly obvious when you handle normal work on your Mac and PC, such as email, word processing, or building a spreadsheet. But when it comes to performing a task that requires precision movement of the mouse cursor, you will see what I’m talking about.

It doesn’t matter what tracking speed you set, what kind of device or driver you have as an input device. On the Mac, the motion is ultra smooth, and you can make the pixel by pixel alterations to 2D or 3D artwork with relative ease. On the PC, the mouse movement is erratic, and  precision is nonexistent. Sure, you can still get your content creation done on a Windows box, and the results you achieve may even be comparable to what you do on the Mac, but the work process is seldom as smooth or trouble free.

And, no, don’t remind me about the problems caused by a defective Mac or buggy software. I’m assuming all things are working as intended in making this comparison.

This Mac versus PC disparity may be a trivial matter, but it represents the sort of microcosm that defines the differences between the two platforms. Microsoft is all about producing the 80% or 85% solution, something that is almost as good as the product they struggle to imitate. They seldom equal the competitor, and even less frequently surpass the opposition.

When you bring any of this to their attention, the Microsoft executive, any executive, will basically deliver the same mantra. Yes, they know the current product isn’t terribly good, but not to worry. There will be an update in a year or two that’ll be far better. That would be fine if the competition stood still, but imitating a 2007 iPod touch in 2009 isn’t the answer to Microsoft’s woes with the Zune, and that’s only one of the products they still can’t excel at.

In a few days, Windows 7 will make its debut. They are even, believe it or not, scheduling house parties to honor the occasion, as if one truly wants to celebrate such a thing. Then again, that sort of promotional scheme comes from the same company that delivered those pathetic TV ads about nothing featuring 1990’s sitcom star Jerry Seinfeld and Bill Gates. In fact, when I first heard about the Windows 7 parties, I got to thinking about the celebrations one might have in the 1950s, in the “Ozzie and Harriett” era. That sure ages me, but it also demonstrates just how out of touch Microsoft is to believe that such a lame marketing campaign is somehow going to make Windows 7 warm and fuzzy.

Yes, warm and fuzzy. Tell that to the people who want to upgrade from Windows XP and confront the need to backup their files, wipe the PC’s hard drive and reinstall everything. That’s sure something to celebrate, right?

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13 Responses to “A Windows Disadvantage They Don’t Talk About!”

  1. DaveD says:

    Thank you for putting forth the situation with mouse tracking in Windows. I always thought that it was my inability to properly use a two-button mouse.

    About the Windows 7 house party…

    A party to celebrate the arrival of a new Windows OS, how (was thinking “pathetic”) sad. But, those that are still going to host one, I have a suggestion to make it more lively being close to Halloween. Just follow what our CEO Steve Jobs did at the 2002 WWDC, bring out a coffin. Each guest should throw their copy of Vista into the coffin. Before the unveiling of “7,” point to the pile of wooden stakes. Each guest take a stake to the coffin and… oh, I see it is time for my meds.

  2. Steve Paris says:

    Hi Gene

    It’s amazing that after all these years MS still hasn’t worked on mouse tracking. I’ve always been a Mac user but about 9 years ago, I thought it might be a good idea to try Windows to see if I was missing anything from having limited myself to a minority platform.

    I enrolled in a computer class at college and although it was only 2 hours a week and just covered the basics (something I was completely familiar with on my Mac), I was ready to throw that PC out the window after the first hour: that damned mouse just wouldn’t do what it was supposed to.

    It got so bad that I gave up on that course after three weeks and never doubted my original instinct again.

    Using the mouse (or trackpad) on a Mac feels like an extension of your hand. On windows, it felt like I was trying to do precision work while wearing four pairs of thick gloves after having drunk too much tequila!

    It’s hard to believe that for most computer users, this is their expectation when interacting with a computer.

    It’s even harder to believe that MS hasn’t thought of improving this massive problem since I last dared touch a Windows PC.

  3. Fritz says:

    That was the very first thing I noticed the first time I sat down at a Windows machine – the mouse tracking sucked. I had never even thought about mouse tracking until then, and it took me a while to figure out what the difference is – the Mac OS uses variable tracking speed.

    Try this: Move your mouse a couple inches, and do it very slowly. Notice how far the cursor moves. Now move the mouse the same distance quickly and see how far the cursor moves. Simple and elegant and it makes your cursor behave the way you naturally want it to.

  4. Dave Barnes says:

    Some people http://db.tidbits.com/article/8893 don’t like their Mac OS X mouse performance.

    • @Dave Barnes, A two-year-old article, but the real issue is the fact that, even when Mac OS X isn’t quite delivering, Windows is still a lot worse.

      And, no, I have no complaints about Mac OS X’s mouse handling process. Then or now.


  5. Kaleberg says:

    So, Ozzie and Harriet, Mac or Windows? I’d go with Windows, but Leave It To Beaver is definitely Mac country. Of course, The Patty Duke Show would have one cousin Mac, the other Windows.

  6. Don says:

    I noticed this problem from the earliest days of Windows. The Mac mouse moved smoothly over the screen. The Windows curser always seemed to jump from pixel to pixel. It was like the difference between driving over a smooth road and driving over one with thousands of tiny bumps.

    As time went by, the speed of the processors seemed to overcome this problem. But turn up the magnification (things most average users don’t do but graphics and photography pros depend upon) and the difference is still obvious to me.

  7. Christiaan says:

    Actually, the mouse tracking is the one thing I really like about Windows compared to Macs. I can’t stand moving my mouse on the Macs because of the variable tracking–it slows down too fast. I even bought the new track pad for my new iMac specifically because it seemed to move (and stay) “faster” than the mouse (both being on the same “fastest” setting).

    I understand that maybe it would help with fine-grained pixel editing or similar needs, but for everyday use of general applications, variable tracking isn’t necessary, at least not for me. I really, really wish there was a way to turn off the variable tracking.

    • @Christiaan, Not a valid comparison, because third-party input devices set their own tracking rates and acceleration parameters. There are also third-party add-ons for Apple’s devices that also provide more granular control. It’s a non-issue.


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