There was once a legitimate need for mousepads, of course, back when mice still rolled, but that need is far less apparent today. Technology has improved, adapted, and solved many of the problems that the humble mousepad sought to fix, and yet a niche market remains — with products that promise a degree of dexterity and performance that our mice, apparently, have never before seen.
Update: We've heard from SteelSeries' chief marketing officer Kim Rom and included his comments within.
The Modern Mouse
But no longer. All the problems that once plagued yesterday's mice are thankfully absent from most modern models. We have optical and laser mice that don't even need to make contact with the surface beneath them. Most work just fine without a specialized pad or mat. Still, mousepads remain out of habit and nostalgia — a bygone ritual of the way computers used to work.
Case in point, both Microsoft and Logitech released two new technologies in previous years — BlueTrack and Darkfield technology, respectively — that aimed to make mice even more mobile. Both companies claimed to have conquered un-even or ill-fitting surfaces upon which traditional mice would otherwise fail — including surfaces like glass, that have historically caused problems with even optical and laser-based mice.
an interview with Tom's Hardware last year. "On my bedspread, my couch, even my lap. We think this is where mice are going: towards being as mobile as possible.”
And that means going beyond the mousepad.
The Modern MousepadOf course, while mice have improved, so too have the mousepads upon which they once relied. Razer is quick to point out that just because technology like Darkfield and BlueTrack exists doesn't mean the company's specialized mousepads have been rendered obsolete.
"Sure, there are mice out there that claim they can track on any surface (potato chip-crusted carpet, anyone?). But to a gamer, it's not just about being able to play on whatever surface he wants," explained Pearlyn Hoon, Razer's product evangelist for the mouse mat line, in an email.
"There's also an experiential difference between tracking on any surface and tracking on optimized surfaces that allow high-precision tracking even in a flurry of high-speed hand swipes."
"While a mouse may work on a glass table, that doesn't mean that the surface is great for mousing," agrees Kim Rom, chief marketing officer with SteelSeries. "It may give too little friction, it may be hard to start and stop accurately, and thus, the user may lose pointer precision."
However, it all comes down to personal preference; after all, there isn't a single material in the universe that will make you a better player on its own, which is why there are so many choices. A glass mat, for example, may offer a smoother tracking experience than on the surface of your cheap AANSVELF Ikea desk, but it still won't guarantee your Starcraft skills see any improvement. In fact, it's often not the materials that increase the tracking precision or efficiency of your mouse, but the rigidity and flatness of the mat itself when compared to your usual mouse surface — namely, "those small 5 inch promotional mousepads that [don't] give the hand room to maneuver," says Rom.
But therein lies the source of most consumer confusion: most consumers aren't willing to ditch those minuscule mousepads because they work. It may not work the best, but the average user is willing to settle. What's more, high-end mouse surfaces don't solve an inherent problem as with old, trackball mice, but enhance what is otherwise an already good experience. They offer value to serious gamers and high-end users because they ensure an optimum experience at all times — both in the uniformity and texture of the surface. In essence, modern day mousepads are a niche product for a niche market, priced and targeted accordingly.
"Think about how much you use a mouse. Think about how many hours a day or week you operate that device. If it was suddenly 5% easier for you to achieve pointer precision, how many hours a week would that mean less strain on your wrists?"
Still, as far as computer accessories go, there's no denying that modern mouse mats and pads are more luxury than necessity — and at comparatively high price points, it may be difficult to convince users otherwise. Simply put, your average user is unlikely to notice an appreciable difference between Steelseries' most expensive model and the glossy cover of a magazine — and in truth, they'd probably be better off with the latter. But for those who care deeply about the texture, glide and precision — and can recognize an appreciable affect on their work or gaming activities when those variables change — a modern day mousepad may be well worth the investment. Just don't get caught up in the hype.
Images via Logitech, Microsoft, Razer, and Steelseries.