Apple makes some of the best input devices on the market, from the aluminum keyboard to the Magic Trackpad - but they aren’t for everyone. I’m going to show you a few ways to configure and use alternative input devices on your Mac.
Why Would I Want To Use an Alternative Keyboard and Mouse?
Good question! The Apple keyboards, mice and trackpads are very, very good and well-built. However, you may find them uncomfortable to use. There is no such thing as a keyboard or mouse that everyone can use comfortably. As Apple only makes one type of keyboard, two types of mouse and a trackpad, not everyone will be able to use them.
Your Mac is capable of using almost any USB or Bluetooth input device. If it’s a keyboard or mouse, your Mac can start using it straight away - just connect it. This means that pretty much any keyboard or mouse on the market can be used. Prefer using a gaming keyboard or mouse? Have a really old mouse you just find more comfortable to use? Feel free!
Some keyboards and mice offer more features than Apple’s. Whether this is additional keys such as a numeric keypad (Apple’s wireless keyboard does not include one) or a mouse with additional buttons, sometimes it’s beneficial to look around.
Repetitive Strain Injury (RSI)
RSI is caused by - you guessed it - repetitive movements. You may experience symptoms such as shooting pains in your hands and arms. Ideally, your keyboard and mouse purchase should be based on this consideration.
There is no such thing as a keyboard or mouse that everyone can use comfortably.
There are various causes of RSI, including posture when at your desk as well as the position you are in when typing. A way to ensure you’re always in a comfortable position when typing is to ensure your wrist height is at or below your elbow height - and never have your wrists bent towards you. Other methods including changing your keyboard to an ergonomic one, such as many of the ones Microsoft manufactures.
Many people develop RSI in the hand they move the mouse with. The same advice for wrist position applies to mice as to keyboards.
As much as Bluetooth has progressed, it’s still not absolutely 100% reliable for input devices. For the most part, it’s pretty awesome! No dongles, no cables - just pair and go. However, Bluetooth is prone to interference from other devices as well as wireless networks (they operate on the same frequencies). Additionally, when battery levels start to go, you get all sorts of problems disconnecting.
Some manufacturers such as Logitech provide their own USB dongles for their wireless input devices.
Using Alternative Input Devices
I’m going to let you in on a secret, I don’t use an Apple keyboard or mouse. I actually quite dislike the Magic Mouse and have found it a terrible mouse for me to use. My keyboard and mouse (actually it’s a trackball) are Logitech, specifically the K750 Solar Keyboard and the M570 trackball. I used to get pain in my mouse hand fairly frequently but since switching to the trackball as my primary mouse, I never do.
So why did I go for these two devices? Simple: they are comfortable for me to use and also have more features. With any input device you want to use that isn’t Apple branded, there may be some setup required to have them work fully.
For: Windows PC keyboards, any mouse
Most of the best keyboards around are unfortunately PC-based. However, there’s absolutely no difference between a PC keyboard and a Mac keyboard other than the key labels and some slight positioning. Before I purchased my Logitech keyboard, I was using a Microsoft Ergonomic keyboard.
OS X includes support to configure these types of keyboards and is able to determine which keyboard type you’re using as soon as you plug it in.
Once OS X has configured the keyboard, it’s ready to go. What you’ll find is that you might want to remap those Alt and Windows keys. On a PC, the Alt key is located on the right-side of the left Windows key. On a Mac, the Alt key is located on the left side of the Command key. These special keys are called Modifier keys and their behavior can be altered in System Preferences under Keyboard.
Apple’s keyboard layouts are all variants of the standard US layout. If, like me, you live in the UK, then you’ll find PC keyboards here use the standard ISO layout for British English. While it doesn’t really matter why, what does matter is that some keys are located in different places.
You’ve probably seen this when you’ve been using a PC and tried to send an email. In the UK, the @ symbol is located above the right shift key. On a Mac, just like the ISO standard for the US, it’s on the number 2 key. If you decide to use a PC keyboard and are not located in the US, be prepared to make a few errors when typing!
Customizing your mouse is a lot simpler as you can just go to Mouse in System Preferences and select what you’d like the left and right button to do. For mice with additional buttons and features, you will probably need to check out 3rd party software from either the manufacturer or take a look at USB Overdrive, which is found a little later in this article.
Logitech Control Center
For: Logitech Mac Input Devices
Cost: Free for Logitech Device Users
Logitech include a download link with their devices to download software if you are using wireless devices such as a wireless keyboard or mouse.
Logitech uses a wireless system called Unify. As their devices aren’t Bluetooth and come with a USB dongle, you don’t need to use a dongle for each device. Instead, the Unify Receiver will allow pairing with up to 6 devices at once. As I have a Logitech keyboard and trackball, I only use one Unify Receiver.
There’s also the ability to customize additional buttons if your device includes them. So on my trackball, I have the middle button show my Desktop, and the up/down buttons go forward and back in the Finder and Safari.
For: Most 3rd Party Input Devices
USB Overdrive is a fantastic 3rd party app that can detect almost any USB input device. It also supports Bluetooth pointing devices. From USB Overdrive’s website:
The USB Overdrive is a device driver for Mac OS X that handles any USB mouse / trackball / joystick / gamepad / media keyboard and any Bluetooth mouse from any manufacturer and lets you configure them either globally or on a per-application, per-device basis.
It’s been around since the days of OS9 and has allowed users to really fine-tune their input device. If you wish to use the additional media keys that your 3rd-party keyboard might have, USB Overdrive can do that for you. For any 3rd-party pointing device, you can customize it’s speed, acceleration and buttons.
To customize each button, simply click the button you want to customize while in USB Overdrive. It will then know and highlight that button for you to modify. You can even assign keyboard shortcuts or open applications with the click of a button.
Using something other than Apple’s own input devices is not only possible, but simple! OS X includes support for most devices, in addition to the software available for managing input devices. If you’ve got any suggestions for alternative input devices to the Apple branded ones or have experience using other software, let us know in the comments.