Despite multi-touch screens, voice interaction, and science fiction’s promise of gestural operating environments, the primary ways we interact with computers are still through the firmly established keyboard and mouse. I’ve tested dozens of keyboards to finally find a couple I can claim to truly love, but the same level of passion has always eluded me when it came to mice. So when Logitech boldly proclaimed that they revolutionized the nearly fifty-year-old peripheral with the MX Master, I was in.
Let’s start with some highlights:
- Ergonomics. The MX Master is manufactured from an original hand-sculpted model. Its dramatically contoured shell gives your hand a comfortable platform on which to rest while placing a myriad of buttons and controls easily within reach.
- Speed-adaptive scroll wheel. Not only can you toggle between click and smooth scrolling (that’s been standard for a while on Logitech mice), but through the new “SmartShift” system, the scroll wheel can automatically shift into smooth mode when it senses that you want to scroll quickly to the top or bottom of a long document. In other words, if you scroll quickly enough, the clicking mechanism disengages, allowing the wheel to spin freely in order to get you to your destination much faster.
- Horizontal scrolling. In addition to the vertical scroll wheel between the two main buttons, there is a new thumb-operated horizontal scroll wheel on the side which offers just enough resistance for precision sideways scrolling.
- Gesture button. The ultra-modern polygonal thumb rest is also a button which can be programmed to do just about anything, but it is primarily intended for gestures. The idea is that you hold the button down (it’s sufficiently stiff so that you don’t accidentally activate it), and move the mouse in one of four directions to execute an OS-specific gesture. On Macs, it can do things like activate Mission Control, Launchpad, or virtual desktop switching; on Windows, it can simplify things like window management, navigation between apps, or media controls.
- Dual connectivity. The MX master will connect either through Bluetooth, or through Logitech’s own “Unifying” wireless technology, making it both laptop friendly, and easily compatible with those custom-built gaming PCs with no wireless capabilities.
- Multi-device support. Not only does the MX Master pair through multiple wireless protocols, but it can also pair with multiple devices. A button on the bottom of the mouse allows you to easily switch between up to three different pairings.
- Darkfield laser tracking. Like several Logitech mice before it, the MX Master uses two lasers rather than just one, allowing it to track on glossy surfaces such as glass without requiring a mouse pad.
- Rechargeable battery. Rather than using rechargeable AAs, the MX Master has an integrated rechargeable battery. They claim you can use it for up to forty days before it needs a micro USB top-off, and from what I can tell so far, that feels about right.
Now that I’ve covered the main features and promises of the MX Master, the question is whether Logitech’s new flagship pointing device actually delivers. The answer is a resounding “yes.” And “not really.” And “well…it depends.”
The Initial Mac Experience
The first thing I did with the MX Master was pair it with my MacBook Pro running 10.10.3 and install the Logitech Options application. Immediately, I was disappointed. The cursor was jerky and laggy as though the mouse and laptop were in different rooms (with a brick wall in-between) and no amount of removing, repairing, reinstalling, and rebooting would fix it. Finally I switched to connecting through the Unifying dongle, and the problem immediately disappeared. So the first thing Mac users should be aware of is that you may have to burn a USB port for the Unifying dongle to get acceptable performance. (I expect Logitech to fix this issue eventually, but if you’re a Mac user determined to connect via Bluetooth, you might want to save your receipt.)
The next disappointment was scrolling. With click scrolling enabled, documents and lists ratcheted up and down in a very non-Mac-like manner rather than flowing smoothly. Of course, that’s sort of the nature of click scrolling, so that was to be expected, but what I didn’t expect was that even with the click mechanism disengaged, scrolling wasn’t nearly as smooth or precise as with either the Magic Mouse, or with any of Apple’s trackpads. Once again, I had it emphasized to me that scrolling on OS X is designed to be done through gestures performed against static multi-touch surfaces (preferably designed by Apple) rather than third-party mechanical wheels.
The Initial Windows Experience
I found the MX Master to be much more at home on my gaming PC. Since it’s a desktop, I had plenty of free USB ports, so dedicating one of them to the Unifying dongle wasn’t a big deal (though I did find that I had to move it up to a USB port on the side of my monitor, closer to the mouse, to eliminate all perceptible lag). With the dongle plugged into the back of my PC, and my PC a couple of feet away on the floor, the signal was attenuated enough to make the pointer almost as jerky and laggy as it was on my Mac.
Click-scrolling is de facto on Windows, so I didn’t feel like I was giving up any native behavior. Once I got the SmartShift sensitivity fine-tuned, I finally started feeling like the $100 I’d dropped was a pretty good investment, after all. While I probably wouldn’t use the MX Master for gaming (I prefer a dedicated corded mouse), I’ve been using it for everything else for about two weeks now, and every time I switch back to something else to see whether or not I miss the MX Master, I find I go back to it within minutes.
The Overall Experience
The Logitech MX Master is excellent in some situations, and somewhat lacking in others. If you want to know whether or not you should give it a try, the list below should clarify how well Logitech prioritized your specific needs.
- Size and shape. The form factor of the MX Master is probably the biggest thing you should consider before picking one up. It is well contoured, supporting the hand very nicely, but it’s also really big (2″ tall and 3.4″ wide). I’ve found that its size and shape encourages “palming”—essentially draping your entire hand over it and operating it from the shoulder. If you’re accustomed to “pinching” a smaller mouse between your thumb and ring finger and pivoting on your palm as it rests on your desk, you might want to go try one out in person to see how well you adapt.
- Vertical scrolling. The scroll wheel is big, solid, and easily accessible—and most importantly, it does what it’s designed to do very well. The problem is, I don’t really like what it’s designed to do in the context of Macs. I’m so used to the ultra-smooth scrolling of the Magic Mouse and various Apple trackpads that I just don’t feel like the MX Master belongs paired with my MacBook. On Windows, however, scrolling is fantastic (I’ve compared it to the Microsoft Sculpt Comfort Mouse, and the much more basic Logitech Corded M500, and the MX Master is far superior to both). The speed-adaptive (aka “SmartShift”) system might seem like a gimmick at first, but I adapted to it quickly and missed it after switching to other mice.
- Horizontal scrolling. The MX Master’s horizontal scroll wheel is perhaps its best feature. If you do a lot of audio and/or video editing (anything where you’re interacting with a long, horizontal timeline), or if you’re a Trello or TweekDeck power user (apps with horizontally oriented layouts), then I would definitely encourage you to at least take the MX Master for a spin. In fact, it’s so good that even if you only need it occasionally for producing the odd podcast or YouTube video, it might be worth keeping paired and set aside on standby in order to make those editing sessions much more productive and enjoyable.
- Forward and back buttons. As a counterbalance to the excellent horizontal scroll wheel, I present the nearly useless forward and back buttons. The reality is that Logitech simply ran out of space on the chassis of the MX Master and now the forward and back buttons have to suffer. I’ve gotten to where I can find and hit the back button pretty reliably (easily the more useful of the two), but the action introduces just enough uncertainty that I’m usually as tempted to click a virtual button as grope for the physical analogs.
- Gestures. I like the MX Master’s gesture capabilities, though I find I don’t use them much. I think it’s more useful on Macs if you’re into things like Mission Control, Launchpad, or multiple desktops (none of which I use on a regular basis). On my PC, I have it configured for window management (snapping, maximizing, and showing the desktop), but since I use keyboard shortcuts for all those things, I find I seldom remember that my mouse can do them, as well. The gesture button might prove most useful mapped to something else (like back).
- Logitech Options. If you buy the MX Master, you’ll definitely want to install the Logitech Options application. It’s one of the best third party hardware configuration utility I’ve ever used. Not only does it offer a very high level of customization, but it’s also intuitive, nicely designed, and it allows you to opt into software and firmware update notifications, as well as low battery warnings. It’s also very cool to tweak settings like SmartShift sensitivity and see how software can affect the operation of a mechanical component. Very slick engineering indeed.
If you’re looking for a quick answer as to whether or not you should buy the MX Master, here’s all you need to know:
- Are you left-handed? Forget it. The MX Master is designed to be used with your right hand. I would recommend assembling your fellow southpaws and filing an anti-discrimination, class-action lawsuit.
- Are you a child or an adult with child-sized hands? Don’t buy it. The MX Master will make you feel like a hobbit.
- Are you a Mac user who does very little audio or video editing? You probably don’t want it. You’ll find little advantage beyond the intriguing design of the polygonal thumb rest and subtle but classy gold trim.
- Are you a Mac user who does a fair amount of audio or video editing? Sure, pick one up. Keep it paired alongside your Apple pointing device of choice. Reach for it whenever your timeline grows beyond the width of your monitor and bask in the power of a very well-engineered, dedicated, horizontal scroll wheel.
- Are you a Windows user? Buy one promptly and without hesitation. As long as you’re OK with the size, I don’t think you can do any better right now than the new Logitech MX Master.