iPhone Gems: Every iPhone/iPod touch Mouse and Trackpad App, Reviewed
Ready for a surprise? You can now use your iPhone or iPod touch as a wireless mouse, trackpad, or keyboard for your desktop computer. While these types of apps have been tried before on other PDA-style devices, Apple’s multi-touch interface and accelerometer make the iPhone and iPod touch much more natural fits for these types of applications. We’re reviewing all of the mouse and trackpad apps here today.
All of these applications use a Wi-Fi connection to your computer rather than Bluetooth, since only the iPhone models support Bluetooth, and then, without profiles that would allow for iPhone-to-computer access. Since neither Windows nor Mac OS X have built-in support for Wi-Fi mice and keyboards, it is important to note that all of these applications require the download and installation of a companion desktop application to communicate with your iPhone or iPod touch over Wi-Fi. The desktop application is provided free of charge by the developers of each of these applications that we’ve reviewed today, but many of these utilities are thus limited to only a single operating system, as their developers support only one platform or the other. If you’re a Mac user, skip right to Snatch, but if you need an app for PCs, you’ll want to check out Air Mouse and iTap first.
Snatch ($7) is a Mac-only application specifically designed for OS X 10.5 Leopard, although a 10.4 Tiger version of the desktop application is also available. Snatch is also unique in that the developer also offers a free version, SnatchTest, with limited functionality. The free version is basically intended to allow you to test the application and ensure that it works to your expectations before spending $7 on the full version.
In addition to standard touchpad controls, including two-fingered scrolling and tap-and-drag support, Snatch also offers more advanced multi-touch features such as window resizing—handled in the same manner as zooming a photo—and screen zoom capabilities, by triple-tapping and dragging up and down. Snatch offers a set of built-in tips to describe its functionality and get you started.
In addition to the tracking pad, Snatch also offers a dedicated scrolling pad mode, which can be used just for scrolling, though two-fingered scrolling is also supported in normal mouse-tracking mode. Unique in the scrolling mode is the ability to adjust the setting for either linear scrolling or iPod Click Wheel-style circular scrolling. Scrolling can be configured as either iPhone-style—move your fingers up to scroll down—or MacBook-style, where upward finger movements scroll up.
A keyboard mode is also included to send any keystroke from your iPhone or iPod touch to the host computer. The keyboard offers support for both the standard QWERTY and number-pad views, as well as providing its own keypad for function keys and other extended keys. Typing in Snatch is buffered with a configurable delay before entered text is sent to the host computer, allowing text to be viewed and edited on-screen. Unfortunately, the device’s own built-in autocorrect feature is not available while typing in this delayed mode.
Additionally, Snatch provides the unique ability to define your own custom shortcut buttons, containing recorded key sequences right within the app itself. The button editor is quite well designed, with options to allow you to manually name, resize and even change button colors, and lay your buttons out in whatever pattern you like. You can even have up to four pages of shortcut buttons.
Basic configuration settings for each mode can be accessed by tapping on the mode button a second time. This allows for the adjustment of features like tracking speed, friction and inertia, as well as configuring the number of mouse buttons and where they are displayed in tracking view, enabling the circular scrolling feature in the scrollpad view, or toggling between the QWERTY and numeric keypads and setting the keyboard delay in keyboard view.
Snatch stores its more advanced configuration settings in the main device Settings application; from here you can adjust settings to turn on and off the various tapping and scrolling features. Snatch can also be used in either portrait or landscape mode dynamically, based on the device’s orientation, or locked to use only one mode.
On the Mac OS X side, Snatch is a standalone application that runs in the dock and menu bar by default, although you can disable the dock icon, and offers settings for optional password-based Wi-Fi security, notification at startup, and a few other minor configuration options. Most notable, however, is the “Bounce mouse pointer off screen edges” setting, which will basically bounce the pointer back toward the center of the screen whenever you hit the screen edge, helping you to avoid “losing” the mouse pointer through over-aggressive motions.
Snatch is one of the most versatile and full-featured applications we’ve reviewed, with a variety of different and thoughtful mouse modes that work very well. In addition to a wide variety of multi-touch trackpad features, its ability to set up sophisticated keyboard macros is a huge bonus, and this is implemented in a very straightforward yet powerful way. While it’s unfortunate for Windows users that this application is Mac-only, the developer indicates that it is working on a Windows version. Even though this is the most expensive mouse app we’ve reviewed, the feature set it offers puts it well above the rest. iLounge rating: A-.
Air Mouse ($6) is the most unique mouse application we’ve seen in that it provides not only a standard touchscreen mouse control, similar to what you would find on a MacBook touchpad, but also has an “air motion” feature that makes use of the iPhone or iPod touch accelerometer to allow you to control the mouse pointer by moving the device through the air.
The touchpad mode works much like you would expect: you move your finger over the touchscreen surface and the mouse pointer on your computer responds accordingly. Left- and right-click are handled by tapping on the appropriate side of the screen, and a scrolling button is provided in the center of the screen to simulate a scrollwheel. The scrolling in this case, however, actually works by starting on the scroll button, at which point you can drag your finger to any point on the screen—even outside of the scroll button—to simulate a multi-directional scrollwheel. It’s like an Apple Mighty Mouse.
More interesting, however, is the air motion mode, which is activated by tapping a button in the top-right of the screen. In this mode, you control your computer’s mouse pointer through the use of the iPhone’s accelerometer. Unlike a traditional mouse, you do not slide your iPhone horizontally around your desk to control the mouse pointer, but rather move the iPhone in three dimensions, a bit more like a pointer than a mouse in concept. This style of control is necessary since the iPhone’s accelerometer cannot differentiate horizontal motions, but only changes in orientation. The actual pointer control takes some getting used to, but actually works quite well with some practice. The developer’s web site also provides some good instructions to explain how different mouse movements are accomplished in this mode.
Note as well that in air motion mode, the pointer only moves when you actually hold down a “trigger” button located at the top center of your screen. This allows you to easily re-orient your iPhone—conceptually similar to picking up your mouse and readjusting it on your mouse pad—and also prevents unintentional pointer movement. In air motion mode, left and right mouse buttons are still available, of course, as well as the same scroll button “wheel” as in touch motion mode.
A keyboard is visible below the mousing area at all times. This can be used as your computer’s keyboard, with the usual modifier keys for your OS shown directly above the keyboard. Keys pressed on the keyboard are immediately sent to the host computer, and therefore the iPhone’s auto-correction feature is not available when typing. This makes the keyboard useful for sending control keys and responding to dialog boxes, but considerably less practical for actually typing sentences. Further, since the keyboard remains displayed even in touch mode, it reduces the available touchpad space, since unlike the scrolling feature, the mouse will not track when you move your finger down into the keyboard area.
It should also be noted that Air Mouse is one of only two of the applications we’ve seen with a desktop application for both Mac OS X and Windows. The desktop application is a fairly straightforward install on Mac OS X. On Windows, the Microsoft .NET framework will need to be installed if it is not already on your computer. Once installed, the application runs in the menu bar (Mac) or system tray (Windows), and from there you can bring up a list of application settings where you can adjust tracking, scrolling speeds and acceleration individually for both air motion and touch motion modes.
Air Mouse is a reasonably polished and useful mouse application that works as designed, offering a reasonable level of configuration adjustments—this is particularly important for Mac users as the mouse settings at the OS level do not apply to any of the iPhone/iPod touch mouse applications. The air motion feature is definitely interesting, and may be particularly of use to those who are interested in using their iPhones for larger-screen presentation purposes, as it seems to fit this style of use quite naturally. About the only serious deficiency we noted was that the application provides no security, which means that you would need to be careful about leaving it running on your computer when you are not actively using it, as anybody else with the Air Mouse application installed would be able to take control of your computer remotely, possibly even from quite a distance over Wi-Fi. iLounge rating: B+.
iTap ($2) is a considerably simpler application than Air Mouse, but shares the advantage of being available for both Mac OS X and Windows. Unlike AirMouse, iTap provides only mousing capabilities with no keyboard support at all. Starting iTap on the iPhone presents a basic screen that’s used in landscape mode with some instructions for various mouse movements. Good use is made of the multi-touch interface here with support for two-finger scrolling and single-button right-click, similar to the MacBook touchpad.
Settings for iTap can be found under the iPhone/iPod touch Settings application, and provide the ability to choose screen orientation, as well as whether or not a one-button or two-button mouse is used. Scrolling, pointer speeds and other typical mouse settings can also be adjusted from here.
The iTap desktop application is extremely straightforward, with only a standard option for “pairing” your device with your computer. When both the device and desktop applications are running, your iPhone or iPod touch will appear in a list of devices, which you must then select and “pair” before the device can be used to control your computer. Once the pairing is complete, the iTap window and be closed and you will not need to pair again unless you change devices. This provides a reasonable level of security against unauthorized access to your computer by other iTap users, while not being needlessly intrusive.
The iTap desktop application runs in the menu bar on Mac OS X, or in the system tray on Windows. One additional bonus with iTap is that it provides both a Windows installed version and a Windows portable version of the application, allowing iTap to be easily run on any Windows XP or Vista PC, even if the user does not have admin privileges. In fact, iTap for Windows can be easily run from a USB memory key. Like most Mac OS X applications, iTap for Mac is portable by its very nature.
iTap is a single-purpose application designed to work solely as a mouse extension with no other extended features, however it is quite elegant in its simplicity and very reasonably priced. Further, its cross-platform support and standalone Windows application make it very useful for those users who work with a variety of different computers. iLounge rating: B.
WiFiTouchPad ($3) is another Windows-only entry in the mouse applications category, providing very basic and straightforward mouse and keyboard capabilities in a simple no-frills application package. WiFiTouchPad basically has two screen modes, with one for mousing and the other for keyboard text entry. Tapping on the button located in the top-right corner toggles between the two modes.
The application is cleanly designed and does what it’s intended to do, with three-button mouse support and two-fingered vertical scrolling, but lacks tap-and-drag support, requiring two hands to be used for dragging. Further, it offers no other configuration options on either the desktop or the iPhone side, although to be fair, unlike Mac OS X, Windows Mouse Settings do apply to third-party mouse applications such as these, making specific mouse speed adjustment controls unnecessary. About the only notable feature is that the text entry is buffered similarly to pearPad’s, allowing the iPhone or iPod touch autocorrect feature to be used and text to be edited/corrected on the device itself before being sent to the host computer. Beyond that, this $3 application offers little else of interest; it also doesn’t offer a security feature. iLounge rating: C.
Jens Henneberg’s WinRemote ($2) is another basic application similar to WiFiTouchPad, and differs primarily in that the developer officially offers support for all versions of Windows back to and including Windows 95, and that the desktop application runs as a standalone app.
The iPhone OS application runs only in landscape mode, providing a three-button mouse and a separate horizontal scroll bar at the right-hand side, but no tap-and-drag capabilities—again, it requires two-handed operation for dragging. Basic direct entry keyboard support is also included.
WinRemote’s mouse buttons, scroll area, and keyboard button can be toggled on or off in the application’s settings.
This application provides security in the form of requiring desktop authorization each time a new device connects to the PC. Allow and deny lists are maintained by IP address, so if your iPhone or iPod touch IP address changes, or you’re working on a different network, you may need to re-approve the connection each time.
It should also be noted that WinRemote was the only application that we reviewed that did not provide an auto-discovery option for the iPhone or iPod touch to locate the running desktop application. Instead, the user is required to enter the IP address of the computer that they want to connect to. The address is saved on the device for future sessions, but of course will need to be re-entered should the computer’s address change in the future. Henneberg’s desktop application conveniently lists the IP addresses at the top of the window, but this is still an extra step that some users may find unnecessary. We’re inclined to agree given all of the other apps that handle this process transparently.
The desktop application also provides the ability to adjust the mouse acceleration, which is handy although not strictly necessary, since Windows, unlike Mac OS X, will apply the Mouse Control Panel settings to third-party mouse applications.
For $2, WinRemote isn’t a bad solution, but doesn’t really offer anything remarkable beyond its low price tag. iLounge rating: C.
pearPad ($4) is a Mac-only application, with separate desktop applications for Tiger and Leopard. On the iPhone/iPod touch side, pearPad is fairly plain, with a basic black screen that acts as a touchpad, plus the left and right buttons down at the bottom left corner of the screen.
In addition, Pad and Text buttons allow you to bring up either a set of app-specific keypads, or the standard keyboard.
pearPad’s keyboard support is nice in that it actually supports autocorrect by allowing you to enter all of your text on the device and then tap the “Send” button to transfer the text buffer to your computer. On the other hand, the Pad mode can be useful for sending keyboard shortcuts, but doesn’t seem to serve much useful purpose otherwise.
Mouse control, on the other hand, is a bit of a mixed bag. Moving the mouse pointer works well enough, and you can tap to left-click and do two-fingered scrolling; however, dragging requires two-fingered operation as you must hold down the “Left” button while moving your finger along the actual screen. Further, although the desktop application offers support for “mouse gestures,” in our own experience these could easily get in the way of normal mouse operation—they trigger gesture-based operations while simply trying to move the mouse pointer. Further, these gestures can be redefined for just about any key, but they cannot be turned off.
pearPad works as designed without any serious issues, but for its $4 price tag it seems to lack the intuitive usability and polish that one should expect from an app of this nature. It also lacks for Wi-Fi security. iLounge rating: C-.
Qwasi’s QwasiPad ($1) is a Windows-only application that offers both mouse and keyboard support, as well as providing a fair number of options and customization features. Unfortunately, the design of this application feels a bit cumbersome and unpolished. When you first install and start the application, rather than being taken through a configuration screen, you are simply told to go to the iPhone’s “Settings” application.
From the settings screen, you can either type in the IP address of your host computer, or turn on auto-config. A number of other mouse-related functions can also be configured from within this screen.
The mouse-related features of QwasiPad work well enough, with standard pointer navigation features and a scrolling area at the right-hand side of the mouse pad that can be used as a single-fingered scroll area, similar to those found on many Windows notebooks. You can also choose whether to show or hide the mouse buttons. Further, QwasiPad provides tap-and-drag support, and a unique “Whip Click” feature that can simulate a left or right mouse button press simply by moving the iPhone rapidly upward with a flick of the wrist.
In the keyboard portion of QwasiPad, however, things get a little bit more chaotic. Both landscape and portrait views are supported using the accelerometer, although the screen layouts differ significantly in each orientation. For example, in landscape mode, the normal on-device keyboard is selected by tapping the full, email or num buttons at the top of the screen to bring up the appropriate keyboard. However, in portrait orientation, these buttons are not shown and must instead be accessed by tapping the gear icon at the top-left corner of the screen. In addition, the buttons displayed on screen vary widely between the two orientations, and the keyboard generally hides other keys when displayed. In portrait orientation this can actually be cumbersome, as the keyboard is not easily hidden or displayed—the user must tap the gear button to bring up the pull-down keyboard menu, and then tap either the button for the keyboard they want, or the hide button to hide it completely. A simple toggle option, as is used in landscape mode, would be much more straightforward here.
The Windows application side is relatively straightforward, allowing you to change the IP address and port number used for communication with your PC, as well as specifying a host PIN for security purposes.
Even for a $1 app, QwasiPad feels a bit too basic and unfinished to us, and even though it’s the most inexpensive app in this category, there are better apps available for only $1-$2 more. This is a case of getting what you pay for. iLounge rating: C-.
Pad ($1) is an application that we felt was worth mentioning for the sake of completeness, but has actually ceased development as an official application. The version of Pad v1.0 available on the App Store has been superseded by a v1.5 version which is being distributed outside of the App Store, and now only available for jailbroken iPhones. What this means, unfortunately, is that you can wind up paying for the App Store version 1.0—as we did—then find that it doesn’t work properly, and that your only solution is to jailbreak your iPhone.
The v1.0 version was unstable and did not appear to work as designed on either of our test iPhone v2.1 units: it often displayed a grey screen but no other user interface. Using this grey screen as a touchpad seemed to work, but other types of button and keyboard support that the application was supposed to include did not show up anywhere. We suspect that this application may have some v2.1 related issues, and while it is certainly likely that v1.5 has fixed any problems, the version we paid for appears to be unsupported.
As the developer has cited frustration with Apple as a reason for discontinuing support for this paid app, it should pull the app so that people aren’t disappointed with purchasing an improperly functioning download with no possibility of any official upgrade path. iLounge rating: F.
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