I’ve long been a fan of spaceball type products. I’ve owned several, from the old 2000 and 3000 series, and what I have to review today is the 3Dconnexion SpaceMouse Pro. I emailed 3Dconnexion and asked for a review unit. These guys have always been pretty liberal with their publicity programs. They are one of those companies that gives a lot of devices away at user group meetings as well. While I was talking with them about a review unit, I asked some questions about the company. Specifically, the company had been owned for a few years by Logitech, the general peripheral giant. But I had noticed recently that all 3Dconnexion devices on the Logitech site were listed as “legacy”. When I asked about company ownership, I got the answer “3Dconnexion was acquired in 2011 by a private investor that focuses on specialized companies with unique IP.” Good enough. It was a little disappointing, since I’ve long been on a quest for helpful CAD-specific mice, which I thought Logitech might be able to help with. CAD-specific hardware is one of those “be careful what you ask for” sort of deals, because with the direction of most computing devices, CAD is going to be left out of the mainstream very quickly. I’m also a big Logitech fan, with Logitech keyboard and mice. 3Dconnexion stuff has always also been well-built, solid stuff, made with great materials and sturdy construction.
When I was asking for the review device, I asked for what I thought was the top-of-the-line device, the SpacePilot Pro. It has a nice color LCD display, and a cool look. But 3Dconnexion didn’t really want to talk about that, and kept steering me toward the SpaceMouse Pro. The difference between the devices is about $100 retail, the ‘Mouse lacks the color LCD, and there is a more radial layout to the ‘Mouse, which I do like better. I’m a little curious why they didn’t want to send out a top-end device other than maybe they see more sales from the ‘Mouse than the ‘Pilot, or maybe they are getting ready to redesign the SpacePilot Pro.
I think these devices have always looked good. I love that every new version has an interesting take on the ergonomics issue. These have always made great modeling and rendering projects too. I have an older SpacePilot on my desk, with most of the same buttons that the ‘Mouse has. On the newer generations of products, they have that blue glow from under the puck that also adds to the visual appeal.
Anyway, so I have this SpaceMouse Pro on my desk. If you are familiar with other models, there is much to like about the device. The first thing you notice is that it is weighty. It holds itself down to your desk without the need for additional mats or worry that it will lift off even in your most passionate modeling sessions.
The next thing you notice is the gorgeous shape, and the radial layout of the controls. The controls are all centered on your hand placement. On some previous models, such as the SpacePilot and SpacePilot Pro, you get a more rectangular layout of the buttons. I do like the radial layout better, since it seems more ergonomic.
Material quality is another thing that you will take notice of on these devices. The center wrist pad and the puck itself are all finished with a luxuriously touchable soft touch material. This is a primary appeal for these devices, even apart from the actual function of controlling 3D displays and the location of objects in 3D space, just the materials used in 3Dconnexion’s products have always drawn me to them.
In actual use, there isn’t really much to compare these things to. You could compare view rotation with what you can do with a regular desktop mouse, but the ability to control the view with one hand while making selections with the other hand is something you have to experience for yourself if you haven’t already. I turn the sensitivity way up on mine, to make the display react quickly to small inputs. With a spaceball, you just cruise around your model fluidly.
For people who are used to visualization in 3D, it shouldn’t take much if any effort to get used to using a spaceball. They pretty much work the way you think, controlling all 6 degrees of freedom. You can also limit it to just changing along one axis at a time, for example, only rotating about X, then move along Y, and so forth. It eliminates most of the finger dances you have to do on a standard mouse to drag with various buttons held down, and such. I use my spaceball in connection with a Kensington trackball, which gives me a very ergonomic work area.
But rotating the display is not the only thing you can use a spaceball for. You can also move individual parts in the assembly with it, or move views on a drawing, or even scroll the FeatureManager with it. The software makes it a very versatile device. And it’s not just limited to working with SolidWorks. I’ve used mine with Solid Edge, Autodesk products, Sketchup, Rhino, and I’m sure many other 3D software products. Beyond the 3D capabilities, something I don’t use as much as I should is the selection of buttons around the puck. You’ve got standard view buttons for Top, Front, Left and Right, as well as a dedicated Zoom to Fit button. It has standard keyboard modifier keys ESC, Shift, Ctrl, and Alt, as well as a button the brings up the 3Dconnexion menu, and four programmable buttons.
Most of the time I just use the puck, but would like to get in the habit of using some of the other buttons on the device. When I’m running CAD, I usually have my right hand on my trackball, and my left hand moving between the spaceball and hovering over the ESC key. I need to get in the habit of using the ESC key on the spaceball. This would start saving me more time. My SpacePilot has 6 programmable buttons, which can be mapped to software specific or Windows commands. I love mice with programmable buttons. I think more than anything, maybe this review will revive my interest in programmable input gadgets. I’ll definitely start using the modifier keys and the view orientation buttons more frequently on my device.
There are a couple of things that I don’t like about the software. The first is that the SolidWorks “Previous View” function doesn’t see the spaceball moves. So if you change the view with the device, the last view you can go back to is the last one you changed from with the mouse or the keyboard. The second thing is that from time to time I’ll use it to move a part that is in the correct location, but not mated. This leaves the part in a wonky position, and the Undo command doesn’t work to get it back. This one is probably the biggest problem, because there is literally nothing you can do, aside from reloading the model, or re-mating the part back into place (if that is even an option). You can turn off the ability to move parts in an assembly, when it happens, it’s just an accident, or I’m not paying attention. Maybe they could include an option in the software maybe triggered by a button on the device for a “3Dconnection Previous View” or something. Plus, I really like the new “rotate about floor” option in SolidWorks, which I wish 3Dconnexion could copy in their software.
The SpaceMouse Pro sells for $299, and the SpacePilot Pro for $399. I’ve used the smaller SpaceNavigator (puck only), which sells for $99, but found that I really liked having the entire device. Anyway, these are great devices.