Supercharge Your Mac’s Peripherals with USB Overdrive

Apple undoubtedly make some of the best keyboards, mice and trackpads that money can buy. Their Magic Trackpad is perhaps more a work of art than it is an input device. For those of us who, for one reason or another, prefer to use devices from companies other than Apple then you may find your options limited due to poor driver support or lack of customisation.

USB Overdrive has been around since the days of Mac OS X Jaguar, over ten years ago, and provides a whole suite of controls for customising your input devices. I spend some time with the app to see just how much we can tame our USB input devices.

Going into Overdrive

The Mac already works with almost any USB input device that you can think of, from mouse to keypad to fully-fledged game controller – whether or not the device states it is Mac compatible. I’ve used PC keyboards and unbranded mice over the years and OS X has never had a problem, always doing its best to manage these devices. The Mac will usually assign the necessary functions to each of the buttons and wheels automatically but when it comes to extra buttons, you’re usually limited to simply controlling certain aspects of Mission Control.

USB Overdrive offers a level of customisation that goes far beyond anything provided by OS X or indeed any software driver package. Designed to work with any standards-compliant USB input device, meaning that for most devices you’d not even need to install any additional software to start using it.

USB Overdrive includes a wide array of settings, controls and customisation options for most USB input devices.

USB Overdrive includes a wide array of settings, controls and customisation options for most USB input devices.

Everything but the Kitchen Sink

USB Overdrive has a wide range of controls and customisability depending on the input device you’re wanting to configure. During my testing, I used a HP wireless mouse which has a number of additional buttons as well as a scroll wheel that is not only a button in itself but also features left and right navigation buttons. To better understand which buttons are which in terms of their numbering, you can press each button within the app which then highlights the relevant button in the list, allowing it to be customised.

Simply click a button or move a scroll wheel for USB Overdrive to detect it.

Simply click a button or move a scroll wheel for USB Overdrive to detect it.

OS X can only really let you assign Mission Control functions to mouse buttons but USB Overdrive can do far, far more. You can have the button press a keyboard key, do an automatic double-click, launch an app and even execute keyboard shortcuts. As an example, I have Alfred launch whenever I press a specific button on my mouse so that I can launch it from either the mouse or keyboard.

I use a shortcut button on my mouse to launch Alfred.

I use a shortcut button on my mouse to launch Alfred.

With regards the scroll wheel and movement of the mouse, you can also change its tracking speed and acceleration far more granularly than you can do with OS X alone and even control exactly how the scroll wheel works.

Accessibility

From an accessibility standpoint, USB Overdrive can give far more control to those Mac users with limited mobility as it opens up a whole world of USB devices that may have been overlooked previously due to a lack of Mac support. Whilst OS X includes what I consider to be the best support for accessible devices in any operating system, being able to customise them even further and assign very specific functions that OS X wouldn’t otherwise be able to do only adds to the Mac’s usefulness when it comes to users who need additional support.

Global Superpower

Customisation can be set globally so that any type of input device you connect will use the same buttons and shortcuts that you’ve created or you can set the settings to only apply to one specific device. If you’re using a MacBook Pro and have a different mouse at home and work then you may want different shortcuts.

Creating new settings based upon specific hardware lets you create custom "profiles" just for a specific device.

Creating new settings based upon specific hardware lets you create custom “profiles” just for a specific device.

Whilst USB Overdrive offers this feature, it’s slightly let down by the lack of help and the online documentation could be better since a novice user might not immediately know that any changes they make would apply to any device.

Gaming

The Mac is enjoying somewhat of a renaissance thanks to the Mac App Store and Steam with more people than ever before playing games on their Mac. Unfortunately, gaming is still woefully supported and unlike many games on the PC that support gamepads and joysticks natively, the Mac doesn’t have this luxury.

Casual gamers will be pleased to know that USB Overdrive’s support of USB devices includes many USB gamepads and joysticks, all of which can be customised to allow them to control many of your games. Instead of the game requiring support, simply assign keyboard commands to your gamepad’s buttons and directional controls so platformers such as Braid can then be played with a controller instead of the keyboard.

USB Overdrive supports many USB gaming devices which will let you get more out of your Mac games.

USB Overdrive supports many USB gaming devices which will let you get more out of your Mac games.

For die-hard gamers who insist that a keyboard and mouse is the only way to go, USB Overdrive allows for the use of USB number pads to be set with shortcuts to frequently used gaming triggers such as action buttons.

Caveats

USB Overdrive supports standards-compliant devices, of which many input devices on the market do as well. Unfortunately, companies such as Logitech use proprietary software that acts as a middle-man between the input device and the Mac, meaning USB Overdrive can’t detect what buttons or keys are pressed. Both my Logitech K750 keyboard and M570 trackball couldn’t be customised due to the way Logitech implement their software. This isn’t a fault of USB Overdrive by any stretch though I would recommend testing the trial version that’s available thoroughly before you make a purchase, since there is no guarantee every device will be supported.

Likewise, those thinking they can extend their Apple Magic Mouse and Trackpad further with some of the great features of USB Overdrive will be disappointed as they are unable to be fully supported due to some of Apple’s private APIs.

Conclusion

USB Overdrive is an excellent utility and whilst I can’t use it with my own preferred keyboard and trackball, I do still use it whenever I’m in the mood to play a game on my Mac. For many who find that their preferred choice of keyboard and mouse lacks any decent support then USB Overdrive is a worthwhile utility to consider.

Being able to launch apps, keyboard shortcuts and AppleScript from the press of a button or click of the mouse can prove very useful to a power user. For casual gamers, USB Overdrive’s ability to map the same types of commands to gamepads makes it a great tool to have when it’s game time.


Summary

An extremely useful utility that provides enhanced customisation of USB input devices. The user guide could be improved and there are some edge cases where certain devices just won't work but a free trial will let you try before you buy.

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