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Why we don't want the trackball to die


Kensington Expert Trackball

OPINION: Use and manufacture of trackballs is in a downward spiral, but Simon Osborne-Walker believes it would be a tragedy if this mouse alternative became extinct.

If there's one thing that'll make a friend or colleague recoil in horror, it's replacing your computer mouse with an alien input device.

Honestly, stick a trackball on your desk and ask someone to try using your computer. They'll unsuspectingly reach their hand out, maybe nudge the whole trackball unit across the desk or – heaven forbid – brush a finger against that gleaming sphere, and it'll be like they've been bitten by a snake. "What the...?"

And that, sadly, is as close as most people will get to using my favourite input device. You don’t know what you’re missing. And you may never get the chance to find out.

There’s less than a handful of manufacturers still rolling out the humble trackball, and even the most committed among them, Kensington, seems to be losing interest. Its last trackball innovation came in 2009 with the introduction of the high-end SlimBlade, and even that was panned at the time for using outdated software. Thankfully Kensington’s since sorted that problem.

So what is it I love about trackballs?

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Commodore Amiga mouse

Like most children of the 8-bit and 16-bit eras, I cut my teeth on boxy beige mice that trundled around on dust-collecting rubber balls and constantly snagged on the mat, causing untold Amiga-driven sprites to die an untimely accidental death. We didn't know any better. My first optical mouse was a revelation, and even smelled more like the future. The cable still snagged, but at least I didn't have to dismantle it every two days to pick fluff from its innards.

Then, about 10 years ago, I reached the pinnacle: an ergonomic Microsoft wireless mouse with a scrollwheel and its own charging dock. I'd made it. It couldn't be long before I was traversing Mayfair in a limo, sticking my head through the roof and dousing myself with champagne, like every decent successful person has a right to do.

But, within weeks, I started experiencing a pain shooting through my arm. I felt like Peter Duncan getting scorpion-stabbed by the wood beast in Flash Gordon. And that pain returned every single day after.

I tried different mice, wrist rests, changed my arm position, but nothing worked. It was like I was suddenly allergic to mice.

Then a friend donated me a Kensington Expert trackball – and I've been on a roll ever since.

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Kensington Expert Trackball

It's a shame, really, that it took RSI for me to even consider using a trackball. What I discovered was a more precise pointing device that made it easier than ever for me to perform fiddly selections in Photoshop or to drag items across large expanses of screen.

If you can use a trackpad, you can use a trackball, but the control is so much finer. You might find it a little sluggish when first plugged in, but whacking up the pointer speed in your computer's settings will soon sort that out.

Logitech Wireless M570

I prefer the finger control of centre-ball models such as the Kensington Expert rather than the thumb-balling Logitech M570, although I'd still take the latter ahead of a mouse. The Logitech has a more mouse-like form, with left and right buttons and a scrollwheel exactly where you'd expect, so it might be a good compromise if you're really scared about making the shift.

Kensington Orbit Scrollring

As a first proper trackball, though, I'd recommend the Kensington Orbit Scroll Ring, which is like a shrunken Expert. The scroll ring around the ball is, in my opinion, better for scrolling up and down pages than the wheel on a mouse. The smaller-diameter ball means it's less precise than the Expert's snooker-ball-sized roller, though.

With money no object, it's definitely a toss-up between the venerable Kensington Expert and the newer, sleeker SlimBlade – each has its strengths and weaknesses. The Expert has a superb mechanical scroll ring and a built-in wrist rest, but its height forces your wrist into a slight upwards kink that some people find a little uncomfortable. The wrist rest minimises the problem, but it's worth bearing in mind.

Kensington SlimBlade Trackball

The high-tech SlimBlade features the same heavyweight ball but in a flatter base with a hole beneath the ball that helps to stop debris building up. Where the SlimBlade gets a bit Marmite is that, instead of the scroll ring, it has an extra sensor that registers when the ball is spun horizontally – so you twist the ball to scroll. Whether you can achieve the scrolling action without moving the cursor around the screen has proven to be a bone of contention.

The Expert has a cult following, and with good reason. Mine has been in daily use for the last ten years, with only occasional cleaning. As one forum user once declared, "the minute they discontinue them I will buy 20 to last the rest of my life." I concur.

CST L-Trac

Clearly Superior Technologies makes a few models, including the premium L-Trac which is blessed with astounding 1600CPI sensitivity. I've always been put off by the position of its scrollwheel, however.

Anyway, the moral of this story is: trackballs don’t deserve to die. Don’t believe me? Try one.

Lars Pehrsson

December 28, 2014, 12:11 pm

I love my old trusted Logitech Cordless Optical TrackMan. It has a separate scroll wheel. It also preventes my colleagues from using my computer ;-) . I don't want a thumb operated trackball. The thumb is not designed to that kind of work. Unfortunately Logitech don't produce the TrackMan anymore, so the price has skyrocketed to $400. http://support.logitech.com... It is not usable for lefties though.


December 28, 2014, 11:04 pm

I've been using a trackball at home for years, currently the Logitech with the side ball although previously the Logitech with the centre ball.

It's not because of RSI, it's because I can use it on the sofa when my wife is sat next to me. Can't do that with a mouse.

It's pretty good for gaming but I still prefer a good gaming mouse. When being a sniper i reckon the trackball wins though.


December 29, 2014, 12:02 am

Trackballs aren't going anywhere. It's just pity that we don't see as much progress as with various ergonomic and gaming mice—in particular, modern high-sensitivity sensors, often with consistent tracking even at higher speeds.

"Ergonomic" trackballs are long gone. Microsoft abandoned their successful designs (MTO and especially MTE, Microsoft Trackball Explorer) and even Logitech discontinued the Marble FX and Cordless Trackman Optical without any replacement. I don't mind that much though, because ambidextrous trackballs let me swap hands and adjust ball placement to my liking. They still make a cheap fingertip-controlled trackball at least, TrackMan Marble. Granted, it has no wheel, but it's not a big deal, actually, considering that autoscroll feels superb with a trackball.

There are some Asian products of varying quality (from Chinese to Japanese) as well, and optomechanical trackballs are the go-to input devices at various industrial terminals. A rather common is example is CH Product's DT225. It beats any modern consumer-grade mouse quality-wise, no contest… although you probably don't want to pay for it.

Michael Garry

December 30, 2014, 6:41 am

Logitech Trackman user here, happily for years. Also started with the centre ball, but moved to the thumb-ball M570 as I need a scroll-wheel for 3d work. Would not go back to a mouse, unless for games. Even then, I just get by with the trackball. Why people still insist on using inferior devices like mice amazes me! The only platform I don't use it is on the mac, simply as their trackpads are so well integrated into the OS.

So Logitech, don't follow MS and keep making the trackballs!


January 2, 2015, 6:33 am

I have been using the centre ball trackman for many years. Now on my second and wish I had bought a few spare when they went for sensible money instead of £200+. There must be a market for them - surely.

Dark Shroud

January 2, 2015, 9:00 am

The Sanwa trackballs are starting to take off. Their thumb ball style Sanwa MA-TB39 is very similar to the discontinued Logitech Trackman T-BB18.

Patriarchy Pete

June 6, 2016, 6:27 pm

Elecom makes vastly superior thumb trackballs to anything that exists on the market today. Only problem is they're for mid to small sized hands, so it definitely won't be to everyone's tastes.


November 3, 2016, 1:48 pm

I'm a diehard CST trackball user. They are built rock solid and worth the money. I just recently replaced my very old one with a brand new one (with pretty blue sapphire ball). The scroll comment is true but I trained myself to scroll with either the keyboard or the browser bar.
I found CST to be the best center ball position, and the scroll difference was mostly what you are used to. So those not considering CST for the scroll might consider just trying scrolling alternative ways for a few weeks and you will soon notice you no longer care about the on device scroll.
Love that CST is USA based too so we are supporting our own economy as apposed to the other manufacturers that are largely using chinese labor and parts.

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