It's been a cozy 2-3 months now since I've migrated to my new notebook, and even while I'm enjoying the experience, it's taking a lot of work for me to get everything set up nicely. Apparently, five years of tinkering on one notebook is not something that you can easily duplicate. That, and the fact that I've been busy with a bunch of other things, and you can see why it's been so long since my last post.
While I've got a bunch of new hardware (and software) to help me along with my work and play, one thing that did stay with me from the old setup is my faithful input device. It's been close to four years since my purchase of the Logitech Trackman Wheel trackball. My original reason behind this was because the trackpad on my old zd7000 was becoming uncomfortably warm for my index finger - so warm in fact that after 2-3 seconds I had to lift my finger off. This was especially problematic after and hour or more of 100% CPU activity. Yes, the trackball took care of my needs nicely, but there's a lot more that these ingenious input devices have to offer.
1. Why a trackball?
Folks moving from desktops to notebooks/netbooks may not immediately get accustomed to using trackpads, or especially tracksticks. Hooking up a mouse to your notebook is easy enough and a great way to help your productivity while retaining that familiar feel. Mice, however, do have issues that, while not apparent in desktop use, do present themselves when using a notebook. Issues that, as I will show, are all but eliminated when using a trackball.
I should be first to say it here that trackballs do require a certain learning curve to use, but nothing more difficult than moving from a non-split to a split keyboard. That's the hardest part. The good part is that once you get used to using a trackball, you will NEVER want to move back to using a mouse again.
The biggest problem with mice is that they need to be held in the hand and physically moved around. Doing so repeatedly for extended hours during the day presents a big ergonomic challenge. Many people develop serious injuries such as RSI, arthritis and Carpel Tunnel Syndrome from using the wrong work tools. More often than not, the symptoms present themselves months or years later, by which time the physical injuries may become unavoidable. I experienced such an issue when trying to work with a tiny mouse that was just too small for my hand, leading to extreme soreness and cramps. While going with a bigger mouse could have helped me, I chose rather to go with a trackball.
Instead of moving around a mouse and picking it up constantly, a trackball stays in place, as does your arm and hand. This leads to considerably less physical stress and improves your comfort greatly. Rather than move your whole arm, wrist and hand to move the cursor, you need only move your thumb or finger, keeping your hand in place. If you find moving a mouse around gets tiring, using a trackball will alleviate such problems entirely and provide superior ergonomics.
Many people also don't realize the fact that mice were designed in the days when notebooks didn't yet exist, and that fundamental design hasn't changed. Being mobile presents a whole new set of circumstances that were never considered a factor when sitting at a work desk.
One of these is the fact that mice need room to move around - typically a space of 8x10 inches. While this is fine sitting at a desk, traveling with a notebook may not allow you to have that space always available. With trackballs being stationary, their small footprint lets them occupy much less space than even the smallest mouse pads, yet remain fully useful.
The other issue with mice is that they need a flat surface to work on. That's obviously not a problem when you're at a desk, but when you're on the go with a notebook you may not have it. The great thing with trackballs is that they can work on whatever surface you place them on, since the work surface is not dependent on it's function. If you like to lie in bed, for example, you can keep the trackball in a comfortable position and retain full use for late night surfing. If you use your notebook in your lap the trackball can be placed beside you, on a bag or whatever else your surroundings may provide. For folks that may be working on a plane with a netbook, you can most likely still make room on that fold-down tray for a trackball and maintain your productivity.
Finally, if you have a slanted workspace, such as a wheeled notebook desk, you will know that using a mouse is impossible since it will slide off the work area as soon as you let it go. Unlike mice, which by design are meant to glide easily, trackballs have rubber feet to grip the work surface. Trackballs will stay in place even on slanted workspaces, and with the help of a sticky pad, can be used on any incline without ever sliding off.
Obviously, the ergonomic benefits of trackballs are very compelling, allowing more comfort for the body alongside being usable in far more many ways. But trackballs offer another big feature that mice cannot match - performance.
Precision usually involves very small movements. Controlling a cursor moving just a thumb offers far better precision than moving your entire hand/arm. As the size of the ball is much larger in trackballs, and is being moved by a hand that's completely still, it allows much smaller movements to be tracked. Users of CAD, 3D and engineering software will in fact swear by the added precision a trackball provides. In addition, graphic artists and photographers can enjoy single-pixel accuracy when manipulating images, control that can be difficult or impossible to achieve with even an expensive optical/laser mouse.
Work that involves intensive cursor movement will also benefit greatly from the use of a trackball. High resolution displays that require vast amounts of area for the cursor to cover can be done with just a single flick of a thumb/finger as opposed to moving and placing down a mouse sometimes 3-4 times.
Last but not least, many gamers will also happily swap their expensive high-dpi mice for trackballs thanks to the added control they provide in first person shooters and other types of games. Considering the high levels of abuse gamers dish out on their hardware, it goes to show that trackballs are extremely durable and can withstand extended usage even under demanding conditions.
For those wondering if trackballs are expensive, I paid around $36 for mine four years ago. That same model sells today for $23 online. Compared to a high-end $60 mouse, the benefits available from such an inexpensive accessory make clear economic sense.
2. Why are they ignored by the tech press?
I have to admit the tech press does not do enough to cover trackball hardware. That may be because manufacturers have focused on newer and newer mice models leaving trackballs the realm of niche customers. Factor in as well that many present trackball models have been around for at least 6 years, and you can begin to see why they're not at the top of every website's must-have list.
Whatever the reason may be, it is unfortunate that the advantages of trackballs remain to be ignored, especially when discussing ergonomics and user productivity. Amidst the mass of fancy contoured keyboards, weighted mice, wrist rests and stands journalists like to cover, there is never a mention of the good old trackball and how it can also impact the work environment. Just because you don't know about something, it doesn't mean there is nothing better out there!
Of course, those who own and use a trackball need not be reminded about it's advantages and how cool they are to use. What disappoints me is that many more people out there could be improving their work/productivity with a trackball, but know nothing about what the trackball can do for them.
3. Where do I see trackballs in the future?
Most of the trackball models already on the market have remained the same over the last 6-10 years. While I'm a firm believer in the "if it ain't broke don't fix it" mentality, changes over that time in the PC industry have crept up to trackball designs. As good as they are, trackballs will be needing some changes and new models in order to remain competitive in the input device market.
My first recommendation would be for other manufacturers to consider producing trackball hardware. Other than Logitech and Kensington, I'm unaware of any other current trackball manufacturer. The lack of hardware may in fact be an issue if one manufacturer decides to no longer produce further models, leaving die-hard enthusiasts up in the air.
With the advent of wireless mice for notebooks and bluetooth technology, I would also like to see bluetooth versions of today's trackball models. This would be incredibly useful for notebook users in particular, the benefits of which would include much more freedom of use, a significant productivity boost, better mobility and durability. Those RF mice that have the small USB dongle housed in the bottom of the mouse - such a design would work for trackballs as well. Indeed, the lack of a cordless model has kept many notebook users from toting their trackballs on the go.
And while I may not be a leftie, a left-handed trackball would be nice to see as well. My Logitech Trackman Wheel is right handed by design with a ball located at the thumb, mirroring this for the left hand would open up application possibilities not only for the lefties, but folks who can work ambidextrous.
It's a shame I never got around to writing this piece sooner. Very often in life you don't know how good something is until you try it. That was exactly my experience with the trackball. I have gotten so used to it in fact that I would be seriously handicapped today without it. The ergonomics, precision, comfort and utility make trackballs the best input device accessory available for your notebook or netbook.