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Where Have All the Trackballs Gone?

written by: •edited by: M.S. Smith•updated: 6/9/2009

Letting your thumb do the work; keeping your hand comfortably in your lap; not using up half a desk; how did we leave the trackball pointing device behind? For those looking to hang on to or unlock these benefits, there are few choices left.

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    Why Move My Whole Arm?

    …like a sucker when I can just move my thumb? And why use up half my desk swinging a little hunk of plastic around? If I want to do that I will go play my Wii. A mouse either gets caught in its own cable, or is wireless. If the latter, it is more expensive, laggy, and prone to require a recharge at inopportune moments. No, not if I can avoid it.

    How laptop users ignore trackballs in favour of portable mice is truly bizarre. Sure the mouse is tiny, but you still need a big, flat, clean, place to use it. If you only have a meal tray to work with, the trackball can sit in your lap.

    Even if you have the desk space, why reach for something and shove it all over when you can keep your hand in your lap (or lean back and put the trackball on your tummy, if, like mine, your tummy is growing in inverse proportion to the economy)? For those used to a trackball’s extra comfort, almost effortless control, smaller footprint and enhanced portability, switching to a mouse is about as attractive as having a live rat on your desk instead.

    While the selection for trackballs has dwindled, and you aren’t likely to find them in stock at a bricks and mortar store, there are still a few options to be found online. Here are a couple that use the thumb for the ball - my favourite setup.

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    Microsoft Optical Trackball

    Rating Average

    Microsoft Optical Trackball With a rather large ball for a thumb driven trackball, the MS product does deliver very precise control. It is, in fact, rather large overall. I tend to like beefy interface devices, like the original X-Box controllers, but if you don’t, you’ve been warned. With a clickable scroll-wheel and four buttons, along with drivers and software to configure their functions, it can do a lot.

    In fact, it does more than you want. The small extra buttons on each side are too small to click on without clicking on the main left and right buttons. Since the small buttons wrap around from the top to the sides of the device, the one on the right is easy to hit by accident. Unfortunately, this product has been discontinued, but many new and used ones are here at ebay. I'd give it a 4 out of 5 if you could still find it new for a price comparable to the Logitech below.

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    Logitech TrackMan Wheel

    Rating Average

    Logitech TrackMan Wheel With fewer buttons and a smaller ball, the TrackMan offers less finesse to the user. It does, however, fit perfectly in the palm of the hand - not in the sense a mouse does. A mouse isn’t big enough to fill a palm properly. Your hand just falls on top of the TrackMan, your thumb lands on the ball, and your finger tips land precisely in the oh-so-subtle, yet even more comfortable depressions on the buttons. When you’re not using the scroll wheel, your ring finger sits on a little shelf, and your pinky curls along down the side. When using the clickable scroll wheel, you can leave your finger in place or slide it over if you need to right click.

    The small ball, unfortunately, can be a bit finicky when performing very fine tasks, like moving a crop line over a few pixels. The TrackMan is in stock at newegg for 30 bucks, 37 for wireless. You can download the Logitech trackball driver here.

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    Different Balls for Different Calls

    Trackballs from Microsoft (left) and Logitech (right) Unless you have particularly large hands, the TrackMan (on the right) will likely be slightly more comfortable. If you do a lot of tasks that require fine control and could use the extra buttons for added shortcuts, like picture editing, then the Microsoft (on the left) gets the nod. If you are gaming, the extra buttons get in the way more than anything.

    Hand size and personal preference aside, the decision can be made as follows. If you tend to think about what and where you are clicking, like when laying out graphics, you can avoid accidentally hitting the MS Trackball’s extra buttons, and might get some use out of them. The larger ball also helps when you are trying to get the pointer to exactly the right spot.

    If you tend to click quickly, by second nature, perhaps using your peripheral vision, like one would when gaming or browsing the web, then the TrackMan is the man for the job. The fit and simplicity of the device make it hard to miss click and a joy to use for extended periods.

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    Keeping your trackball clean is important since dirt can cause problems. Trackball mouse skips and other problems are usually caused by gunk building up in the wrong spot, but call also occur if the ball gets scratched or dented. Luckily, cleaning a trackball is quick and easy. Should the need arise, we tell you where you can find replacement balls for optical trackballs. Trackball, mouse, Logitech, Microsoft, cleaning
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    Cleaning Trackball Balls

    Trackball balls pick up dirt and oils from your thumb (you dirty person) and have to be cleaned. Before you moan about how optical mice never need cleaning, think about how often you clean, or at least brush something off, your mouse pad or whatever you use as such. You can keep a trackball clean in the time it takes for a large webpage to load.

    Trackball-Upside-Down For both of the trackballs we discussed above, the procedure is similar. The bottom of the trackball has a small hole (blue square in picture at right). Use your little finger, or a pen (if your little finger isn’t so little), to push the ball out. Make sure it doesn’t go flying and roll off when it pops out (see next section). Don’t let it get scratched; give it a wipe with a clean, dry, lint free cloth. I find a microfiber cloth for cleaning glasses is best, but a handful of t-shirt you’re wearing will do in a pinch.

    Cleaning-Trackball Put the ball where it won’t roll off and your pets won’t get a hold of it, and take a look inside the cavity it came from. There are 4 places where dirt will gather. Three small bearings (yellow square, pic at left) that hold the ball while allowing it to spin, and the window for the optical sensor (in red). Use a Q-tip (or finger) to wipe gunk away from the three bearings. Use a Q-tip or cloth to give the window a wipe. Be very careful with the MS Trackball, since the window has a hole in it. If something gets in there, it can sit right in front of the sensor. You can solve that problem if you have a tiny screwdriver and a lot of patience. Best to avoid it altogether.

    Give the cavity a last wipe and blow in it to get rid of anything you knocked loose but didn’t remove, put the ball back in, and you are done. You can moisten your cloth or cotton swab a very tiny bit with warm water, and, in the case of the bearings (not the window or ball) alcohol. Personally I have never had to go further than a dry cotton swab.

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    Replacing a Trackball Ball

    When you go to replace the ball in the cavity, you may not find it, or find it has been misplaced. Michele McDonough’s cats love to hide them. Then you need to replace it. Another reason you might find yourself looking for new balls is that they can perform pretty poorly if they get scratched or dented. This support forum user’s dogs love to chew on them.

    How many times do I have to tell you people: when it comes to pets and computers, just get your pet their own PC so they won’t mess with yours. Anyway, getting the new ball may not be that fast, so you may want to start by buying a whole new trackball and get the shipping on that going. As pet victims can tell you though, if it happened once it will likely happen again, so get going on ordering a replacement ball as well.

    The only source I found for optical trackball replacement balls was to contact Logitech or Microsoft’s Parts Departments themselves. Logitech is at 800-231-7717 (USA/Canada) and Microsoft (800) 360-7561 (USA) or (800) 933-4750 (CAN).



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