Shareware Beach

Monday, 28 January 2008

A Tale of Two Trackballs

Filed under: Ergonomics,Hardware & Gadgets — Jan @ 17:59

I’ve already written two articles about how I replaced my computer keyboard with a DataHand in response to early symtoms of RSI. But I haven’t blogged yet about what I did with the mouse, though I did show a picture in last year’s behind the scenes look.

I actually tried several mouse replacements, including the one built into the DataHand. But in the end, I found that a trackball gave me the most comfort. I have two, actually.

Microsoft Trackball Explorer

The one I use most of the time is the Microsoft Trackball Explorer. The actual trackball is very large. You control it with your index finger. The balls movement is very smooth and accurate. At the left side, there are the two standard left and right mouse buttons, with the usual button wheel between them. You control all three with the thumb. Essentially, you need only a thumb and index finger to operate this trackball. There are two extra “forward” and “back” buttons to the right of the ball. I never use those. The trackball’s weird shape fits the right hand very well. There’s no left hand version.

The Trackball Explorer took about a week of getting used to. It’s instantly usable. But using the thumb for so many things feels weird at first, particularly as you never use it on a traditional mouse. Accurate control of the mouse pointer also takes some practice. In the end, for me the Trackball Explorer works just as well as a regular mouse for programming and office work. It also handles turn-based strategy games or point-and-click adventures well. But it’s not fast or accurate enough for any sort of real-time gaming. But then, if you have RSI, gaming is a no-no.

Microsoft Optical Trackball

The other trackball I have is the Microsoft Optical Trackball. This is a more traditionally styled trackball. You control the ball with your thumb. The left, wheel and right buttons are arranged like on a traditional mouse.

This trackball works just as well as the Explorer version. Except that I find that using my middle finger to operate the scroll wheel feels far less comfortable after a long day’s work. I guess that the thumb and index fingers are somehow stronger, and better able to cope with the dual tasks of typing and mousing than the other three fingers.

I mostly keep the Optical Trackball as a spare. Occasionally, my index finger gets tired of exploring the trackball all day. Then I switch to the other one for a few days.

However, the main benefit of a trackball is that you no longer have to hold the mouse. I find that when using a traditional mouse, most of the discomfort stems from having to grasp the thing, no matter how hard I try to grasp it as lightly as I can.

Unfortunately, the bad news is that Microsoft doesn’t make these things any more. That’s particularly weird because used ones easily sell for more than twice the new price on eBay. I did manage to get the Explorer brand new in box from eBay in 2006, and the other one NIB in 2007.

If you’re planning to buy one used, make sure you get one that’s in perfect condition. Though both trackballs use optical sensors, they do have balls. Like old-style mice with balls, the bearings can get dirty, and then the ball won’t roll smoothly any more.

I’ve looked around a bit, and found that Logitech still sells trackballs. The Trackman Wheel Optical is very similar to the Microsoft Optical Trackball. But the Marble Mouse Optical, which has a center-mounted ball, is quite different. It is symetrically shaped, to allow both left-hand and right-hand use. However, it doesn’t look like it will fit either hand nearly as well as the Microsoft Trackball Explorer fits the right hand. And what really kills it for me: there’s no wheel. I might still try one in the future though.

P.S.: If the pictures seem a bit fuzzy, that’s because I’ve been playing with my new f/2 lens. With the focus on the top of the trackball, there’s not enough depth of field to keep the bottom in focus too. But I’m too lazy to redo them at a smaller aperture.

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