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"All I got in this world is my balls and my word and I don't break either of 'em for nobody!"
June 17, 2009 4:43 PM   Subscribe

Before the mouse, there was the trackball. Built for DATAR in 1952, DATAR turned out to be a complete failure. The next user interface device that used a ball was the mouse at Xeroc Parc in 1972. Trackballs are a dying breed of interface devices. But sometimes a trackball just seems more natural choice for certain applications - not so obvious for others. Would you sit on one?
posted by bigmusic (65 comments total) 4 users marked this as a favorite

 
In order to type this comment, I moved my cursor to the textarea using a trackball. I will do something similar in order to submit this comment.
posted by davejay at 4:50 PM on June 17, 2009


I use a 3-button Logitech trackball because I don't want to devote as much desk real estate to a mouse as it requires. It sits in one place, always, never takes more space than it already has, and when I get tired of sitting upright, I can lean back and set the trackball unit on my thigh and continue to browse. I can't imagine using any other interface for my computer, no matter what I encounter in the world beyond my own walls.
posted by hippybear at 4:50 PM on June 17, 2009 [2 favorites]


Uh, why did you link to a post about Douglass Englebart's groundbreaking with the text "Xeroc Parc"? Englebart worked for Stanford Research Institute and the demo was held two years before Xerox Parc even opened.
posted by delmoi at 4:51 PM on June 17, 2009 [1 favorite]


I have loved the trackball ever since I first played Centipede.
posted by box at 4:52 PM on June 17, 2009 [3 favorites]


I use the 3-button Logitech trackball for the same reason as hippybear. It requires much less desk real estate. It also doesn't give me a sore wrist!

(The only thing I use a mouse for is FPSs, and the occasional photoshop job)
posted by unSane at 4:59 PM on June 17, 2009


I liked Millipede's trackball so much better than Centipede's. It was huge. I learned on Millipede and when I played Centipede it seemed so disappointing.
posted by scrowdid at 4:59 PM on June 17, 2009


The desk real estate argument is compelling. Then I imagine having to scrollscrollscrollscrollscroll my way around the desktop all the time and my finger jabs itself in my eyeball to prevent me ordering one.
posted by DU at 5:01 PM on June 17, 2009 [1 favorite]


I love my trackball in a deep and meaningful way. It really cheezes off IT at work though...everyone else seems to hate it.
posted by JoanArkham at 5:04 PM on June 17, 2009 [1 favorite]


I think I actually just got a twinge of nostalgia for the gross rings of cruft that would accumulate around the rollers in ball mice.
posted by lucidium at 5:05 PM on June 17, 2009 [2 favorites]


God, I loved my trackball. I really, really miss it.
posted by elfgirl at 5:06 PM on June 17, 2009


I think I actually just got a twinge of nostalgia for the gross rings of cruft that would accumulate around the rollers in ball mice.

This made me instinctively reach for the degauss button on my monitor. Also: push technology.
posted by DU at 5:08 PM on June 17, 2009 [1 favorite]


Where is the Missile Command link?
posted by localroger at 5:09 PM on June 17, 2009 [1 favorite]


Logitech trackball represent!
posted by lekvar at 5:10 PM on June 17, 2009


Also, the Logitech Trackman Marble FX is my favorite trackball ever.
posted by box at 5:10 PM on June 17, 2009 [2 favorites]


I use a Logitech 3-button trackball to piss off my coworkers.

Not really. It's just wonderful, for reasons already discussed. But it is also hilarious when a coworker sits down at my desk and starts trying to move the entire trackball housing around the desk....
posted by gurple at 5:18 PM on June 17, 2009 [1 favorite]


Would you sit on one?

Your sir have underestimated my ability to sit on things.
posted by Serial Killer Slumber Party at 5:21 PM on June 17, 2009 [1 favorite]


I, too, get sworn at when someone tries to use my computer as they struggle with a trackball. The "well if I can use your damned mouse, what's the problem?" doesn't normally help...

I get cramps in my hand with a mouse - I have big hands and trying to do detail stuff (like 3 modelling, or trying to accurately hit measuring points on data logging software) and I get horrific gimp-hand THE CLAW after a while with a mouse. It just doesn't have the accuracy that a large ball-ed trackball offers. I also find them better for moving quickly across the screen.

In short, I don't know why people use a mouse at all, now I think about it. The desk real estate issue is also a big factor, too.
posted by Brockles at 5:26 PM on June 17, 2009


Why did the mouse win?
posted by TwelveTwo at 5:28 PM on June 17, 2009


Why did the mouse win?

Mousepad marketing?
posted by gurple at 5:32 PM on June 17, 2009 [1 favorite]


force feedback trackball
posted by jepler at 5:38 PM on June 17, 2009 [2 favorites]


As long as we're linking to Amazon, Logitech Trackman Marble Mouse FTW. Solves the scroll-scroll-scroll problem by having a bit of free-rolling travel, much like the steering wheel of an old american car with overboosted power steering will keep turning a bit if you spin it and let it go.

Started using it when I was recording with an electronic piano, because there was no room for mouse travel, and never looked back. Cheap, too.
posted by davejay at 5:42 PM on June 17, 2009


scrollscrollscrollscrollscroll

You, sir, have obviously never experienced the joy of applying significant angular momentum to a ball with a quick whirrrrrr.
posted by FuManchu at 5:45 PM on June 17, 2009 [3 favorites]


On a serious note, it's a problem I encounter with mice, too. Having to pick the damn thing up and re-center it. A decent acceleration on the software controls should take care of both problems, but I still seem to always be hitting my drinks when using a mouse.
posted by FuManchu at 5:47 PM on June 17, 2009


the joy of applying significant angular momentum to a ball with a quick whirrrrrr.

that'shwhatshesaid

sorry

posted by DU at 5:48 PM on June 17, 2009 [1 favorite]


Back in 2003, on Fark, I came up with a brilliant way to surf for porn: "Trackball Pants".

I'm disappointed no one ever ran with it.
posted by RavinDave at 5:48 PM on June 17, 2009


I had an outboard trackball from Microsoft made for laptops before they came with built-in pointing devices. My personal fave is still the Thinkpad nipple which is the best pointing device ever made.
posted by GuyZero at 5:52 PM on June 17, 2009 [2 favorites]


I use a trackball (perched on my knee) with a laptop on planes and trains.
posted by gurple at 5:59 PM on June 17, 2009 [1 favorite]


I love my MS Trackball Explorer, I was devastated when i heard Microsoft was discontinuing it. I wish i had stockpiled them while they were in stock, new ones are going for $300 now.
posted by aGee at 6:02 PM on June 17, 2009


Come on! With just a single flick I can move my Trackman Wheel across 3200 pixels!

The old ps/2 ones didn't sample quickly enough so if you gave it a spin it the cursor would sort of vibrate for a second and then speed off in sort of like how Fred Flintstone starts his car. While it was an amusing effect I do prefer the responsiveness.

The one thing the trackball sucks for is scribbling in MS Paint / isketch. I should just get a Wacom or something for that.
posted by aubilenon at 6:02 PM on June 17, 2009


I used to use a trackball, and really loved it, but I got tendinitis in my thumb tendon, and that exacerbated it pretty badly. And thumb trackballs are inferior for FPSes; you don't have the fine level of control. Thumbs just aren't as good as fingers for that.

The finger-driven trackballs look really nice; they'd give you all the precision of a mouse. But it would be very hard to push multiple buttons at once, which is important in some games. So, again, I think the mouse wins.

For routine use, I think the trackballs are quite superior, but for gamers, they're not so hot. You trade off either precision or easy multi-button-pushing.
posted by Malor at 6:02 PM on June 17, 2009


The internet is the motherlode of synchronicity: just a few hours ago I was searching for "trackball" on Amazon.Com--without, frankly, being sure that such beasts were still being produced (I used to have a cool little clip-on one that I used with my Toshiba laptop). I want a mouse I can use when I put my laptop through the TV--i.e., one I can have sitting on my lap rather than moving around on a surface.

So...thanks for the recommendations, trackballmefites.
posted by yoink at 6:04 PM on June 17, 2009


I would love a dual-mode trackball/mouse, just a nice mouse with a trackball by the thumb
posted by Mick at 6:21 PM on June 17, 2009


In 2005 Once I started getting carpal, I switched over to the kensington Expert and I would never go back. If I use a mound my wrists and elbows start twinging after an hour or so, but with the track ball I work 40-60 hours a weekfor 4 years, and my wrists have been ok. I love it especially because you can program the button for common tasks.

That said I think the chair trackball is just silly.
posted by gofargogo at 6:23 PM on June 17, 2009


ugh. mound=mouse....
posted by gofargogo at 6:24 PM on June 17, 2009


My trackball solved my carpal tunnel. For me, twas the answer to the question: To mouse, or not to mouse?
posted by whimsicalnymph at 6:39 PM on June 17, 2009


You people are insane. Trackballs are horrible abominations, and it's obvious why they're a dying breed: because they're awful.

the Thinkpad nipple which is the best pointing device ever made

MADNESS. What is this, the mirror universe? Hawt bisexual Ezri Dax isn't worth being surrounded by degenerate nipple lovers. Find me a transporter.
posted by DecemberBoy at 6:43 PM on June 17, 2009 [7 favorites]


What the heck was the company that did the first Mac laptops? Outback? Something like that. They were repackaged Mac pluses, IIRC. Had a novel sort of tracking device. It was a bar (miniature rolling pin, esssentially) that would move left and right, but rotate up and down. Odd creature that was killed by the powerbooks.
posted by ChurchHatesTucker at 6:44 PM on June 17, 2009


Yeah, trackballs are awesome, and I think people pretty much bitch about them because people like to bitch, not because they're at all difficult to use. omgNEWTHING!!!

Getting around the scrollscrollscroll is easy. Just jack the sensitivity up. I can get from one end of my desktop to the other without lifting my thumb from the ball. Then again, I alwayss jacked up the sensitivity when i was using a mouse, too. Other people's setups are just so slow and almost painful to use.
posted by adamdschneider at 6:57 PM on June 17, 2009


Not that anybody asked, exactly, but of the trackballs that are still being manufactured, my favorite is the Logitech Trackman Wheel. The Kensington Slimblade is really cool-looking (does anybody use one?), but past experience suggests that I might prefer Logitech's build quality and durability.
posted by box at 7:01 PM on June 17, 2009 [1 favorite]


Getting around the scrollscrollscroll is easy. Just jack the sensitivity up.

Yeah, and then it takes you 30 seconds to click on an icon because you keep going just past it. Awful, I'm tellin' you.
posted by DecemberBoy at 7:02 PM on June 17, 2009


Yeah, turn the sensitivity a little bit down (or else it's hard to hit the exclamation point when I'm flagging stuff) and the acceleration way up. That's how I do my trackball settings, anyway.
posted by box at 7:04 PM on June 17, 2009


My pollices give trackballs a thumbs down.
posted by TedW at 7:15 PM on June 17, 2009


(Also, that trackball question is still open. If you're reading and posting here, you might have valuable information to contribute.)
posted by box at 7:16 PM on June 17, 2009


Trackballs are horrible abominations

But, they are an improvement over a trackwheel, ie, BlackBerry.
posted by CynicalKnight at 7:22 PM on June 17, 2009


And I say that as one who is forced to use that Trackman on a daily basis. It works well and is really the only option in a setting where there is no room for a proper mouse, but definitely not something I would ever use voluntarily. The Mighty Mouse scrollball, on the other hand, kicks ass.
posted by TedW at 7:22 PM on June 17, 2009


Track ball story - When I was a network engineering intern (a career I did not pursue), one of my cube-mates had an almost OCD anal retentiveness about "his" space. I decided to velcro his track ball into its receptacle. Oh, the joy of seeing him try to maneuver his trackball and not understanding why it would only budge a millimeter. After many fine minutes of suppressed laughter, we finally told him that he could pry it out if he really tried hard. He did so, complaining that the velcro would leave adhesive residue on the ball that would interfere with its maneuverability.
posted by mrmojoflying at 7:35 PM on June 17, 2009


I kinda wanted to get a trackball, but I could never find any that looked like they'd be any good anywhere. It would be somewhat redundant with a touchpad anyways.
posted by rubah at 7:36 PM on June 17, 2009


mrmojoflying

Hey, don't get between a guy and his interface. That's almost as bad as touching a man's radio.
posted by leviathan3k at 7:39 PM on June 17, 2009


I loved my two Logitech trackballs, but I wore them both out too quickly. I think it was the cat hair that kept getting inside. I kept the balls, though. I have blue balls! I lost one, but I happened upon the other one today in a living room corner and played soccer with it until it rolled behind the fireplace. The cat will need to find it and roll it back.
posted by zinfandel at 7:51 PM on June 17, 2009


What annoys me most about using a trackball as a mouse substitute are the click-drag actions. Sure, try doing that quick momentum spin while your index finger has been hijacked to hold down the "mouse" button. Some configurations try to get around this by putting said button on the other side of the keyboard from the roller, forcing you to use both hands just to highlight a block of text.
posted by ceribus peribus at 8:04 PM on June 17, 2009


Does anyone else who grew up in Ontario in the 80s remember the ICON computers? They had an integrated trackball. What a boondoggle that was.
posted by sevenyearlurk at 8:08 PM on June 17, 2009


so is no-one else here having a hard time wrapping their head around the trackball chair in the last link? Basically it has you controlling a computer by wiggling around your ass, and it's designed for use in public places????
posted by 5_13_23_42_69_666 at 8:36 PM on June 17, 2009


ICONS!!! Yes! Such pieces of junk. But I learned everything I know about computer security from QNX. And those trackballs which were used for next to nothing.
posted by GuyZero at 9:07 PM on June 17, 2009


Trackballs are still used widely for color correction for film and video, see for instance this. Costs a bit, though, but very nice to use.
posted by Joakim Ziegler at 9:19 PM on June 17, 2009



Not that anybody asked, exactly, but of the trackballs that are still being manufactured, my favorite is the Logitech Trackman Wheel.

Trackman Wheel 4 Life. Represent.
posted by juv3nal at 9:55 PM on June 17, 2009 [2 favorites]


Back in 2003, on Fark, I came up with a brilliant way to surf for porn: "Trackball Pants".
I'm disappointed no one ever ran with it.


Who wears pants while they're surfing for porn?
posted by Dr. Send at 11:39 PM on June 17, 2009


In the mid 90s - a decade before Google Earth - I remember seeing Art+Com's TerraVision demonstrator. Which allowed you to view a map of the world on a big screen and then zoom in to the point where you were looking at buildings. The whole thing we controlled by a huge trackball as seen here. Since globes are the sort of protean trackballs this seemed like a nice way to go.

But, like localroger, my introduction to trackballs was Missile Command. Just last week I tried the version of this Atari has released for the Iphone and realised that the trackball was actually an inferior UI device for placing bombs compared to a touchscreen.
posted by rongorongo at 1:10 AM on June 18, 2009


I use a new Logitech Trackman Wheel at work (right hand) and a mouse on the left hand side, which allows colleagues to demonstrate stuff to me without leaning across me as well as left handed mouse action.
At home I have an eight year old Logitech Trackman Wheel, which is not as ergonomically designed as the new one, but has a bezel which allows the ball to to popped out and the bearings to be cleaned very easily. Mouse on the left as well, of course.

I use the mouse more for office related activities and the ball for gaming. I seem to do OK (almost 1:1 KDR on TF2) and never have to stop playing due to RSI in my wrist.

I am not convinced that the trackball chair would be much use, unless it worked like the IBM nipple mentioned above. If you actually have to rotate the ball through large angles, I can see people slipping off! Plus that kind of thing would be very tiring, and not particularly good exercise IMHO, due to the strain on the lower back.
posted by asok at 1:53 AM on June 18, 2009


Reading this, I can imagine a trackball arrangement that features 2 balls, one for broad control (across the screen) the other for fine control (highlighting words). Maybe 1 ball, with a switch between modes would work.

I'm amazed at folks lauding Logitech. I've pretty much written them off, after buying their higher end keyboards and mice, to have them fail before a year (the mice, that is). My last keyboard suffered mostly from having the damn letters worn off! I only use cordless mice, as wired ones drive me nuts. Also, I deeply resent their failure to supply Linux drivers as a matter of course. I am not interested in having to fiddle about constantly, to make something work sorta-kinda like it's supposed.

I once had an add-on touch pad, but that gave me cramps. I rarely get any cramping from a mouse. I'm inclined to think a trackball would cause cramping, for me. I'm terribly inclined to get repetitive motion problems in my thumb, but seemingly not in the center (carpal tunnel).

I am in no way a lover of mice. But then, I never went with a GUI until Windows95 (partly economical, but also because I'm fast and clever with a keyboard). Looking back, I'm amazed at some of the things I managed well in a DOS environment! Now, I've gotten quite used to doing plenty without touching the keyboard, but that took quite awhile.
posted by Goofyy at 2:28 AM on June 18, 2009


Protip: a trackball can be turned into a mouse by inverting it.
posted by Meatbomb at 5:14 AM on June 18, 2009 [1 favorite]


I have not had success with Logitech products other than the trackballs either, Goofyy.
posted by asok at 5:42 AM on June 18, 2009


The logitech thumb-trackball is my favouritest input device ever. I used to love left-handed computer users showing me how to do things at my desk - first, picking the trackball up, moving it to the other side of the keyboard, then realising they were even less able to operate it. Petty, fun times!

As for this 'mice' discussion. Meh. Mice will never take over. As seen at Ars Electronica a few years ago, these things are the post apocalyptic Dalek of tomorrow. Bow down now while Garnet Hertz seeks funding for an army.
posted by davemee at 5:48 AM on June 18, 2009



I keep a Logitech Trackman Wheel in my bag for use with my laptop and I use a Kensington Expert Mouse at home. Both are optical.

As many others have stated, I find I don't ever get a tired hand or wrist, it maximizes desk real estate, and frankly, I find it more intuitive. Both my trackballs have a dedicated scroll wheel (the Trackman has a mouse-like wheel and the Expert Mouse has a scroll ring around the ball), but for most scrolling I just use the click-and-spin method others have described.

I've gotten all kinds of reactions over the years when folks have needed to use my trackball. Most hate it, but I've created a few converts. People react far more strongly to the way I remap my keyboard to swap left control and capslock (i.e., the way it should be). I've actually switched to just making capslock another control to avoid confusion (and rest easy in the knowledge that nobody is sending any ALLCAPS missives from my machines without significant effort).
posted by tarnish at 6:02 AM on June 18, 2009


I honestly hope that someday soon the mouse will become a relic of the past. They are horrible hand-crippling devices.
posted by JJ86 at 7:24 AM on June 18, 2009


DecemberBoy: Yeah, and then it takes you 30 seconds to click on an icon because you keep going just past it. Awful, I'm tellin' you.

Goofyy: Reading this, I can imagine a trackball arrangement that features 2 balls, one for broad control (across the screen) the other for fine control (highlighting words). Maybe 1 ball, with a switch between modes would work.

At least with a finger trackball I've not found it to be a problem. You use the fingertips for fine control, and either spin the ball or the palm for big motions.

ceribus: Sure, try doing that quick momentum spin while your index finger has been hijacked to hold down the "mouse" button.

Mouse button is just under the thumb. But sometimes I use the shift key which is more precise and less strain anyway.
posted by KirkJobSluder at 7:40 AM on June 18, 2009


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