For many people, a trackball mouse remains shrouded in mystery, something reserved for, well, someone else. As other pointing devices such as the vertical mice, touchpads, and even touch screens have made the jump to mainstream, it’s 2019, and people are still asking just what problem the trackball solves. Usually these are people who have never used a trackball before.
The fact is, there’s a reason why trackballs have stood the test of time and is still around. From both an ergonomic and productivity standpoint, it may surprise you that a trackball mouse can in fact be superior to the regular mouse you’re currently using, though the fine print is under the right circumstances.
In this post I’ll compare the trackball against a regular mouse in all the key areas that matter- ergonomics, productivity, and longevity- to help you decide if your next mouse should be a trackball instead, and when.
The 2 Main Types of Trackball Mouse
Let’s first go over the two main types of trackball mouse, each with its own legion of rabid fans:
- Thumb Operated Trackball: In this form factor the trackball is located where the thumb is, with the rest of the device resembling a normal mouse. You use your thumb to maneuver the trackball, and your index and ring fingers to click the left/right buttons and move the scroll wheel as you would a regular mouse. They are usually designed for right hand users only. One of the best thumb operated trackball IMO is the Logitech MX Ergo Advanced.
- Fingers Operated Trackball: In this form factor you control a large ball using your index and middle fingers (though really any combination of your 5 digits works). Large buttons located on the sides act as left and right buttons, controlled using your thumb and pinky fingers. Some finger trackballs come with a scroll ring to simplify web page scrolling. One obvious advantage of fingers operated trackballs over the thumb version is that they are ambidextrous, suitable for both left and right handed use. One of the best fingers operated trackball IMO is the Kensington Orbit.
Trackball vs Regular Mouse- Which is More Ergonomic?
Much of the conversation on the ergonomics of a trackball is based on “ergonomic theory”. There is very little formal research on the subject, though according to Roberta Carson, an ergonomist at ErgoFit, many of the health problems associated with a regular mouse can theoretically be avoided by switching over to a trackball simply based on the fact that the later uses very different muscle groups to operate.
The most common types of computing RSI (repetitive strain injuries) such as carpal tunnel and tendinitis occur due to repeated use of the wrist and unnatural rotation of the forearms and shoulders. A trackball is vastly different from a regular mouse in that your thumb or entire hand and arm is used to manipulate the trackball. These are larger and less tender muscles that are less likely to get injured compared to the muscles required to manipulate a regular mouse.
There is also plenty of antidodical evidence to backup the benefits of a trackball, especially for people who experience hand camps and wrist pain from holding and manipulating a regular mouse. It doesn’t take 10 studies to confirm that a device that minimizes unnatural wrist movements can be helpful for people who suffer from wrist pain, for example.
Advantages of the Trackball Mouse
As a long time user of the trackball (currently the Kensington Orbit), I think I’m somewhat qualified to weigh in on the pros and cons of a trackball. Based on my own experience and opinions from ergonomists around the web, here are the types of people who would benefit most from a trackball mouse:
- People with existing RSI issues stemming from using a regular mouse: There is very little “windshield” motion using the wrist when operating a trackball. Your arms and shoulders are in a neutral position, with most of the movements occurring in either your thumb or different combination of your fingers. Common RSI such as carpal tunnel syndrome, tendentious, and hand cramps happen due to the shape of a regular mouse and the posture required to operate it.
- Disabled or old people who cannot hold a mouse steady while clicking: My dad actually suffers from this issue. With a trackball however, he’s able to position the cursor exactly where he wants to on the screen, move his hand away from the trackball, then use the left button to double click.
- People whose hands or fingers get fatigued easily: A trackball ambidextrous design (the fingers operated models) is ideal for people whose hands or fingers strain quickly. It lets you switch between your left and right hand to operate, distributing the stress evenly across the two sides.
- People who work in tight spaces: If you often take your laptop to cafes or outside where a flat surface area is scarce, a trackball mouse is the perfect alternative to a regular mouse. The device itself stays completely stationary as you navigate web pages, highlight text, or close and open applications. I use a wireless Kensington Expert Mouse in my living room to control the laptop that’s hooked up to the TV. It’s so convenient to control the laptop from the comfort of my couch:
Disadvantages of the Trackball Mouse
There are always two sides to a coin. A trackball mouse can be counterproductive in certain scenarios. Specifically, trackballs are:
- Not as precise as a mouse for certain tasks: As you get used to a trackball, your accuracy will improve, though for many people (like myself), it may never reach the level of precision of a regular mouse. The problem is that the trackball is simply more sensitive than a regular mouse; a glossy ball requires far less force to move than an entire mouse. An accidental touch of the ball, and the cursor is off the target. This is why certain detail oriented tasks like selecting a few letters within a word or dragging a file to its destination is slower using a trackball, at least for me. For browsing web pages, interacting with programs, and most tasks that don’t require the cursor to be at and hold a precise location on the screen, however, there is little tangible difference in accuracy between a trackball and a mouse.
- Not suited for fast paced gaming: There’s no two ways about it, a trackball is simply slower than a mouse in moving the cursor in a linear line, from point a to b on the screen. This is because every rotation of the trackball only moves the cursor a certain distance on the screen.
Compare that to a regular mouse, where one swift motion using your arm can have the cursor travel the entire distance of the screen in a split second. For certain types of games such as FPS, you will probably find yourself thoroughly pwned if you’re using anything but a regular mouse.
Here are my typical results when doing a simple speed and accuracy test using a regular and trackball mouse. As you can see, overall I’m twice as fast and accurate with the former:
Thumb or Finger Operated Trackball?
Personally I’m in favor of the fingers operated trackball, though just to show how divided people are on the subject, my colleague Jon swears by his thumbs operated Logitech Ergo Mouse. In reality there is no size that fits all.
If you love everything about the traditional mouse but simply want to limit your wrist and forearm movements to prevent straining those areas, the thumb trackball strikes the perfect balance between the two worlds.
In general, however, a fingers operated trackball is more ergonomic, according to Roberta Carson. It lets you use different fingers or even your palm or arm to move the ball. The variety and larger muscles involved means a reduction in the chances of injuring them. Watch this short clip to see how versatile a fingers trackball can be in terms of operation:
Trackball vs the Trackpad
If your primary pointing device is the trackpad on your laptop, you might be curious to learn just how a trackball compares to it.
In terms of ergonomics, both the trackball and trackpad let you manipulate the cursor using a combination of fingers. This greatly reduces the chances of developing RSI from overuse of a particular extremity. And while the thumb operated trackball does rely on your thumb specifically, it is still better than using your forefinger for repetitive motions, according to Roberta Carson.
Furthermore, all trackballs provide a contoured area for your hand to rest on, unlike a trackpad where your hand is totally unsupported, with your wrist bearing the majority of the burden. So in short, at least based on my assessment, a trackball is more ergonomic than a trackpad.
In terms of productivity, a study comparing the amount of time required to a complete a cursor related task using a trackpad and a trackball came out favorably for the trackball. The study probably didn’t make use of multi-touch features found on modern trackpads, but it is still comforting to know you can probably be just as productive with a trackball mouse compared to your laptop’s trackpad.
In short, while the jury will always be out on what the most ergonomic form factor for a pointing device is, in my opinion, there are some clear circumstances that favor at least giving a trackball a try:
- If you suffer from common mouse related strains such as carpal tunnel syndrome, tendinitis, and hand cramps.
- If you have trouble keeping the cursor in the proper location as you click or double click.
- If you suffer from fatigue or strain using a trackpad.
When a flat surface is unavailable or at a premium, such as on the couch or outside.
Precision and speed will be a factor for many people using a trackball. As such, for the rest of us, an ergonomically designed horizontal or vertical mouse is probably still a better choice.