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Tuesday, December 30, 2014

Making Tracks with Trackballs

On the Right Track Dept.: Do you know where you’re headed next year? Neither do I. So let’s wander back a couple of decades for another nostalgic look at the kind of computer gadgetry I wrote about. I found my original copy and compared it to the witless editing it received before seeing print and, so that you, too, may keep your holiday bubbly down, herewith provide the former.


THERE’S NO STANDARDIZATION among pointing devices, which is both a luxury and a headache. Plenty of gadgets compete for our attention, some of them admirably suited to particular applications. But when it comes to portable computing, the need for something small and lightweight and versatile is obsessive, and it has kept a lot of pointing device designers busy.

Trackballs are the most popular add-on pointing devices, giving the flexibility of a mouse in a stationary package. According to the ergonomics experts, it doesn’t hurt--literally--to move your hand around from time to time. So a trackball that gets you away from the keyboard, even briefly, is a good antidote to the aches of cramped typing.

The seven trackballs we tested are a testimony to imaginative design, all of them variations on the simple theme of an ensemble of ball and buttons. Each is designed for use with an IBM-compatible computer, and all of them could be used with a desktop as well as a portable machine. And they all recognize that we’re differently handed, usually offering extra buttons to anticipate where our fingers might land.

Friction is the key to trackball success. A tiny bit of resistance controls the ease with which you’re able to scoot your cursor across the screen. Unfortunately, friction also means that the ball is picking up grease from your palm and fingers (and even the cleanest hand has some measure of, sorry to say it, slime), so that an annoying coating eventually inhibits easy use. Therefore it’s important that the ball be accessible for regular cleaning.

Windows applications are the most pointing hungry, so good Windows-based utilities are a help. Some of the products we saw turn you over to the standard Microsoft mouse driver that’s included with Windows; some go so far in the other direction that they let you define trackball keys to give application commands.

We tested these products on a Zenith Z-Star 486-based 33 MHZ notebook computer, which sports an entirely different kind of pointer – the J Mouse. Like most notebooks, this one has a PS/2 port for a mouse, saving the COM port for other hardware. Trackball units with clips were tested on both sides of the keyboard, both to look at orientation-switching utilities and to see if the cord makes it across the computer when the trackball is opposite the port.

Along with the requisite games of solitaire, we worked with word processing, graphics, and desktop publishing programs, looking for cursor-intensive work as well as tasks that require switching from pointer to keyboard.

General wisdom suggests that the larger trackballs are easier to steer and therefore more desirable, and in most respects that’s true. But the largest trackball belonged to Kensington’s Expert Mouse, which was too big for convenient mobile use, and one of the smallest is in the Logitech TrackMan Voyager, which got the First Class Award--chiefly for its versatility.

DynaTrak Portable

Taking its cue from the Microsoft BallPoint styling, the DynaTrak is a clip-on-the-side-of-your-notebook model that places a pair of buttons at each side of the body, making it easy to shift the unit from one side of the computer to the other. Right-handed use needs only the standard Microsoft mouse driver; if you’re a lefty, you need to load a driver from the included diskette.

Good heft, a 24-millimeter trackball, and a solid clip assembly are the strengths here. The clip’s metal fingers grab the side of a notebook computer and are secured by a thumbscrew on the underside. A hinge lets you swing the body of the trackball up, and the body easily detaches altogether for handheld use.

The buttons are only about an inch long, which means you’re not too free to curl your fingers around this in any position you choose. The cord, which terminates in a serial plug and therefore needs a PS/2 adapter to work with the now-common mouse port, is too short to allow the trackball to be used on the other side of the machine from that port without an extension

Getting that pointer across the machine without annoying effort is probably the most job for a trackball, and this one does it very comfortably, responding consistently well to different finger angles and pressure. And a removable collar allows easy access to the trackball for cleaning. A bonus is the sturdy carrying case, an essential for any portable pointer.

Pluses: Responsive trackball, easy to clean, good mounting clip
Minuses: Needs a PS/2 adapter, short cord, no utility software for Windows

DynaPoint, Inc.
1016-B Lawson Street
City of Industry, CA 91748
Price: $49

Genius HiPoint

In trying to be innovative, the designers of this trackball lost sight of some ease of use issues. Being of the mount-on-the-side-of-your-notebook style of trackball, its wide, spring-loaded clamp has too much vertical play. The trackball unit slides off of the clamp too easily, and right-handed user may find that an eager hand movement will at least slide the whole thing along the side of the computer if the trackball section doesn’t pop off.

For handheld use, the quarter-circle shape is comfortable and the primary button, which wraps around the curved side, is easy to find. The second button is a little more awkward; it’s an aspirin-sized neighbor of the ball, and probably needs a finger shift to operate. The 24 millimeter ball’s retaining collar comes off with a twist for easy cleaning access.

Plenty of cord is provided: the attached one ends in a serial plug; connect it to the supplied extension and you can take the thing halfway across the room. A PS/2 port adapter lets you plug into the mouse port; a 9-pin to 25-pin serial adapter lets you plug into just about any antique machine.

Windows and DOS programs are installed through a DOS-based routine, but you’re left with a good Windows utility that lets you change orientation, buttons, and speed – including a “hyperspace” setting for the cursor-driving maniac.

A carrying case lets you pack the trackball and all of its adapters for road use, but you may want to leave the clip behind: this will feel much more comfortable in your palm.

Pluses: Fits the hand comfortably, responsive trackball
Minuses: Awkwardly designed clamp, small secondary button

KYE International Corp.
2605 E. Cedar St.
Ontario, CA 91761
Price: $46.99

Info Track Model MUHTB

Is there a feeling of extra security when you wrap your hand around a trackball? Info Products thinks so, and designed the Info Track to easily move from desktop to handheld use. A rounded palmrest makes it comfortable for desktop use, although its rubber underside grips don’t easily stop it from sliding on the desk. Still, this is the lowest-priced unit of those we tested, and the price makes it a huge bargain.

It’s also suited for the ambidextrous use: two large buttons flank the centered trackball, both of them serving as the primary; secondary button is the size of a large pill, just behind the trackball.

The trackball itself is medium-sized (24 millimeters), and rolls easily against the usual roller contacts. No easy method for trackball cleaning here: you have to remove three screws and pop the halves apart to get the ball out. The cord terminates in a PS/2 connector, with a serial port adapter provided.

Microsoft mouse driver compatibility lets you use this in Windows with a default set-up. A DOS-based driver is supplied, with rudimentary command-line options for changing the cursor travel rate. Another option lets you turn the third button into a click-and-hold signal for easy cursor dragging.

Although the Info Track weighs so little that it doesn’t feel particularly sturdy, that lightness is a boon when using this on the road. It will fit nicely in your laptop bag, and you don’t even need any room on the airplane’s tray table for it.

Pluses: Good trackball resistance, comfortable desktop and handheld use
Minuses: Trackball is difficult to clean, unit is too lightweight

Info Products
541 Division Street
Campbell, CA 95008
Price: $22.50

Kensington Expert Mouse 4.0

Here’s the finest trackball of the group in terms of precision, and the most awkward in terms of portability. Kensington’s Expert Mouse is really a desktop instrument that’s favored by artists and graphic designers – anyone who needs to move a cursor pixel by pixel.

With a base size of 5.75" x 4.5", it’s twice the size of most portable units. But it sits firmly on the desk (or table, or tray table) and allows the optical sensors in the base to note every nudge of the ball. Two large buttons flank the trackball, which, at 51 millimeters, is more than twice as wide as the largest of the other trackballs we tested.

The buttons can be programmed to perform a variety of functions, including application-specific commands, and different configurations can be saved to go with different tasks. A good set of Windows-based utilities lets you customize the speed and sensitivity of the trackball’s movement.

With no collar at all to hold the ball in place, this is the easiest of them all to clean; it’s also the most precarious if you have to transport it and lose track, so to speak, of the undersized cue ball.

If you’re already accustomed to this measure of precision, you’ll probably make the necessary allowances to take this on the road with you. Otherwise, leave it on the desk where it belongs.

Pluses: The most precise trackball of them all, customizable for specific applications
Minuses: Too bulky for mobile use

Kensington Microware Limited
2855 Campus Drive
San Mateo, CA 94403
Price: $149.95

Logitech TrackMan Voyager

Want your trackball to clip to the side of your computer? Want to use it in the palm of your hand? On your desktop? Want easy access to the buttons? It’s all here, in a cleverly designed gadget that lets you use it any way that’s comfortable, and probably adds some ways you never thought of before.

It’s sort of curved, sort of ovoid; it’s easy to curve either hand around it, and your fingers will land near one or two of the three buttons. The computer clip adjusts easily, letting you choose the approximate width by sliding the metal overhang into the appropriate slot and then letting a spring-loaded bar do the rest. Remove the cover and attach it to the backside of the trackball and you have a comfortable palmrest for desktop use.

The only drawback is the small trackball – it’s 18 millimeters in diameter – which tires the hand and fingers after a while. But there’s a built-in cure: change position.

Although the standard Microsoft mouse driver that comes with Windows will drive this one, Logitech gives its own set of drivers and utilities. Under DOS, the driver uses Helix’s “cloaking” technology to load in high memory.

The TrackMan Voyager is a textbook study of good industrial design, especially well suited for mobile use. Try not to fall in love with any particular pointing position, because the others are worthy of at least a flirtation or two.

Pluses: Extremely versatile, sturdy computer-side clip, good software utilities
Minuses: Small trackball

Logitech Inc.
6505 Kaiser Drive
Fremont, CA 94555
Price: $89.95

Microsoft BallPoint Mouse, version 2.0

The first version of this device was good; the revision fixed almost all of the problems. The half-moon shape is comfortable in the hand, whether cradled in the palm or clipped to the side of a portable computer. The large, curved buttons on each side are easy to reach from any position, and the large button on the face of the BallPoint surrounds more than half of the trackball.

The three buttons can be configured in to perform any of the standard mouse-button functions, and an impressive utility program lets you assign an application-specific feature to an otherwise underused button.

A firm grip against your portable computer is ensured by the redesigned clamp, which slides a metal bracket over the edge and then lets you tighten two nylon screws with a coin. The BallPoint then clips onto the clamp, although detaching it again is a difficult. Different-sized clamps are available for different-sized computers, and Microsoft also offers a desktop stand, but those don’t come with the package.

You do get an extra ball of contrasting material. One is smooth and rolls easily, while the roughened surface of the other causes more friction, which may be good for the ham-handed. At 27 millimeters, the trackball also has a larger diameter than most of the others we tested.

Not surprisingly, given Microsoft’s approach to its products, this one is extremely well thought-out and should fulfill almost every portable pointing need.

Pluses: Comfortable design, solid trackball movement, versatile software
Minuses: Desktop clip costs extra

Microsoft Corp.
One Microsoft Way
Redmond, WA 98052
Price: $79.95

MicroSpeed MicroTRAC Trackball

The best reason for adding a third-party pointing device to your portable computer is to get away from tiny trackballs. MicroTRAC’s 18 millimeter trackball isn’t the smallest you’ll find in a machine, but it’s among the smallest aftermarket products.

It’s extremely small and therefore portable – it needs only 2" x 2.75" of desk space – but it’s most comfortably used as a desktop unit. Despite its size, it feels sturdy and has rubberized feet that grip a table top securely.

Buttons fan out on three sides of the trackball, and can be configured with the supplied software; if the “drag lock” feature is assigned to one of the buttons, an LED on the MicroTRAC lights to remind you that you’re in drag mode.

The long, coiled cord ends in a heavy serial plug, but a pigtail adapter for PS/2 use is part of the package, as well as a carrying case and an assortment of gaily-colored trackballs should the default black one violate your desktop’s decor. An L-bracket and strips of Velcro are also included to let you connect the MicroTRAC to your computer, but it’s an ungainly system that will only leave the side of your computer sticky.

Lots of rolling is needed to move the cursor from one side of the screen to the other; even with its 400 dots-per-inch resolution, each time you increase the acceleration, you lose a measure of precision. That’s the major trade-off with this trackball.

Pluses: Smooth, consistent trackball roll, small and lightweight
Minuses: Tiny trackball, handheld operation uncomfortable

MicroSpeed, Inc.
5005 Brandin Ct.
Fremont, CA 94538
Price: $89.95

This is practically a tie, because the Microsoft BallPoint Mouse has its own impressive strengths. It edges the TrackMan Voyager in trackball size, but the Logitech unit really shines in its versatility. No part of the unit is wasted: a protective cover, which enhances portability, turns into a desktop palmrest. The clamping assembly easily accommodates many sizes of notebook rim, but has a firm grip when it’s applied. The three buttons are easy to reach and easier still to reconfigure.

Logitech and Microsoft led the way to PS/2 plugs on their pointers, and they both provide good Windows utilities for customizing button and pointer orientation – important if you change pointing venue in mid-project.

Logitech aped the BallPoint design for one of its other portable pointers, but the TrackMan Voyager cruises way ahead in terms of convenience. The one truth about mobile computing is that you can’t be sure what kind of space you’ll end up in next. Whatever it is, this gadget will adapt.

Mobile Office, July 1995

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