Advantages & Disadvantages of a Trackball

Close-up of a woman using a computer mouse
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A trackball is a type of mouse that perform the same tasks as a regular mouse, but works differently. Trackballs have rotating balls on their tops or sides that you roll when you want to go somewhere or do something. Depending on the model you choose, you might control it with your thumb, fingers or even the palm of your hand. Before making the switch to a trackball, it's worth considering the advantages and disadvantages.

Ergonomic Benefits

Using a regular mouse can cause physical strain. You have to move the mouse to make it work, using your hand and arm to make repetitive and sometimes unnatural movements. A trackball mouse has ergonomic advantages, because you move the ball and not the mouse itself. The Occupational Health & Safety Administration's recommendations on safe and comfortable computer use state that trackballs may be "less fatiguing" for some tasks. They may also better suit people with conditions that affect mobility such as arthritis and carpal tunnel syndrome.

Precision and Control

A regular mouse works only in a finite space. If you run out of room, you have to stop what you are doing, reposition it and start over. This isn't an issue with a trackball as the ball runs independently within the mouse casing, enabling precise and fluid movements and control. You don't have to rely on hand movements to complete actions and you don't have to deal with accidental mouse twitches or jerks that mess up what you're doing. Being able to control the ball with your fingers or thumb gives you finer manipulation control. This extra precision makes the trackball popular in certain applications, such as computer-aided design and gaming.

Space and Positioning

A trackball may be bigger than a regular mouse, but it has a smaller footprint. A mouse needs clear and flat space to work effectively. All a trackball mouse needs is space to stand. It doesn't need to be on a flat surface, making it a useful solution if you want to use a mouse with your laptop but aren't close to a desk or table. You can put trackballs on couches, beds, legs and even hold them up like a remote control -- they'll still work as long as you can roll the ball.

Control Limitations

If you usually use a regular mouse, it can take a while to get the best out of a trackball. You may also find that a trackball doesn't perform as well on some simple activities. For example, you may find it harder to cut and paste, and click and drag. If you use a mouse with a central trackball, you may find finger combination clicks are less easy than on a regular mouse because you may need to keep one finger on the ball.

Physical Limitations

The larger size of a trackball mouse can cause some problems if you have small hands. You may find that you can't use the mouse without stretching your hand or fingers, making it harder to control effectively. Although trackballs have ergonomic benefits, they may also cause some physical issues, especially if you use them for long periods. This may be a particular problem with thumb trackballs, which require you to use your thumb repetitively.

Cost and Availability

You have less choice when you're buying a trackball compared to the options available when buying a regular mouse. A limited number of manufacturers produce these devices, and their costs are typically higher. For example, you can pick up a basic mouse for just a few dollars. At the time of publication, the cheapest trackball mouse from Kensington, one of the main manufacturers in this field, retails at $29.99 with its most expensive model costing $129.99.