Why The Hell Would Anyone Use A Trackball Mouse?

With its big rolypoly ball and huge hand rest, the venerable trackball mouse looks like a holdover from 1996. Or maybe 1946 -- that's the first time a trackball was used as an input device in a computer. Its popularity has waned since the introduction of the mouse and then the trackpad. And for good reason. Those devices take up way less space! But here's the thing: The trackball is still good. Not just good -- the trackball is great. So great that Logitech is introducing its first trackball in many years is a cause for celebration -- even if I have some issues with my new favourite input device.

All images: Alex Cranz/Gizmodo

On the surface, the MX Ergo, Logitech's latest entry into a frustratingly niche category of input devices, looks and works a lot like its M570 predecessor, which was released in 2010. You rest your hand on the mouse-grip, fingers lying gently on the two buttons, and move the pointer across the screen by gently nudging the ball with your thumb. Having used a thumb trackball for more than a decade now this motion is second nature to me.

Not so to my coworkers, friends, family, and that one random IT guy who insists he needs access to my computer. "Ugggghrakjsdhasd" is one common response, usually coupled with a shudder that indicates the kind of revulsion that should be reserved for watching people eat bugs. "Why is this happening" or "oh God what is this," I hear as the pointer zooms across the screen and out of sight.

This one is adjustable!

There's definitely a learning curve, but once you've boned up on your computing via ball the trackball presents itself as the superior way to move the pointer across the screen. It's not as precise as a stylus or as fast as a mouse, but it's the absolute best blend of the two. I can carefully manipulate an image in Photoshop as neatly as I might with a stylus, and in a first person shooter flinging the ball lets me turns around nearly as quickly as a twitchier gaming.

The ergo-style trackball Logitech makes, with the ball manipulated by the thumb instead of other fingers, is also suited for trackballing anywhere! No hard surface needed -- a thigh, a pillow, the thin edge of an armrest are all surfaces you can precariously balance a trackball on.Logitech's latest foray into this venerable technology appears to put ergonomics first, with a magnetic plate on the bottom that allows you to adjust the tilt of the trackball. There's also a funky little groove to rest your pinky on. It's even got soft touch plastic. It's sort of like the trackball of equivalent of one of those foam mattresses -- perfectly conforming to the hand. Only it doesn't make you break out in nightsweats.

This scrollwheel is nice.

Besides the ergonomic changes, the MX Ergo has seen a major upgrade in the scrollwheel department over the M570. Owing to that fact that most trackballs place the ball in the scrollwheel position, the two usually aren't found together. Kensington, the only other trackball maker from an established manufacturer, doesn't have a trackball with a scrollwheel, and the Logitech M570 has a bad and gummy scrollwheel that feels like something you'd find on a cheap Gateway mouse yanked out of your mum's hallway junk closet. The scrollwheel on the MX Ergo has a subtle little click as you scroll, almost like you're rapidly popping the bubbles in plastic wrap. It also tilts left to right, a feature usually found in higher end pointing devices.

Other nice features on this newest trackball include the ability to connect via Bluetooth -- the first for a Logitech trackball, a button to adjust sensitivity of the trackball on the fly, and support for Logitech's software KVM switch, Flow. That will allow you to use the trackball with multiple PCs at once, shifting between devices with the press of a button.

The button next to the ball is for quick sensitivity adjustment.

In fact the MX Ergo is so good, and resolves so many of my issues with my previously favourite input device that I only really have one problem with it. I have to find a pen or chopstick whenever I want to remove the trackball itself.

That might seem like a minor inconvenience, but after decades of use I can tell you that trackballs accumulate stuff around their sensors. Dust, dead human skin, the occasional dried streak of dog saliva. It's inescapable and an expected downside of using what is otherwise the best kind of input device. Every couple of weeks (more if you're filthy) you have to pop the ball out, clean the dusty crusties off the sensor and hope the person sitting next to you doesn't notice and start gagging.

The hole uses for popping the trackball out is much deeper and more narrow on the MX Ergo than previous trackballs. So you'll need to keep some kind of stick on hand -- and the person sitting next to you is much more likely to notice.

But honestly, suck it up. At $US100 the MX Ergo is expensive, but it's the kind of luxury I'm totally ok with. You use a pointing device with your computer every day! You fingers skate across the device for hours and hours. So whatever you're using should be quality. If I managed the last seven years with an outdated Logitech M570 I can only imagine how many years I'll get out of the MX Ergo. If you're trackball obsessive -- or even just trackball curious -- this is $US100 you want to spend.

README

  • It's a new Logitech trackball for the first time since 2010.
  • You scroll with your thumb which is way more fun.
  • The learning curve is extreme which means people can't borrow your computer to just browse.
  • It's got Bluetooth, and improved ergonomics.

Comments

    Thanks for raising this point. I love my Logitech M570. Would keep an eye on the Ergo.

    The best trackballs in the market are still the Elecom ones, I think? Please consider writing an article on that.

    The one great thing about track balls is that you don't have to move your hand, so a small space, even your arm rest, suddenly becomes a full fledged mouse. Still use my old M570 with my media centre.

    Hmm. I agreed with the article title so read it to find out the answer.
    I'm still not convinced on using it for everyday work, but this bit:

    No hard surface needed — a thigh, a pillow, the thin edge of an armrest are all surfaces you can precariously balance a trackball on.

    ...got me wondering if a trackball would be a good controller for use with a Steam Box? Not for fast-paced shooters, but for puzzle games, Telltale games, hidden object games etc.

    A niche application but they are excellent to use on boats for software like Piscatus or Maxsea.

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