M.I.A.: Bluetooth Trackballs

Kensington Turbo Mouse 5.0It’s been forever since I’ve used a traditional form factor mouse — whether with one, two or more buttons — as my day-to-day input device. At the office, I have a small Wacom Intuos tablet, which helps me traverse the 2,560 pixel-width of my dual monitor setup; it’s great. For my home setup, I’ve relied on some model of Kensington-branded trackball device for over a decade; right now, I have a four-button Turbo Mouse 5.0 that I bought in 1998. Believe it or not, it runs over Apple’s long-obscolesced ADB technology, and I use a Griffin iMate ADB-to-USB adapter to get it working with my modern, USB-only Macs.

The Turbo Mouse/iMate combination was always a kludge, even (or especially) under Mac OS 9.x. It would intermittently conk out, the mouse randomly failing to register as a functioning device on startup. But in a rare instance of improved support for aging hardware, each successive release of Mac OS X has actually improved the reliability of this curious input device configuration; under Mac OS X 10.2 Jaguar, I basically had to cross my fingers every time I rebooted with the Turbo Mouse/iMate plugged in, but now, under Mac OS X 10.4 Tiger, I’ve only ever seen that kind of hardware problem once or twice.

No Hardware Lives Forever

Given that scenario, I was hard-pressed to find a reason to ever stop using this Turbo Mouse; it’s been a sturdy performer for seven years and I foresaw nothing in Apple’s technology roadmap that would suggest it would break under future operating systems. Of course, that was too easy, as over the past few days it’s started giving me problems, occasionally and stubbornly refusing to shift the cursor point either up or down on my screen. In case you haven’t ever experienced a mousing device that refuses to allow you to move up or down, I can assure you it’s a pain in the ass.

That immediately put me back in the market for a new mousing device, naturally. As it happened, Apple released its Mighty Mouse this week, which brings an arguable amount of innovation and, at long last, a second button to Apple’s official mousing device offering. I was excited about it for only about a minute though; above all, what I really want is another, equally reliable trackball.

The Replacements

I’m much more tempted by Kensington’s latest, the black, stealth fighter-like Expert Mouse, and it’s probably the one I’ll end up buying. The company offers a corded, USB version and a cordless version that works over a radio frequency — but no Bluetooth version, and that’s what I really want. When I did a search for Bluetooth trackballs from any vendor, I came up with next to nothing — only an apparently long-delayed, forthcoming device from DVForge, but it seems under-featured for my needs.

For whatever reason, no one thinks there’s a market for Bluetooth trackballs, which I find to be quite odd. I even found an online petition aimed at Logitech, entreating them to please release such a model. I suppose trackballs are niche devices anyway, and that few enough people feel comfortable with them to further narrow that market with Bluetooth devices. But, jeez, for me, it’s such a no brainer. I’d buy one instantly.

  1. I don’t think they realize what a boon a bluetooth trackball along with a laptop would be. I have never used trackballs but I would buy a bluetooth trackball for this reason only: I often don’t have a surface to mouse on when using my laptop. Ah well, it’s only a matter of time I suppose.

  2. How do you handle using your graphics tablet with a dual-monitor setup? I find that really annoying, because the screen space is so wide, but the tablet still has a 4×3 ratio. So moving the pen left and right moves it further on the screen, relatively, than up and down. I use a mouse most of the time because I find I have to unplug my second screen when I want to use my Wacom.

  3. I have the Turbo Mouse at home and the Expert Mouse at work. As a long-time Turbo user, you won’t be disappointed in the Expert. The scroll wheel (which spins around the ball) is the best scrolling device I’ve ever used because, like the ball, it provides very precise control that small wheels cannot. You’re also upgrading from a devices with rollers to optical sensors. There are no more moving parts beneath the ball now – say goodbye to monthly hair and dust removal!

    I don’t have the wireless version because I don’t have to port it to and from work. It does seem odd that Kensington hasn’t gone bluetooth yet. I imagine it is only a matter of weeks now. But if you can’t wait, go head and get the Expert now. The only conceivable drawback is the laughter of co-workers when they see the star trek behemoth on your desk. But it’s worth it.

  4. Piers: If I remember correctly, I think I did have a very short adjustment period using the tablet with the dual monitor setup, but since then it’s been absolutely natural for me. In fact, I have one of the smaller Intuos tablets, and I still find precise mousing to be very easy. In some ways, I even prefer it to the trackball.

    Stephen: There’s something ridiculous-looking about the Expert Mouse, definitely, but I’m really encouraged by your remarks. I think Kensington’s mousing products are leagues above the competition. And I hope you’re right about an impending Bluetooth announcement; I’m just not too optimistic.

  5. Bluetooth mice (in their traditional form factor) are a no-brainer, because they’re meant to be moved around. Who wants to be tied down by a cord?

    But trackballs just sit there. The cord doesn’t interfere with regular use. I think it’s this, plus (as you mentioned, Khoi) the small size of the trackball market, that has kept a bluetooth device from being released.

  6. I use an Intuos3 tablet, and I’d be surprised if you can’t change the tablet’s mapping to be proportioned to the dimensions of your screen (In other words, mapping a 16:9 screen to the middle vertical-third of the 4:3 tablet, or whathaveyou). Granted, at that point you’d be “wasting” the top and bottom portions of the tablet surface, but at least it would be more intuitively mapped.

    I currently have mine set to map 100% of the screen to 95% of the tablet, so I have a little open room on the edges of the tablet surface. I find it easier to select items on the dock and menus that way.

  7. John Z.: At first I found your argument very convincing, but then I started thinking — why do they sell wireless RF trackballs then? I think there definitely is a need for untethered trackball devices — I’d love to shuttle a single Expert Mouse between a few different Bluetooth-enabled Macs from time to time, for example. Rather, I think the problem is the lack of faith in the marketplace for Bluetooth PC peripherals.

  8. Avoid DVForge at all costs — Jack Campbell (the owner) is a known crook. And even if his business practices weren’t illegal, his products are still generally shoddy (just look at any Macworld review for any DVForge product).

  9. Great point, Khoi. Hadn’t considered the RF trackballs. Your idea about moving mice/trackballs from Mac to Mac is a use I hadn’t thought of — which is odd because I do it every day with my Apple Bluetooth mouse. 🙂

    Of course, there are always aesthetic concerns, and these can be a pretty strong motivating factor in the Mac market. For example, I would definitely splurge for the wireless mac and keyboard if buying an iMac these days.

  10. I had to give up using a trackball after I got this numbing sensation in my wrist which I’m sure was the warning sign for something much worse.

    Somehow it’s easier to put your [read: my] wrist in a carpal-offending position using one of those things.. maybe if I’d tried using it backwards (sloping down and away not up and away).

    I do miss the turboMouse however..

  11. I second Sage’s comments – avoid DVForge/Macmice. The owner’s posts in various Mac forums show quite clearly that he is not acting in good faith.

    The Expert Mouse does look quite nice, though I wonder; if companies are willing to provide wireless trackballs but are afraid that most PCs do not have built in Bluetooth support…
    Why not include a BT dongle? Any wireless device must have a base station anyway; they are out those costs already.

    Is the some patent royalty that Bluetooth implies?


  12. Ah! Trackballs! I used to have one many moons ago, hooked up to my trusty old Mac IIfx. Ahh, the golden days. Booting MacOS (which wasn’t called MacOS yet) in a sexy 3 seconds, after which it took less than a meg of RAM… But I digress.

    I too experienced the numbing thing that John Fairley mentions a few comments ago. That, coupled with the obscene amount of batteries the thing required on a yearly basis (it was a wireless (IR) contraption) and the somewhat shoddy button quality made me ditch it. It wasn’t a TurboMouse. Don’t know the exact brand, but it was 5 letters and had an S in it. I believe it ended in “cos” or “tos” something.

    Slightly off-topic: I once saw a trackball-like device, only it wasn’t really a trackball. It had a huge rubber sphere on top that you could hold and move in any dimension. You could turn, roll, yaw, pitch and make coffee with the damn thing. And I’m really wondering why you don’t see these things anymore, as you’d think that they’d be a boon to 3D types and gamers.

  13. Strange, most of the people I know with carpal tunnels got that way using mice and bad ergonomics. They all use trackballs now.

    BT trackballs would be great for mobile setups. One less wire, on less thing to plug/unplug. When you get home, use it with your desktop and charge it at night. Perfect!

  14. I have used trackballs for years, and love them. I find the Kensington trackballs far superior to others I have tried. I am now using a Kensington wireless trackball with a 12 inch Powerbook in my temporary office in Brazil, and I love it. But the dongle is a pain. I like to sit in a comfortable chair, put the laptop in my lap and the trackball on the arm of the chair. But as I say, the dongle is a pain. I have about six Kensington trackballs on different computers, and I would replace them all with Bluetooth trackballs if they became available.

  15. I am glad I am not alone. I can’t understand it.
    My palm starts to lock up or feel cramped after a few minuets with a mouse, I have a Dell XPSg2 with BT, and have been searching for a BT trackball. I have a Kennsiton Pro at my desktop, and have been eyeing the Expert with its track weel, but detest the idea of a dongle. I have a logitech Marble “mouse” (trackball) that was free and I use that now, but the cord… alaways needing to make sure it isn’t under the laptop…. etc…. anyone figure out how toi make/convert a trackball to BT??

  16. I use a Logitech RF keyboard and a Logtech RF TrackMan FX. Technically I don’t NEED either. So why do I have them? Convenience. It’s exceedingly convenient to just toss my keyboard and trackball on my bed when I need to use my desk, instead of having to carefully lift them out of the way while making sure the cords don’t knock over anything important. It could be even more convenient if I could just have a USB key plugged into the back of my computer that could recieve data from all my devices instead of needing a separate reciever for each.

    And I signed the petition.

  17. John Pollock: what wireless trackball by kensington do you use at the moment? I bought a Orbit Elite Wireless (RF) that fails to show up in System Profiler, let alone moves the mouse pointer around (the replacement model has this same deficiency that I would accept from a paper weight, but not from my trackball.

    I for one would be very happy to buy a wireless trackball (for aesthetic reasons mostly, as I agree to John Zeratsky’s point the cord is never in the way of movement, however, it is in the way of my eyes 😉 ).

  18. I would like a wireless trackball for laptop usage. I would put the trackball on my knee or the chair arm or wherever without using up a USB port for a stupid dongle. I can’t imagine why either Logitech or Kensington hasn’t produced one yet. There is a HUGE demand for this item, but they seem to be blind to it. I don’t know why ALL their wireless trackballs aren’t BT. Maybe because they’re like 10yrs old or so and they don’t want to invest in the $5 of R&D it would take to switch the transmitter over? Ugh. I’m so frustrated! I’ve been looking for a bluetooth trackball forever, and eventually just bought a stupid bt mouse hoping it would satisfy me. It doesn’t, of course, because you sometimes don’t have the surface area available for a stupid mouse when you use a laptop! Now I have to carry a mousepad along with my hyper-expensive Microsloth bluetooth mouse, which, by the way, seems to suck up AA batteries like the cookie monster does cookies (there is no on/off switch on this mouse, which I find to be unconsionable (sp?))

    Sorry for my rant! I just had to get it off my chest!

  19. I’ve been using an Orbit since I got my 9600/450 9 years ago. Can’t imagine mice. Carpal tunnel real fast.

    But the real deal with all the input devices is that they need to be down at lap level. If you’ve ever played the piano you probably know that the keyboard is not supposed to be halfway up your chest. The same applies to keyboards and other imput devices. Then, the other important part is that the hand needs to be horizontal from the lower arm with the fingers dropping down from the palm of the hand. Never force the fingers up above the level of the palm knuckles.

    I’m thinking of buying a 15″ or 17″ Powerbook and a LaCie 19″ for home use. I’m a photographer so I spend a lot of time with the computer. The Orbit is too big for travel but it appears there are no wireless trackballs in the marketplace for Macs that are travel size.

    Anybody got any suggestions for things I might have missed in a couple hours on the web?

  20. I have been a Kensington ExpertMouse (i.e. trackball) since its original release and can’t imagine computing without it. Especially with the 2 additional (configurable)keys. Left Top Key is always Alt+F4 command and the Right Top key is the Ctrl+F4 command. 5 year warranty and the ball-bearings used are just the perks.
    Unfortunately, this $100 product is not complimentary to any laptop due to the sheer size! I have been hard-pressed to find an equivalent alternative. Small form factor trackballs should be integrated to all laptop, as I continue noticing what a cumbersome beast a TouchPad is. There are a slew of laptop users that just don’t seem to be able to navigate with a TouchPad. Unfortunately, installing an auxiliary mouse to laptops (with TouchPads) usually screws up the settings for the TouchPad.
    I am still in a hunt for an alternative HID (with wheel) for a laptop that does not require installation software (would prefer plug and play type drivers built-in).

  21. Chwangyi is a Jack Campbell company same as DVForge/MacMice, just renamed. But having said that, I went and purchased their bluetooth trackball anyway. Received it the other day. It’s not a very good device ergonomically, but it works, it’s a trackball and its bluetooth; as advertised. I prefer and will still use my USB-dongled Logitech ‘Cordless’ Optical Trackman when I’ve got the laptop docked at my desk (though I’d actually rather that device was corded rather than ‘cordless-but-with-a-dongle’), but for a device to carry around in my laptop case and use ~wherever~, The Ball ain’t too bad.

Thank you! Your remarks have been sent to Khoi.