Trackball vs Mouse, and How to Choose a Trackball

By Xah Lee. Date: . Last updated: .

Trackball Advantage

  1. Easier to use than mouse. More healthy/ergonomic for hand. Requires less effort.
  2. No need to lift as with mouse.
  3. More stable pointer. The pointer won't move by accident.
trackballs 2017 08 89b67 s
[image source]

Mouse Advantage

  1. Mouse is better for fast linear movement with precision, as in first person shooter games.
  2. Mouse is easier for drag and drop.
  3. Mouse is easier to draw pictures than trackball. For example, try to write your name.

If you draw a lot, use a Pen Tablet

Why Trackball Can't Beat Mouse for FPS Games

Mouse excels at fast straight line jerks. (because, you simply push it, and this naturally can be done very fast, and naturally results in straight line movement.)

So, if the task is fast straight line jump to n points, mouse beats trackball, pen, trackpad, trackpoint.

For playing First Person Shooter games, the demand for the pointer control is exactly that, fast jump to n points, meaning, straight lines movements of the mouse.

Who Prefer Trackball?

Note, some gamers prefer trackball, but that's like 1 in ten thousand.

How to Choose a Trackball?

Most Important: Comfort

The most important thing when buying a trackball is comfort. How does it physically fit your hand.

All other aspects of trackball are less important than comfort.

When a trackball's ball size, position, button position, are designed in a way that you find it hard to operate, then it is a major pain.

Thumb Ball vs Index Finger Ball

logitech mx ergo trackball 70139 s305x205
Logitech MX Ergo
deft pro trackball m6n2d s207x302
Elecom DEFT Pro

Trackballs have many different designs and shapes. One major difference is thumb-operated ball vs index-finger operated ball.

Index finger ball is easier to use than the thumb ball. Because, with index finger ball, you can use the whole hand to move the ball. Thumb based design usually have the ball on the side, and you must use thumb.

Some people got thumb pain when using thumb ball for years.

If you use a thumb ball, try not to move your thumb too much. Instead, move your whole hand.

If you use a index finger ball, try not to move your wrist left/right too much. Instead, move your whole hand.

Does the Ball Spin?

When you buy a trackball, the less the ball friction, the better. If you can make the ball spin for few seconds, it's GOOD.

Unfortunately, basically no trackball can really spin. They all stop after 1 or 2 second.

Marble Madness control panel 76702
Marble Madness arcade trackball, big, can spin.

[see Marble Madness, Arcade Trackball]

Trackballs That Can Spin

see Trackballs That Can Spin

Physical Scroll Wheel/Ring

Physical scroll wheel is GOOD.

logitech mx ergo trackball 70139 s305x205
Logitech MX Ergo

Physical scroll ring is GOOD.

Kensington Orbit Trackball scroll ring
Kensington Orbit + Ring

Some trackballs have a touch-sensitive ring, it's no good. It doesn't work well.

Some trackballs let you hold one button and the ball becomes scroll wheel. That's no good. It's awkward to use.

Almost all trackballs made after 2015 have physical scroll wheel or ring.

[see Trackball Reviews]

Buttons Placement, How Many Buttons

Next importance is button placement. This really depends on the overall design.

There's no general way to say which is good. You just have to try it yourself, with your own hand, because each person's hand is different.

Trackball DPI Comparison

One thing about trackball is how far/fast it can move pointer.

In computer mouse, this is called DPI (dot per inch) (aka CPI, for Counts Per Inch).

Trackball also has DPI, but because different trackballs have different ball sizes, and some can spin better than others, so DPI is misleading.

Instead of counting DPI, a more practical way to judge trackball sensitivity is to rotate the ball half a circle, or whatever exposed area of the ball, and see how far the pointer moves.

It's rather complicated, because large trackballs only expose a small area, while smaller trackball exposes most of the ball surface.

In the end, you just want to roll the ball and feel it.

Here's a video that helps.

“Trackball DPI comparison” Logitech Trackman MarbleLogitech M570 wirelessKensington Orbit WirelessSlimblade

But, ultimately, it doesn't matter much. Because you can set acceleration in your Operating System {Microsoft Windows, Linux, Mac}. That is, with acceleration, the pointer moves further when you roll the ball faster.

However some really old trackball has DPI that is too low. On the Mac, if you turn sensitivity all the way up, it's still too slow. e.g. Logitech Trackman Marble. The Logitech Trackman Marble designed in 2004.

My Recommendation

See Best Trackballs 2018

Repetitive Strain Injury Alternatives

If you have RSI and don't like trackball, you might try some ergonomic mouse, or trackpad, or some fancy input devices.

Some people prefer touch-pad, but not all. For example, for me, i don't like rubbing my finger on a cold slab that doesn't yield physically.


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