Sometimes, you are just drawn to a technology or a tool, there's no explanation, and there's no going back. That's the way it was with me and trackballs: I'd only had a laptop for a few months when I discovered trackballs, decided it was my cup of tea, bought one, and have been using them exclusively ever since. In that time – almost fifteen years, at this point – I have used a lot of different trackballs. Each one is almost great, but missing one thing. This is the story of my quest for trackball nirvana.
My first trackball was a Kensington Orbit and I'm wildly nostalgic about it for that reason, but because it was mechanical, not optical, it wasn't actually the best device. You can still find them on ebay once in awhile! Look for the device with the blue ball and white body. I frequently had to lift the ball out and scrub the rollers with a fingernail or toothbrush. Eventually I dug a little notch in one of the rollers that prevented the ball from turning properly, and that was the end of that. Mechanical pointing devices, mice included, suck, and I'd never buy another mechanical trackball either. The optical technology is just too much better for me to shed any tears over this old roller. So I replaced it with a newer model Kensington Orbit, and was immediately thrilled. The thing sits well in your hand, with a low profile; you left click with a thumb and right click with your third or fourth finger, and you can use the combination of your index, middle, and fourth fingers to manipulate the ball, giving pretty extraordinary accuracy. It began to annoy me, though, that it had no natural way to scroll up and down through documents, and I began wanting a trackball that allowed for scrolling. Though I replaced it with newer trackballs, I kept it around and still use it from time to time: it still amazes me with how comfortably it fits in my hand.
Logitech Trackman Wheel
This thing has a lovely scroll wheel right between the buttons. You work the buttons with your index and middle fingers, and the scroll wheel has a nice weight and is comfortably positioned between them, which makes it very nice to use. But to put the wheel and buttons up front, they had to move the trackball to the side, where you roll it with your thumb. The device has a lovely, arched shape that contours very well to your hand and is comfortable for long stretches of time, but I found manipulating the ball with a thumb to be tedious. Not only is it harder to use accurately but I actually find my thumb getting tired after a long day at work -- for graphics, in particular.
Kensington Orbit Scroll
I'd liked my other Kensington so much I thought this would be the magic ticket, but no. Instead of simply adding the scroll ring to the previous design and leaving every other aspect alone, they actually changed the device's general shape. The Orbit Scroll is a bit higher. You still use buttons with your thumb and middle finger like the other one, and manipulate the ball with your index, middle, and fourth fingers as before. I find that, strangely (although it's not a problem), I manipulate the scroll ring with my thumb and fourth finger, which is a strange combination. It's not bad, but somehow I wish they'd just left well enough alone with regard to the previous design, which I had loved so much and which had been so comfortable.
An experimental purchase from a previously-unknown company turned out badly. On the plus side, it's got a big trackball up front and a scroll-wheel on the side. That seemed like the perfect combination, and perhaps it would have been had the entire device's shape not been so off. It's a broad, flat thing but retains a high profile, so it feels a bit like putting your hand on top of a book, or something. The buttons are perhaps too far forward, but whatever the issue is with the buttons, I conclude they're in the wrong place because it's never easy to reach them. I first found myself clicking with an extended first finger, which was a bit awkward. But clicking with a thumb didn't quite work, either. On the plus side, the scroll wheel on the side is quite handy and works well, but it's my least favorite trackball when compared to every other trackball on this list.
Logitech Trackman Marble
This is potentially the most comfortable trackball I've ever used, which is surprising because neither takes the shape of a cupped hand (like the Logitech Trackman Wheel) or a low profile, flat-palm shape like the Kensington Orbit. The ball is so exposed you have a huge surface to grasp for manipulating it, and it's got a bit of weight, so you can get the ball spinning and throw the mouse from one side of the screen to the other. It's got two inset auxiliary buttons in lieu of a scroll wheel, though, which is hugely disappointing. On Windows you can program them both using Logitech's driver. Amazingly – and this is a second disappointment – while you can choose "page down" as one option, you can't choose "page up" for the other button. With that exception, this is my favorite and potentially most comfortable trackball, and it's got a lovely click action on the two main buttons that make it a great trackball to use. When I lost one back in '08, I wasted no time in buying another model of the same type. That alone says a lot.
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