The trackball and the mouse are fundamentally opposites in both design and functionality.
Though a normal mouse may be more familiar to use and offer greater precision and control, a trackball offers increased efficiency, wider accessibility, and even helps prevent injury.
While their general purpose as pointing devices remains the same, their uses differ completely.
Let’s see if a trackball is right for you.
The Major Differences Between A Regular Mouse and Trackball
|Regular Mouse||Trackball Mouse|
|Sensor moves over surface||Surface moves over sensor|
|Requires wrist/arm movement||Requires finger/thumb movement|
|More desk space required||Stationary, no extra space needed|
|Uses glider pads||Uses ball bearings|
|Gliders may require cleaning||Bearings may require cleaning|
|Cable drag may hinder movement||Ball friction may hinder movement|
|Weight may determine comfort||Size of ball may determine comfort|
|Variety of shapes||Variety of shapes|
A normal mouse relies on your hand to move a sensor over a stationary surface like a desk or mousepad.
A trackball mouse relies on your fingers to move a ball over a stationary sensor.
Though a traditional mouse is the more practical choice for gaming and precision, a trackball mouse can aid in efficiency, ergonomics, and limiting the dangers of RSI.
Let’s dive a bit deeper into the differences.
Design and Build Quality
Normal mice typically come in a few designs but all have the same basic layout: left click, middle click/scroll wheel, and right click. Some may add more buttons, but rarely stray from the main 3-button layout.
Normal mice also come in both symmetrical and ergonomic shapes, making it easier for ambidextrous use and long-term comfort respectively.
For gaming mice especially, the weight of the mouse plays a big part in usability and strain. While mice like the Logitech G502 include adjustable weights, others like the Glorious Model O feel like a feather in comparison.
To ensure that the mouse moves smoothly and easily over any given surface, traditional mice rely on plastic feet known as gliders which may get dirty or scuffed-up over time.
Trackball Mice, on the other hand, come in a variety of layouts based on the position and size of the trackball.
Trackballs that use your thumb for movement typically have a more traditional layout of left, middle, and right clicks.
Trackballs with a larger, finger-operated central ball are more creative in their arrangements, and some even use a scroll ring rather than a clickable wheel.
To ensure the ball rotates smoothly and easily, trackballs rely on multiple ball bearings underneath the globe which may get dirty or gunked-up over time, and may need to be cleaned with a q-tip (Yeah, it can get krustier than Mr. Krabs).
You also won’t have to worry about cable-drag, but you may have to worry about friction from the bearings.
Trackballs also typically weigh more, and the weight plays a vital part in keeping the mouse from moving around too much while you’re using it.
The size and placement of the ball will be what determines comfort with trackballs.
Grip Type and Hand Position
With a traditional mouse and gaming mouse, people usually use one of three grips: Palm grip, Claw grip, and Fingertip grip.
Palm grip is usually more possible and more comfortable with ergonomic mice because they conform more to the natural shapes and contours of your hand.
Claw grip has the palm on the mouse, but fingers curled up on the buttons, resembling a claw. The clamping force of your opposing thumb and pinky help keep the mouse from slipping.
Fingertip grip uses the fingers to move and control the mouse, and the palm heel is used more as a pivot point as necessary.
This is especially common when a larger hand uses a smaller mouse, or when using a mouse with high sensitivity.
Claw grip and fingertip grip can be much less comfortable and are not the recommended gestures for your hand, but may be the best way to use a symmetrical, ambidextrous mouse like a Logitech G305.
A trackball mouse, however, mostly focuses on ergonomics and ease-of-use, and tend to allow for a more natural and less pronated forearm and wrist.
Whether you choose a thumb or finger operated trackball, it should feel more comfortable because you are not expected to use your entire hand to operate the mouse.
Instead, you use thumb and finger motions that may feel more intuitive if you are used to using laptop track-pads and mobile device touch-screens.
As the trackball never moves, you can find your ideal position for long-term use.
Since a regular mouse needs you to move the sensor along your desk to track the surface and move the cursor, that also means you need more desk space to use it depending on the tracking sensitivity, set in dots-per-inch or “DPI”.
For more control, gamers may choose to use much lower levels of sensitivity, under 1000 DPI, and even some under 500 DPI.
This gives you precision control, but means you need considerably more desk space to move your mouse and cursor.
With a trackball mouse, because it is a stationary mouse with a stationary sensor, you only need as much deskspace as the trackball’s physical footprint.
It also never changes position unless you change its position, do you don’t need to go feeling for your mouse. It’s always within grasp, right where you left it.
Some may offer adjustable DPI and even polling rate, but the majority of them have a fixed DPI.
The size of the ball will be what determines how much the cursor moves with each rotation.
Is a Trackball Ergonomically Better?
Generally speaking, yes, a trackball is ergonomically better than a normal mouse, but of course an ergonomic mouse or vertical mouse will fit your hand just as well if not better.
A big factor is that you won’t be moving around a potentially heavy mouse and straining your wrist more than you need to be.
Rather, you can rest your hand in a natural position.
Benefits/Downsides of Using a Trackball Mouse
Other than minimizing the footprint and maximizing efficiency and desk space, using a trackball mouse has a number of medical benefits by being inherently better at preventing Repetitive Strain Injury issues like tendon pain, wrist pain, and the infamous Carpal Tunnel.
While a trackball is not a cure for RSI, it could help prevent certain issues relating to Repetive Strain Injury.
De Quervain’s Syndrome
De Quervain’s Tenosynovitis (say that 5 times fast) is inflammation to the tendon above your wrist that runs along the lower side of your thumb.
This causes swelling which affects the nerves around it. The exact cause isn’t known, but it may be due to repetitive, straining motions that include the thumb and wrist.
In the case of peripheral use, your typing height and mouse grip may be big contributors to the issue, especially if you are always using your thumb for spacebar, or using a gaming mouse technique know as flicking, a fast-twitch motion that could cause strain or inflammation in the wrist over time.
With trackballs, you can choose to use a finger-operated ball to minimize use of your thumb, or give complete control to your thumb with a ball that allows for a greater, wider range of motion that could be less repetitive.
A common way to test if you may have De Quervain’s is to make a closed fist, with your fingers wrapped around your thumb.
With your fist held vertically in front of you as if holding a sword, bend your wrist down as if to point your sword at a target in front of you.
If you feel pain in the tendon between your wrist and thumb knuckle, you may have De Quervain’s.
Carpal Tunnel is a common, modern injury caused by repetitive gestures and motions, like typing or mouse movement.
It occurs over time, and is one of the more prevalent injuries. It is caused by pressure on the medial nerve in your wrist.
You can prevent carpal tunnel by ensuring your hands and wrists are as level as possible – especially taking caution that too much pressure isn’t placed on your wrists, and that your wrists aren’t at too much of an angle.
You should also do your best to limit pronation. Pronation is when your palms are facing down, causing your radius to overlap the ulna.
Common actions in gaming like wrist movement and mouse-flicking only further exacerbate the problem.
While it may be a necessary evil sometimes, you can limit the damage by using a more ergonomic option like a trackball, that requires zero wrist movement.
Dorsiflexion of the wrist is caused when you bend your wrist up and back, which in this case could be caused by using a mouse or tall keyboard without a wrist rest, and at a wrist angle more than zero degrees.
Since a trackball does not rely on your fingers, and not your wrist or hand for movement, they can help in preventing and minimizing these effects.
The Different Types of Trackball Mice
The two main types of trackball mice are thumb-operated and finger operated varieties.
Thumb-operated trackballs are typically more of an ergonomic shape, preferring to place your hand and wrist at an angle, or even vertically, rather than fully pronated.
A few options like the Logitech MX Ergo mouse gives you adjustable angles built-in.
These typically have fewer available buttons, at most having 2 extra buttons usually used for browser navigation, for a total of 5.
These may also feel more natural for people who are more accustomed to a traditional mouse’s shape and operation, using the index and middle fingers solely for clicking and scrolling.
Because of the shape and style, thumb operated trackballs like the Logitech M570 and Logitech M575 may also make it easier to maintain an ergonomic palm-grip, rather than practicing hover-hands.
A finger-operated trackball typically comes in both ambidextrous and ergonomic designs.
Some of the things that separate finger-operated trackballs are the varying globe diameters, placements, and button layouts.
Bigger balls may require more than one finger to operate for the best control, typically using both your index and middle fingers to spin the ball.
Trackballs like the Elecom Deft and Huge trackballs try to arrange the buttons in a thoughtful manner, maximizing efficiency and allowing for up to 8 buttons, as your fingers are expected to both
switch and click spin the ball and click the buttons.
Because of this, you may need to take your fingers off the ball before clicking, otherwise accidental movement could cause a micro-drag rather than a click.
Others like the Kensington Expert are symmetrical and meant for ambidextrous use, arranging the buttons and even a scroll ring in orbit around the large globe which sits at the center of this trackball’s universe.
Who is a Trackball Mouse Ideal For?
A trackball mouse is ideal not only for professionals who use a workstation for extended hours, and casual users who need a more comfortable option, but also those who may have mobility or dexterity issues holding and controlling a mouse.
For certain users who may have trouble holding and operating a mouse the “traditional” way, trackballs offer increased accessibility and ease-of-use.
Since a trackball is a stationary peripheral, it can help by allowing you to use any method you see fit to rotate the ball and click buttons. All you need is to find a shape and size that will fit your needs.
Recommended Trackball Mice to Try
If you are interested in a trackball, here are a few solid choices you can try.
- Logitech M570 – Reliable Budget Thumb Trackball
A budget-friendly but reliable wireless trackball mouse, the Logitech M570 uses a 2.4ghz wireless receiver and a single AA-battery give you weeks of power. It has 4 buttons and a scroll wheel, and uses a thumb-ball for navigation. A great choice that feels natural to use, even for larger hands. Find it on Amazon for a great price.
- Elecom Huge/Deft Pro – Mid-Range Right-Handed Finger Trackball
As seen on the desk of TaehaTypes, the Elecom Huge Trackball is indeed a huge trackball mouse with 6 buttons and a scroll wheel which are all programmable via the Elecom mouse software. Features a large trackball that can be used with one or two fingers, an integrated foam wrist rest, and options for wired or 2.4ghz wireless versions. Has 3 levels of sensitivity and is powered by 2 AA-batteries. Find it on Amazon for a great price.
- Kensington Expert – Premium Ambidextrous Finger Trackball
The tried and true reigning champ, the Kensington Expert is a large ambidextrous trackball available in both wired and 2.4ghz/Bluetooth dual-mode wireless varieties. It uses a centrally located trackball, scroll ring rather than scroll wheel, and 4 large programmable buttons. Comes with a padded synthetic leather wrist rest, and powered by 2 AA batteries. Find it on Amazon for a great price.
The trackball is a solid, classic choice, but it is also a misunderstood and underappreciated one.
With a wide spectrum of designs and benefits ranging from ergonomics and RSI prevention to efficiency and accessibility, the trackball is a sophisticated option for professionals and everyday users.
Hopefully, this article helped you learn a little more about them, and perhaps it will even lead you to try one for the first time.
Thanks for reading, and keep it rollin’.