What is a Trackball? Functions, Types, FAQs, and more!

Trackballs are an old-school touchpad’s less-used element. These devices have been around for a long time, and have a special place in history. It’s the first device most people ever used to navigate through a computer.

what is a trackball
Image Source: istockphoto.

These were used as standard equipment on most computers but have been discontinued in favor of the more familiar mouse buttons. They are now a rarity, but still have their benefits to offer.

They can be hard to use since they can present a physical challenge. But, the biggest challenge with trackballs is that they don’t have the same level of accuracy that a mouse does. 

Though, there are several ways to deal with this issue. This article will teach you the history behind trackballs and how you can use them – if you can find one.

What is A Trackball?

A trackball is known as an input device. They are used to enter data, mostly motion, into a computer. It works similarly to a mouse, but its design consists of a movable ball at the top that you can shift in the direction necessary. 

Unlike a mouse, which needs to be pointed in the direction you want to click; with a trackball, you simply rotate the moving ball with your hand to tell it where to go.

These products were used in computers as mouse replacements. It also includes buttons that you can use to right-click or left-click the screen and enter different commands.

Although trackballs were designed for computers, you can also use them with other electronic devices, like arcade games. They also present other advantages like:

Small Size: Because you don’t need a touchpad or a large place to move a trackball.
Accessible Controls: They can provide more precision
Ergonomics: Due to less tension on the user’s wrist.

However, many people have the conclusion that the trackball is more difficult to use compared to a mouse because it is not that natural and may take practice to understand how they work. 

Consequently, most computers include mice and not a trackball as the predetermined input device.

History Of Trackball

The trackball story begins in 1949 when Fred Longstaff and Tom Cranston, both Canadian engineers, start developing a better way to organize their target data displayed on a CRT screen. This data came from a new radar system that they were developing.

This project was called “Project Datar”. The original trackball used a 4″ Canadian bowling ball and weighed way too much than the trackball we have these days. Initially, several names were used: control ball, spin ball, thread ball, etc. In the end, “trackball” was widely accepted.

The idea of the Canadian engineers is that this product was only used to control certain elements of CRT displays in many militaries, scientific and industrial equipment, but then it was incorporated into computers: first in workstations, then in mainframes, and then in-home or personal systems.

The evolution of graphical user interfaces and the effect of the mouse brought about a fundamental change in trackball ergonomics. 

The movement of the buttons in easily accessible areas without the need to remove the finger was one of the major changes that this input device has undergone. 

Since then, the development process has followed the usual path of “more ergonomics, more functionality”, with different trackball models appearing on the market.

Functions Of a Trackball

Although standard mice have replaced trackballs for computer users, they are still used in a lot of work fields because of their precision. You can use them in many areas like traffic control in the air and equipment management for people in the design world.

Gaming: Some gamers prefer to use a trackball mouse because it offers greater precision and agility required for certain types of video games, such as First-Person Shooter (FPS). While gamers may be frustrated with the time it takes to achieve the technique required to use these devices, they can aim, shoot or run much faster than they can achieve using a conventional mouse.
Programmable Resources: The trackball mouse is a versatile input tool. It is used to program repetitive motions, such as those used in graphic design and computer-aided design programs.
People with Disabilities: The rotating ball mouse is ideal for computer users with disabilities. Trackball’s versatility offers people with reduced mobility an alternative to the typical traditional mouse. Users do not need to drag the mouse over the touchpad, they just use their fingers to roll the ball and move the mouse pointer.

How Does a Trackball Work?

Trackballs work like computer mice, but the ball mouse remains static and doesn’t move through the surface.

The trackball configuration features a solid and small ball and two buttons. This combination lets you effectively change the direction of the arrow without excessive wrist movement. 

The user can move the ball with the finger or thumb, and sensors inside the case detect the direction of the ball.

When using a trackball, the design enhances the natural hand position. The two buttons are located where the user places his finger.

Types of Trackballs

There are many types of trackballs available on the market. The best choice for you depends on your preferences and the work you do. 

Let’s see a few types of trackballs and the characteristics of each one.

Touch-To-ScrollTouch Scrolling provides the convenience of a scrolling ball and ensures that it only registers movement when you touch it.
Scroll Ring
The scroll wheel is similar to the common scroll wheel on a mouse. It surrounds the trackball, which lets you rotate it with your thumb and ring finger while your hand stays up and in contact with it.
Scroll BallA trackball that does everything. Rolling the ball is equivalent to scrolling up or down with the mouse wheel. The pointer is always controlled by the movement of the ball.

Frequently Asked Questions

Wrap Up

Trackballs are a computer accessory that you can use in a variety of ways. They are versatile tools that can help you navigate the computer while being a fun gadget.

You can use a trackball to play games, test your reflexes, and move around the screen with ease.

They are also important gadgets for people who have physical disabilities. In any case, Trackballs haven’t lost their validity despite the new models of mice that have come on the market in recent years.

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Alberto Araujo
Alberto Araujo

Alberto Araujo is a former tech support professional that had a change of heart and now aims to write top-notch tech content for his readers. Writer, digital nomad, tech-geek and hunger for knowledge, that’s how you can describe him. If you want to learn about technology, building PCs, and software applications to make your life easier, his content is for you.

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