I've started reading this article on the history of the ThinkPad. In it, the TrackPoint (pointing stick/"nipple" mouse) is heralded as an important innovation in the design of portable computers at the time.

However, it doesn't mention what the alternatives were at the time; what the TrackPoint replaced. In those days where lots of PC software was still DOS-based I can imagine the alternative was no pointing device at all — but even back then, I'm pretty sure Windows was established enough that business users wouldn't have accepted that.

So, what pointing devices were used by early laptop computers?

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    Trackballs, sometimes. – TEMLIB Oct 9 '17 at 19:59
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    In my experience, the adulation of the TrackPoint seems a bit biased. The article calls the TrackPoint, "now iconic", but "hated by many" would be just as true. Note that personally I always loved the TrackPoint, but I don't think I've met anyone else who feels the way I do. – Todd Wilcox Oct 10 '17 at 0:28
  • this comment of mine is a bit off-topic (as it is not about laptops) but I need to add that we had homemade screen pens for the ZX Spectrum (and any CRT based computer with fast enough ports) at that era. It work very simply the Pen got photo transistor and was counting time from start of Frame refresh to visible pulse on screen which was converted to position. Some shooting game consoles used the same approach for guns ... As laptops use LCD the approach do not work for those they not blinking (may be that is why they start doing touch screens) and yes some old LCD did blink... – Spektre Oct 10 '17 at 7:23
  • but that was caused by the electronics instead of LCD itself.... – Spektre Oct 10 '17 at 7:24
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    "In those days where lots of PC software was still DOS-based I can imagine the alternative was no pointing device at all" - And such laptops existed, eg the earliest Toshiba models. These were not very practical for true "lap top" use anyway, and often just used with an RS232 mouse or trackball. – rackandboneman Oct 11 '17 at 10:36

11 Answers 11


One alternative to the trackpoint was a trackball, either below the screen (as in the Macintosh Portable), or next to the screen (as in the Compaq LTE Lite). When the trackball was next to the screen the mouse buttons were typically on the back (you would roll the ball with your thumb, and press the buttons on the back of the screen using index and middle fingers).

Before pointing devices were built into laptops, it was common for them to simply plug in externally like a desktop mouse. The Microsoft BallPoint Mouse was notable at this time because it could be clamped to the side of a laptop which made it convenient when desk space was at a premium (or unavailable, such as on an airplane).

  • There was also one laptop manufacturer that used pop-out mice, but I can’t remember who (Compaq or Toshiba I guess). – Stephen Kitt Oct 9 '17 at 21:36
  • HP's OmniBooks had a pop-out "mouse on a stick". – scruss Oct 10 '17 at 2:17
  • Thanks @scruss, that’s what I had in mind! (So much for Compaq or Toshiba.) – Stephen Kitt Oct 10 '17 at 5:16
  • @StephenKitt The OmniBook "mice" were weird. It's actually more like a joystick internally, with the elongated stick moving the pots around inside the computer. Not entirely sure how the buttons work; probably something like the buttons on a Wacom stylus with no battery. This, of course, requires a special driver for both Windows and DOS use. – db2 Oct 11 '17 at 18:22

One uncommon pointing device was the J Mouse. Zenith had it on some of their laptops. I remember seeing a laptop with this back in the early 90's.

J Mouse

Another uncommon pointing device was the mouse on the HP Omnibook 300.

enter image description here

My work gave me an AST PowerExec laptop which had a trackball that clipped on the front edge. The ball was so small it constantly got gummed up with gunk so I bought an external serial trackpad for it.

AST PowerExec trackball


Trackballs in various shapes and designs - if there was a build in pointing device at all. Early laptops, from Grid and Sharp PC5000 to all the early Toshiba (T1000ff) didn't have any such device. If the OS and/or application did support one, the user was expeced to attatch an external mouse, trackball or pad (pen operated pads where already available before 1980). Some special machines (liek GridPAD) even had pen based input methods - there was even an extension for MS-DOS to accept pen input :))

Keep in mind, GUIs didn't reach mass market before the late 1980s. Laptops have been arround for years at that time without the general need for any kind of pointer control.


what pointing devices were used by early laptop computers?

None at all.

Windows 1.0 dates from 1985 but Windows started to become really well established around the time of Windows 3 in 1990

Here is a laptop I bought in 1991

enter image description here enter image description here

This came with drivers for Windows 3.0. I think Windows 3.0 was an optional extra, the default OS was MS-DOS 5.0.

enter image description here


The original Macintosh Portable, from 1989, is fairly typical in using a trackball; also in the '80s you could have had an early touchpad (e.g. on 1983's Gavilan SC) and GRID had experimented with a rolling bar — vertical motion was achieved by rolling, and horizontal by pushing the whole thing to the left or right.


The Outbound was a Mac clone in a laptop form factor. It used a unique pointing device consisting of a small rolling cylinder that controlled the up-and-down motion and could be forced sideways against springs on either side to provide side-to-side motion. It was in some ways a combination of a one-axis trackball and a one-axis TrackPoint.

I am on a Lenovo machine as I type this. It has a TrackPoint. I hated it so much I pulled the little rubber bit off it so I wouldn't keep hitting it while trying to type H (or less, G). Unfortunately, as is common in the PC world, the presence of two of anything seems like an excuse to not fix problems and simply tell people to use the other one - in this case, the trackpad is utterly rubbish as well.


My first laptop circa mid 1990's was, I think, one of these

My first laptop

It has a very small track ball and two buttons, one on either side. I don't remember the track ball being particularly good, but at the time nipples and trackpads were unknown. Even the mice were completely mechanical.

  • Apple added tochpads to its line-up in 1994, licensing them from someone or another, so even if we ignore the obscure '80s versions they weren't completely unknown by the mid-'90s. They were just on those weird computers, and kind of small (just 5cm in each dimension at first, I think). – Tommy Oct 10 '17 at 13:09

The Casio PB-1000 pocket computer (1987) featured a touchscreen display.

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    Nop. Not a touchscreen, but sensitive areas. More like function keys. IIRC it was like 4x8. Not even a positioning on character level would have been possible. – Raffzahn Oct 9 '17 at 23:37
  • What resolution is needed for something to qualify as a pointing device? – snips-n-snails Oct 10 '17 at 1:54
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    The easy answer would that it needs to able to point to a single pixel, while a more sensible answer is like the smalest (useable) UI element. For a graphical UI these are icons, the smalest active elements (like buttons, a close-X, sliders and resizers) which might be larger than a pixel and character positions for text editing, which, with proportional text means pixel positioning at least horizontal. For a character based UI it's the single charater cell. – Raffzahn Oct 10 '17 at 13:20
  • Right. Not relevant for a portable, but I'd count a light pen as a pointing device even if its location is known only to the whole video address and there are multiple pixels within each byte (such as on almost every 8-bit computer that supports a light pen). – Tommy Oct 10 '17 at 19:50
  • Ok so this touchscreen is able to point to individual buttons/icons, so that means it's a pointing device, right? – snips-n-snails Oct 11 '17 at 2:24

The Apple IIc included a game controller port, and several games (Raster Blaster, Music Construction kit, etc.) used game controllers (analog joysticks and resistive touchpads) as pointing devices.

  • Apple IIc is not a early laptop? – OmarL Oct 13 '17 at 9:48

Many laptops back then were used for very specific, narrow purposes - looking up records in a product database, word processing (and word processing only) so it's not accurate that Windows or a pointing device was needed. Instead, attention would have been paid to ensuring that whatever application program the laptop was used for was started and active on boot. Laptops were almost exclusively used in business before the late 1990s so casual use wasn't a factor.


I once had a 486SX/25 laptop from Toshiba that used a clip-on trackball mouse that clipped onto the lower right-hand side of the machine right near the arrow keys. It fit really nicely into your right hand over there and was great for playing Tyrian with, though the sluggish black-and-white LCD screen did make things a bit harder.

I'm pretty sure it used a PS/2 interface, given that clipping on the mouse meant sliding a port cover over the PS/2 ports and the five pins of the mouse's connector matches up nicely with the 6 pins of the PS/2 port, where one goes unused for either keyboard or mouse, depending on what the plug is for.

Not sure exactly when the laptop was made (and I can't check as I no longer have it), but I do remember that the original floppy disks for it only included DOS, without any version of Windows, so probably before Windows 3.x took off in popularity. It came with Win95 when I bought it second-hand, but it was so slow it was soon wiped for something more responsive (DOS 6.22 and Win3.11).

  • I encountered a few Toshiba laptops of that era with such a mouse. One such laptop was the T4700CT, a picture of which can be seen at computinghistory.org.uk/det/7693/Toshiba-4700CT – Kaz Apr 13 '20 at 13:07
  • Nice find, Kaz. The mouse looks right, but the rest of the machine doesn't quite match. The closest I can find on that site are the T4400SX and T1900C. Both have specs very close to the machine I had, but I think the more likely of the two would be the 4400 with a few upgrades, namely the memory card (which I disinctly remember mine having, giving it 8MB) and the hard drive (specs list 80MB, mine was 120MB). – Rohan Apr 14 '20 at 13:50

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