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For a desktop computer, a mouse is a great pointing device. For a laptop if you don't want an extra device to keep track of, you need an alternative. The options I'm aware of:

  • Nub
    Low-tech, cheap, compact and reliable, but miserably imprecise. Did they ever fix that? Is it even theoretically fixable or is it a limit on the precision of the human finger?
  • Touchscreen
    Looks great when an actor is using it for ten seconds in a movie, kills your shoulder when you try to do it all day in real life.
  • Touchpad
    It took a while to get the technology to work properly and even then it's awkward to use and takes up a lot of keyboard space. Modern laptops seem to have settled on it anyway, perhaps because it's thin?
  • Trackball
    Fast, precise, easy to use, not even expensive.

Seems to me the trackball is the best option. Why didn't it become more widely used? I suppose it would have disappeared eventually because of increasingly strong manufacturer preference for thinness, but why wasn't it more widely used before that?

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    Nubs need periodic calibration for drift, but all modern ones do that whenever you take your finger off them for a moment. Other than that, I wouldn't describe them as imprecise. They're still in demand on business laptops. But further discussion's probably best saved for a separate question. – Kaz Jan 18 at 5:57
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    Seems to me the trackball is the best option note that a nub can be installed so that it can be moved with your hands firmly placed in home row and your wrists on the palm rest. A trackball, less so. – Tobia Tesan Jan 18 at 9:34
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    Modern user interfaces take advantage of track pads to provide more gestures than a trackball can easily provide. The same applies to mice too, of course. – JeremyP Jan 18 at 9:58
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    Even if I were to agree with you that trackballs are fast, precise, easy to use, not even expensive, I would assume that for those properties to hold, the ball would have to be a certain size. I don't see how you'd fit that ball in my ~2.5cm 2010 macbook pro, let alone the more modern wafer size laptop. Besides, a trackball is just an upside down ball mouse right? So routinely you'll have to open it to clean the gunk off the rollers? Then you'd need a convenient way to pop the ball out of the body. A trackpad is not only thinner, but also screw/solder and forget without moving parts. – aktivb Jan 18 at 14:22
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    If your main focus is on laptops, that should probably be in the title. – JPhi1618 Jan 18 at 15:15

11 Answers 11

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Why did trackballs disappear?

To start with, they didn't. They are still around and can be bought in many variations. For example, Kensington sells six kinds of trackball, and Logitech sells three.

Only their time attempting to work as a general pointing device is gone.

Nub. Low-tech, cheap, compact and reliable, but miserably imprecise. Did they ever fix that? Is it even theoretically fixable or is it a limit on the precision of the human finger?

The Nub itself isn't imprecise at all. At a basic level, it's a joystick with no sense for urgency (speed), so various driver profiles have been developed offering non-linear movement - this in turn is something not everyone can get along with - especially not at first.

Touchscreen. Looks great when an actor is using it for ten seconds in a movie, kills your shoulder when you try to do it all day in real life.

In fact, I really like it. Back in my Newton days I was constantly hitting the CRT to acknowledge some message box - until I spent a lot of money on an early touchscreen.

Touchpad. It took a while to get the technology to work properly and even then it's awkward to use and takes up a lot of keyboard space. Modern laptops seem to have settled on it anyway, perhaps because it's thin?

In part, but also because it's more natural (see below).

Trackball. Fast, precise, easy to use, not even expensive.

If it's supposed to be fast and precise, it's anything but inexpensive.

Seems to me the trackball is the best option.

If you can handle it, then yes. For most people it doesn't work. At least not from the start. Computers have been optimized (or evolved) to provide a satisfying first-time user experience over an efficient long-time usage. Basically the same process that (almost) eliminated the keyboard as #1 interactive tool, despite being in most situations faster and more exact than any pointing device.

It's all about the learning curve.

Humans pointing somewhere don't use their fingertip to waggle around, but the whole arm and hand, while the index finger is just, well, the tip. That's the way we are trained to do since being a toddler.

Reducing this to just forearm and hand, with the finger giving the affirmation is as well trained into our Motor Cortex. That's why most people get along with a mouse without much training. It also adds that the mouse is 'glued' to the hand, so no active control for repositioning needed.

A touchpad comes next, as it's still pointing with the finger, but a restriction of movement needs to be learned, as well as a way to handle repositioning, as there is no haptic feedback for this.

Even the Nub comes before the trackball, as it works by applying force in the direction one wants to move the cursor. As intuitive as a joystick, just a bit more delicate.

While the trackball is an awesome device, once learned to use it, the learning curve is way steeper than with any of the others, as its handling goes against our natural movement.

So from a motoric point of view of an untrained person (beginner) the trackball comes last. This may be quite different, once time has been invested to learn to handle a trackball on an intuitive level. But that's not how everyday interfaces have been optimized. So track balls are, nowadays, back in the realm of experienced professionals.

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    "... eliminated the keyboard as #1 interactive tool" - it hasn't been eliminated, just renamed and redesigned as a "multi-button gaming mouse." :) – alephzero Jan 18 at 10:31
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    Upvote for comparing first time usage with long term usage. Consumer acceptance is more about ease of learning than ease of use. – Walter Mitty Jan 18 at 13:23
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    In that case I completely disagree that this is generally the case. I have occasionally used those nubs on some 20-year old Toshiba laptops (something like a 470CDT), and they were definitely analog; without much practice I was able to crawl the cursor pixel by pixel by pushing gently, as well as move the cursor very quickly by pushing hard. In fact, although the nub took a little getting used to, I found them surprisingly controllable. – marcelm Jan 18 at 14:17
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    @Raffzahn "A single manufacturers example doesn't make all work that way", this is a true statement, but I don't think the implication (that marcelm's example is an outlier) reflects reality. From Wikipedia (Pointing stick): "The velocity of the pointer depends on the applied force so increasing pressure causes faster movement." Anecdotally, every nub I have used accepts variable input. In fact, I doubt you could find many examples of nubs that wouldn't accept variable input. Unwieldy? Certainly to some people. Binary? It seems that analog input is an intrinsic property of the technology. – Tashus Jan 18 at 14:52
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    Too late to edit, but upon rereading the question, I realize this is in the context of laptop built-ins, so perhaps size really is the issue (can't imagine a laptop with a cue ball sized ball.) – Mr.Mindor Jan 18 at 16:30
31

Trackballs are Alive and Well

I have a Logitech M570 for my desktop computer. I have another one for my laptop. I got another one for my daughter. Every few years they break and I replace them.

I find that trackballs are superior to mice in many ways and recommend them to plenty of people. But the average user just gets a mouse, IMHO simply because they don't realize there are better options.

Except BUILT IN on Laptops

There are, however, two specific reasons that they are no longer found (and were relatively rarely found in the past) built in to laptops:

  • Cost - I don't know the specifics, but a trackball has moving parts. Moving parts cost money. A touchpad has no moving parts - it is a sealed sensor package. In fact, many touchpads are indistinguishable from the rest of the laptop bezel - just some markings printed around it to indicate that it is there. For the same reason that laptop keyboards (and bundled desktop keyboards too!) keep getting thinner - less plastic and other parts = lower cost. Trackballs do cost more as separate items too - typically much more than mice - but there it is a user choice. With a built-in pointing device, the manufacturer has to cover the cost for all users whether they consider it an advantage worth paying for or not. In the competitive commodity world of 15.4" 5 lb. laptops, every penny counts.

  • Size - Thin is in! As laptops get thinner and thinner, a few millimeters of extra height for a trackball becomes a problem. If you make the trackball too small then it loses its advantage in usability over other input devices. These are the same laptops where the extra cost would not be as big a factor - but the trackball still loses.

So why aren't trackballs more common? Because of the mouse on desktop computers. On desktop computers, the mouse caught on better than trackballs. Maybe a more "natural" motion, maybe price, maybe competition, maybe simply because Apple made mice popular with the Mac and Microsoft copied them. So when it came to laptops, the manufacturers struggled with coming up with a substitute since a mouse doesn't work in a small fixed space. The little pointer nub was quite popular for a while - and some people still like them, though I never got the hang of it. There were trackballs in some early laptops. But once the technology was perfected for touchpads, they won the race - no moving parts to break (or ball to pop out or clean), conceptually closer to use of a mouse, which had become popular on the desktop and while laptops were (and continue) getting thinner, screen sizes were getting bigger (and therefore the width & depth of the typical laptop was getting bigger rather than smaller, and the base section has to match the screen section), so there was this handy wrist-rest section in front of the keyboard that conveniently fit a touchpad. People got used to it - end of story.

For those people who want to get a separate pointing device, especially for a laptop that will be used in a confined space (as opposed to a desktop where you have plenty of mouse-moving area on the desk), I highly recommend trackballs. There is a learning curve (for those who didn't grow up playing Missile Command), but I find that people look at it funny the first time and when I show them how to use it, most (but not all) manage to learn how to use a trackball quite well within a few minutes.

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    Manufacturing cost. Why do you think Dell kept making their keyboards smaller and smaller - keys the same size (until they went to chiclets! Bad for PCjr but people got used to them with laptops and now desktops come with them...) but kept decreasing the border/bezel size - $1 saved in manufacturing x 1,000,000 keyboards = $1,000,000 on the bottom line. Same thing with a few extra parts to make a trackball in a laptop. Modern (and many years now) trackballs are super easy to clean - and that's not the manufacturer's problem anyway. – manassehkatz Jan 18 at 6:42
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    As trackballs are spherical, if you want the ball to be an inch wide for easy handling, that means your laptop will also have to be at least an inch thick. – Kaz Jan 18 at 6:59
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    @Kaz - 1" is close to the size of a Logitech M570. Actually, you can have - and I have seen in laptops - much smaller trackballs. But once you get under 1/2" it just isn't as usable. The first generations of laptops could handle 1/2" (or even a little larger) without affecting overall system thickness. But the times they have changed... – manassehkatz Jan 18 at 7:04
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    I feel there has to be more to the laptop thing than described here. Neither of the given reasons holds true for expensive high performance laptops (for which the price difference isn't all that significant and which are thick enough anyway) and these don't seem to have them anymore either... – Jasper Jan 18 at 13:05
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    @manassehkatz I don't think cost is the big factor. People want their laptops as small as possible. Adding something like the M570 (one of which is in my laptop bag) to a laptop would make it bigger. – Loren Pechtel Jan 19 at 2:24
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Dirt is another issue.

In a mouse, the hole where the ball is exposed is pointed down and stuff naturally falls out. On a trackball it naturally falls in. Goop, especially skin oils, gets stuck to the tracker wheels in either case, but general dirt, crumbs and fuzz is a bigger problem on trackballs.

Arcade machines had the advantage that they sort of floated in the case so the area under the ball was open and the crap just fell into the chassis. In the case of desktop trackballs, where the case was wrapped tightly, it was a bigger issue.

A friend who did DTP for a living (remember those days?) had cleaning her trackball down to an art, flipping, opening, shaking and then back together in a single fluid motion.

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    It used to be a problem. But on the M570 (which I've used for a few years, and before that the red-ball wired version (ball is actually physically compatible - same exact size, and case is basically the same size, just edges a little more curved, plus no cord on the M570), you just flip it over, push out the ball with any pen/pencil sized object (blunt end, not the tip) and then wipe out (finger, pencil eraser or whatever) the dirt from 3 spots. Pop the ball back in and done. Takes less time to clean than to write this comment. – manassehkatz Jan 18 at 15:31
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    But still, you have to do it at all. Mice no longer have a ball, or even a hole. Nor do any of the other devices being mentioned. The ball, though, it has a ball - although I could imagine solutions that fake the movement. – Maury Markowitz Jan 18 at 16:01
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    All true. But on the other hand, while mice no longer have a ball, when they DID have a ball they had the same cleaning issue (often worse) as trackballs. And I find that many newer mice will have trouble on various surfaces (varies by type/brand/model of mouse, but often glass or slick surfaces). A trackball works on any surface because it doesn't actually use the surface. – manassehkatz Jan 18 at 16:07
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    Ah yes, but when an external mouse breaks down, you just buy another. With a device integrated in the computer, that is a lot harder. So there's another advantage of trackpads over trackballs: fewer moving parts, fewer things that can go wrong. – Mr Lister Jan 19 at 12:47
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    "DTP" = Desktop Publishing – Douglas Held Jan 20 at 11:30
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As other have noted trackballs aren't dead ("disappeared"). But compared to other input methods trackballs are indeed much less popular or widespread as they once were.

Cost, scale, competing products, path dependencies and consumer psychology are the reasons for this development

Trackballs are great. They added a cool, effective, efficient way to move a pointer on screen. So did the mouse. Which is 'better'? That's largely opinion. I have one.

Both devices cost money to buy. The trackball is in use since 1946 the computer mouse is much younger.

The point is: a trackball needs training to use it effectively and efficiently. But so does a mouse. It also 'needs training' for real first timers (remember intro-screens, handbooks explaining how it works; like 'point', 'click', 'hold' and 'drag'? Later even intro-videos, now still around for trackpad gestures etc). So this is really the cheap mouse being 'good enough' and training a user for the "wrong" kind of device.

The learning curve for a trackball is probably not much steeper, if any, than for a mouse for a novice.

This is much like people reluctant to switch from QWERTZ to Dvorak or Neo keyboard layouts. Fast 4-finger typists are equally reluctant to really learn 10-finger blind typing, as they are initially even slowed by the new method.

Once companies like Apple delivered their computers with a mouse to a public not used to anything else but keyboards or awkward joysticks, this set a path to lower the cost for manufacturing mice and training users to use a mouse. Switching 'back' (to the conceptually older and at least equally efficient device) was from then on only for the really dedicated.

You witness the same process now by each and everyone adding 'touch' to devices that do not benefit from it (TouchBar anyone?). This devolution towards the lowest common denominator is great for perfect neophytes. A two-year-old now handles tablets with ease. That this doesn't foster intelligent development and hampers efficient methods of inputting in the future is a cost we seem to enjoy paying.

These are the general considerations.

But with laptops specifically: yes, then it's now about thinness.

For a trackball to be anywhere near ergonomic, it has to be of a certain size. Which can be shrunk only so far.
Compare these two iterations:

enter image description here enter image description here

Both from Apple. The first is the pointing device from the Macintosh Portable from 1989. The device was not loved, but very workable, and its size was inconspicuous compared to the rest of this wonderful behemoth.

The second is the 'Mighty Mouse' from 2005. This is a univerally loathed device, and although it was just designed to replace a scrolling wheel and not even work as a real trackball, it didn't do anything well. And it clogged up fast. Needing a cleaning every time I had come across one.

Within the same space a gigantic Portable trackball occupies in two dimensions, you get a depth of a few millimeters in laptops for a trackpad. Even the tiny nipple on the mouse above adds more depth. And that tiny one is not useable, not serviceable, despite in need for service frequently.

That means for laptops who should have an integrated pointing device you look at a very uneven battle: a trackbal needing quite some space and re-training by the user, vs a trackpad that needs very little space and also less re-training for (otherwise) experienced users, and even the feeling of intuitiveness for neophytes.

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    The solitaire games coming with Windows were training programs in disguise. – Thorbjørn Ravn Andersen Jan 20 at 16:24
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    @ThorbjørnRavnAndersen Funnily enough, Microsoft distributed clip-on trackballs for laptops in their early Office releases - that approach became quite popular for a while, until touchpads pretty much dominated the laptop market entirely. – Luaan Jan 21 at 10:14
  • Also, some early phones with Android OS had tiny trackball, for example HTC Dream and Nexus One – kolen Jan 24 at 20:05
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Gaming

I can't play FPS or flight simulators with a trackball because I cannot intuitively self-center them. The only games they're good for are bowling and Missile Command - because those are played on an arcade cabinet with you standing in front of it.

It's a lot easier to stop a mouse on-target, then it is to stop a trackball - with a finger still on it, or having removed it. And if you freak out, all of a sudden you're looking at the sky.

If I didn't game I'd still be using my trackball.

Fatigue

I had two different trackballs. One was the size of a pool ball, the other was ping-pong sized, placed beside your thumb.

Pool ball: there's no where to rest your palm. And the buttons are your pinky and your thumb. Kinda wack.

Thumb size: well, if you've ever used a gaming controller with thumbsticks for hours on end, I don't need to explain how that begins to suck.

Switching to my middle or ring finger while using a standard mouse, instead of my fatigued index finger, isn't really an option on a 'pool ball' - and it's definitely not an option on an "ergonomically" hand shaped trackball mouse.

Mine is a freewheeling-track-nub

It's Logitech V550 Cordless Laser Mouse. It's the best combination of everything. If you push in the weighted scroll wheel it toggles into a free spin that will last entire threads. It's also a button left to right, thus a nub of sorts. The only downside is the third mouse button is separate.

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    That just isn't true, it's perfectly possible to play games with a trackball. – deepy Jan 18 at 11:16
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    I love using trackballs for FPS. How else can you do 360 rotations sprawing people with bullets! – TafT Jan 18 at 12:57
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    When I saw the word 'gaming', my first thought was "hey wait, the trackball was great for... Oh, you mentioned missile command" :) – rwallace Jan 18 at 13:46
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    For gaming it depends a lot on the game and how (pointing) device handling is turned into game action. if it's about exact movement to certain screen areas, like pushing buttons or clicking items, a mouse may be best. But if the game works on continuous movement, as well as various movement speed and coverage of large area with linear movement. a trackball will give true advantage. – Raffzahn Jan 18 at 15:15
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    @Mazura it does equal it. I have spent every waking hour gaming for two months before (that was the most extreme), and sleeping 5 hours a night. Now it's just for fun though. I would say your problem is technique rather than hardware. You gotta practice alternating tension when you need it and IMMEDIATELY relaxing the muscle when not (even if it's only for 15-20 milliseconds). That GREATLY increases stamina, and very easy with muscle memory. Btw: you need to use @ to notify me. – Aethenosity Jan 19 at 23:41
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One disadvantage is that they are hard to use for users that prefer using a mouse at high acceleration and with the wrist resting - of course using it with a fingertip like a mouse wheel is possible, but rather awkward (especially when the trackball is not made very precisely and tends to seize and jam a bit)....

3

As the other answer said, trackballs are live and well. I use a track ball on my PC as well as Mac. I found a fantastic brand whose trackball lets it connect with 2 different computers.

I will add that I find trackballs hard to use for games like fornight where you need to move your player fast. For this, I prefer a mouse.

Other than that I will take a trackball over mouse every chance I have. I prefer the trackball because I get less cramping in my hand with extensive use, over most mice.

3

I'm using a trackball myself right now. I saw about 12 of them on sale at Best Buy last week. Three of my coworkers use them. I"m not sure where you get that they 'went away' but they haven't. I think it's great for desk space, for precision (I love to game with it over a mouse, which I have to pick up and move back all the time) and to reduce hand fatigue.

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    I think his main point is that they went away in laptops as an integrated pointing device. – JPhi1618 Jan 18 at 15:14
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    This is like the complete opposite of my answer about fatigue, and gaming. But I do now remember hating the switch from using a trackball to play FPS, but after getting used to standard mice (again), I couldn't go back. Traversability outranks finite movement I guess. – Mazura Jan 21 at 17:19
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    I noticed that, but I figured different people just have different hands.A trackball is very comfortable for me. A mouse makes me run out of desk space, and costs me time in picking it up and moving it. Also, I'm talking a Logitech trackball that sits next to the computer, not one of those awful things embedded in old laptop keyboards. – MarkTO Jan 21 at 20:42
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My first engineering job was to create a drop-in trackpad replacement for PowerBook trackballs. We had potential customers with thousands of PowerBooks for sales, inventory, anything that would use an iPad today. The trackballs were the least reliable part of the computer due to "DNS Failure": Doritos 'n' soda.

Sadly, by the time I got the microcontroller to speak Apple Desktop Bus, our trackpad supplier decided to become our competitor. Game over.

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    So, the answer here is "trackballs broke easily". – wizzwizz4 Jan 20 at 10:35
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    The answer is that someone invented a mouse that you didn't have to clean every five minutes, and we haven't looked back since. - (Where's all the maglev track balls at? I've got this $10k burning a hole in my pocket...) IDC what kind of mouse it is, if it has rollers, it sucks. – Mazura Jan 21 at 17:07
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There are several types of interaction between pointing devices and displayed information. The first three that come to mind are:

  1. Point and click
  2. Point and drag (moving, sizing)
  3. Point and paint (selecting multiple, adjacent objects (including selection of text))

All devices mentioned by the OP are good at point and click. The trackball is good at reaching the extremities of the screen rapidly.

Where the mouse has the advantage over the other methods is performing interactions 2 and 3 with one hand. Holding a button with the thumb, it becomes more difficult to position a trackball or nub accurately (partially dependent on the spacing compared with hand size). With a mouse, positioning is unaffected by whether the button is held.

The touchpad is a natural choice for laptops because it's cheap, has no moving parts and fits nicely in the space available on models with larger screens.

  • "extremities of the screen rapidly" and ultra fine movement. But 90% of using a mouse isn't that. – Mazura Jan 19 at 14:10
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One advantage of the mouse is that multiple features can be combined into a single device, which can be more ergonomic than nubs and trackballs, making them a more attractive choice. A typical mouse at least combines pointing and selection/activation (clicking) in a way that minimizes hand/finger motion. Many mice also include scroll wheels which allows the user to do more with less hand/finger motion than would be required with other options. Of course, some mouse designs take this a lot further and perhaps degrade ergonomics by trying to do too much.

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    Many trackballs include a scroll wheel just like a typical mouse. Arguably the scroll wheel actually makes a mouse (that one part) work very much like a trackball (just in one dimension at a time)! The key difference though is between hand motion (with a mouse) and finger motion (with a trackball). – manassehkatz Jan 20 at 1:29
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    @manassehkatz - My mouse has a scroll wheel that's a track ball (sort of). - "trying to do too much" - indeed, my MB3 is hard to click. – Mazura Jan 21 at 17:12
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    TrackPoint IV has optional press-to-click functionality, so it's not that far behind a trackpad, but I've never seen a person use that functionality, as it's uncomfortable and lacks much needed precision. – DoMiNeLa10 Jan 21 at 20:08
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    I find it's far easier to click on one of my trackball buttons without moving the ball than it is to click a mouse button without moving the mouse. With a 2 inch diameter trackball, there's a lot of space around it for buttons. My old trackball had 14 buttons and a scroll wheel, but I rarely used the vast majority of them, so when it was time to replace it I went with a four button version. That said, I must use my trackball differently than many, because I only touch the ball with the palm of my hand; fingers are for buttons only. – Ed Grimm Jan 22 at 2:14

protected by wizzwizz4 Jan 20 at 10:45

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