If you grew up playing video games in the '90s, then you might remember these little balls. Before the advent of the touchpad, they were commonplace on pretty much every laptop. Nowadays you seldom find a trackball if you don´t search for it.
What happened to them? Did they just become obsolete with the advent of technology, or are they still a pretty good way to play games and work on your computer? What exactly are they?
What is a trackball?
A trackball is a little ball that you spin with your fingers or thumb to move the cursor around your screen in place of actually moving the mouse. This allows you to make small, precise movements that might be harder to pull with a more sensitive input device like the mouse.
This is why trackballs are quite common with professionals that have to use CAD software, as it allows them to make concise adjustments to a design. They also don´t require as much space to move around like a mouse, and, as you don´t move your arms and fingers as much, they can be more ergonomic, as they avoid the repetitive motions that can damage your muscles.
In the 90´s it was somewhat common to play computer games with a trackball. Not to mention that almost all joysticks came with an attached trackball, a lot still do. But nowadays you usually can´t find a trackball outside of the professional fields that use them.
So why have they fallen out of favor?
When it comes to laptops, the touchpad takes a lot less space and seems to be easier to implement than a trackball (which is why the TrackPoint has also all but disappeared today). Since people usually encountered trackballs in either their job or their portable computers, removing them from laptops made them that much obscure. The demand then dropped.
Nonetheless, trackballs are commonplace in a lot of offices, so you can find one online if you want. But should you buy one? In what cases are they better than their alternatives?
Trackball vs touchpad
If it comes to just browsing the web or using the standard Office programs, there is no need to buy trackball, your laptop's touchpad will do just fine. If you need something more precise for a design job, then odds are you already have a trackball.
The main advantage of trackpads is the gestures that you can make with your fingers to access certain actions and shortcuts. If you think that´s worth the tradeoff, then maybe you should give the touchpad another chance, as long as you are willing to put the time to learn them. Otherwise, you are usually best served with the alternatives.
So, the question is, is it worth it to get a trackball to play games on a laptop? Yes. Why? Because the trackpad is not that suitable for gaming. You´ll get more control, precision, and ease of use with a trackball or a mouse than you´ll get with all but the most expensive touchpads on the market.
Since most modern trackballs come incorporated into a mouse, there isn´t a choice when it comes to getting a mouse or a trackball as an alternative.
If the choice comes between a trackball or a touchpad, the ball would win, unless you prefer the feel and gesture of the touchpad.
But what about purely for gaming? Like, in a desktop computer, is the trackball good enough?
Should you use a trackball to play an FPS?
It can depend on your preference. Being comfortable is more important than any of the small advantages that can come with using one device over another. If you are not already used to a trackball, then you will need some time to adjust when you make the change from the mouse.
Advocates for the trackball will say that the mouse feels comparatively sluggish and imprecise. Moving the ball has some inertia. But, once you get used to it, you can move the cursor more easily over what you want to click. There are certainly enough videos on youtube to demonstrate that high-level play with a trackball is possible.
On the other hand, the mouse tends to be more "sensible" to your movements, which means that it can cover more distance with a smaller amount of effort. Also, while using a trackball might seem more ergonomic at first, your fingers will probably get tired before your wrist and arms after repeated use of the ball.
At the end of the day, it seems like a trackball and a mouse can be roughly equivalent as long as you put enough practice into either of them. Therefore, wherever a trackball is better than the mouse comes down to your personal preference. It certainly can be as good as the mouse, when it comes to playing video games.
It´s worth noting that most trackballs came integrated into a mouse, so you don´t have to choose at all. You can try using the mouse to make big, sweeping motions and the trackball to fine-tune your aim. A bit similar to how many games use gyro controls.
If you are willing to try a trackball, we recommend the Logitech M570, as it´s a good trackball mouse that doesn´t cost as much as some of the others. The Elecom Ex-G, is a more expensive but specialized alternative as well.