How to Best Use a Trackball Mouse

Get the hang of this ergonomic tool

A trackball mouse with a tablet and keyboard

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A trackball mouse may be a better option for users who struggle with traditional mice due to carpal tunnel or another reason. Here's how to get used to one of these unique devices, and why you should consider making the switch.

Why Should I Use a Trackball Mouse?

The computer mouse, and its laptop equivalent, the trackpad, are good for many tasks, but they can cause serious problems, especially if you have inflammation or a repetitive stress injury. Moving a mouse requires engaging an entire set of muscles, from your shoulder down to the small muscles of your hand. If you've got an injury or inflammation anywhere along the arm, or even just limited range of motion, you've probably already discovered how much this can hurt.

Familiarize yourself with the signs of nerve pain or damage, even if you're sticking with a standard mouse for now. Tingling, numbness, burning or shooting pains, and fatigue or weakness are signs you should switch mice.

The trackball is a “free-floating” ball resting on rollers you can freely spin in any direction. As you spin the ball, the mouse pointer moves in the direction of the spin. Trackball mice don't require as much movement from as many parts of your body, so depending on the design, you can manipulate it with just a finger, letting your hand rest on the device and using other fingers to click buttons and turn wheels. It's also handy if you have limited space; since the mouse doesn't have to be dragged around, you can use a trackball on the go more easily.

Other designs, which have the ball sit at the center, let you use your wrist or the palm of your hand to spin instead of your fingers, and have the added advantage of being suited for either hand. It's more physically comfortable, but mentally it may take some getting used to.

Getting Used to the Trackball

The standard mouse is fairly simple for our brains to comprehend. The pointer represents the mouse, you move the mouse around, the pointer follows the mouse. The trackball is different. It's as if the pointer is just above the ball, and as you roll the ball, it moves the pointer on top of it.

This isn't very different from how old mice used to work. Modern mice use lasers, but older mice are little more than an inverted trackball. In fact, you can flip them over and use them as a trackball, albeit without any convenient buttons.

Trackballs also have a different sense of momentum. Standard mice only move when you give them a nudge, but you can spin a trackball like a marble. The pointer will move as fast as your hand, and it can be a bit disconcerting at first. Take these steps to get used to it:

  1. Try trackballs in different styles and ball positions at the store. As a general rule, smaller balls that rest under one finger are best for day-to-day use, such as work, while larger balls that use more than one finger or the palm of your hand are better for more precision and for larger or dual-monitor setups.

  2. Once you have a trackball and it's connected to your computer, find the pointer on the screen and fix your eyes on it. Slowly start rolling the ball back and forth, gently, until you've got a rough feel for it.

  3. Tweak your settings using the included drivers and software. You'll likely find a trackball is more sensitive than a typical mouse, so dial back the sensitivity until it's at a point you're comfortable with. If you're having trouble with precision work, you may want to slightly increase the magnification on your monitor or inside your app.

  4. Try out the buttons and see which you prefer for left-click, right-click, and other mouse functions. Different trackballs have different input options; some will let you “click” by pressing on the ball in a certain direction, for example. Experiment with these to find what feels natural for your purposes.

  5. Gradually use the trackball for different tasks. For example, you might consider using a trackball mouse for gaming at first, so you can practice and get a sense of how it feels. As you get more comfortable, you can start using it for other tasks and phase out your mouse.