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Goldilocks and the Three Trackballs

So I lied - I only have two trackballs to review. But it's a good title and it does illustrate the main principle in buying a trackball, which is that trackballs, like porridge and beds, are individual and you must try several before you settle down like Goldilocks at your Mac.

I requested several trackballs for review because both Tonya and I were experiencing wrist pain, tendinitis for her, carpal tunnel syndrome for me. Several people had recommended we try one, and this was an excellent excuse. Since this isn't MacUser we didn't attempt to compare all the trackballs on the market but confined ourselves to two recommended units that looked interesting, the $79 CoStar Stingray and the $89 Curtis MVP Mouse and $19 Foot Switch (all prices mail order).

CoStar Stingray -- CoStar named this small, sleek device the Stingray for a good reason. It sports approximately the same curving shape as its namesake, with both "wings" being buttons. Apart from the small, PowerBook-sized ball, the two buttons cover the entire surface of the Stingray. This is good.

Perhaps the most stressful action involved with mousing, as I said last week, is the click & drag, so making the click action easier is all important. By creating such large buttons, CoStar ensured that you can hit the button with any part of your hand, including the side or back [or even your elbow if your wrists especially hurt! -Tonya]. Like most trackballs, the Stingray comes with a click-lock function to ease the click & drag motion. Using a switch on the bottom of the Stingray, you can set either (or neither) button to click-lock. When you click-lock, the trackball pretends that you have clicked and have the button held down, and a second click on the same button acts as though you have let the button up after selecting an object. I highly recommend using a trackball with click-lock for presentations where you want to show people menu items - it's much easier than holding the button down yourself. [After using a normal mouse for some seven years, I found the idea of click-lock a bit foreign, and I avoided it for some time. One day, though, I started using it, and within about three hours I became a click-lock convert. -Tonya]

The Stingray ships with a Control Panel that lets you adjust the tracking to make it faster or slower, which could be useful for different environments. We haven't used it much since the default settings work fine for our general use. The Stingray works without the Control Panel, so you can easily bring the Stingray to a different Macintosh and use it without installing software.

Physically, the Stingray is small and light, with a six inch cable. You must plug it into the keyboard's ADB port and it has no ADB pass-through, a disadvantage for people using Classics and other Macs having only one ADB port. We found the Stingray ideal for traveling between home and work because it's light; the cable doesn't get in the way; and the small ball must be actively pressed out with a tab on the bottom for cleaning. Thus, the ball doesn't escape when you unpack it.

Most importantly perhaps, people with small hands will find the Stingray ideal. I can't quite palm a basketball, but I have relatively large hands. Tonya's hands match her slight frame, and although I found the small ball and small size a bit clumsy, she feels that the size is perfect for her smaller hands.

Curtis MVP Mouse & Foot Switch -- In comparison we have the Curtis MVP Mouse, a strangely named trackball. Curtis designed it along more conventional trackball lines, with a slightly sloped base and a pool ball-style ball that is exactly the same size as the Kensington TurboMouse's ball. The palm rest on the MVP Mouse has raised bumps on it, which may sound uncomfortable but which I find useful for holding my hand in place. Three buttons circle around the upper three quarters of the ball, and people with small hands may find hitting the top button over the top of the ball a difficult task. I, on the other hand, like it a lot because the larger ball fits my larger hand better.

The buttons provide one of the MVP Mouse's two main features. Each buttons functions independently, and you can assign any one of a number of functions to each button. Currently, I have the left button set to click, the middle button set to the Return key, and the right button set to command-W (Close Window in most applications). These buttons work the same in all applications, but needless to say, I find the command-W button the most convenient in applications with lots of windows like uAccess. You can set the buttons to any command key, as well as click, click-lock, Delete, Return, Shift, Tab, Undo, Cut, Copy, and Paste.

Originally I wanted different button assignments for different applications, but with further thought I decided that it would probably be too confusing. Apple believes that users find two-button mice too confusing, and although I think sophisticated users can handle two or three buttons, different definitions for each application does not smack of the Macintosh way. Oh, you can also control tracking and double-click speed in the Curtis Control Panel, but frankly, the defaults work well enough so I've never bothered.

The second main feature of the MVP Mouse is its accompanying Foot Switch. You don't have to buy it if you don't want, but I cannot recommend it highly enough. I have mine set to a normal click, which allows me to move the cursor gently with the trackball and then click with my right foot when I want. It's wonderful for hierarchical menus or reading a long document, because you can just place the cursor over a scroll arrow and click with your foot when you want to move the page. There's no need to even move your hand for such trivial stuff.

The Foot Switch is well-constructed of durable plastic and metal, and mine has survived several months of clicking quite well. You need not worry if you have clumsy feet since the Foot Switch has a fair amount of travel when clicking down and it's trivial to use. If you can drive a car you can use the Foot Switch. I have no difficulty using the Foot Switch even when wearing bulky Birkenstock sandals, although it's most responsive when I'm barefoot. Either foot works with the Foot Switch, although you will probably prefer one over the other. I use my right foot, but occasionally switch for the fun of it. Curtis does not mention one important fact though, which is that you must adjust your chair and desk appropriately. I found the Foot Switch somewhat uncomfortable until I adjusted my desk and chair so they were at the proper ergonomic heights for typing, which is also the proper height for the Foot Switch. Check out TidBITS-134 for more ergonomic details.

The MVP Mouse and Foot Switch travel badly. Unlike the Stingray, the MVP Mouse is relatively large, and its ball tends to fall out as soon as you take the mouse out of your bag. It has a long cable, probably at least four feet long, and an even longer cable with a telephone-style connector connects the Foot Switch to the underside of the MVP Mouse. Since that cable will always go behind your desk to get to the floor, it's a pain to pack up. It would be great if the Foot Switch was an ADB device that could attach to any Mac, regardless of pointing device. The MVP Mouse will stay put at one computer, but it's a good solid piece of work, and I have little bad to say about it.

Conclusion -- I did have some problems with both trackballs. The original Stingray we tested started squeaking when you clicked one of the buttons, which was rather annoying, but we had to return it anyway. Then Tonya bought one for personal use because she liked it so much. That one would only track up and down and not to either side. MacConnection took it back that day and sent us yet another Stingray, which has performed perfectly since then.

We have received a report from a disgruntled Stingray user who didn't find the Stingray accurate enough for single-pixel graphics work, especially in comparison with the Kensington trackball he had used previously. So make sure to check your software with the trackball before buying.

The MVP Mouse at some point developed the annoying habit of activating the cursor even when I wasn't touching the ball or moving the desk in any way. It doesn't do it most of the time, but on occasion I'll place the cursor on a scroll arrow, expecting to click only with the Foot Switch, but the MVP Mouse will move the cursor off the scroll arrow unbeknownst to me, often resulting in an application switch when I click.

I can recommend both of these trackballs without hesitation, but I will add that you shouldn't pay much attention to my opinions unless you also try one out before you buy. Hand size, working habits, and software use will make a large difference in your attitudes toward trackballs. Incidentally, left-handed people will find both trackballs equally useful since they are symmetric and easily customized. I occasionally switch to the left side, just to keep my hand in, so to speak.

Other trackballs may also appeal to you, such as the EMAC Silhouette, which is strangely shaped so that you put your hand around the ball on the side, and the Logitech Trackman, which has three completely easily customized buttons (in each application). Nonetheless, people with small hands who move between two Macs will love the Stingray and those of us who see no reason to let our legs just sit all day, letting our hands to all the work, will truly enjoy the MVP Mouse and Foot Switch.

Tonya adds: -- Before the trackballs arrived, I was having a lot of trouble doing my job, (phone tech support) which often involves a lot of mouse action and not much keyboarding. In desperation, I put my mouse on the floor and moused with my feet. I could do this only by scooting my entire setup forward so that my mouse's cord was long enough for it to set on the ground, and I had trouble finding an adequate mouse pad. I believe that a pointing/clicking device operated completely with the feet would be a wonderful thing, and I hope to see one some day. Many devices currently on the market could be foot-operated with only minor changes. The standard Apple Macintosh mouse, for example, only needs a longer cord. If a company designed such a device ergonomically for the foot, I'd buy it in an instant.

Even if nobody ever manufactures a pointing device used exclusively by the foot, I'd like to see more pointing device options. Most trackball ads tout their ergonomic design. But, I ask, ergonomic for whom? They offer big balls, small balls, and all sorts of different shapes. You'll finally find the one that feels ergonomic to you, only to discover that it lacks some other feature that you desire, like a second ADB port (which neither of these trackballs have), or a foot switch, or an easily-transportable design. Given that the standard equipment hurts more and more people all the time, I find it frustrating that the available alternatives are so limited. Perhaps as more people explore the alternatives, the market for trackballs and the like will become more lucrative and we consumers will see more choices.

CoStar -- 203/661-9700 -- COSTAR1@applelink.apple.com
Curtis -- 800/548-4900 -- 603/532-4123


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