On track

Introduction

Repetitive strain injuries are common in the modern computing environment. You have a few options: you can either give up computing; or, more realistically, you can change the way you work. If your mousing hand is suffering, we have a selection of alternatives for you to choose from. The most common alternative to the mouse is the trackball. Like an upside-down mouse, you move the ball with your fingers instead of moving the whole device. However, while the design of mice changes little, trackball design is varied. Fingers or thumbs
Microsoft has produced a couple of great trackballs. We looked at the Trackball Explorer and Optical. Both use an optical sensor to track the ball’s movements, but the button layout differs. With the Trackball Explorer, the ball is controlled by your index and middle finger, with a scroll wheel and buttons on the left hand side for thumb control. Your hand rests quite comfortably on the curved design, leaving your ring finger and little finger resting on two more buttons. As with any trackball, it takes some getting used to. The Trackball Optical tackles the problem from a different angle, putting the scroll wheel between buttons on the top, and the ball on the side for thumb operation. Again, personal preference will always differ, but both models do a good job. How you discover if you’re a finger tracker, or a thumb tracker is difficult. I would definitely recommend seeing any of the models we looked at in a showroom. The Microsoft trackballs are both tethered by USB cables to the Mac, but the Logitech Cordless Trackman FX is wireless. The Mac platform has been a bit short on cordless mice and keyboards, so I was pleased to see this appear. The design gives you control of the ball with thumb and index finger, and there are a host of buttons – mainly used for Internet navigation. The software for the Cordless Trackman FX is quite good, giving single-click access to favourite Web sites. Unfortunately Mac OS 9.1 is a problem, though it works fine with Mac OS X without the software. Left and right
It’s worth mentioning that all the trackballs mentioned so far have been for right-handers only. Lefties – such as myself – must adapt or stick with our mice. The next trackball is ambidextrous. The inaccurately named Kensington Turbo “Mouse” has been around for years. The latest version is called the Expert Mouse Pro and has changed a lot – though not so much that you can’t detect its lineage. The Expert Mouse Pro uses four buttons around the trackball to activate different clicks and double clicks. The four buttons are further enhanced by the use of chords. This means when you hit combinations of the buttons, you can activate other things. To add even more functionality, there are a further six buttons across the top – each capable of launching an application or a Web page – plus a scrolling wheel. Compared to the other trackballs, the Expert Mouse Pro is an ugly duckling. However, it has more functionality than any of its competitors. It also has OS X drivers. The last alternative input device is the Contour Shuttle Pro. Unlike the other trackballs, this is designed to complement rather than replace the mouse. It’s an excellent addition for anybody using video-editing packages. It consists of a jog-and-shuttle wheel, and some additional function keys. Video editing is quite a tactile activity, and there is a limit to how easily a keyboard can be used effectively.
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