The Death of the Trackball

An Atari Classic from the 80's. Missile Command

Users do not have to look far to notice that the trackball’s days are at an end. Invented by Tom Cranston and Fred Longstaff in the 50’s for military applications and introduced to gamers in games like Atari’s Centipede and Missile Command, this input device entered the consumer market. Nearly two decades later, this same market killed it.

In the fight for display space, retailer support and profit margins, the trackball is gone. They are hard to find. While Logitech, A4Tech and Kensington continue to manufacture them, there is no recent model and most computer stores stopped carrying them.

Logitech is slowly discontinuing its line of trackball products and the only way to buy one is through online speciality stores, like

One manufacturer's bid to an aging technology
One manufacturer's ode to an aging technology

Gamers and users can find the trackball still used in certain industries, like in Computer Aided Design. The odd arcade game, like golf and football simulations, still uses them, and they are a better option for museums and airports with public access Internet terminals. Unlike a mouse, the trackball is least likely to be vandalized or stolen.

Prior to laptop trackpads, miniature trackballs can be found in early laptops like Apple’s Powerbook. But some users claim it is hard to keep clean. Users of the fake trackball on Apple’s Mighty Mouse have similar grievances and sadly, there is no option to configure the tiny ball to operate like a trackball.

The old Apple laptops of yesteryear had a trackball
The old Apple laptops of yesteryear had a trackball

With laptop technology always changing, the tiny trackball is not a viable option for users on the go. Its use in dusty environments was a consideration by laptop manufacturers. Any crack can potentially allow any substance to wiggle in and gum up the rollers.

Despite its cons, the trackball is an excellent pointing device. Its demise in the retail outlet leaves users with very little alternatives for ergonomically safe pointing options.

In The Handbook of Human Computer Interaction. the graphics tablet was ranked number one as the best pointing device for graphical user interfaces and the trackball second. The mouse fell dead last and yet it sells nearly everywhere, from the local office supply store to Walmart. When compared to its number one counterpart, the trackball has one key advantage: it’s a high precision stationary pointing device that uses less desktop space.

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7 Comments - Write a Comment

  1. I never really got the point of the trackball. A few mice I used had it, but I never really got the hang of using it. It’s still a cool technology to have if you’re running low on desk space.

  2. yah I never understood the big deal with trackballs, maybe im not that hardcore? I used a trackball in the past but found it cumbersome and actually harder to navigate. I think my logitech mediaplay gaming mouse is way better 🙂

  3. What exactly was the advantage of the trackball over the mouse? Was it faster or more precise or something?

    Whenever I used em they seemed slow and clumsy, but they must have been good at something.

  4. they where good at looking like you knew what you where navigating a space ship. Anyone with a giant trackball mouse on their desk must be hard core 😉

  5. I must admit that I’m not a fan of the trackball, and maybe that’s why this item is dead, so to speak. No, I don’t mean specifically because of me, of course. I just don’t feel like the trackball is user friendly. I never enjoyed using it. It felt odd and cumbersome. I won’t miss it.

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