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Trackball Round-Up

ATARI/P&G/CONTRIVER/MCS/MARCONI/KRAFT Trackballs

When you entrust your music to the sophistication of a computer and software, you may find yourself needing something more reliable than a mouse to control it. Vic Lennard has the balls - track balls.


When your software relies on the use of a mouse and your mouse packs up you realise just how dependent your hi-tech setup is on cheap technology - the reliable alternative is a trackball.


BEFORE THE heyday of popular computer usage, the only kind of mouse most people were familiar with was the small furry rodent type famous for intimidating elephants and consuming cheese. These days, "mouse" often refers to the pale grey plastic creature which resides happily to one side of your Atari (or Mac, or Amiga, or IBM...) There's no fur on this kind of mouse - though it does have a kind of tail and with a bit of imagination (depending what you've been on) you can see why it's so called.

It could be argued that the mouse has completely changed our computer working methods - indeed with many of today's programs, the only real reason to use the computer keyboard is to input names where required. However, there are certain mechanical and ergonomic problems inherent in regular mouse (ab)use - if you haven't encountered them yourself, read on...

MOUSE SURGERY



IF YOU'VE EVER opened up your mouse (and you really should have, if only to clean the little blighter), you'll have found a small, heavy, rubber ball. A closer look will also reveal three small rollers. Two of these handle the vertical and horizontal movement of the mouse by rotating a slotted plastic disc in the path of an optical beam. The speed of rotation dictates the speed of the cursor on the screen. Diagonal movements are carried out by a mixture of the above. The third roller is spring-loaded and keeps the ball against the main two rollers.

Keeping a mouse in good working order is difficult. Whatever surface you choose to run it on, dirt is picked up by the ball and transferred to the rollers. Some of the Atari mice have nylon rollers which don't suffer from this but have a poor feel to them. Generally, using tape head cleaner or isopropyl alcohol once a week or so will keep the rollers clean. If this isn't done, you run the risk of losing the smoothness of your mouse and reducing its life considerably - people have been reported to the RSPCA for less.

Atari mice tend to break down for two reasons. Firstly, the left-hand button stops working, simply due to long-term use. The switches used on these mice are of the mechanical rubber pad variety, similar to the technology behind a computer keyboard, and given enough presses, the left-hand switch collapses - after all, this is the one which tends to be doubleclicked. Consequently, some manufacturers have started using micro-switches, which are far superior. Secondly, the mouse cable may break just behind the cable strain relief - although this problem can be avoided if you treat your mouse carefully.

The main disadvantages of using a mouse are the space it requires on your working surface and its speed across the screen. To an extent this latter problem can be improved by using a piece of software called a "mouse accelerator". This causes the cursor to move proportionately further on screen than the mouse itself does on its mat in the real world. However, these accelerators vary widely in terms of quality of programming - and at worst, they can interfere with the running of your software. Some sequencers have an accelerator option included within the software but this means that you have to get used to a decidedly sluggish mouse when you quit this program.

Though the mouse speed problem can be ameliorated to some extent, the space problem isn't so easily dealt with. You can't fail to have been irritated when you reach the edge of your mouse working space and have to pick up the mouse and move it back to where you started from. This "lift-up-and-replace-to-the-other-side-of-the-space" routine becomes very tiring, especially if you're working in a small area.

ENTER TRACKBALL



A TRACKBALL IS basically a mouse turned upside down. Instead of rolling the ball on a surface, you move it around with your fingers. The switches are, of course, on the top of the unit but can be in a variety of different positions.

There are various advantages in substituting this type of device for your mouse. A trackball only takes up as much room as the unit itself - and they're usually quite small. In operation, the palm of your hand usually rests on the unit itself or on the surface just behind it. This means that there is practically no wrist movement involved in operating a trackball - I'm sure that someone must have invented the term "mouse-wrist" for the ache that occurs after some hours of mouse use.

Additionally, the large ball featured on most trackerball units leads to far greater accuracy when working with the graphic edit pages in most sequencers and synth editors. Because the trackball itself is static, you can just take your hand away from the unit while drawing a curve or moving a slider. You can't do that with a mouse. The quality of switches and rollers in trackballs is generally superior to those found in mice - they have to be, due to the weight of the ball which bears down directly on the rollers. That said, you don't rest your whole hand's weight on them in the same way that you do with a mouse. Couple this with the fact that far less dirt gets into a trackball and you have a recipe for a much longer life.

Trackballs also eliminate the need for a mouse accelerator. Most trackballs will have you across the screen in half a shake of a mouse's tail, so you end up with the same feel and speed no matter which piece of your software you are using.

This all said, trackballs do have a few disadvantages. The first has to be cost. A decent trackball isn't going to give you any change out of £50 - but this has to be taken in context. A trackball will last you for years with practically no maintenance or decrease in efficiency, a comment which cannot be made for any mouse. Trackballs also take a little getting used to.

The only other problem may be with the design. Moving the ball quickly may cause the cursor to "skate" on screen and so effectively stay in the same position. We'll examine this aspect of each different unit in turn.

ATARI TRAK-BALL



THIS IS THE original trackball, having been originally designed to go with the old Atari 8-bit range of computers and video computer systems. The design is pretty long in the tooth, dating from 1983. It measures some 9" by 5" - hardly small - and is encased in black plastic. The two switches are situated in the top corners of the unit and so are some 7" apart. This makes life awkward when you have to press down both switches for an operation and absolutely impossible if you then have to move the ball. You could use two hands but that does somewhat negate the whole point of using a trackball in the first place.

The ball itself is large and very rough in use. In fact, it's distinctly noisy. The resolution is also very low in that it takes about four rolls to get across the screen, but it is very accurate with no skating. I used one of these for about nine months with a mouse accelerator because it really is too sluggish without one. I just had to accept that some pieces of software were unstable with this extra little program in memory and so turned the accelerator off when necessary.

In addition, the switches on this trackball are fairly unresponsive; consequently, it is heavy going if you're having to double-click a lot. Still, there is something very solid about the unit - it certainly doesn't move around.

Atari no longer stock these but most shops have a few left. The RRP used to be somewhere between £25 and £30 but if you really want one, they should be available secondhand for around £15.

P & G TRACKERMOUSE



PENNY & GILES are better known for the high-quality faders they manufacture for mixing desks than for computing peripherals. Trackermouse (who has a distant cousin, Danger) is a highly slimline 7" by 2.5" unit with the top face having a slope of around 10. The actual ball is rather small but the innovative part is the switches. These are positioned on the sides so that the palm of your hand rests on the unit, your first finger on the ball and your thumb and second finger on the two switches. These are micro switches, and are as responsive as possible, requiring only the slightest touch to trigger.

The ball is reasonably smooth, although a bit sticky. Two rolls and you're across the screen and while "skating" is evident, it is not too obtrusive. While Trackermouse has a great feel to it, perhaps a slightly bigger ball would have been better. It is difficult to place two fingers on it and so continuous side-to-side motion can be a little slow. Also, you can move the ball slightly in any direction without the cursor immediately picking up.

The real problem lies in the fact that the unit is very lightweight. Once your thumb gets a little sticky, double-clicking on the left-hand button becomes difficult. If you try it gently, your thumb sticks and only gives a single click, while any degree of force moves the whole unit sideways. This also causes trouble when you have to hold down the left button and move the ball at the same time.

As for the RRP, take a deep breath. A not inconsiderable £101.20 inclusive of carriage and VAT. As they say, it's good - but not that good.

CONTRIVER CONTRACK BALL



CONTRIVER HAVE BEEN making replacement mice for the Atari ST and other computers for some time, and the Contrack Ball under examination here is a small white unit measuring about 5" by 4" with a large, light brown ball to the right-hand side and three switches placed vertically on the left-hand side. You need to leave a space of around three inches behind the unit in order to operate it.

Taking this trackball out of the box and attempting to move the ball is likely to fail dismally - that is, until you turn off the lock on the bottom of the unit which is intended to prevent damage in transit. Nice idea. Lock duly turned off, the ball is quite smooth in operation but skates badly - move the ball fast and you end up behind the point where you first started. However, as the ball is very large you only need one careful roll to move from one side of the screen to the other.

Unfortunately, the switches are in a silly position. It is very difficult to have your fingers on the top and bottom switches and comfortably roll the ball - and if you're left-handed, forget it. The middle switch appears to duplicate the bottom one but as Contriver also make IBM and Amiga versions, I assume that this switch is primarily for one of these other computers. On the right-hand side of each switch is a small locking device which locks the relevant switch in an "on" position. Unfortunately, it is practically impossible to do this one-handed unless you have very strong nails, as the locks are far too stiff.

I've also experienced the same problem with the Contrack trackball as with a mouse I've used which was also made by Contriver. Every now and then, for no apparent reason, the cursor moves of its own accord on-screen. Sometimes this movement is just a centimetre, sometimes half the width or length of the screen. The same phenomenon occurs on different versions of the ST with the same result. Contriver should definitely look into this.

From a cost point of view, it is the cheapest trackball currently available on the market, with an RRP of £34.99.

MCS MG TRACK



ANOTHER SMALL TRACKBALL, measuring 5.5" by 4", the top face of the MG Track is curved downwards towards your hand with the grey ball at the top of the slope. Again, you need to leave a small space behind the unit for the palm of your hand to rest on. The three switches are part of the white casing with one either side and the third next to your palm. The whole unit looks like something out of Star Wars.

The ball is fairly large and extremely smooth in operation. You can cover the width of the screen in just over one roll. Skating is evident but the resolution of MG Track is high so you don't tend to move the ball that fast anyway.

The switches are superb - just about the best micro switches I've encountered anywhere. A good micro switch not only requires minimal movement, but has a positive feel and a distinct "click" when operated - MCS' switches have all of these qualities. The third switch has been implemented as a latching left-hand button. This means that instead of having to hold down the left switch when drawing controller curves or filling in a MIDI note grid, you simply press the bottom switch once. When you've finished your edit, you press the left switch to disengage. Very useful.

The price is a bit high at £63.19, but this really is one very good trackball and well worth the price.

MARCONI MARCUS



MARCONI AS A company need no introduction. Marcus is one very solid piece of engineering and measures around 8" by 4.5". It doesn't seem this large, however, because the top face is angled at around 10 degrees and at the same height as a standard ST/STE. Consequently when you place the unit at the side of the computer it looks like an extension of the keyboard. The bottom 4" is designed for you to rest your palm on and has the ball above this and the three switches in a horizontal line above the ball.

The aforementioned ball is smooth but quite noisy. However, it rolls very freely and so you tend to roll the ball with your thumb and catch it when the cursor gets to the required position. The feel is most reassuring and very accurate - it is very difficult to get it to skate.

The right and left switches are round with an elongated oval switch in between. This was disconnected, although Marconi said that it could be a latched version of the left one. The switches certainly aren't of the micro variety, but are positive in their action and very heavy duty. However, they are the "wrong" way round. This is because you tend to lean your hand on the right-hand side of the casing and so the right switch is nearest to you. As the left switch is most often used, this has been wired as the one which is effectively easiest to reach. Fair enough, but I did get confused when working with software which requires you to press the left and right buttons in a particular order. Also, the argument doesn't hold for left-handed people. There should be a switch on the rear of the unit to let you configure Marcus to your own taste, because after years of using a mouse a particular way round, changing the way you naturally think is quite difficult.

The RRP is £54.95 which is most reasonable - this is one trackball which will probably never break down.

KRAFT TRIPLETRACK



MEASURING SOME 7" by 4.5", Tripletrack is a multi-computer trackball. It can be used with the Atari ST and the Commodore Amiga and 64 by selecting the relevant switch position on the side of the unit. It also has a button-lock switch for selecting and holding down the main button and an auto-fire option for games use.

The three buttons are positioned towards the bottom of the unit, so requiring a space to be left behind for the heel of-your hand. The right and left buttons double for the standard left button, so suiting Tripletrack to both left and right-handed people. The centre button then acts as the standard right button. This unit has a nice positive "click action" with good quality micro switches, although they are a little difficult to operate with your thumb as the switches move in and out of the casing.

The ball is very smooth to roll but, as with most other trackballs, suffers from skating. A couple of gentle rolls and you're across the screen so there is no real problem. Ergonomically, this trackball is quite comfortable, with the ball part on a kind of plateau above the buttons.

Its RRP is £44.95, which represents very good value for money on a trackball which has a five-year guarantee and a custom-made cover to keep out the dust.

  Atari Track-Ball Contriver Contrack Penny & Giles Trackermouse MCS MGTrack Marconi Marcus Kraft Tripletrack
Smoothness of ball roll 3 7 6 8 7 8
Switch response 4 6 8 9 7 8
Accuracy of control 3 4 7 8 9 6
Ease of use 4 5 7 9 6 8


VERDICT



EACH TRACKBALL HAS been marked out of ten on four categories. "Smoothness of ball roll" is pretty obvious, as is "switch response". "Accuracy of control" relates to how precisely the cursor moves across the screen and how much of a problem is presented by skating, while "Ease of Use" includes position of switches, and use of both switches and ball at the same time.

Both the Marconi Marcus and the Kraft Tripletrack rate highly, but top marks go to the MG Track by MCS - it's smooth and positive to use, and offers the plus of the locking third button. In fact, I bought one.

The subjective change from using a mouse to using a trackball is far less tiresome than from a keyboard to a mouse. More to the point, the first time you use a decent trackball will probably be the last time that you put up with using a mouse .

More From Atari Corp (UK) Ltd, (Contact Details)
Penny & Giles Computer Products Ltd. (Contact Details)
Contriver (Europe) Ltd, (Contact Details)
MCS, (Contact Details)
Marconi Marcus: Silica Shop, (Contact Details)
Kraft Tripletrack: Evesham Micros Ltd, (Contact Details)



Previous Article in this issue

Oriental Intrigue

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Tales Of The Supernatural


Music Technology - Copyright: Music Maker Publications (UK), Future Publishing.

 

Music Technology - Dec 1990

Feature by Vic Lennard

Previous article in this issue:

> Oriental Intrigue

Next article in this issue:

> Tales Of The Supernatural


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