Sunday, December 25, 2005

The Ball: A Bluetooth Trackball by Chwang Yi

This is a mini-review of a piece of niche equipment: The Ball Bluetooth trackball.

I'm a trackball user. My second computer was a PowerBook 100, the slow, brittle, lightweight, brilliant, quantum leap of a computer PowerBook 100 with its large trackball, not the grape sized trackball trackball of the Duo, but the big as an owl's eyeball trackball of the 100. In the interest of space, modern PowerBooks have trackpads, which are fine and precise, but I still like trackballs.

My favored trackball, probably because I'm used to it, is the Logitech Trackman series. I'm quite adept at using a TrackMan, I can hold it in mid-air with my pinky and thumb and still scroll through a webpage with the scroll wheel, or push it against the top of my back with my hands behind my neck as I lean back and read source code. Basically, what I like about trackballs is how they free me from my desk.

And in terms of freeing me from my desk, I'd like to occasionally browse the Internet from my couch using my HDTV as a monitor. Actually, the TrackMan has a long enough USB cable I could do so, while risking tripping my wife; I want a wireless solution. Something to take advantage of the Bluetooth module in my PowerBook. And so every few months I would google "bluetooth trackball" and it would always be the same: people asking for this product and no companies creating one. And, the vaporous promise and picture of something called "The Ball" which always seemed two months from release. Company problems, you see, and no knowing if things would get straightened out and the product shipped.

And then one day, I was surfing MacSurfer and what should I come across but an AppleLink Review of "The Ball" by Chwang Yi. There was now an actual product you could order, so I did.

The Ball

The charging station is a small USB powered device, which is convenient if you have an available powered USB port, on a hub for example, and inconvenient if you don't. Just plop The Ball onto the charger and wait for the flashing blue light on the charger to go from flashing to constant.

After pairing with my PowerBook, it worked fairly reliably, easily useable from the couch. I did have to turn my mouse tracking speed down to the middle setting as the cursor movement was just too fast, and I kept overshooting my targets. Unfortunately, at this low speed it's hard to throw the cursor at the menu bar as Mac users are wont. Experience with the Trackman does not help with this device. The Trackman is a thumb wheel device, The Ball is an index or middle finger device. I can use the scroll wheel in mid-air, but little else, The Ball likes flat surfaces, so my thigh or tummy are OK, but behind my head is a bit cumbersome. And it will take a while getting used to click dragging, if I ever do. The Ball uses the Apple style zero buttons approach: you move the entire upper shell to click left or right virtual buttons.

I really like the feel of the scroll wheel solid and quiet.

The Ball goes to sleep after a few minutes, so get used to clicking it awake or you'll be wondering why the cursor won't move.

I wish The Ball had Mighty Mouse style side buttons to bring up Expose.

I've dropped The Ball several time with no ill affect. Once the ball popped out, but it popped right back in. It seems tough enough.

In conclusion, I think The Ball a decent product. If your Mac Mini is attached to a big screen TV, and your butt is attached to a couch, this might be your tool to browse the web in comfort. Just be ready to go through a few days of miss-selected menus and overshot links; as with most pointing devices, it takes some acclimating.

Update: Well I did pair it with my HDTV-attached Fedora Core 4 Linux box, at least temporarily as the pairing is lost when the trackball goes into low power mode. And it, is sort of relaxing sitting in my easy chair and browsing the Internet with just three fingers of my right hand. I did set the font size quite high, and I'm only 7 feet from my 26" screen, but it is certainly doable for the most passive mode of browsing. I'll figure out how to get a longer term pairing later.

Update 2: I've been using The Ball in my home office for general computer use: browsing the web, editing source, etc, and I've mostly gotten the hang of using it. The nicest part is the scroll wheel, very convenient for scrolling through web pages or source while leaning back in my chair. I believe the Logitech mechanism is superior in terms of accuracy and range of mouse speed; the unique dot pattern on Logitech balls gives stability, speed and accuracy, with no problem throwing the mouse at the menu bar with a sharp swipe of the thumb. You can't move the mouse cursor with The Ball both fast and accurately.

But I do like having the freedom of position The Ball gives me, and it is smaller. So, I'll keep this on my desk and be fairly happy.