Trackball can be a boon to disabled or very young

PERSONAL COMPUTING

March 08, 1993|By Joshua Mills hTC | Joshua Mills hTC,New York Times News Service

For a long time, Peter was not much interested in computing. He did not find the images on screen terribly compelling; he could not make sense of the words; the 126-key keyboard just offered too many options. And he found the mouse clumsy to use.

Then, six weeks ago, the family computer acquired a trackball, which is a sort of upside-down mouse. The mouse does not move; it lies on the desk, belly up, and the ball that controls the cursor is on top. Suddenly, Peter was hooked. Now he sits for 40 minutes or more, his left hand resting on the ball, which in size and appearance is very much like a cue ball from a pool table, and he controls the cursor movements smoothly.

Sometimes he keeps both hands on the trackball, one to move the ball, the other to click the buttons. He now can shift from program to program and run through a wide range of activities. Peter, who is 2 1/2 years old, is on his way to becoming a hacker.

Trackballs have been around for more than a half-dozen years and are usually viewed as a solution for crowded desktops, because unlike the wild mouse, they do not need a pasture in which to roam.

Yet trackball makers, and there are many, seem to be missing the boat: If the experience of one set of neighborhood children is a guide, this is a device that should be marketed to parents, for their children.

Other people who are likely to find a trackball easier to use than a mouse are the physically disabled and those suffering from repetitive strain injury, because controlling a trackball requires less arm and wrist movement than using a mouse.

"The speed variable is important, because you can slow down acceleration to the point where people with impairments can use it," said Rich Pekelny, who helps design trackballs at Kensington Microware Ltd. in San Mateo, Calif.

But there is a major hurdle for anyone curious about a trackball. Although a mouse is now provided with virtually every new computer sold, buying a trackball requires making a choice, and trackballs come in many sizes and shapes. Beauty and comfort are in the eye of the beholder, so shop around. Try to find stores that sell a range of models: big balls and little ones, centered ones and offset models, high bases and low, sloping approaches and steep sides.

Peter's trackball of choice is the Expert Mouse, from Kensington Microware, (800) 535-4242, which has a list price of $149; for the Macintosh, Kensington offers a similar Turbo Mouse for $169. If you want a model with a large ball, start here.

The Expert Mouse has heft; it holds its ground against the stampede of little fingers. And there is enough ball that a small child's fingers can wrap around it with ease. The device has a port on either side, so wherever it is placed, the cable need not run around the desktop; the software that comes with it provides for a pop-up control panel so cursor movements can be slowed down for children and accelerated for Mom and Dad. The documentation is notable for its clarity; techtalk is kept to a minimum.

Another good large-ball model, from Microspeed Inc., (800) 232-7888, has one particularly nice feature: Its ball is contained within a rim, so it cannot be lifted out and thrown into the trash or rolled down the stairs.

"Many trackballs are thumb-driven, but our research shows that fingertip control is better," said Timothy C. Barry, president and chief executive of Microspeed of Fremont, Calif. "It's basically a hand-eye-coordination issue for people of all ages."

Among those who make small-ball models, Logitech Inc. of Fremont, Calif., (510) 795-8500, offers a range of highly sculptured Trackman models for PCs and Macintoshes (list price $99-$169). The Costar Corp. of Greenwich, Conn., (203) 661-9700, makes a nice Macintosh trackball called the Stingray (list price $129).

Like its aquatic namesake, the Stingray has an unusually low profile, flanked by two large wings: the buttons. The company says some computer users with repetitive stress injury have found it less stressful to use than a more conventional mouse or trackball.

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