Trackballs are often recommended as an ergonomic alternative for mouse sufferers. The Kensington Expert, with its extra-large ball, scroll wheel, and programmable buttons, is frequently held up as an example of trackball greatness. There is much to like about the latest version of this venerable device, but also one or two drawbacks to consider.
Big trackball, big benefits
The first prototypical trackball, invented in far-off 1952, used an actual regulation bowling ball for its business end. In a smaller scale of the same sporting tradition, the ball of the Expert Mouse is identical in size to one used for billiards – literally identical; on the old mechanical Expert model you could actually substitute a billiard ball and it would still work. This jumbo sized ball is a large part of what makes the Expert Mouse worth its considerable price tag.
Generally speaking, input devices are considered more ergonomic when they can be driven with big motions of large muscle groups, and less ergonomic when they must be manipulated with minute movements of weaker muscles. To illustrate this, imagine trying to do CAD with a tiny, thumb-operated trackball or finger joystick such as the ones featured on early laptops. I don’t know about you, but just thinking about it makes my finger hurt. In contrast, the large ball of the Expert can easily be driven with three fingers, your whole hand, or even your whole arm. These motions are not only expansive and easy to do, they’re also easy to change up while you work – helping to undermine the “repetitive” in Repetitive Strain Injury.
If you have a large monitor, you’ll appreciate the ability of the Expert Mouse to cover ground with just a slight push of its large ball. If you have several large monitors, the ability of a trackball to spin infinitely – where a mouse would hit the edge of the pad and have to be reset – is nearly indispensable.
Most importantly for the Photoshopper set, the size of the Expert Mouse increases its potential for precision. Trackballs in general are not very accurate, but the Expert is precise enough that many people have reported being able to do pixel-perfect work with the thing. This is, of course, very much YMMV. Personally, I’m keeping my Wacom tablet handy for the fine details.
Padded wrist rest
The Kensington Expert Mouse doesn’t have a hand-conforming shape, and thus gives no clue as to where your hand should park while using it. By default your wrist is likely to end up on the desk, which is bad – and bent back due to the slope of the trackball, which is worse.
Enter the padded wrist rest provided with the Expert – big enough to accommodate any choice of operating position, and thick enough to reduce back-bending on the wrist. It’s spongy soft compared to many wrist rests, and covered with a smooth leatherette-type surface similar to that of the Microsoft Natural 4000 keyboard.
The downside, if there is one, is less than consequential. The wrist rest – which looks like it should nest tightly over the front of the trackball but doesn’t – is attached by a thin plastic plate. With its four short posts sticking up, this plate reminds me very much of the display stands used with small action figures. It also feels like that grade of quality. Provided you don’t pop the wrist pad off on a daily basis, though, you should be fine. There are no inherent stresses of use on this component that I can see.
Merrily we scroll along
Or not so merrily. There’s good news and bad news about the Expert’s scroll wheel. The good news is, it has one. Most trackballs don’t, instead using the ball itself for scrolling when a special combination of buttons is pressed. As I mentioned in my review of another wheel-less device, the 3M ergonomic mouse, I think scroll wheels are pretty important. That’s one reason I love the Kensington Orbit - a smaller, less-expensive cousin of the Expert Mouse that features a slick scroll ring around its ball. Having used this device, I was disappointed and puzzled by the wheel on the twice-more-costly Expert Mouse. The bad news, you see, is that the wheel on this trackball grinds, with a sound and feel that many users describe as sand in the bearings. Worse, it seems to skip, stick, and pause for breath during use – leaving me with a profound lack of confidence that it will actually work when required.
The best I can say about this scroll wheel is, it’s better than nothing. I’ll probably never understand why Kensington could not simply enlarge the wheel from the Orbit and mate it to the Expert for an incomparable trackball experience.
Where many trackballs skimp on the number of buttons available due to their shape and size, the Expert Mouse features a respectable four buttons. Better yet, it’s compatible with the latest upgraded version of Kensington’s free TrackballWorks software. Running in the background of your Windows or Apple computer, this program enables you not only to adjust things like the pointer speed and acceleration, but also to reprogram the four buttons any way you like. I, for example, set the top-right button to primary click so I could hit it with my strong middle finger and avoid wearing out my thumb on the default bottom-left click setting.
Combinations of buttons are also supported through TrackballWorks. I created a behavior to register double-click when the top two buttons are pressed at once, and found it worked quite well. You can also map these combinations to different system actions and commands, such as starting a frequently-used program or minimizing all windows. In case you’re wondering, you don’t have to press both buttons in the same nanosecond; the software is quite smart about distinguishing concurrent clicks. I do wish that Kensington would expand the combinations available, allowing custom actions for both right buttons, both left buttons, and even diagonal mixups. Currently you’re limited to the top and bottom pairs only.
No go for on the go
Portability is not a strong point of the cumbersome Expert Mouse, particularly if you use the wrist rest with its flimsy attachment plate. Even if you don’t, there’s still the problem of the ball. Unlike any other trackball I know of, the Expert holds its ball in by gravity alone. Turn over the body and out comes the ball, ready for a game of billiards – or more likely hide and seek, as the surprised user hunts for it under the desk. While this “easy” removal is great for the occasional cleaning all trackballs require, it makes the Expert Mouse a two-piece carry – one piece of which will always be trying to roll away.
If mobile work is your thing, do yourself a favor and get a Kensington Orbit Scroll, that smaller cousin we talked about earlier. With its low profile and tight construction, the Orbit is perfect for portable situations (and not half bad for primary desktop use, by the way).
People switch to trackballs for a lot of reasons. Reduced wrist motion, easy movement over multiple screens, and desk space economy are some of the most common. In all of these areas, the Kensington Expert Mouse hits it out of the park. The scroll wheel issue is a drawback, but in my opinion not necessarily a deal-killer. The Expert is comfortable to use, very cool, and even a little bit fun. If there’s a trackball in your future, it’s definitely worth considering the Kensington Expert Mouse.
Disclosure: This review was made with a complimentary sample from Kensington.