A trackball is a pointing device consisting of a ball held by a socket containing sensors to detect a rotation of the ball about two axes—like an upside-down mouse with an exposed protruding ball. The user rolls the ball with the thumb, fingers, or the palm of the hand to move a cursor. Large tracker balls are common on CAD workstations for easy precision. Before the advent of the touchpad, small trackballs were common on portable computers, where there may be no desk space on which to run a mouse. Some small thumbballs clip onto the side of the keyboard and have integral buttons with the same function as mouse buttons. The trackball was invented by Tom Cranston and Fred Longstaff as part of the Royal Canadian Navy's DATAR system in 1952, eleven years before the mouse was invented. This first trackball used a Canadian five-pin bowling ball.
When mice still used a mechanical design (with slotted 'chopper' wheels interrupting a beam of light to measure rotation), trackballs had the advantage of being in contact with the user's hand, which is generally cleaner than the desk or mousepad and does not drag lint into the chopper wheels. The late 1990s replacement of mouseballs by direct optical tracking put trackballs at a disadvantage and forced them to retreat into niches where their distinctive merits remained more important. Most trackballs now have direct optical tracking which follows dots on the ball.
As with modern mice, most trackballs now have an auxiliary device primarily intended for scrolling. Some have a scroll wheel like most mice, but the most common type is a “scroll ring” which is spun around the ball. Kensington's SlimBlade Trackball similarly tracks the ball itself in three dimensions for scrolling.
Three major companies Logitech, A4Tech, and Kensington currently produce trackball, although A4Tech has not released a new model in several years. Microsoft was a major producer, but has since discontinued all of its products. The Microsoft Trackball Explorer continues to be extremely popular (it has no analogous design in production by another company), with used models selling for ~$200 on ebay.
Large tracker balls are sometimes seen on computerized special-purpose workstations, such as the radar consoles in an air-traffic control room or sonar equipment on a ship or submarine. Modern installations of such equipment may use mice instead, since most people now already know how to use one. However, military mobile anti-aircraft radars and submarine sonars tend to continue using trackballs, since they can be made more durable and more fit for fast emergency use. Large and well made ones allow easier high precision work, for which reason they may still be used in these applications (where they are often called "tracker balls") and in computer-aided design.
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