Logitech TrackMan Wheel Intuitive, Easy to Use
About a year and a half ago I reviewed MacMice's The Ball Bluetooth cordless trackball, which I found quite comfortable, although I questioned the basic concept of using cordless connectivity, with its added complexity, often mediocre accuracy and responsiveness, and necessity for batteries at desktop workstations - and you would hardly take a freestanding trackball on the road to use with a laptop.
Logitech's TrackMan Wheel is another approach to trackball input. It comes in both corded and cordless versions. Our test unit is the cordless version, but (unlike The Ball) it's not a Bluetooth device. Rather, it uses Logitech's "digital radio technology", which lets you work within a 6' radius of the receiver with no line of sight issues.
More about the relative merits of these two wireless interfaces in a moment.
Before I could use it, the Logitech driver and configuration software had to be installed, and the computer rebooted.
You can use the Logitech Control Center preference panel to custom configure mouse button and scroll wheel commands.
The other major distinction between The Ball and the TrackMan Wheel is that while you actuate the former's tracking ball with your index and/or big fingers, the TrackMan Wheel's ball is actuated with the thumb. The thumb, with its wide range of motion, is arguably the logical digit to use with trackballs, and thumb-actuation makes it easy to traverse the entire width of my 17" PowerBook's widescreen display with one quick motion. Indeed, I found thumb trackball navigation so slick, quick, and articulate that I soon preferred it to certain keyboard shortcuts I use frequently, such as Command > Delete for banishing highlighted files to the Trash.
On the other hand, while The Ball is completely ambidextrous, the TrackMan Wheel is radically right-hand oriented, which may be an issue for lefties.
Aside from the unorthodox configuration of its trackball, the TrackMan Wheel offers the usual standard trackball/mouse features: left and right buttons and a "clickable" scroll wheel that also serves as a third button. It uses optical tracking technology that works whether the trackball is clean or not, although it's good practice to pop the ball out and wash it whenever it begins to get grubby just as a matter of form.
I have to say that the smoothness and effortlessness of the trackball rotation isn't quite up the the standard of The Ball, whose tracking ball rests on three tiny stainless steel ball bearings rather than three nylon ones, but it's not a big issue.
One disadvantage of non-Bluetooth cordless trackball is that you are obliged to use up a precious USB port to connect the receiver. Bluetooth is another matter, since it is built into the computer and operating system, and it requires no external receiver dongle unless your Mac predates Apple's adoption of Bluetooth. On the plus side, the Logitech wireless technology, unlike Bluetooth, has no latency on wake-up and does not need to be "paired" - both attributes appreciated by me.
Corded makes more sense to me, especially with trackballs. Since the trackball housing remains stationery in normal use, having a direct cord connection doesn't inhibit its desktop functionality in the slightest, and the receiver module is just something else to lug around and possibly get lost for portable users.
My recommendation for the TrackMan Wheel would be to go with the US$20 less expensive corded version and dispense with the need to replace a single AA battery every 3-4 months, (Logitech's "Smart Power Management" helps extend battery life). A battery indicator warns you when the battery is low.
Supports Mac OS 8.6
One aspect that should be of particular interest to some Low End Mac readers is that the Logitech Cordless TrackMan Wheel supports Macs back to OS 8.6, while Bluetooth support didn't come along until well into the OS X era, so the TrackMan is a wireless solution for older machines with no Bluetooth, if that's something that would appeal.
In terms of form factor, the TrackMan Wheel is about the size of a large mouse, with the buttons and scroll wheel where you would expect them to be. The trackball itself is embedded in the left-hand side of the housing, where it is manipulated by the thumb of the user's right hand.
The TrackMan Wheel is trapezoidally molded to accommodate the shape of the human hand. Personally, I would have preferred the palm rest to be somewhat more vertical in orientation rather than the relatively flat angle it is, facilitating more neutral pronation of the hand and forearm - the AerO2bic mouse (formerly Quill Mouse) being a good example of what I'm getting at.
The TrackMan Wheel's styling is typically Logitech, with a matte silver gray main housing accented with darker gray bottom panel and a marbled dark red trackball, which seems to be a popular color for trackballs because MacMice's The Ball uses it as well.
The scroll wheel is dark grey and is more stiffly detented than is to my liking (my preference is for scroll wheels with an effortless action and no detents at all, as on The Ball and the MacMice mice). The click buttons fall naturally under the index and middle fingers and have a nice, light, positive action.
Using the TrackMan Wheel's thumb-actuated ball configuration quickly becomes intuitive, and the thumb is in most applications better suited to manipulating the ball than fingers would be. One exception, perhaps, would be ultra-precise movements required in graphics editing, but IMHO a mouse is better for that sort of work anyway.
I'm inclined to like fast cursor response, and to that end, use the cool little MouseZoom utility set at "Extremely Fast" or about 4.48x (Apple's fastest speed configurable with the OS X Preference panel is a poky 1.7x). MouseZoom can actually take you up to a factor of 10x, which is, as they put it, "crazy fast", but I expect a lot of users would find my setting of less than half that plenty nervous.
With the TrackMan Wheel, I found that dropping the tracking speed back into the Apple supported range - even the lower-end of it (say .50) - was preferable, and a thumb-sweep of the trackball would still traverse the Desktop quickly and efficiently.
My first priority in choosing a pointing device for production work is of necessity imposed on me by physical limitations - fibromyalgia and chronic peripheral neuritis. For me, keeping one's forearm and wrist stationary while using a trackball - whether thumb or finger activated - causes more fatigue than having them mobile, especially with the Quill/AirO2bic Mouse, where motion is mainly initiated from the elbow rather than the wrist.
On the other hand, someone with carpal tunnel syndrome or other species of repetitive strain injury (RSI) may do better with the trackball.
Matching the Tool to the Job
I think that the suitability of trackballs as productivity enhancers depends to a considerable degree on what sort of work you do with them. I find the trackball is great for general Finder and menu navigation, especially in the Finder, where its speed and quick maneuverability are a delight.
As previously noted, for things like image editing, where you need very tight and precise incremental cursor control, I have to say that the thumb-actuated trackball is not ideally suited, and that, at least for me, a finger-activated trackball or trackpad works better - and a conventional (wrist-articulated) mouse works best of all.
As with most tool choices - whether with computers, woodworking, or auto mechanics - the best tool to use depends on the demands and conditions of the job at hand and what you're most comfortable with.
System Requirements (for Logitech Control Center)
- Mac OS X version 10.1.2 or higher.
- Macintosh computer with built-in USB port.
- Any PCI PowerMac using a USB adapter card.
The installer will check for the OS version and will not install the Logitech Control Center if your Macintosh is not running a supported version of Mac OS X.
The Cordless TrackMan Wheel is covered by a five year warranty and retails for US$49.95.
Charles Moore has been a freelance journalist since 1987 and began writing for Mac websites in May 1998. His The Road Warrior column was a regular feature on MacOpinion, he is news editor at Applelinks.com and a columnist at MacPrices.net. If you find his articles helpful, please consider making a donation to his tip jar.
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