Microsoft has rolled out two new optical controllers to strengthen the backbone of its trackball range: the Trackball Explorer and the subject of this review, the Trackball Optical. While the former possesses the futuristic metallic livery of the Explorer range, the Optical is finished in matt black. However, their differences go well beyond just appearance. While the flagship Explorer is designed to be rolled with the fingertips, the Optical requires the thumb to keep the ball moving.
Working the ball in this way addresses some of the general criticisms of trackballs because dragging and dropping becomes a more intuitive procedure. Unlike finger-driven trackballs, which require the thumb to click and hold the pointer device's buttons, the Optical's design allows the forefinger and middle finger to use the buttons and scroller-wheel thus mimicking more accurately the way we use a mouse.
The ergonomics of trackball devices are designed for comfort, and to reduce the possibility of acquiring repetitive strain injury (RSI). Using the Optical reduces the shoulder/elbow/wrist ache often associated with extended periods of mouse activity. With very little wrist and lower arm movement, web browsing and general desktop navigation is a much more relaxed and comfortable affair.
The Optical is a USB device that comes with a PS2 adapter for those who do not wish to use up valuable USB resources on a pointing device. However, the option of the USB connection does allow the Optical to function in tandem with a standard mouse. So with two mice connected, if more than one person uses the same computer, they could have a choice of which type of mouse they choose to use.
The Optical emits the magical red glow of all Microsoft's LED optical technology, even when the computer is in standby. More than simply looking very attractive though, this feature is what gives the user a highly accurate slip-free method of pointing, coping adequately even when the ball is 'flicked' rapidly.
In terms of general dimensions, the unit itself is larger than an average mouse. However, with no need for a mouse mat, or a clutter-free zone for movement, the unit actually requires considerably less desk space.
Installation is hassle-free although the software included is not specific to the Optical. It is actually the software supplied with all Microsoft pointer devices. Sadly this does not give the option to use the ball rather than the wheel for scrolling. That said, the drivers are very straightforward to use - there is full control over sensitivity settings and importantly the ability to change the functions of all buttons on the unit, including the clickable wheel and the two extra internet keys.
The Optical is not without its downside, however. Most striking is its exclusively right-handed design, which leaves left handers completely at a loss. The change of orientation would also be difficult for any RSI-ridden gamers who favour mouse-driven action, unless they really wish to make the transition to Trackball control. However, regular right-handed users who simply find extensive use of a mouse uncomfortable should, through the Optical, be rewarded with a comfortable and efficient means of desktop control.