Mouse and Pointing Stick Alternatives

Because of Windows, many users spend at least as much time moving pointers around the screen as they do in typing, making pointing device choices very important. In addition to the mouse and the pointing stick choices discussed earlier in this chapter, several other popular pointing devices are available, including:

  • Track pads, such as the Cirque GlidePoint

  • Trackballs from many vendors

  • Upright mice, such as the 3M Renaissance Mouse

All these devices are treated as mice by the operating system but offer radically different options for the user in terms of comfort. If you're not satisfied with a regular mouse and don't want to use an integrated pointing stick such as the TrackPoint II/III/IV, look into these options.

GlidePoint/Touch Pad

Cirque originated the touch pad (also called a track pad) pointing device in 1994. Cirque refers to its technology as the GlidePoint and has licensed the technology to other vendors such as Alps Electric, which also uses the term Glidepoint for its touch pads. The GlidePoint uses a flat, square pad that senses finger position through body capacitance.

This is similar to the capacitance-sensitive elevator button controls you sometimes encounter in office buildings or hotels. When it is used on a portable computer's keyboard, the touch pad is mounted below the spacebar, and it detects pressure applied by your thumbs or fingers.

Transducers under the pad convert finger movement into pointer movement. Several laptop and notebook manufacturers have licensed this technology from Cirque and have incorporated it into their portable systems. Touch pads are also integrated into a number of mid-range to high-end keyboards from many vendors.

When used on a desktop keyboard, touch pads are often offset to the right side of the keyboard's typing area. Touch pads feature mouse buttons, although the user also can tap or double-tap on the touch pad's surface to activate an onscreen button located under the touch pad's cursor.

Dragging and dropping is accomplished without touching the touch pad's buttons; just move the cursor to the object to be dragged, press down on the pad, hold while moving the cursor to the drop point, and raise the finger to drop the object. Some recent models also feature additional hot buttons with functions similar to those on hot-button keyboards.

The primary use for touch pads has been for notebook computer– and desktop keyboard–integrated pointing devices, although Cirque and Alps have both sold standalone versions of the touch pad for use as a mouse alternative on desktop systems.

Cirque's touch pads are now available at retail under the Fellowes brand name, as well as direct from the Cirque Web site. The Internet Touchpad (also sold by Fellowes) has enhanced software to support touch gestures, has programmable hot buttons, and includes other features to make Web surfing easier.

Although it has gained wide acceptance, especially on portable computers, touch pad technology can have many drawbacks for some users. Operation of the device can be erratic, depending on skin resistance and moisture content. The biggest drawback is that to operate the touch pad, users must remove their hands from the home row on the keyboard, which dramatically slows their progress.

In addition, the operation of the touch pad can be imprecise, depending on how pointy your finger or thumb is! On the other hand, if you're not a touch typist, removing your hands from the keyboard to operate the touch pad might be easier than using a TrackPoint. Even with their drawbacks, touch pad pointing devices are still vastly preferable to using a trackball or a cumbersome external mouse with portable systems.

Unless you want to use a "real" mouse with a portable system, I recommend you sit down with portable computers that have both touch pad and TrackPoint pointing devices. Try them yourself for typing, file management, and simple graphics and see which type of integrated pointing device you prefer. I know what I like, but you might have different tastes.


The first trackball I ever saw outside of an arcade was the Wico trackball, a perfect match for mid-1980s video games and computer games, such as Missile Command and others. It emulated the eight-position Atari 2600 analog joystick but was capable of much more flexibility.

Unlike the mid-80s trackballs, today's trackballs are used primarily for business instead of gaming. Most trackballs use a mouse-style positioning mechanism—the differences being that the trackball is on the top or side of the case and is much larger than a mouse ball.

The user moves the trackball rather than the input device case, but rollers or wheels inside most models translate the trackball's motion and move a cursor onscreen the same way that mouse rollers or wheels convert the mouse ball's motion into cursor movement.

Trackballs come in a variety of forms, including ergonomic models shaped to fit the (right) hand, ambidextrous models suitable for both lefties and right-handers, optical models that use the same optical sensors found in the latest mice in place of wheels and rollers, and multibutton monsters that look as if they're the result of an encounter with a remote control.

Because they are larger than mice, trackballs lend themselves well to the extra electronics and battery power needed for wireless use. Logitech offers several wireless trackball models that use radio-frequency transceivers; for details of how this technology works.

Trackballs use the same drivers and connectors as conventional mice. For basic operations, the operating-system-supplied drivers will work, but you should use the latest version of the vendor-supplied drivers to achieve maximum performance with recent models.

Cleaning and Troubleshooting Trackballs

Trackball troubleshooting is similar to mouse troubleshooting. Because trackballs are moved by the user's hand rather than by rolling against a tabletop or desktop, they don't need to be cleaned as often as mouse mechanisms do.

However, occasional cleaning is recommended, especially with trackballs that use roller movement-detection mechanisms. If the trackball pointer won't move, skips, or drags when you move the trackball, try cleaning the trackball mechanism.

Trackballs can be held into place by a retaining ring, an ejection tab, or simply by gravity. Check the vendor's Web site for detailed cleaning instructions if your trackball didn't come with such instructions. Swabs and isopropyl alcohol are typically used to clean the trackball and rollers or bearings; see the trackball's instructions for details.

3M's Ergonomic Mouse

Many PC users who grew up using joysticks on the older video games experienced some "interface shock" when they turned in their joysticks for mice. And even long-time mouse users nursing sore arms and elbows have wondered whether the mouse was really as "ergonomic" as it is sometimes claims to be.

3M's solution, developed late in 2000, is to keep the traditional ball-type mouse positioning mechanism but change the user interface away from the hockey puck/soap bar design used for many years to a slanted handle that resembles a joystick.

3M's Ergonomic Mouse (originally called the Renaissance Mouse) is available in two hand sizes and attaches to either the PS/2 port or USB port (serial ports are not supported).

The single button on the top of the handle is a rocker switch; push on the left side to left-click and on the right side to right-click.

The front handgrip provides scrolling support when the special Ergonomic Mouse driver software is installed. The Ergonomic Mouse enables the user to hold the pointing device with a "handshake"-style hand and arm position.

3M's Web site provides detailed ergonomic information to encourage the proper use of the Ergonomic Mouse, which comes with software to support scrolling and other advanced functions. It's available in various colors and separate models for Windows-based PCs and Macs.