On October 20, 1992, IBM introduced a revolutionary new pointing device called TrackPoint II as an integrated feature of its new ThinkPad 700 and 700C computers. Often referred to as a pointing stick device, TrackPoint II and its successors consist primarily of a small rubber cap that appears on the keyboard right above the B key, between the G and H keys.

This was the first significant new pointing device since the mouse had been invented nearly 30 years earlier! This device occupies no space on a desk, does not have to be adjusted for left-handed or right-handed use, has no moving parts to fail or become dirty, and (most importantly) does not require you to move your hands from the home row to use it.

This is an absolute boon for touch typists. Just over six months later, IBM announced the ThinkPad 700, which included this revolutionary device—then called the TrackPoint II Integrated Pointing Device. Since the original version came out, enhanced versions with greater control and sensitivity, called the TrackPoint III and IV, have become available.

In its final production form, the TrackPoint consists of a small, red, silicone rubber knob nestled between the G, H, and B keys on the keyboard. The primary and secondary mouse buttons are placed below the spacebar where you can easily reach them with your thumbs without taking your hands off the keyboard.

IBM studies conducted by Selker found that the act of removing your hand from the keyboard to reach for a mouse and replacing the hand on the keyboard takes approximately 1.75 seconds. If you type 60wpm, that can equal nearly two lost words per minute, not including the time lost while you regain your train of thought.

Almost all this time can be saved each time you use TrackPoint to move the pointer or make a selection (click or double-click). The combination of the buttons and the positioning knob also enable you to perform drag-and-drop functions easily.

IBM's research also found that people can get up to 20% more work accomplished using the TrackPoint instead of a mouse, especially when the application involves a mix of typing and pointing activities, such as with word processing, spreadsheets, and other typical office applications.

In usability tests with the TrackPoint III, IBM gave a group of desktop computer users a TrackPoint and a traditional mouse. After two weeks, 80% of the users had unplugged their mice and switched solely to the TrackPoint device. Selker is convinced that the TrackPoint is the best pointing solution for both laptop and desktop systems.

Another feature of the TrackPoint is that a standard mouse can be connected to the system at the same time to enable dual-pointer use. This setup not only enables a single person to use both devices, but also enables two people to use the TrackPoint and the mouse simultaneously to move the pointer on the screen.

The first pointing device that moves (thus issuing a system interrupt) takes precedence and retains control over the mouse pointer on the screen until it completes its movement action. The second pointing device is automatically locked out until the primary device is stationary. This enables the use of both devices and prevents each one from interfering with the other.

IBM has added various versions of the TrackPoint to its notebook computers, as well as to high-end keyboards sold under the IBM, Lexmark, and Unicomp names. Notebook computer makers, such as HP and Toshiba, also have licensed the TrackPoint device (Toshiba calls it Accupoint).

I have compared the TrackPoint device to other pointing devices for notebooks, such as the trackballs and even the capacitive touch pads, but nothing compares in terms of accuracy and control—and, of course, you don't have to take your hands off the keyboard!

Some notebook computer makers copied the TrackPoint instead of licensing it, but with poor results that include sluggish response to input and poor accuracy. One way of telling whether the TrackPoint device is licensed from IBM and uses the IBM technology is if it accepts IBM TrackPoint II/III/IV rubber caps.

They have a square hole in them and will properly lock on to any of the licensed versions, such as those found in Toshiba systems. IBM has upgraded its pointing stick to the TrackPoint III and the current TrackPoint IV. Two main differences exist in the III/IV system, but the most obvious one is in the rubber cap.

The IBM TrackPoint II and Toshiba Accupoint caps are made from silicone rubber, which is grippy and works well in most situations. However, if the user has greasy fingers, the textured surface of the rubber can absorb some of the grease and become slippery.

Cleaning the cap (and the user's hands) solves the problem, but it can be annoying at times. The TrackPoint III/IV caps are made from a different type of rubber, which Selker calls "plastic sandpaper." This type of cap is much more grippy and does not require cleaning except for cosmetic purposes. I have used both types of caps and can say for certain that the TrackPoint III/IV cap is superior.