We're usually wary of trackballs. We know there are people out there who like them, but for general-purpose cursor-moving, we'll take a mouse every time. But thanks to Vidabox's Premium Wireless Keyboard with Optical Trackball ($62.99 at the time of this review), we may have to give trackballs more credit. As it happens, it's one of the best ways we've found for driving your computer from your couch. The idea of putting a keyboard in the living room is still less than appealing, but it's a necessary evil for home-theater PC owners. And if we had to choose between a living room mouse, a keyboard with a touch pad, or the Vidabox board, the latter is the easiest, most intuitive input device we've used.
Because of its small size, the Vidabox keyboard is best kept in the living room. Its RF wireless signal is strong enough to use from a distance of 30 feet or so. The included AA batteries are nonrechargeable, and Vidabox suggests a battery life of two months. You'll probably want to keep a spare set around. The keyboard keys are the same size as those of a standard desktop keyboard, but because it's only about 12.75 inches wide, the keys are placed very close together, making prolonged typing cramped. We wouldn't use it for gaming or word processing, but for couch-based uses (typing passwords, Web addresses, IM's, or brief e-mails) it's fine.
With no setup software, installation is easy. You can simply plug the receiver into your PC, press the connect button on each device, and you're set. The lack of software means you're limited to the keyboard customization options that come with Windows. We probably wouldn't want to alter the hot-keys mapping anyway, as the Play and Volume control, Web, and E-mail buttons are all clearly marked and useful. The only thing we wish is that the hot keys ran down the sides of the keyboard, rather than the top edge. We find that when we're sitting back, it's more intuitive to hold the keyboard with two hands, and if the hot keys were on the side edges, we could push them with our thumbs.
But if the hot-key placement sticks to the boring tried and true, the trackball is a revelation in couch-based input. (Full disclosure: Vidabox's keyboard is not the only living room keyboard with a trackball, but it's the first we've tried for ourselves.) We've tried and reviled wireless keyboard-based touch pads. We had better experiences with motion-detecting mice and remote controls, but neither was immediately comfortable. But the small trackball on the upper right corner, paired with the two mouse buttons on the upper left side, make for the most intuitive couch mouse we've used.
Between the freewheeling nature of the trackball and the 800dpi optical sensor that tracks its movement, we were able to quickly and accurately move our cursor on a large, high-resolution 40-inch LCD, a 24-inch LCD, and a 19-inch CRT, so the movement speed scales very well regardless of screen size. Finer movements, such as moving the cursor to a small checkbox, take a bit more finesse and show where a mouse is still superior (we wouldn't use the trackball to play a first-person shooter, for example) but it's not in any way cumbersome or irritating.
The only thing we might add to the Vidabox board is a lid of some kind. Gyration has one on its wireless couch keyboard, and while that one is nearly impossible to remove, it provides some sensible protection against kids, pets, and the occasional stray piece of popcorn.