While mainstream users have long since traded the trackball for standard move-and-click mice, it still remains a viable option for computer jockeys who suffer from carpal tunnel or other physical ailments. Whereas standard mice force your wrist and forearm into an unnatural position, a trackball allows your arm to stay seated as you manipulate the pointer with just the tips of your fingers. The Kensington SlimBlade Trackball brings back the familiar design and adds the ability to control specific types of media using the extra buttons built into the casing. The shortcut buttons and a heads-up display indicator are convenient features, but work better on a mouse with buttons seated adjacent to the scroller. The SlimBlade Trackball places your hands in an awkward position and the learning curve is altogether too high for the average consumer to enjoy. That said, if you're a die-hard trackballer and can throw down $130 without immediate buyer's remorse, then the Kensington SlimBlade Trackball is a decent alternative. For all other people, we recommend the Logitech MX 1100 cordless laser mouse for a more precise, comfortable user experience.
Design and features
The base of the SlimBlade Trackball is made of a granite-colored plastic with four rubber feet on the bottom to prevent it from sliding around on your desktop. Unfortunately, the trackball draws its power and connectivity from USB 2.0; we're disappointed that Kensington leaves Bluetooth out of this equation, especially considering the physical dimensions of the platform. The whole device measures 6 inches long and 5 inches wide, taking about as much space as a standard mouse pad. Technically, the mouse is plug-and-play on both Mac and Windows, but if you want access to the extra Media and View modes, you'll need to download the full software package from the Kensington Web site to find the necessary drivers. (No installation CD is included in order to reduce disposable waste.)
The platform and USB cord are completely separated from the trackball, and there's no way to lock the ball in the cradle to keep it from rolling off your desk if it gets knocked over. Optical sensors within the cradle translate the motions of the ball into cursor movements on the screen. When your hand is placed with three fingers on the ball, you'll find two large buttons underneath your thumb and pinky fingers that control the left and right clicks, respectively. Two extra mode buttons sit above the trackball and control Kensington's unique application shortcuts.
The SlimBlade Trackball's default setting is always in Navigation Mode, where you have complete control over cursor movements just by moving the ball around. You can also turn the ball left and right like a large knob to scroll up and down in an application. While we're still more comfortable with the dual-functioning scroll control on the Logitech MX 1100, we can appreciate the trackball's benefit to users with prolonged wrist pain. However, using it was far from intuitive. For example, we had a hard time simultaneously twisting the knob to scroll down a Web page and guiding the cursor toward a link at the same time; this is a dual-action movement and usually taken for granted in normal mice, but we found ourselves having to physically take our fingers off the main clickers in order to use the knob.
Pressing the left button above the Trackball switches the mouse into Media Mode, which puts you in direct control over your media within iTunes or Windows Media Player (the only two players supported by the driver at this time). The left- and right-click buttons become Play/Pause and Stop, and the knob controls volume and track adjustments. The SlimBlade adds two extra clicks to access the media shortcuts: one click to switch modes, and one more to go back to navigation mode. Compared to the customizable buttons on the Logitech MX 1100, where you can set a single button to lower/raise volume or change tracks, this feature just requires too much effort to be considered a seamless operation. To Kensington's credit, a heads-up display is built into the driver to show you which mode you're in, in case you happen to lose track.
The button on the upper right side of the platform puts you in View Mode. In this case, turning the ball left and right zooms into the screen, effectively increasing the size of words and pictures on a document or Web page. Conveniently, the software also keeps a record of which Web sites you've zoomed into, even if you navigate away from the page. Again, the function requires two clicks: one to enter into View Mode, another to get back to Navigation mode. Designed for use with Web sites with tiny text, graphical documents, and word processing documents, the zoom feature is certainly convenient for the visually impaired, but we fail to see how this is more convenient than Apple's Vision Assistance feature, specifically the screen magnification setting. In fact, Apple takes the convenience a step further by offering the option to keep the cursor in the middle of the screen, automatically moving the cursor, or only moving it at the edge of a screen. (Windows also has a built-in magnification feature, though it's somewhat buried.) In contrast, the SlimBlade software keeps the cursor stationary, forcing you to scroll around to find what you're looking for.
In addition to suffering from iPhone Syndrome, where fewer buttons are never more, the Kensington SlimBlade Trackball lacks any kind of customizable settings. In other words, it doesn't give the user control over the program routed to each button, nor does it allow you to change the sensitivity of the scroll wheel, which places the SlimBlade Trackball behind even the most basic, stock mice. The added shortcuts are theoretically clever, but in practice they require more thought than it takes to simply switch applications and press the arrow key to change tracks. Die-hard trackball devotees might want to go with either of these basic Logitech models, which got high marks from CNET readers. For everyone else, we highly recommend you take a look at the Logitech MX 1100, which recently earned our Editors' Choice award for its best-in-class comfort and features.