On the Kensington Expert Wireless (and other pointing devices)

I’ve expressed once or twice before my disappointment with the current selection of pointing devices. This hasn’t improved much, if any. To make matters worse, Trackpoints are becoming less and less common on laptops. Such is the case with my HP Spectre, a deficiency I knew would be an issue going into things. When I was writing about pointing devices back in 2016, I ended up acquiring a Logitech MX Master. I still use that mouse, and also own an MX Master 2. They are incredibly good mice, the closest thing that I have found to the perfect mouse.

Thinking of pointing devices to use with the Spectre, I immediately figured I’d get an MX Anywhere to toss in the pouch of my laptop sleeve. What a horrible mistake. The truly standout feature of the MX Master is its wheel. It scrolls with individual clicks like wheel mice of yore until a specific speed is reached, at which point it freewheels like a runaway train. It’s the perfect physical manifestation of inertial scrolling. It also, notably, still clicks to perform the duty of middle-click. Both of these things are broken on the MX Anywhere – you have to manually select freewheel or click scrolling, and you do that by depressing the wheel. Middle click is a separate button below the wheel, with no regard for muscle memory. I returned the MX Anywhere and will likely just buy a cheap slim mouse to throw in the sleeve; it seems unlikely there are any travel-sized mice out there with modern inertial scrolling.

I also have considered I might need a pointing device other than the touchscreen for certain higher-precision activities while lounging in bed. And, three paragraphs in, we get to the meat of this post: my experiences so far with a trackball, the Kensington Expert Wireless. Trackballs, even more than mice, feel resistant to progress. Only a handful of notable companies are producing trackballs, and of the available models, relatively few are Bluetooth. Kensington has been making versions of the Expert for over twenty years, and the latest change came four years ago with the introduction of the Bluetooth model. The basic layout that has remain unchanged over the years is a large ball surrounded by four large buttons at the corners. The current iterations, both wired and wireless, also have a ring around the ball for scrolling.

Most modern trackballs seem to have a traditional scroll wheel. This, to me, is absurd. You’re not getting modern inertial scrolling with these (even Logitech’s MX-branded trackball has traditional clicky scrolling), and you have a perfectly good device capable of inertia right in front of you: the ball. I would love to see a designer in hardware/firmware simply dedicate a button to switching the ball into scroll mode. As it stands, however, Kensington’s ring is the least obtrusive of the lot, and the four buttons are all very easily accessed. And, while it is a bit convoluted, ball-scrolling behavior is attainable in Windows1 via software.

The first bit of the puzzle is the official KensingtonWorks software. This allows configuration of what each of the four buttons does, as well as the upper two buttons pressed together, and the lower two buttons pressed together. These upper and lower chords do have a limitation – it seems they aren’t held, they’re only momentary presses. There’s also no way to achieve the desired ball-scrolling effect here, so this stage is just minor tweaks to buttons. By default, starting at the upper-left and moving clockwise, the buttons are middle-click, back, right-click, left-click. I use middle-click more than right-click, and thought that swapping these would make sense, but the pinky-stretching actually made that a bad choice. I ultimately settled on swapping middle-click and back, and assigning forward to the upper two buttons pressed together. I haven’t decided what to do with the lower two in concert yet.

The next step is a third-party bit of software, X-Mouse Button Control. From here, I’ve intercepted middle-click to be ‘Change Movement to Scroll’. Within this option, I have it set to lock the scrolling axis based on movement, and to simply send a middle-click if there’s no movement. Thus, clicking the upper-right button sends a middle-click whereas holding it and flicking the ball around turns into scrolling. It works so well that I am again shocked that this isn’t scrolling behavior being designed into any trackballs.

I would love to see Kensington integrate this behavior into firmware or KensingtonWorks. I would love to see Kensington replace the scroll ring with the SlimBlade’s rotation-detecting ball sensor. I would love to see Kensington release a Bluetooth version of the SlimBlade. But for now, I have a pretty clean solution: an unobtrusive, solid-feeling trackball with decent customization options in a software layer.

  1. I’m still behind on getting a Linux environment up on this machine, but I’ve seen settings floating around that achieve the same thing. ↩︎