Hands-on Review: The Trackball Controller for Xbox 360

Two weeks ago, I had the surprise pleasure of announcing Jay Garcia’s Trackball Controller for the Xbox 360 and, last week, I posted a few first impressions. Some of you know that this blog has been promoting the idea of a trackball controller for years, and I couldn’t be happier to provide the first full, hands-on review.

Trackball Controller for XBOX 360
Top view of the Trackball Controller for XBOX 360

(Photos copyright Trackballer.com)

Overview

The Trackball Controller for the Xbox 360 (Official site, $149 at eBay as of Dec 2010) is actually a modification to the Xbox 360 controller, performed by an inventor name Jay Garcia. He is probably most recognized for creating the SmartJoy Frag.

In a nutshell, Garcia has replaced the right-hand thumbstick on the 360 controller with an optical trackball input. Since the right-hand thumbstick on the 360 also has a “click” feature, he has added a button on the underside of the controller to handle that function. There is also an additional button which is used to calibrate the dead zone/sensitivity. (More on that later). Finally, the controller comes with two trackballs for you to choose from: a black plastic ball and a shiny metal ball bearing. I’ve stuck with the plastic one.

(Photos copyright Trackballer.com)

You might be asking…

Why use a trackball?

Mice and trackballs are simply better pointing interfaces for gaming — especially in first-person shooter (FPS) games. (If console thumb sticks were superior input devices for FPS, competitive PC gamers would have switched to using hand-held controllers or joysticks long ago.) To determine how well the Trackball Controller lives up to expectations, it’s important to note some of the reasons many have been hoping for a device like this:

  • Mouse style input is capable of both high speed and accurate “twitch” movement, while also permitting very subtle and controlled adjustments.
  • Mouse-style input requires less user input, per character motion: (e.g., move in one direction and then back to center to stop the character).
  • Trackballs are becoming increasingly popular now because they can achieve the same fidelity of control as mice, without moving one’s entire arm. Furthermore, trackballs are portable (can be used on a lap or any other surface), and they take up less desk area because they don’t need to move.
  • The right-hand thumb stick on console controllers (Xbox’s, Playstations) aren’t even used in most games. When they are, it is generally used for pointing operations like camera control and cross hair pointing — perfect for a trackball.

So, it’s no surprise that I get regular inquiries from gamers asking whether a device that incorporates a trackball is ever going to be released. Finally, we have a contender.

How it works

Currently, Xbox 360 games are not programmed to receive trackball/mouse input. That’s why we can’t simply hack a mouse USB adapter and expect it to work with Xbox 360 games. Consequently, the Trackball Controller works by interpreting user input into “thumb stick language” for the game. This video, released by Jay Garcia two weeks ago, does a good job of showing how well the controller works:

Using the Controller

After years of waiting for a working device like this to appear, my first experience holding the controller was happily anticlimactic; It felt as natural as an unmodified one. The “right click” button on the underside felt perfectly placed and it took me just minutes to get used to it. In fact, I actually prefer it to the somewhat clumsy act of pushing a thumb stick “in”.

The trackball itself sits somewhat high in the controller and doesn’t lock into place. That means it can fall out if you tip the controller upside down. However, I think it was a great design decision to place the ball this high because it maximizes the area where your thumb can maintain control. The looseness of the ball was initially disconcerting to me because I had a tendency to push too hard and make it wobble upward slightly. That concern quickly passed as I got used to the controller.

Making it Work Well

Remember that extra little black button I mentioned earlier? It’s a calibration feature and happens to be critically important to your gaming future with the Trackball Controller. Inventor Jay Garcia needed to add a calibration function to the device because every game on the 360 can have a different definition of 1) how big the dead zone is and 2) how the dead zone is shaped. Additionally, if you change the sensitivity settings in-game, that can also change the size if the dead zone.

Dead Zone: Space within which you can move an input device without input being registered in-game. Without a dead zone, unintentional movements or vibrations in your hand would trigger unwanted movement of your character or pointer in the game.

So, to compensate, the Trackball Controller has a button that allows you to calibrate the dead zone to your needs. For example, I found that Bad Company 2 was simply not fun to play if the controller had been calibrated for Black Ops. However, once calibrated, both games perform equally well.

In-Game Performance

Creator Jay Garcia had said that Call of Duty: Black Ops was a great demonstration of the controller’s abilities, so for the first day, I played it exclusively.

The first thing I noticed was the slow default pointing “speed limit” in these console games. If I quickly moved the trackball, the cross hair would have to play catch-up, moving at “thumb stick speed”. Thankfully, adjusting sensitivity settings improved things. With Black Ops, I increased the sensitivity as I high as I could without sacrificing “small aim” accuracy. That ended up being “7” (of 10) versus the default of “2”.

It’s worth noting that with normal thumb stick controllers, in-game sensitivity levels have much more severe costs and benefits: For example, when you increase sensitivity you can move the pointer faster, but the space with which you can make minor adjustments quickly gets too small, making the game unplayable. With the Trackball Controller, however, I was impressed that I could achieve very high aiming speed without losing any accuracy on the small end. This brings me to the most notable characteristic of the device.

Because the Trackball Controller for the Xbox 360 has to translate your input into “thumb stick language” there is a ceiling on how fast the cross hair can move; That speed depends on the game and how high you raise the sensitivity level. With sensitivity settings raised, you will be able to comfortably aim at higher speeds than ever before on your console. Though, if you are a PC gamer, you might still be disappointed that you can’t do instantaneous 180 degree spins to “check your six” and then another 180 degree back to front (how realistic is that, anyway?). For you, it will take a while to feel as comfortable as you are on the PC. I started to feel “at one” with the trackball controller after a week.

Even though this device is somewhat limited by games that have been programmed for normal controllers, it truly outshines its thumb stick counterparts, especially when it comes to highly accurate, fine-tuned aiming.

A case study: Aim small, miss small

Imagine, for instance, you are sniping from a bell tower, trained on a street below. You need to be prepared for the enemy either taking cover behind a wrecked car, running straight across the street, or running towards your position. To be successful, the adjustment to your aim will have to be very small, yet quick and accurate. Suddenly, an enemy combatant dashes into the middle of the street from the left side, appearing to run across. As you begin tracking him in your sites from left to right, he suddenly turns back to the left.

On a thumb stick, you have to move your thumb back to the left, past the center (dead zone), to a place where the cross hair will begin moving left at some rate . Compare that to the trackball controller: The instant you move your thumb left, the cross hair moves also, at a rate that is proportional to how fast you move your thumb. Hence the reaction time is shorted the movement is more predictable, and less input is required.

The Trackball Controller effectively removes the dead zone, and I can’t think of anything nicer to say about, well, anything.

Summary

Now that I have used the Trackball Controller for Xbox 360 for a week, I won’t be going back to thumb sticks. Despite being speed-limited by games that have been designed for thumb sticks, the Trackball Controller offers superior aiming control, letting you crank up the sensitivity and aiming speed, while still allowing for precise, controlled “small aiming”. If your budget allows, I highly recommend it, both to PC gamers making the transition to the couch and to console veterans looking for another advantage.

Pros:

  • Superb aiming control, especially at low speeds
  • Intuitive feel, well-placed buttons, nice calibration feature.
  • Worked fine on all games I tested, including non-shooters.
  • You will not want to use a thumb stick again after using this controller.

Cons:

  • Though you can comfortably achieve much faster aiming with the controller, aiming speed is ultimately limited to game sensitivity settings (e.g., no instant 180’s)
  • Needs to be calibrated to work optimally for some games.

Though I hope next-generation consoles include native trackball-style input, Jay Garcia’s Trackball Controller gives us very welcome performer today.

19 thoughts on “Hands-on Review: The Trackball Controller for Xbox 360”

  1. RE: Left-side trackball

    I am having a controller modded right now, and asked the same question. Jay informed me that it cannot be done, as the current case design simply wont accommodate the electronics on the shallower left/forward quadrant of the controller.

    RE: Places to purchase other than eBay

    Jay’s website is http://www.trackballcontroller.com

    If he doesn’t have stock available on eBay, he also does mods on controllers that you supply. I specifically wanted a HALO: Reach controller modded, and he just had me send it in and pay the mod portion of his pricing.

    If my kids can also master the trackball, I’ll be sending a second one in to be modded straightaway!

  2. Woosdom:

    I asked Jay this very question, and he told me that the trackball mechanism simply will not fit in the shallower forward position of the left joystick.

    So far as availability on eBay, you can send a controller to Jay directly for modification. I did this in order to get a HALO: Reach wireless modded to match my existing controllers, for me to use in FPS games. If my kids can master the trackball, I’ll get a second modded.

    Depending on the deal you can find on the controller. it might even be a bit less expensive than the completely modded controllers Jay sells on eBay.

  3. Wow Jay you really pulled through thanks for replying so quickly.

    The controller I bought is blue and all my old controllers have problems like it’s impossible to open or doesn’t hold a charge for no longer than an hour so i went to gamestop and i looked online and saw these after glow controllers not two minutes later i stumble upon a accidental voice search for a mouse and keyboard for xbox 360 from our frustrated pc gamer in the house. and we found trackball controllers. so i have a plan, to mail it to you guys and see if you are willing to mod it. also Im not upset about the hot glue ill be able to play with my fav color in a dark room with a trackball. if it performs well like the others, then im all open to you guys to wait and see your progress and send my controller to you guys to awsomeify my controller Thanks…
    PS:i sent a message to the email and realized it was not responding so i sent it here agian

  4. I would really like one of these, but $120 is a ton of money for 1 wired controller. If I could get one for around $70, I would definitely pick one up.

  5. I’m a big fan of any innovation that can improve the control scheme for consoles and encourage more PC-to-console ports of popular games. That said, I have two minor issues with the trackball control scheme:

    1. Ergonomics – Because you’re using only your thumb in the case of the trackball instead of your entire hand in the case of a regular mouse, you end up putting greater stress on a single area of your body instead of distributing out over a large area. Ergonomically speaking, this is a big no-no and in my experience causes more acute fatigue and joint irritation than is acceptable (at least by me). An analog stick doesn’t share this problem because movements are much more generalized and less precise, and don’t require the muscular tension required by a precision instrument like a trackball, hence reducing the stress.

    2. Simplicity of Motion – You stated that “mouse-style input requires less user input, per character motion: (e.g., move in one direction and then back to center to stop the character)”, however, this isn’t true. For an analog stick your movement is simple: (a) push the stick to move the character in one direction, and (b) let go for it to snap back to a neutral position and stop the character. In the trackballs case it requires two motions to perform the same thing that an analog stick can do in a single motion. The question is how to get a trackball to simulate the same simplicity of motion (as well as ergonomics) of an analog stick.

    Again, I’m a huge advocate of innovation and I’d love to see a trackball-type system perfected, but these are the two biggest obstacles that I can see right now.

  6. PS. It would be interesting if there was some way for the controller to detect whether the player it touching the trackball or not. If this was possible, you could simply program the software to recognize that whenever you stop touching the trackball, it automatically returns to a neutral position, effectively letting you simulate analog stick behavior with the trackball. Just an idea.

  7. Maybe it would be a good idea to put the ball on the underside of the controller, as this way you could use your fingers to aim instead of your thumb? As someone pointed out it puts a lot of muscular strain on your thumb to use a trackball in this way. The strain on the fingers should be an order of magnitude lower as the joints provide more degrees of freedom. Granted, you’d then have to find some way to keep it from falling out, but…

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