Hardware Review: ELECOM DEFT Trackball

I know that by this point it feels like I’m collecting half-done reverse engineering projects, but sometimes you need some time off from one project to figure out how another is going to behave, so I have temporarily shelved my Accu-Chek Mobile and instead took a day to look at a different problem altogether.

I like trackballs, and with exception of gaming purposes, I consider them superior to mice: no cables that get tangled, no hands to move around the desk, much less space needed to keep clear, and so on. On laptops I prefer TrackPoint™ Style Pointers, which are rare to find, but on desktop I am a happy user of trackballs. Unfortunately my happiness has been having trouble as of late, because finding good trackballs is getting harder. My favourite device would still be Logitech’s Cordless Optical Trackman, but it was discontinued years ago, and it’s effectively impossible to find to buy. Amazon has second-hand listings for hundreds of dollars! I’m still kicking myself in the face for having dropped mine on the floor (literally) while I packed to move to Dublin, completely destroying it.

The new Logitech offerings appear to be all in the realm of thumb-operated “portable” trackballs, such as the M570, which I have and don’t particularly like. An alternative manufacturer that is easy to find both online and in store is Kensington, and I do indeed own an Orbit with the scroll ring, but it’s in my opinion too avant-garde and inconvenient. So I have been mostly unhappy.

But last year a colleague, also a trackball user, suggested me to look into the ELECOM DEFT Trackball (also available wired).

ELECOM, for those who may not be familiar with it, is a Japanese hardware company, that would sell everything from input devices to ultra flat network cables. If you have not been to Japan, it may be interesting to know that there is effectively a parallel world of hardware devices that you would not find in Europe or the USA, which makes a visit to Yodobashi Camera a must-see for every self-respecting geek.

I got the DEFT last year, and loved it. I’ve been using it at work all the time, because that’s where I mostly use a non-gaming input device anyway, but recently I started working from home a bit more often (it’s a long story) and got myself a proper setup for it, with a monitor, keyboard and, for a while, the M570 I noted above. I decided then to get myself two more of the DEFT, one to use with my work from home setup, and the other to use with my personal laptop while I work on reverse engineering.

Note here: I made a huge mistake. In both cases I ordered them from eBay directly from Japan, so I had to deal with the boring customs and VAT modules on my end. Which is not terrible, since the An Post depot is about ten minutes away from my apartment and my office, but it’s still less nice than just receiving the package directly. The second order, I ended up receiving two “Certified Frustration Free” packages, so I checked and indeed these devices are available on Amazon Japan. As I found out a few weeks ago for a completely different product, there is a feature called AmazonGlobal, which is not available for all products but would have been for these. With AmazonGlobal, the customs and VAT charges are taken care by Amazon, so there is no need for me to go out of my way and pay cash to An Post. And as it happens, if you don’t want to sign up for an account with Amazon Japan (which somehow is not federated to the others), you can just look for the same product on the USA version of Amazon, and AmazonGlobal applies just the same.

The trackball has a forefinger-operated ball (although ELECOM also makes a thumb-operated trackball), the usual left/middle/right buttons, a scroll wheel that “tilts” (badly) horizontally, and three function buttons at the top of the mouse (which I’ll go back to later). It also has two switches, one on the side, that has a red or blue area showing depending on how you pull it, and one on the bottom that is marked with the power symbol, H and L. Unfortunately, the manual leaflet that comes with the device is all in Japanese, which meant I had to get the help of Google Translate with my phone’s camera.

The switch on the side selects the DPI of the ball tracking (750 for blue, 1500 for red), while the one at the bottom appear to be a “power-assist” for the ball — it warns that the H version will use more battery.

As I said before, the trackball has three function buttons (marked Fn1, Fn2, Fn3) on the top. These are, for what I could tell, configurable through the Windows and Mac application, and they were indeed not seen by Linux at all, neither through xev nor through evtest. So I set myself up to reverse whichever protocol they used to configure this — I expected something similar to the Anker/Holtek gaming mouse I’m also working on, where the software programs the special event ID in the device directly.

The software can be downloaded on ELECOM’s website, although the whole page is in Japanese. On the other hand, the software itself is (badly) translated to English, so fewer yaks to shave there. Unfortunately when I tried using the app with the USB sniffer open… I could find nothing whatsoever. Turns out the app is actually handling all of that in software, rather than programming the hardware. So why did it not work on Linux? Well, I think that may be the topic for another post, since it turned out to require a kernel patch (which I sent, but can’t currently quite find it in the archives. I think that writing a blog post about it is going to be fairly useful, given that I had to assemble documentation that I found on at least a half dozen different sites.

Other things that may be relevant to know about the ELECOM is that somehow the 2.4GHz connection is sometimes a bit unstable. At the office, I cannot connect the receiver on the USB behind the monitor, because otherwise it skips beats. At home instead I have to put it there, because if I try to connect it directly to the Anker USB-C adapter I use with my Chromebook, the same problem happens. Ironically, the Microsoft receiver has the opposite problem: if I connect it behind the monitor at home, the keyboard sometimes get stuck repeating the same key over and over again. But again, that’s a topic for another time.

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