Skip to main content

My rapid descent into the world of DIY trackballs

How I became a real trackball sicko

Share this story

Photo by Amelia Holowaty Krales / The Verge

It all started with Ploopy.

“What a goofy name for a trackball,” I thought to myself as I tweeted. “Ploopy,” several people responded. One friend commented that it looked like MS Trackball Explorer, an iconic trackball. “It’d be a funny gag if I got really into having a trackball,” I thought. (I was not a “trackball person.”) The problem is that any bit taken to its logical conclusion just becomes sincerity and a year later I not only bought a Ploopy, but completely rebuilt it, and went so far down the trackball rabbit hole that I had a new one manufactured entirely from scratch. 

I have become a Trackball Sicko.

If you didn’t live through the ’90s and have never heard of a trackball, that’s more than understandable. For the uninitiated, a trackball is a pointing device similar to a mouse, except you use a tiny rolling sphere to move your cursor instead of moving the entire device. Trackballs used to be much more commonplace back in the day, and trackball diehards say it can be an easier and more ergonomic way of interfacing with UI, particularly for people with mobility impairments.

Goofy name aside, the idea motivating Ploopy mirrors something that has been going around in the DIY keyboard community for a while; namely, open-source design and flexible firmware. The files for all the products Ploopy sells are on Github for anyone resourceful enough to have them fabricated, and the device itself runs QMK, one of a few lightweight keyboard firmwares out there. The devices are easy to remap and customize yourself without installing invasive bloatware like Logitech G Hub or Razer Synapse, and many of the Ploopy products use the same sensors and switches found in high-end mice.

“It’d be a funny gag if I got really into having a trackball”

This is a world I was more than familiar with after having built a split ergonomic keyboard called a Sofle. The thing that sold me on the Ploopy was the Nano, a tiny, buttonless trackball with a 1.5-inch snooker ball that fit right in between the two halves of my split keyboard. For 45 bucks CAD and just a tiny bit of soldering, I could have a tiny little guy placed neatly in the middle of my keyboard for making little finite adjustments on-screen instead of having to lumber over to my mouse every single time I needed to change something. What’s more, because I was already a split keyboard freak, I could program a button on each half of the keyboard using layers, to act as mouse buttons one, two, and three. 

“What the hell,” I said, and then I clicked buy.

The Nano turned out to be everything I expected and far more. I assembled it and not only did it make doing tiny adjustments easier, it was immediately intuitive to my entire, freakish workflow. Editing was easier. Switching windows became easier. I still had my mouse, a trusty Logitech G Pro, but I found myself going to it less and less for scrolling. I was in love. 

A man using a split keyboard with a trackball between the two halves. It features a large, shiny metal ball bearing.
I just wanted something to go between the two halves of my keyboard.
Photo by Amelia Holowaty Krales / The Verge

Then I found out about the mods.

Another element of the open-source design philosophy motivating Ploopy and the keyboard community at large is iteration. Ploopy’s products are 3D printed, and since all the documents are out there, you can 3D print whatever housing you want for your Ploopy if you have access to a nice enough printer.

The first mod that made my jaw drop was one by user sickbabies on the Ploopy subreddit (I am aware of how absurd those two words sound together). A beautiful sand-colored trackball with a stainless steel ball bearing specifically meant to match their headphones and their keyboard, a tan Le Chiffre. What’s more, my good friend and fellow trackball sicko Jon informed me that people had gone beyond the simple 3D printed roller bearings that came with the Ploopy and reprinted their housings to use BTUs, or “Ball Transfer Units,” which can move more freely than static or roller bearings and with far less friction. Eventually somebody uploaded a BTU mod for the Ploopy Nano, and the path for me was clear. I ordered some BTUs, a steel ball, and made my preparations.

It turned out, however, that Ploopy is not the only game in town. While I planned my upgrade, I caught wind of the works of Jfedor2, a Redditor who had created their own open-source PCB [printed circuit board] and breakout board for rapidly prototyping new trackballs and mice using the relatively new but game-changing RP2040 chip by the Raspberry Pi Foundation. As I’ve written this, he’s uploaded at least 10 absolutely alien looking trackballs and mice, including a vaguely pyramidal one with a scroll wheel, a trackball with two trackballs, a trackball where you can twist the ball to scroll, and a spherical trackball perfect for orb pondering.

<em>The Nano.</em>


The Nano.
Photo by Amelia Holowaty Krales / The Verge

Fabricating the circuit board for a mouse is not as difficult as it used to be. Provided you have the Gerber files (a vector file of a PCB), a BOM (bill of materials) and a CPL file (component placement list), manufacturers (like JLCPCB or ALLPCB) will not only print out your circuit board for you, they’ll sell you all the parts you need and solder those pain-in-the-ass little surface mount components right on the board for you (provided there isn’t, let’s say, a parts shortage). I put an order in for five trackball PCBs, and my aforementioned fellow trackball friend printed me out some retro-looking, clear-and-seafoam shells for not only my Ploopy Nano, but a big brother called Trackball 7 that uses a full-sized billiard ball.

Once assembled, both were gorgeous. The BTUs on the newly upgraded Nano rolled smoothly and easily, a clear improvement over the base model, and the clear plastic exuded an unearthly glow. But not everything went off without a hitch. While the chrome steel ball I had gotten for it felt wonderful to the touch, the surface required a little breaking in to get it to track properly. Some on Reddit fixed this by sanding theirs down to take the shine off of the finish, and another recommended using an acrylic topcoat and another chemical bluing. This is probably why traditional trackball makers like Logitech use a sparkly trackball instead.

I had made a fateful error while having Jfedor’s trackball PCBs manufactured: Two of the voltage regulators on the board were terminally backordered, so I tracked down equivalents on Digi-Key (an electronic component distributor), soldered those tiny suckers on, and loaded up the firmware. Now I have a fully functional and very weird-looking trackball in my home.

A PCB to install in a trackball.
A PCB to install in a trackball.
Photo by Amelia Holowaty Krales / The Verge

But supply chain issues aside, I was happy. I had taken something and customized it to be truly my own from the ground up, and in the process of making these objects, I not only had gained more confidence in my abilities, but a clear understanding of how I could take the torch and build something new too. It turns out there’s very little stopping you from making your own trackball, if you’re that kind of sicko.

But of course, once you’re down this path there’s no rest. Sure, these bearings are pretty smooth, but could they be… smoother? I could apply a dry coating of tungsten disulphide to the BTUs, like I’d read about on gun forums. Or I could have my trackball coated with something like Cerakote or DLC (diamond-like carbon)? Or hell, what if I just built a keyboard that has a trackball in it, like the Oddball, the Splitballer, the Keyball46, the ino, or that one I saw some early mockups of. I do also have those circular trackpads in the mail that I bought after talking to Freznel about their board — maybe that’s the way to go? And now that I know how to swap out a microswitch, why not disassemble my mouse and replace the switch with those silent ones I impulse-ordered from AliExpress?

On second thought, maybe you don’t want to be a trackball sicko. Look at what it’s done to me.

Today’s Storystream

Feed refreshed An hour ago The tablet didn’t call that play by itself

External Link
Russell BrandomAn hour ago
Edward Snowden has been granted Russian citizenship.

The NSA whistleblower has been living in Russia for the 19 years — first as a refugee, then on a series of temporary residency permits. He applied for Russian citizenship in November 2020, but has said he won’t renounce his status as a U.S. citizen.

External Link
Emma RothAn hour ago
Netflix’s gaming bet gets even bigger.

Even though fewer than one percent of Netflix subscribers have tried its mobile games, Netflix just opened up another studio in Finland after acquiring the Helsinki-based Next Games earlier this year.

The former vice president of Zynga Games, Marko Lastikka, will serve as the studio director. His track record includes working on SimCity BuildIt for EA and FarmVille 3.

External Link
Andrew J. HawkinsTwo hours ago
Vietnam’s EV aspirant is giving big Potemkin village vibes

Idle equipment, absent workers, deserted villages, an empty swimming pool. VinFast is Vietnam’s answer to Tesla, with the goal of making 1 million EVs in the next 5-6 years to sell to customers US, Canada and Europe. With these lofty goals, the company invited a bunch of social media influencers, as well as some auto journalists, on a “a four-day, multicity extravaganza” that seemed more weird than convincing, according to Bloomberg.

Welcome to the new Verge

Revolutionizing the media with blog posts

Nilay PatelSep 13
James VincentTwo hours ago
Today, 39 years ago, the world didn’t end.

And it’s thanks to one man: Stanislav Petrov, a USSR military officer who, on September 26th, 1983, took the decision not to launch a retaliatory nuclear attack against the US. Petrov correctly guessed that satellite readings showing inbound nukes were faulty, and so likely saved the world from nuclear war. As journalist Tom Chivers put it on Twitter, “Happy Stanislav Petrov Day to those who celebrate!” Read more about Petrov’s life here.

Soviet Colonel who prevented 1983 nuclear response
Photo by Scott Peterson/Getty Images
The Verge
James VincentTwo hours ago
Deepfakes were made for Disney.

You might have seen the news this weekend that the voice of James Earl Jones is being cloned using AI so his performance as Darth Vader in Star Wars can live on forever.

Reading the story, it struck me how perfect deepfakes are for Disney — a company that profits from original characters, fans' nostalgia, and an uncanny ability to twist copyright law to its liking. And now, with deepfakes, Disney’s most iconic performances will live on forever, ensuring the magic never dies.

External Link
Elizabeth LopattoTwo hours ago
Hurricane Fiona ratcheted up tensions about crypto bros in Puerto Rico.

“An official emergency has been declared, which means in the tax program, your physical presence time is suspended,” a crypto investor posted on TikTok. “So I am headed out of the island.” Perhaps predictably, locals are furious.

The Verge
Richard Lawler2:09 PM UTC
Teen hacking suspect linked to GTA 6 leak and Uber security breach charged in London.

City of London police tweeted Saturday that the teenager arrested on suspicion of hacking has been charged with “two counts of breach of bail conditions and two counts of computer misuse.”

They haven’t confirmed any connection with the GTA 6 leak or Uber hack, but the details line up with those incidents, as well as a suspect arrested this spring for the Lapsus$ breaches.

The Verge
Richard Lawler1:00 PM UTC
Green light.

Good morning to everyone, except for the intern or whoever prevented us from seeing how Microsoft’s Surface held up to yet another violent NFL incident.

Today’s big event is the crash of a NASA spaceship this evening — on purpose. Mary Beth Griggs can explain.

David Pierce12:54 PM UTC
Thousands and thousands of reasons people love Android.

“Android fans, what are the primary reasons why you will never ever switch to an iPhone?” That question led to almost 30,000 comments so far, and was for a while the most popular thing on Reddit. It’s a totally fascinating peek into the platform wars, and I’ve spent way too much time reading through it. I also laughed hard at “I can turn my text bubbles to any color I like.”

Thomas Ricker10:44 AM UTC
The Simpsons pays tribute to Chrome’s dino game.

Season 34 of The Simpsons kicked off on Sunday night with an opening credits “couch gag” based on the offline dino game from Google’s Chrome browser. Cactus, cactus, couch, d’oh! Perfect.

Thomas Ricker7:29 AM UTC
Table breaks before Apple Watch Ultra’s sapphire glass.

”It’s the most rugged and capable Apple Watch yet,” said Apple at the launch of the Apple Watch Ultra (read The Verge review here). YouTuber TechRax put that claim to the test with a series of drop, scratch, and hammer tests. Takeaways: the titanium case will scratch with enough abuse, and that flat sapphire front crystal is tough — tougher than the table which cracks before the Ultra fails — but not indestructible.

Emma RothSep 25
Rihanna’s headlining the Super Bowl Halftime Show.

Apple Music’s set to sponsor the Halftime Show next February, and it’s starting out strong with a performance from Rihanna. I honestly can’t remember which company sponsored the Halftime Show before Pepsi, so it’ll be nice to see how Apple handles the show for Super Bowl LVII.

Emma RothSep 25
Starlink is growing.

The Elon Musk-owned satellite internet service, which covers all seven continents including Antarctica, has now made over 1 million user terminals. Musk has big plans for the service, which he hopes to expand to cruise ships, planes, and even school buses.

Musk recently said he’ll sidestep sanctions to activate the service in Iran, where the government put restrictions on communications due to mass protests. He followed through on his promise to bring Starlink to Ukraine at the start of Russia’s invasion, so we’ll have to wait and see if he manages to bring the service to Iran as well.