Pointing stick

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This article is about a computer input device. For the teaching and presentation aid, see Pointer (rod).
Pointing stick on a Lenovo ThinkPad.
IBM ThinkPad caps (left-to-right): Soft Dome, Soft Rim, Classic Dome, Eraser Head (discontinued)

A pointing stick is an isometric joystick used as a pointing device, as with a touchpad or trackball, and typically mounted in a computer keyboard. Movements of the pointing stick are echoed on the screen by movements of the pointer (or cursor) and other visual changes.

The pointing stick operates by sensing applied force, by using a pair of resistive strain gauges. A pointing stick can be used by pushing with the fingers in the general direction the user wants the cursor to move. The velocity of the pointer depends on the applied force so increasing pressure causes faster movement. The relation between pressure and cursor or pointer speed can be adjusted, similar to the way the mouse speed is adjusted in a traditional desktop computer.

On a QWERTY keyboard, the stick is typically embedded between the "G", "H" and "B" keys, and the mouse buttons are placed just below the space bar. The mouse buttons can be operated right-handed or left-handed due to their placement below the keyboard along the centerline. This pointing device has also appeared next to screens on compact-sized laptops such as Toshiba Libretto, Sony VAIO UX, etc.


Pointing sticks typically have a replaceable rubber cap, called a nub, which can be a slightly rough "eraser head" material (Classic Dome) or another shape (Soft Dome or Soft Rim, or concaved shaped c).[1]

The cap is red on ThinkPads, but is also found in other colours on other machines. For example, it may be grey, black or blue on some Dell models, and blue on some HP/Compaq laptops.

Button configurations vary depending on vendor and laptop model. ThinkPads have a prominent middle mouse button, but some models have no physical buttons. Toshiba employs concentric arcs.

In the early 1990s, Zenith Data Systems shipped a number of laptop computers equipped with a device called "J-Mouse", which essentially used a special keyswitch under the J key to allow the J keycap to be used as a pointing stick.

In addition to appearing between the g, h and b keys on a qwerty keyboard, these devices or similar can also appear on gaming devices as an alternative to a D-pad or analog stick. On a certain Toshiba Libretto mini laptop, the pointing stick was located next to the display. IBM sold a mouse with a pointing stick in the location where a scroll wheel is common now.

Optical pointing sticks are also used on some ultrabook tablet hybrids, such as the Sony Duo 11, ThinkPad Tablet and Samsung Ativ Q.

A similar technology is used on the C Stick featured on the New Nintendo 3DS, which is actually a simple 2-axis potentiometer.[2]

Configuration options

The user can often customize the operation of pointing sticks using software.

The user may be able to adjust the sensitivity of the pointing stick, so that application of a given amount of force moves the pointer a greater or smaller distance across the screen.

On some systems a user may be able to configure an option to enable "press-to-select", in which a sharp tap on the pointing stick is equivalent to a click of a specified mouse button.

Other configuration options may include swapping middle mouse functionality to that which allows the pointing stick to act as a scroll wheel while the middle mouse button is held. This is frequently set to default behavior in 2013 computers, and makes the middle mouse button not work with 3D design programs or any program that explicitly uses the middle mouse button to perform functions.

Design challenges

The IBM TrackPoint III and the TrackPoint IV have a feature called Negative Inertia that causes the pointer's velocity to "overreact" when it is accelerated or decelerated. Negative Inertia is intended to avoid feeling of inertia or sluggishness when starting or stopping movement.[3] Usability tests at IBM have shown that it is easier for users to position the pointer with Negative Inertia, and performance is 7.8% better.[4]

Another challenge with pointing stick design is identification of the zero position (the position where no motion is desired). Because the amount of motion is small, the sensitivity of the sensors must be high, and they are subject to noise interference.

A typical solution, which assumes that pointing sticks frequently go out of calibration, is to interpret a variation below a certain threshold (over a given interval, perhaps one or several seconds) as being a neutral stick. However the recalibration can also allow brief periods of 'drifting' (movement of the cursor while the user is not moving the pointing stick).[5]

In practice, if the re-calibration interval is set too short and if the user applies moderately consistent pressure to the stick for such an interval, this method results mistakenly re-zeroed the stick and the pointer stops. Additional pressure again moves the cursor, but the calibration may occur again, requiring even more force. If the user releases pressure at this point, the change will be interpreted as an instruction to move the opposite direction. In time, the software will re-calibrate and stop the motion.

Additionally, if "press-to-select" is enabled (see above), the software may generate unexpected click events by touching the pointing stick during typing.

Since ThinkPad computers have a nub that is responsive to pressure in a direction, and there is a patent for this[citation needed] other companies have made it so a person has to move the finger a large distance to cause the nub to rock from side to side in a much less efficient way.


In 1984, Ted Selker, a researcher at PARC, worked on a pointing stick based on a study[citation needed] that a typist needs a relatively long 0.75 sec to shift the hand from the keyboard to the mouse, and comparable time to shift back. Selker built a model of a device that would minimize this time. It was only three years later, working at IBM, that Selker refined his design, resulting in the TrackPoint product[6] for which IBM received US patents in 1996.[7][8]

Problem scope

A ThinkPad UltraNav featuring both a red pointing stick (top right) and a touchpad (bottom left)

Space constraints

The pointing stick can be used in ultra-compact netbooks (see Sony Vaio P, for example)[9] where there would be no place for a touchpad.

Finger motion reduction

The pointing stick is positioned such that the hands do not need to be removed from the home row to manipulate the mouse pointer.[10]

Continuous motion

Some people find them more appealing for mobile gaming than a touchpad, because the track-point allows infinite movement without repositioning.[10]

Fine positioning

Some users claim it is easier to finely position the pointer than when using a touchpad because there is virtually no "dead zone".[further explanation needed]

However, a finger slipping off of the stick can lead to accidental pressing of keys.


Some users feel that pointing sticks cause less wrist strain, because a user does not need to avoid resting wrists on a touchpad, usually located just below the keyboard[citation needed]. One criticism is that because the pointing stick depends on the user applying pressure, it can cause hand cramps (although this can be partly solved by setting the sensitivity to high, and lifting the finger when the pointer is not being moved). Another criticism is that it stresses the index finger and may lead to repetitive strain injury.

A number of ergonomic studies to compare trackpoint and touchpad performance have been performed.[11][12] Most studies find that touchpad is slightly faster; one study found that "the touchpad was operated 15% faster than the trackpoint".[13] Another study found that average object selection time was faster with a touchpad, 1.7 sec compared to 2.2 sec with a trackpoint, and object manipulation took 6.2 sec with a touchpad, on average, against 8.1 sec with trackpoint.[14]

Naming and brands

Name Brand Current Models Past Models
TrackPoint IBM / Lenovo Higher-end ThinkPads; Travel Keyboard with Ultranav Most ThinkPads, Space Saver II, Model M13, Model M4-1, Trackpoint IV, Trackpoint USB Keyboard, TransNote, Trackpoint Mouse
C-Stick Nintendo New Nintendo 3DS, New Nintendo 3DS XL
PointStick HP (Compaq) All EliteBooks; ZBooks; ProBook 6450b, 6455b & 6550b All EliteBooks; all models ending with p or w; all models starting with nc, nw or c; 6445b (optional), 6545b (optional), tc4200, tc4400; Presario models starting with v, 8500
NX Point NEC EasyNote MX45, MX65, S5
Pointing Stick Sony Sony PS3 Wireless Keyboard[15] Sony Vaio Duo 11, Sony Vaio P series, BX series, C1 series, U8 series, UX series
Pointing Stick Samsung Series 6, Ativ Q Series 4
StickPoint, QuickPoint Fujitsu Lifebook T2020, P1630, P2120, S7220, E8420 (optional), U820/U2010 Lifebook T2010, S7110, S7210, B2400/2500/2600 series, E8310 (optional), E8410 (optional), P1100/1500/1600 series, U1010/U810/U50
Track Stick Dell Latitude E5430, E5440, AdE5530, E6330, E6430, E7440; Precision M4700, M4800, M6700, M6800 Latitude D400, D410, D420, D430, D600, D610, D620, D630, D800, D810, D820, D830, XT, E4300, E5400, E5410, E6400, E6400 ATG, E6410, E6420, E6500, E6510, E6520; Precision M2300, M2400, M4300, M4400, M4500, M4600, M6400, M6500; Inspiron 4000, 8100, 8200, 8600, 9100; L
AccuPoint Toshiba Tecra R Series, Z Series, and W Series, Portege Z Series and R Series Portégé (not current models 06/2007), 300-7000 series, T3000 series; Tecra series 500-9000, A7, A8, A9, A10, A11, M2, M5, M9, M10, M11, S Series; Satellite Pro series 400-4000, T2000; Satellite 100-4000 series, Libretto 50CT, 70CT, 100CT;
FlexPoint Sprintek SK8702/SK8703 for Laptop/Tablet PC/Netbook/Industrial Keyboard
FineTrack Acer TravelMate C200 (Tablet), C210 (Tablet), 6410, 6460, 6492, 6492G, 6592, 6592G, 6593
Mouse emulator Elonex Elonex ONE
Pointing Stick Unicomp EnduraPro, Mighty Mouse (both for desktops) On-The-Stick

Informal names

Various informal names have been invented, including "nipple mouse",[16][17] "clit mouse",[16][17] and "nub".[16]

Other uses

While typically employed on a computer keyboard, IBM included one on its Trackpoint Mouse product; suggested uses included scrolling as with a scroll wheel or a dual-cursor system.[18]


  1. "Lenovo Support and Downloads: TrackPoint Caps and how to order for ThinkPad systems and TrackPoint Keyboards". IBM.com. 2007-07-17. Retrieved 2009-04-06. 
  2. "Nintendo 3DS XL 2015 Teardown". iFixit. 2015-02-12. Retrieved 2015-07-27. 
  3. US 5570111, Robert C. Barrett; Robert S. Olyha, Jr. & Joseph D. Rutledge, "Graphical user interface cursor positioning device having a negative inertia ...", issued 1996-10-29 
  4. R. C. Barrett; E. J. Selker; J. D. Rutledge*; R. S. Olyha* (1995). "Negative Inertia: A Dynamic Pointing Function". SIGCHI. Retrieved 2012-12-03. 
  5. https://www.reddit.com/r/thinkpad/comments/2hvpzj/track_point_drift/
  6. Golden, Peter. "The development of the IBM ThinkPad, Part I: big BLUE'S big ADVENTURE". Retrieved 2012-12-03. 
  7. US 5521596, Edwin J. Selker & Joseph D. Rutledge, "Analog input device located in the primary typing area of a keyboard", issued 1996-05-28 
  8. US 5489900, Matthew F. Cali; Jerome J. Cuomo & Donald J. Mikalsen et al., "Force sensitive transducer for use in a computer keyboard", issued 1996-02-06 
  9. Miller, Paul (2009-01-07). "Sony VAIO P hands-on". Engadget. Retrieved 2012-12-03. 
  10. 10.0 10.1 Trackpoint vs Touchpad, discussion,By Jon Lee, April 25th 2007, jonlee.ca Archived April 29, 2007 at the Wayback Machine
  11. Batra, S.; Dykstra, D.; Hsu, P.; Radle, K.; Wiedenbeck, S. (1998). "Pointing device performance for laptop computers". Proceedings of the Human Factors and Ergonomics Society 42nd Annual Meeting. Human Factors Society: 535–540. 
  12. Sutter, C.; Ziefle, M (2005). "Interacting with notebook input devices: An analysis of motor performance and users' expertise". Human Factors Society: 169–187. 
  13. Sutter, Christine; Armbrüster, Claudia; Oehl, Michael; Müsseler, Jochen (2008). "Office work places with laptop computers: User specific requirements for input devices and software design" (PDF). USA Publishing. 
  14. Sutter, C.; Ziefle, M. (2003). How to handle notebook input devices: an insight in button use strategy. Contemporary Ergonomics 2003. Taylor & Francis Group. pp. 241–251. ISBN 9780415309943. 
  15. "Japan scores official Bluetooth PS3 keyboard for ¥5,000". Retrieved 2013-05-25. 
  16. 16.0 16.1 16.2 Munroe, Randall (2007-04-02). "Appropriate Term". xkcd. Retrieved 2014-01-26. 
  17. 17.0 17.1 Eric S. Raymond, Guy L. Steele Jr.; et al. "nipple mouse". Jargon File. Retrieved 2011-07-08.  Based on The New Hacker's Dictionary. MIT Press. 1996. ISBN 9780262680929. 
  18. "TrackPoint Mouse". IBM. Retrieved 2012-12-03. 

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