Looking for Nub: Best and Worst Notebook Pointing Sticks

Notebook pointing sticks? I’m in nub with them. Call me old-fashioned, stubborn, or stuck in the “PC era,” but when I’m using my notebook, I want the most accurate navigation tool possible, one that lets me do my work as quickly and efficiently as possible. That tool is not the ubiquitous touchpad, but the little rubber pointing stick that sits between the G and H keys on some business notebooks, most famously Lenovo’s ThinkPad line.

Pointing sticks are still far better than today’s touchpads for a couple of reasons. First, there’s no chance of jumpiness or interference with a pointing stick, because the isometric joystick below the little dome is directly linked to hardware. Touchpads, on the other hand, use capacitive touch technology that can suddenly jerk your pointer around if your finger emits too much current or one of the notebook’s components delivers a competing signal.

Second, there’s no “dead zone” with a pointing stick like you experience when your finger runs off the edge of a touchpad. Even better, touch typists like me don’t have to lift our hands off of the homerow to use a pointing stick, allowing us to work faster and put less strain on our wrists and shoulders.

Despite these obvious advantages, notebook vendors have convinced themselves that pointing sticks are too scary for the masses, so they’ve limited their deployment to a handful of business laptops. In addition to Lenovo’s ThinkPads and their red “TrackPoints,” there are pointing sticks on Dell’s Latitude series, HP’s EliteBooks, and certain Toshiba Tecras. As with all notebook components, they’re not created equal. So whose stick sticks it to the others? I decided to do some testing.




First Place: Lenovo TrackPoint


Lenovo’s TrackPoint is still the gold standard: comfortable, accurate, and pleasant to touch. The cap is nice and wide at over 4mm and sits ever-so-slightly above the key level.

I particularly like the bumpy, raised surface — which Lenovo compares to a cat’s tongue — on the standard TrackPoint cap. If you don’t like that particular texture, the company sells two other styles of replacement cap: classic dome and soft dome.

Second Place: Toshiba Tecra R Series AccuPoint

Dubbed the AccuPoint, Toshiba’s slate blue pointing stick was extremely accurate and smooth in my testing. I love the slightly-rough surface on the cap, because it’s easy to grip, but some users will definitely find it too sandpaper-like and a bit too narrow.

Unfortunately, the 1mm cap is significantly narrower than those on other notebooks and a little bit lower than it should be. The company also failed to include a scroll button like you’ll find on its Dell and Lenovo competitors. Note that the AccuPoint isn’t even available on every Tecra model.

Buck up, Toshiba, because you’ve got a good thing going here, if you’d only believe in it.

Third Place: HP Elitebook with Synaptics TouchStyk

On its EliteBook line, HP takes its stick from Synaptics, which calls the nub a TouchStyk. On the EliteBook 8460p I tested, the stick was nicely positioned in a wide open space between the island-style G, H, and B keys. Elevated higher than key level, the 4mm wide TouchStyk was easy to grip.

However, its concave surface and sharp dots were a bit uncomfortable to use and made impressions on the surface of my index finger. The stick also feels a little bit stiffer than its Lenovo and Toshiba counterparts. Still, I was impressed with HP’s implementation overall. I just wish I could just swap the cap for one that has an upward-arching, convex dome.

Last Place: Dell Latitude Pointing Stick

Imprint on my finger and this Latitude’s to blame, Dell gives nubs a bad name. The 3mm pointing stick on Dell’s notebooks has sharp, raised points that sit inside the stick’s concave surface, which itself sits lower than key level. This means that you have to push downward to use the stick. In my testing, my finger kept coming off the low-sitting cap, and I had to press so hard that I ended up with indentations on my finger from the sharp tendrils on the cap.

The only thing Dell’s pointing stick has going for it is a scroll button that lets you move up and down web pages.


AUTHOR BIO
Avram Piltch
Avram Piltch
The official Geeks Geek, as his weekly column is titled, Avram Piltch has guided the editorial and production of Laptopmag.com since 2007. With his technical knowledge and passion for testing, Avram programmed several of LAPTOP's real-world benchmarks, including the LAPTOP Battery Test. He holds a master’s degree in English from NYU.
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  1. Al Says:

    What about the nub on the Samsung business models?

  2. Lava Says:

    This review is all well and good, but the jumpiness you complain about in trackpads is only present in PCs. The trackpad on MacBooks never jump and they are far faster than pointing sticks at selecting tiny objects. The same cannot be said for PC notebook trackpads, which jitter like a meth addict in withdrawal.

    I never understood why PC makers still can’t make a half-decent trackpad, but there you go. Pointing sticks might be competitive with the them, but they don’t hold a candle to Apple trackpads for speed or productivity.

  3. [Gm] Says:

    @Lava
    “but they don’t hold a candle to Apple trackpads for speed or productivity”

    It depends on what you do. If you are typing more than ‘browsing around’ with your cursor, trackpoint is superior for speed and productivity. In that sense, combination of trackpoint and keyboard shortcut would work wondrous.

    When I’m using my laptop on my lap, I would prefer trackpoint over touchpad/trackpad. When I’m on the table, I use a combination of trackpoint and mouse. It’s a personal preference, and due to habit I guess.

  4. Roy Says:

    I’ve had a much better experience with the Dell pointing sticks, myself, but I think they must be a different model from the one you tested. The pointing stick on my Latitude D630 (and, if I remember correctly, my D820) more closely resembles a blue version of the HP stick pictured in third place. The dots aren’t sharp at all, in my opinion, though it’s possible I’ve worn them down in the nearly 3 years I’ve been using it.
    One complaint I have, though, is that my cursor will sometimes move steadily upward when I use it. I’ll have to wiggle the pointing stick repeatedly and sometimes even remove and replace the button itself in order to bring the pointer down from the top of my screen.
    Also, when I originally received the laptop (with Dell drivers installed), I had trouble with the pointer jumping. If I had any pressure at all on the pointing stick while pressing one of the touchpad buttons (more convenient for my particular hand size and clicking style), the pointer would jump an inch or so as it clicked. As you can probably imagine, this caused me a great deal of distress due to unintentional clicking. The problem was solved, however, when I reformatted and didn’t reinstall the Dell touchpad drivers.

  5. Peter Says:

    I got really frustrated with the feeling of oil building up on my Macbook touchpad, and I decided to try texturizing it and comparing to a pointing stick at the same time. I texturized the touchpad by adding a Power Support adhesive and putting a bunch of little dots of glue on it (for a rougher feeling), and at the same time I’m trying out a Thinkpad usb keyboard with a pointing stick. So far, I feel a little frustrated with the pointing stick because slower speeds require a lot of force, and faster speeds make it hard to do anything precise, as if I’m trying to use it at the limit of its sensitivity. To be fair, this could be because I’m still getting used to it, but I’m curious if anyone else finds other pointing sticks more accurate, or agrees with the comment above about Mac touchpads being more accurate.

  6. Avram Piltch Says:

    Try adjusting the sensitivity settings in the control panel.

  7. Fraser Says:

    well i have a hp eliete book 2730p which features pathetic, half size touch pad (which i find impossible to use) and a touchstyk. i use the touchstyk exclusively but after 3 years of heavy use (i suppose it’s gone ok, considering the time iv used it for) the ‘styk’ has become incredibly unresponsive, requiring more and more pressure to be applied. often to the point that the rubber nub itself falls off. I am currently looking for a replacement nub (i believe the rubber edges inside the nub wearing off is the problem).

    I must say i am a fan of the Toshiba rough nubs

  8. Peter Gegenheimer Says:

    Since most of my laptop work involves typing, I cannot stand to take my fingers off the keyboard to use either a touchpad or a mouse. I’m completely addicted to the TrackPoint on IBM ThinkPads (I haven’t used a Lenovo yet). I can’t stand moving my hand to the touchpad, then having to re-locate my touch-typing position. I also dislike having to use several swipes on the touchpad to move the cursor from one side of the screen to the other. (Maybe this is correctable in the driver.)

    It is true that the cursor will tend to drift after using the TrackPoint for an expended period of time, but this is prevented by removing one’s finger for a second or two. (Or tilting the laptop in the same direction… for control freaks only.)

    I love the concave tip (which I think is what the review calls the “soft dome”) — a raised rim around the edge of the tip, with a textured surface inside. The rim adheres to my fingertip and helps distribute pressure evenly. The TrackPoint controller software allows a great variety of adjustment, with respect both to sensitivity and to speed. All told, the ThinkPad’s TrackPoint is the best cursor-control device I’ve used. When typing, I certainly prefer the TrackPoint to a touchpad _or_ a mouse!

  9. chuck hood Says:

    I believe the author should check the dimensions that are quoted for each of these rubber caps. They seem to be off 0.5X or so.

  10. Melinda Beck Says:

    Does anybody know how to replace the rubber cap on an HP “TouchStyk”?
    The cap on mine fell off, but none of the replacements I’ve bought, nor the original (which I found) seem to fit anymore. They all have square openings inside, but the “nub” that sticks up from the keyboard is round and looks like a flat screw. Is that what it’s supposed to look like, or did some other part fall off as well?
    Has anybody had this problem? Help — I miss being able to use it!

  11. Charlie Hand Says:

    I have always preferred the pointing stick. It comes down to the same reason I hated to see the Wordstar paradigm abandoned: it is inefficient to constantly switch between keyboard and mouse. As the author pointed out, the pointing stick allows me to keep my fingers on the “home row” of the keyboard while operating the pointing device.

  12. steadystate88 Says:

    I have used the pointing sticks for Thinkpad, HP, and Dell for a long time, and I tend to agree with this assessment. In fact, the biggest reason I only buy Thinkpad now is its fantastic pointing stick. This article talks mostly about the feel and shape of the rubber tip which I tend to agree, but more important factor to me is the just right amount of acceleration that Thinkpad’s implementation provides. Some driver software does allow you to control the acceleration, but for some reason, you just can’t get the feel of Thinkpad. With Thinkpad’s pointing stick, it somehow seems to know where you intend to move the mouse cursor to from the pressure you put on the tip, and provides the appropriate amount acceleration to get to the destination as quickly as possible without overshooting it. It’s hard to explain it, but Thinkpad gets it, and others still don’t. HP pointing stick is getting better, but it doesn’t have the middle mouse button which is a deal breaker to me (its 27xxP and 25xxP series.). Dell’s implementation is just not as good as Thinkpad and HP…

  13. Artanis Says:

    Pointing stick? Gosh – I really wonder how can anyone even USE them at all, even not mentioning being more productive with them compared to touchpads… I’ve honestly tried to use pointing sticks few times for couple of hours, and only thing that I wanted to do with them afterwards was to rip them out from keyboard.

  14. Lee Says:

    My first laptop was an IBM R31 which was back when they only had the TrackPoint no touch pad so I had to get used to it. Since then I just love them. I agree that Macs have the best touchpad but you can’t beat a TrackPoint, never having to take your hands off the keyboard to move the mouse is the best. Just bought a ThinkPad X230 after getting rid of my Macbook Air and it feels so good to be back!

  15. aou Says:

    Lenovo doesn’t compare the standard “soft dome” to a cat’s tongue. It’s the “classic dome” that they compare to a cat’s tongue. The one with the rough sandpaper-like texture, like the “AccuPoint”. And the standard is the “soft dome”, the alternative is the “soft rim” (concave).

  16. narf Says:

    >I’ve honestly tried to use pointing sticks few times for couple of hours

    buddy i tell you, it takes a little bit longer than “a few hours” to get professional (fast and acurate) with a pointing stick device, seriously. say a few weeks or so. , and you have to calibrate it to your likes (speed) just like a mouse. but then if you are used to it, you never ever want to use a touchpad again. this goes especially for the IBM trackpoint. its the best, i agree.

  17. narf Says:

    >but they don’t hold a candle to Apple trackpads for speed or productivity.

    its just a question of what your used to use as HID. i promise i navigate a microsoft windows GUI with pointing stick device as fast as you do with apple trackpad. its true, apples trackpad is the best, no doubt. but in return I ASK, how can a production oriented user EVER use something as crappy as the macbooks keyboard? its the worst keyboard EVER! ive been typing on, comparable to maybe an asus eeePC or some other cheap netbooks. i really thought about moving to a new 2012 macbook, but boy the keyboard sucks! the keys jiggle, theres not anything like a acurate feedback when pressing a key (“uhhh, did i?”), and the keys are way to flat, the layout is even worse (and wtf did they do to the enter key?)

  18. Markos Says:

    Completely agree on the superiority of the pointing stick (trackpoint), and especially IBM/Lenovo’s version. Which is why I’m hopelessly addicted to Thinkpads, which is a pitty because the last few years’ models are not as good as the competition is several other areas (display mainly). I really hope more manufacturers will start introducing trackpoints in their laptops so trackpoint addicts can have more choices.

  19. TimO Says:

    Avram, have you found an upward arching convex dome pointing stick for the hp? Thanks.

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