Truculent Trackball Tasks Blackberry Tour Users

When the Blackberry Tour launched last June, it received generally good reviews. Skim them over, and the phone is universally dinged for not including WiFi support, but the trackball was scarcely mentioned. Two months later, the device's trackball is indeed causing issues. According to David Eller, an analyst with TownHall Investment Research, more than 40 percent of the Blackberry Tours Sprint has sold have been returned with users claiming the devices are defective. Most of the complaints focus on the trackball, but some owners are apparently having trouble with the touch screen's sensitivity as well. Since Verizon relies heavily on Blackberry to supply its smartphones, the high rate of return could deleteriously afffect the company's bottom line.

Gerard Hallaren, also with TownHall Investment Research, agrees with Eller that the issue is trackball-centric and caused by the phone's design. He implies that the issue can be avoided, provided "customers to clean the trackball frequently, and preferably with compressed air. Not surprisingly, most customers prefer not to." (An air compressor is a geek's best friend. -Ed)   Hallaren also believes the problem could be fixed by improving quality control, a change that would raise the phone's cost of production by 2-3 percent. With up to 50 percent of customers returning the phone and claiming it's broken, a small bump in production costs could save a metric ton of money in RMA expenses.

Verizon has had a strong working relationship with BlackBerry, but may now be shopping for other suppliers. Eller reports that "Verizon is angry about this recurring trackball problem and is telling its retailers to expect strong support for the new Motorola phone." Reports of the problem started surfacing in early August; Verizon has promised a firmware update to resolve the issue.

Whether or not a firmware update can actually resolve the problem is an open question. On the one hand, there's reason to think the problem could be mechanical; Eller claims that discussion of the issue began August 10. the Tour actually launched on June 10, so that's a sixty day window until forum reports began to pile up. Anyone who ever worked with a mouse in the bad ol' trackball days should remember how quickly the tracking wheels could get dirty—it wasn't uncommon to have to clean the gunk out once a month. We already know that the trackball is recessed farther into the phone than might be wise; it's entirely possible that the interior rollers underneath the ball are clogging up quite quickly.

The culprit, front and center

The only problem with that explanation is that some of the users in RIMM's forums are complaining that the trackball in the Tour begins to fail within days, not weeks. It's not hard to tell if a trackball device is failing because it's filled with too much gunk (although taking the trackball out might be an issue). In any case, there's likely nothing wrong with the trackball itself—it's pretty hard to "break" a small, rubber ball.

The other possibility is that the trackball is lagging because the phone's processor time is being sucked up inappopriately. Once upon a long time ago, this happened with USB mice—the mouse pointer might track perfectly until you asked the CPU to load a program or read from a CD, at which point it froze solid. This is the sort of problem a new firmware version would correct, but if the problem is as pervasive as it sounds, it should've been detected long before the phone launched.

At this point, a software issue seems more likely than a problem with the device's hardware design. Unless you work in a saw mill, there's no good explanation as to why a trackpad would fail within 2-3 days. If you're beyond the 30-day return limit and stuck with a useless phone, there are instructions available for dissassembling the device and attempting to fix it yourself.