Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Mini-project: Fixed my Trackball Explorer

I don't think anyone truly understands my love for my Microsoft Trackball Optical Explorer.

I've used mice and trackballs interchangeably since the family first got a computer back in 1993. I've always preferred trackballs. There's been one trackball in particular that has served me well over the years, and it's the Microsoft Trackball Optical Explorer, known affectionately among it's cult following simply as the MTE.


It's an optical 5-button trackball, long since discontinued. It is ergonomically the most comfortable device I've ever used, has good response, excellent tracking, and lets me browse or game from my knee or arm of my chair without having to hunch forward. I also think it's earned me a lot of kills in FPS games over the years since the 5 buttons (scroll wheel clicks), finger-tip precision, and ability to spin my camera view around without having to "paw" the mouse has been an awesome asset.

Alright, enough of my gushing about the trackball, you probably think I'm nuts. I've had this thing for the last 7 years or so, and when it finally dies, I think I'll cry. The only place you can find these things new anymore is eBay, and expect to pay a hefty price. I was, in fact, considering this, as the right mouse button has been failing to click (almost feeling stuck down), the scroll wheel has gone wobbly like it's come off a pivot, and the metal bearings that the trackball glides over have been worn down with years of hard use.

I found an eBay posting where some guy has been advertising repair services. After reading what he does, I figured I would try it myself. The only thing I can't currently do is replace the bearings, but I could certainly try to figure out what was going on with the scroll wheel and the right mouse.

So I got busy and got it open. It was surprising inside, with sections of circuit board attached to the ball socket at crazy angles, wired to one another with small ribbon cables (Note: bad picture in retrospect, I have the most important part obscured by the top of the trackball enclosure on the left.)

After carefully extricating everything, I found my problem: a piece of plastic had snapped, causing the switch for the right mouse button to jam and breaking off where the scroll wheel was held one end of its axis.

Here was my solution:
You're looking at the scroll wheel, viewed from underneath (the edge resting on the table is the part that actually extends out of the device). Picture everything above the scroll wheel (at the top of the picture) snapped off completely. The black bit to 2 o'clock of the scroll wheel is the switch for the right mouse button, and it had jammed between that ribbon cable and the mouse button. I used super glue and put it back together, moving the ribbon cable back out of the way (though it doesn't appear to be at this angle).

Directly above the scroll wheel, you'll notice a piece of clear plastic. Part of the original grey plastic was lost when it snapped apart (no idea how the piece got out of the trackball) so there wasn't anything to brace the assembly where the scroll wheel is attached. A couple hard clicks during a frustrating game and I could see the whole thing snapping off again. So I took a pair of diagonal cutters, hacked a chunk of surprisingly thick (1 mm +) durable plastic out of the little clear carry case the super glue came in and sized it appropriately. I glued it in place and the result was very solid construction with virtually no give when I pressed hard on the assembly.

I spent a good time cleaning the interior of the trackball (it really was disgusting, these pictures are after I did that) and put the whole thing back together. The result is perfect, my right mouse button is back, the scroll wheel is back to spinning steadily, and a good polish of the trackball had it gliding smoothly again.

Some day I'll have to find a way to replace the bearings when they finally wear down, which looks like it'll happen within a year or two. If this happens, the ball will begin to actually touch the inside of the socket and experience a lot of friction.

If I can't fix the bearings when they go, I'll have to find something to replace my Explorer, and I've yet to find another trackball that comes close.

Anyhow, a good little project for the afternoon that had me feeling good about breathing life back into one of my favorite devices. Nothing is more satisfying than successful repair work done with your own two hands...

EDIT - The comments below have been phenomenal, and contain a lot of great information. Fellow MTE fans, I recommend reading on. One of the links below contains some great information. My post was light on pictures; I didn't expect so many people to read this blog post when I decided to tinker with my MTE.

For detailed graphic instructions on taking apart your MTE and replacing bearings, click here. It's translated from Japanese, but has a lot of pictures and it's pretty easy to get an idea of what is being said.

Thanks again to everyone who has contributed below!

53 comments:

  1. Greatest trackball ever made. A real shame they discontinued it.

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  2. I hear you, my mte and I have a special relationship. Im very fond of him.I have had my mte for years. Didnt realize that it was discontinued. My puppy just chewed up the cable. I am beside myself. Why Why Why..... Found your site as I was looking into repair /replacement. Pics were very helpful.
    Im freeky, not an engineer or gamer but will try to save my lil buddy.
    thanks.gm

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  3. I tried to open mine but only find one screw under it and it won't come off even after loosened. How do you open it?

    I am trying to see if I can do something about one of the metal bearings. It's got knocked into the socket. :(

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  4. The other screws are hidden under the rubber pads on the bottom. Let me know if you find a good substitute for the bearing because mine are filed down from years of use.

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  5. I realized that there's not much I can do with the bearings. I think I will try to find some slip/low-friction material like those under a optical mouse. And transplant a small patch to replace the bearing.

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  6. It baffles me that Microsoft discontinued what I think is their best ever product by a million miles, Ergnomically brilliant, effortless to use durable and well built and so loved by its owners - find me any other mouse like device where its owners have them for up to 10+ years without fail.

    Also, there's nothing else, not a single trackball that comes close - not enough buttons, trackball in the wrong place, etc etc.

    No wonder they're selling for upwards of $150 on ebay.

    There must be a solution to the bearings problem - there just has to be.

    When the one of my office desk dies I'll be lost.. I'll have to take time off to mourn and get ready for some RSI

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  7. You may be able to repair your TBE(s) for less than the service.

    I realize that there's a lot of info here, but it's actually easier than it sounds, but does require care, a fairly steady hand (mine are a bit shaky, so it's not that bad), some attention to detail and a bit of patience. I've written how to do it as clearly as I can, so just pay attention to how things look/are positioned as you go. Cables are positioned in ways to avoid screws and other parts of the housing.

    Costs include parts and tools (except for the price of a dremel tool), and will repair several TBEs.
    For easy reference I used these tools from Harbor Freight: Screwdriver set Item # 47823 (~$5), Pick set Item #66836 (~$3). 1/32" Drill Bit from ebay (12 in a package). Keyless Drill chuck for Dremel (the bit was too small for my hand drill) available on ebay and other stores (~$15). 1/32" drill bit available on ebay 10 pack (~$6+$3 Shipping). Dremel tool is extra (hopefully you already have one, or a drill that will hold such small bits. (10) 5/64" (1.9844mm (sometimes called 2.0mm))Si3N4 Ceramic (Silicon Nitride) ceramic bearings (the black ones) (as low as $ .50 each depending on dealer (ZrO2 bearings (white) are over $1 each, and very hard to find in 5/64")). This should cover worst case scenario, but if you're able to pop out the bearings without disassembly, you'll only need to purchase the bearings.

    On the model without ovals around the bearings, all the boards inside are screwed in place, so they're actually much easier to work with (too bad they seem to be more rare to find. In the models with ovals things are just set in place by tabs and slots, and it's easier to break mouning points, so be extra cautious when working with those.

    If there are oval recesses around the balls:
    The bearings can usually be popped out with a sharp blade or tiny screwdriver if it's the type with the oval recess around the bearing (be bareful not to scar up the plastic), if not, follow instructions for the type without the ovals. Buy some 5/64" (1.9844 mm (sometimes called 2.0mm))Si3N4 Ceramic (Silicon Nitride) ceramic bearings (the black ones) (these aren't the ZrO2 (Zirconium Oxide) (white) bearings the service guy uses, but they're cheaper (half the price), easy to find the PROPER size, and seem to hold up very well) from ebay or hobby shops (used for differental bearings in RC cars).
    Firmly press them into the pockets. I had the original bearings mic'd at a shop, so I know that 5/64" is the proper size. Looking at a pic from the ebay repair guy's listing I saw cracks around the new ZrO2 bearings, and it makes me wonder if he drills for an oversize earing 7 then maybe glues them
    in place. Ceramic bearings are self lubricating, and they should be allowed to roll, even if it's not much. I believe that using the original size bearings will keep tolerances as close to factory specs as possible, and gluing them would also make it easier for them to develop flat spots, and also more difficult to replace them later if necessary.

    At this time, mine are going on 5 months with no sign of wear, and unlike steel bearings, they have to be REALLY gunked up before they drag (still a good idea to keep them clean though). Originally I replaced them with chrome steel bearings, but they wore out within a few months (flat spots), so I had to replace them often. The ceramic bearings wear very slowly, so replacing them less oftem means that the bearing hole will last much longer, and that's very important since the bearings are held in by pressure.

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  8. If there are no recesses around the balls:
    You'll have to carefully partially disassemble the TBE and drill holes no larger than 3/64" behind the bearings (1 must be drilled at an angle) and then press them out ith a sharp strong object (I used a small pick). I bought the drill bits from ebay, and a drill chuck for my dremel that would accept such tiny bits.

    Remove the rubber pads to expose screws. Remove screws (take note of length and type of each screw as they differ. Most likely the angled one has a different head and the back one is shorter that the others). Carefully separate the bottom from the top. There's not a lot of play to the cables, so look inside as you separate them.
    Next unplug the 2 ribbon cables from the board attached to the bottom plate making sure not to remove the socket from the pins (they tend to come off rather easily), just the cable end from the socket (I use a small flat head screwdriver to pry the notch between the cable end and the socket near the cable) If the sockets do come off the pins they are different sizes, so it's easy to see which goes where, and the notch in the socket faces the ribbon that's soldered to the board, just carefully press them back in place when finished.
    Be careful not to dislodge the 2 tiny boards from the cup (they are the sensors!), or break the solder joints of the ribbon cable.
    Next remove the small circuit board from the red ball cup (note how ribbon cable is routed). Keep the screws as they are different than the others.
    Next remove the screws from the ball cup and remove it. Once again, keep the screws seperate from the others. Remove the ball cup. Set everything but the cup aside for now.
    Time to drill holes. You'll notice that there is 1 bearing that you can't drill directly behind because of the way the cup is molded where the sensor is. Carefully drill at a slight angle at the edge of the bump so as not to mess up the sensor's path (the bump). It's not hard to see how to drill the hole as it's almost directly behind the bearing.
    Next press out the bearings using a pick or tool of choice. Next hold the cup with so you're looking into the dish, position it with a bearing hole at the bottom, carefully place a new bearing into the hole and firmly press it into place with a screwdriver handle or similar object. Repeat for the remaining bearings. ***DO NOT GLUE the bearings in place!***
    Time to reassemble. Carefully replace the red cup, being careful to get the alignment pins (next to the screw holes) into the holes (it may take a bit of finessing) and screw it in place. Before going any further, pop the roller ball in and roll it in all directions while applying pressure to make sure that bearings are well seated. Next replace the board you removed from the cup, again being careful to align the pins and holes (one near the screw and the other in the slot in the bottom of the board), screw in place and put the ribbon back as it was.
    Next plug in the 2 ribbon cables that you removed in the beginning. Then carefully put the 2 halves of the TBE together making sure that everything goes in place properly. Test all buttons and scroll wheel to make sure that everything is aligned properly. The 2 buttons on the right are the ones that that need aligning, the others shouldn't have been disturbed, but it's a good idea to check them anyway. (sometimes it takes a few tries to get everything right. Screw everything together making sure you use the right screws (a long screw where a short one was will make a bump in the plastic, which I learned the hard way, and I had to shave it down because it irritated my palm). Replace the rubber pads (there should still be enough adhesive to keep them in place, even after a few disassemblies.
    Enjoy your TBE! It will roll at least as good as new for a long time before needing new bearings (I don't know how long, but from what I've seen, they may just last the life of the TBE).

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  9. http://torapo.com/tb/tbe.htm#sijiq1
    I found this Japanese website detailing taking the TBE apart and working on various parts including the bearings. There is also a link in there to a supplier of suitable ceramic bearings. I've been using the hell out of mine for ten years and it was an ex-dem model when I bought it. I'll be looking in to replacing the bearings on mine next year, thank you for this post and the comments. I'm feeling much more confident about tackling the repairs now.

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    1. Awesome find!

      I did my best to explain the process, but as they say, "a picture's worth a thousand words"!
      Thank God for online translators!

      Here's the Google Translate link:
      http://translate.google.com/translate?sl=ja&tl=en&js=n&prev=_t&hl=en&ie=UTF-8&u=http%3A%2F%2Ftorapo.com%2Ftrackball%2Fmicrosoft%2Ftrackball-explorer.htm&act=url

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    2. Just replaced the old worn out metal bearings with white ceramic bearings and cleaned out all the accumulated gunk inside my 12-year old TBE. Taking my time it took about 45 minutes total. I've got a set of wire drill bits which made the process easy. What a difference. I had not realized how bad the old metal bearings were worn and how it had affected the operation of the ball.

      Wayne

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  10. With regards to removing the bearings for replacement... I discovered quite by accident that the bearings can be removed quickly and easily by simply using a can of compressed air. Just make sure you look away so you don't catch a bearing in the eye. The compressed air does no damage to the plastic, leaving a clean recess for a new bearing.

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    1. I never thought of this, is there a trick to it (certain angle, etc.)? Have you used this method on both types of TBE's? This method would be a Godsend for the TBE's without the oval recesses since they don't pry out easily.

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  11. Awesome information here, truly. I'm really thrilled to see that I'm not the only one who loves the MTE!

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  12. I can also confirm that the 5/64" Si3N4 ceramic bearings work amazingly well as replacements...my TBE has never worked so smoothly.

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  13. Don't know how long I've had my MTE 1.0 (must be over 10 years) but it's been a great purchase. I was getting Repetitive Strain Injury from working on web-site layout with a standard mouse, the MTE stopped all that.
    I'm gutted to hear they've been discontinued, I shall take even more care of mine in the future!

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  14. I have been using my MTE for 10 years and I love love love it! Lately the ball has been all over the place and when I shake it there is something clearly jiggling around in there! I'm going to take it home tonight and try your surgery suggestion. In the meantime my co-worker (who for some VERY STRANGE reason didn't like his MTE and lost the ball) gave me the base today! I almost cried...I've known for a while this was discontinued and was dreading the day I would have to hang up the cord. I'm so glad my co-workers a pack rat! He's the best!

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  15. I bought my MTE 1.0 right after they first came out, I believe in '98/99. I used the crap out of it until I retired it a few years ago since the bearings were worn flat. I figured someday I'd have someone repair it for me. After reading JB's comment, I looked at mine and found the oval recesses and became excited (my poor, understanding wife). I grabbed my pocketknife and popped all three bearings out before going to eBay and ordering some new ceramic bearings (6 for $7.50 shipped). I've never been so happy about a damn mouse. For now I've rotated the bearings and put them back in. I love you, JB.

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    1. Thanks, glad to know I was able to help someone.

      Wow, I just realized it's been over a year since I checked back on this site. Good news is that I still haven't had to change the ceramic bearings. Hopefully I won't ever have to again.

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  16. Got my ball bearings today. Popped them in and it's smooth as glass. Should get another 10 years out of 'er.

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  17. How do you get the bearings out with a pocketknife? I have oval recesses but can't get them out.

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  18. OMG I love this thread! My spouse doesn't really understand my loss issues, as during our last move the ball is missing...have not been able to find a replacement ball yet, and Logitech's products are not even close. A COMPLETE MYSTERY why MS discontinued this, love this product! Def the best ergonomically made device and I, too, have won many speed card games with mine. :) Good luck to all of you with your repairs!

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  19. This has to be the craziest bunch of folk on this thread, but I'm one of you, I don't know what I'll do if my mte every dies. I've tried other mouse and trackball products over the years and always end up pulling this one back out. Thing I love best about it though is no one messes with my computer at work, since they can't figure out which button to click. LOL Moron's I wish microsoft would bring it back, but I'm bidding on 4 right now on ebay hoping to land one to have when mine eventually dies. the one thing I've learned though is keeping the recess the ball sits in clean is imperitive to maintaining this puppy.

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  20. Got cheap second hand MTE on ebay. Ball works fine but both the right hand side buttons don't work. No travel in them. Is there a fix for this? I thought I would ask before I start dismantling

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  21. Colin, yep, basically all the buttons are just pieces of plastic attached to a frame and sit over small switches. What often happens it seems is something (dirt or whatever) gets crammed between the plastic pieces and the outer shell of the MTE.

    You should be able to peel off the rubber feet on the bottom of the MTE and unscrew the hidden screws to get the top half of the shell to part from the bottom. From there you should be able to get a better view of why those buttons don't work.

    Now, I'd actually been beating on my MTE so much during gaming back in the day that the plastic nub on the plastic button piece had dug into the plastic of the switch, creating a divot that caused the switch not to depress all the way. This is possible, though seems unlikely on the less-used right-side buttons. If that's the case though, I'd recommend putting a dab of superglue on the nub on the plastic button and then filing it down again so that it properly activates the switch. I wouldn't recommend trying to repair the switch with glue.

    A lot of this probably won't make any sense until you take your MTE apart. I'll probably be making another MTE post soon as mine is starting to act up again, the ball bearings are just about completely worn off, and my USB cable is damaged and needs respliced.

    The things we do for our MTEs...!

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  22. Thanks for this blog.

    I was able to fix my TBE as well using 5/64" Si3N4 ceramic bearings.

    A little bit tricky to open the case, but with your photos and trail blazing efforts here, I summoned the courage.

    Thanks again.

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  23. I didnt have a small enough drill bit, so I ended up using a very large leather sewing needle,
    and a drill with a chuck that could tighten to the needle.

    This was enough to push the original bearings out from the back side of the plastic, and not create a bigger hole.

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  24. I was experiencing sluggish performance with the trackball and thought the bearings might be seized. I was looking around for suggestions on how to safely lubricate the bearings and ran across this suggestion. I know it's kind of gross but it worked like a charm. Rub your index finger on your forehead or nose and then rub it on the trackball. The grease from your face is enough to restore proper functioning. Nasty but effective.

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  25. Looks cool. Plus easy to use. That sure is great.

    babbit bearings

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  26. I'm glad I found this blog because something has come loose in my maim MTB, I can hear it when I move it. Several times the light just goes out and I have to unplug the usb cord and plug it back in to get it working again. I've accidently dropped it a couple times so I know this is what caused the problem. Now I have the information to take it apart so I can fix it.

    Every so often my MTB trackball causes the program screen I'm in to just start scrolling up and down, operating system, programs don't matter (I have 3 MTBs that do this). I stop it by clicking on the scroll wheel, then it stops, since I have my scroll wheel set to minimize my screens it sometimes minimizes but at least the unwanted scrolling stops.
    On another note the only trackball I ever found that is close to MTB is Logitech's Cordless Optical Trackman Trackball, it looks like this might be discontinued now too. The ball is on the top and it has the buttons. The only problems I ran into is it is taller then the MTB so my hand was at more of an angle, and I started having problems with it working even when I had new batteries in it.

    Louise

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    1. take it apart and check for fluff stuck in the roller area, i'm sure mine did something similar until I cleaned it out.

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  27. I have had my trackball since about 2000/1 - absolutely love it, i have had to replace the fixed stock bearings with ceramic ones, similar to one of the posts above. now the balls move and the mouse is even more responsive. i have had to also replace the ball as i tried polishing it to no avail and made it worse. I have bought a few MTB's of ebay for spares, but have yet to need them.

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  28. Sadly just had to junk an old beaten-up one because the thin springy plastic parts supporting the main buttons had broken, the plastic was too brittle to repair for a 2nd time (I even tried drilling and reinforcing with wire). Very sad. I've kept the ball and electronics. Just looked on ebay, people want 120-180 pounds for one - ouch! I hope the one I use at work survives.

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  29. I needed the ball size for my Microsoft trackball optical and there u had listed, thanks JB! Now all i needa do is find a part number for the small square clicker and ill be golden. Ive had my mouse for 13 years more or less and have replaced almost all the clickers atleast once lol.

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  30. Any advice for a severed cord on a trackball?

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    1. Cut a USB cord off a lesser device and solder it to what's left of the trackball's cord. USB is only 4 wires; it's VERY easy to work with.

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  31. Oh bless your heart....... to my disappointment, I have came home to a broken MTE.... :'( My son's friend was using it and thought it was a regular mouse and moved it off the mouse pad which is bolted to the kb tray. Needless to say that it fell and hit hard on its top breaking the scroll wheel and top right click button. I am hoping now to take it apart and fix it. I have had this for about 12 years now and come to realize that companies suck when it come to good products. Seems like their philosophy is if it works too good, discontinue and make something cheaper that more people have to buy replacement. I know now that if I really enjoy the way something works, I am going to buy 2 right away for back ups. Thank you for this blog and am looking forward to hopefully resurrecting this bad boy back to life.

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  32. YAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAY YIIIIIIIIPPPPPPPPPPPPPPPPPPPPPPPY!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! Thanks again for the pictures of what you did to fix yours. Mine on the other hand had to go through extensive surgery. I had taken an outlet cover and cut the 2 prongs off to make a larger brace for the right click button. The only thing the button had was a sliver of plastic that could be super glued. If that was all it had, by no means would it even last 1 gaming session.

    So, I took the first prong, cut it to size where it would over hang the edge creating a platform to hold the second one at an angle to prop up the button so when pressed, it wouldn't bend. if you look at your picture, think of a piece that wraps around what you have that forms like this _/ The angled piece goes up to the pcb board. After I glued it in place, I let it dry over night. I filed it down to about half the thickness. After that, it was still to thick and would cause the right click button to be pressed and cock the scroll wheel to where it wouldn't move. So, I had to take out the red cup that held the ball in place , cut part of the ring so it wouldn't interfere as well as take a sculpting knife and carve out about half the thickness of the red cup as well. Using a magic marker to color the new brace, I placed the cup back in and then take it back out as the brace marked the cup with the wet marker that was on it. Needless to say, it is working as good as when I first bought it..... Microsoft needs to remake them.

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  33. anyone now where I might be able to get replacement rubber pads for the base of my MTE? everything else working fine but the pads have finally perished and are leaving nasty black marks on the desk. if there are any UK spares suppliers that would be great, but to be honest I don't care where they come from it they keep the MTE in working order!

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    1. I used a sheet of 1/16" rubber and cut out a couple of new feet using the old ones off the MTE as templates.

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  34. This comment has been removed by the author.

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  35. Anyone know a source for the replacement of the usb cable. After several repairs along Its length i think i need to replace it completely as i need to wiggle the cable to get it to remain connected.

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    1. WyrdRedDragonDecember 2, 2011 at 5:45 PM
      http://torapo.com/tb/tbe.htm#sijiq1

      Thanks WyrdRedDragon your link above answered my question

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  36. If anyone were to have a 3D printer, they could reproduce broken buttons with better materials. These have a tendency to become brittle over time and break.

    Bear in mind that there are two versions of the TBE, and few parts are interchangeable.

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  37. Anyone knows if there is a 3d model of the TBE. I want to 3D print the left and right click buttons of my TBE because mine are broken.

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  38. You are not alone. I was thinking of buying a 3d printer just for that reason....

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  39. I'm hoping the Elecom M-DT2URBK I just ordered makes for a reasonable replacement. There's also a wireless version M-DT2DRBK.

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  40. I have 3x TBE's and just ordered by bearings. Was skeptical of those I have seen for sale since I did not know precise size needed or read any real world accounts of how the ceramic ones worked (if they scratched the main red marble over time). With you answering these questions I look forward to renewing my TBE love affair.

    Thank you very much for your time, efforts and sharing!!

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  41. I would like to add something I do during my refurbs of my mte. I use plastx and que tips to clean and polish the cup and other internal areas that are grungy. It is available in the auto part stores and is used to refurbish head lights or plastics. I will be taking my cup into work tomorrow and will confirm if 150 psi of compressed air will pop the original bearings from the cup as I would rather avoid any drilling. Cheers and long live your mte

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  42. 150 psi will not budge the original ball bearings in the red cup. I used the smallest drill bit in a large drill bit index and literally just used my fingers to spin the drill. It took about 60 seconds to expose a tiny shiny circle at the end of the shallow hole (the bearing) and then I used a pointy scriber to push out the bearing. It took less then 5 mins to remove all 3 original bearings. I am now waiting for the replacement ceramic bearings from ebay.

    Cheers

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  43. You can heat a needle with a lighter and push it trough the plastic from the back to gently remove bearings. Then you just spin them around and put them back in. You do not need replacement bearings until you have worn them down on all sides...

    I use a logitech trackman marble FX that I have totally gutted and replaced the electronics in to get it up to USB from PS2. It is in my opinion slightly nicer than the MTE. But they both are truly great pieces of tech.

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  44. Anyone else have a problem where the MTE just loses power and then fails to be recognized by the computer after replugging it in? Mine will work for a while and then suddenly cut out. Plugging it back in will cause it to light up and then turn off giving the USB device not recognized message. Windows 7, 8.1, 10 multiple computers and usb controllers all act the same way eventually. The only thing I haven't tried yet was to plug it into a regular USB charger and see if it stays on that way...

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