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So Windows has had, for a while now, a pointer trail feature under the visibility section. But that's something I don't understand.

The pointer trail itself is something I find to be annoying, and I assume that it conveys a "this is just a joke" feature. I don't see in any realistic sense why pointer trails would help contribute towards visibility of the mouse pointer.

Was it intended as a "just for fun" feature or is it actually designed to help the user out to see the mouse pointer better?

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    You assert that it is "extremely annoying", but should consider that you really mean "I find it extremely annoying". You'll get further trying to discern design decisions if you get used to that. – Lightness Races in Orbit Sep 18 '14 at 22:45
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    @NobleUplift way to jump to conclusions. Nowhere did I say the cursor was annoying. I said that the mouse trail feature was annoying, hence the title. Instead of jumping to conclusions, it doesn't hurt to read the whole post fully instead. – yuritsuki Sep 20 '14 at 0:54
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    Clearly you have perfect eyesight. When you turn 60 or so you'll understand why mouse trails are useful. Doubly so if you have any eye disease such as glaucoma, cataracts or macular degeneration. Before expressing distaste with some concept try to remember that not everyone in the world has your viewpoint. – Jim Garrison Sep 20 '14 at 6:58
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    @uxxu You state in the question 'The pointer itself is extremely annoying'. Later you say 'Nowhere did i say the cursor was annoying'. Is the pointer somehow different to the cursor? I suggest making this clear before berating others. – kwah Sep 20 '14 at 7:51
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    It seems from comments the OP meant the "pointer trail" is "extremely annoying". I submitted an edit to the question to reflect this and avoid future confusion. – Tim FitzGerald Sep 20 '14 at 16:40
up vote 110 down vote accepted

As pointed out in comments and other answers, pointer trails were originally "intended for" and "especially useful if you [were] using a liquid crystal display (LCD) screen" in Windows 3.1.

LCD monitors at the time were mostly passive-matrix, whose typically slower response times meant your cursor didn't have time to get redrawn as it moved across the screen. Pointer trails helped ensure the pointer didn't just disappear from the screen as it moved.

The pointer trail is no longer necessary for modern active-matrix LCD screens, but the feature has proven useful for accessibility. It helps people with visual difficulties to spot where the pointer is on a large screen by emphasizing its movement and leading you to its current position.

Here's a description from the UK National Health Service:

The standard mouse pointer is not very easy to see and many people find that they lose it as they move it across the screen. As well as enhancing the appearance of your mouse pointer you can also apply mouse trails. A mouse trail consists of just that - a trail of mouse arrows that fade away as you move the mouse across the screen.

A simple Google search for "pointer trail accessibility" shows instructions on how to set it for people with visual difficulties from a number of sites.

As to evidence of its usefullness, the only accessibility study I'm finding off-hand that discussed mouse trails doesn't make the results publicly available.

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    Anecdotally in the very early days of LCD panels when the response time was measured in terms of 100ms or so, the mouse trails made it much easier track the direction and velocity of the cursor as you moved it around as well, and I have 20/20 eyesight. As the velocity increased, the mouse trails would be further apart. – Mark Henderson Sep 17 '14 at 21:26
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    @MarkHenderson: I'd say that's more than anecdotal. Many 1990s laptops used passive-matrix screens that had an "S"-curve response; a major purpose of mouse trails was to ensure that each image of the mouse pointer in a different position was shown long enough to have a visible effect on the display glass. On large monitors, they have an additional effect, which is to cause a more significant visual stimulus when the pointer is moving, making it easier to find. – supercat Sep 17 '14 at 21:46
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    Anecdotal, I know, but I know several visually impaired folks who find the mouse trails feature extremely helpful. Like many accessibility features, it's a UX "negative" unless you need it - then it's a huge positive! – Ian Sep 18 '14 at 3:13
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    I can personally confirm the answer given by Tim Fitzgerald. I am partially sighted, almost blind in fact, and a computer programmer by trade. I still have relatively clear central vision but no peripheral vision at all. That means when I look at a point on the screen, I see only that point and nothing else. This makes trying to find the cursor a very difficult task, even when moving it around madly trying to catch a glimpse of movement. By using the pointer trail it makes the movements more pronounced and helps me find the cursor. For me it could do with being much longer, someting akin... – user54462 Sep 19 '14 at 11:55
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    @Kevin Thank you for sharing your personal insight. We all too often talk about accessibility in the abstract without fully understanding the different concrete challenges that exist within a broad field like "visual disability". I hope you'll continue to share with us on this but on much more as well. – Tim FitzGerald Sep 19 '14 at 15:26

The original purpose of the "mouse trails" feature, according to the Windows 3.1 documentation, was to make the mouse easier to track on the very-high-latency LCD panels used in early laptops, by ensuring that the pointer was drawn in each position for at least a full refresh cycle of the screen.

It turns out that it also makes the mouse easier to follow/find in other situations, and has a high "ooh, nifty" factor, so mouse trails have stuck around.

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    Yep, my dad had a Windows 3.1 laptop. Your choices at the time boiled down to, too fast to be visible while in motion, slow enough to be annoyed, or somewhere in between where the pointer gained a fuzzy quality that made you not want to look directly at it. – Izkata Sep 17 '14 at 23:58
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    This is the actual answer. These days it's most likely primarily an accessibility feature, but originally it was about slow screen refresh rates. I remember at one time (right around when Windows 3.1 was current) using a then semi-old laptop which had a plasma screen, where letters would gradually fade into existence as you typed. Given what little I remember of the hardware, that one probably could have run at least Windows 3.0, albeit slowly. – Michael Kjörling Sep 19 '14 at 7:41
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    I still use the pointer trail feature for my high-latency display. I have an old IBM T221 monitor which has high resolution (3840x2400) but with the single-link DVI connector on my laptop can be driven at only 12Hz refresh. Without pointer trails it can be hard to see where the pointer is as you move the mouse. – Ed Avis Sep 19 '14 at 9:48

protected by JonW Sep 20 '14 at 18:53

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