Mouse Wars: Should You Settle for an Optical Mouse?

If you’re reading this, chances are your mouse has gone belly-up and you’re looking for a new one. We don’t exactly plan for our mice to burn out, so most people are usually looking for a decent mouse that they can buy as painlessly as possible. But perhaps you have a little more money to spare right now and you’re looking to weigh out your options. There’s such a wide variety of mice on the market right now that it’s much more helpful to classify them into two categories: laser and optical. Which one should you pick? Is laser worth the extra cash? It’s time to provide a clear answer to these questions.

An optical mouse uses the reflection of a low-power LED light to track movement across a flat surface. Laser mice do the same thing, except with lasers.

If you want to get into more detail, let’s first explain how an optical mouse works. Optical mice use optoelectronic sensors which function as very small cameras that take multiple low-resolution images of the surfaces on which the mice sit. If there’s a change in the surface, the processors within the mice will “track” where the changes were made and update the position of your mouse cursor. Because the image is so small, the mouse doesn’t need to use a lot of battery power to take it. Look under your mouse right now. You’ll notice that there’s a little lens below it for collecting light. It’s less than a centimeter wide on most models.

opticallaser-lens

Laser mice function in quite the same manner. However, instead of emitting actual light, they emit infra-red radio waves. They’re much more precise and can capture images at higher resolutions. This leads to a higher amount of accuracy when using the device.

Resolution on all mice is measured in “dots per inch” (dpi). Pixels are irrelevant since scanned surfaces do not have individual pixels.

When you have an optical mouse, this is what you can expect:

  • They’re either far cheaper (I found one for $5) or somewhat cheaper (mid-range mice cost around $15-20).
  • They’re not very pretentious about the surface they’re on.
  • They “get the job done” for the day-to-day activities of most people.

And the drawbacks are:

  • They may have problems tracking motion on slick surfaces, although this problem is reduced by some mice using the blue light spectrum.
  • They’re not extremely precise (usually tracking under or around 1000 dpi).

With regards to laser mice, this is what you can expect:

  • They’re fine on many surfaces (depending on the mouse you get).
  • They are either very accurate or extremely accurate, boasting resolutions anywhere from 1600 to 8200 dpi.
  • They’re ideal for photo editing and other high-precision jobs that require very smooth movement (you’ll also need a good mouse pad).

And the drawbacks are:

  • They’re expensive ($50 for the low-ish end of the spectrum, $100 for the extremely super-precise ones).
  • They can be finicky on clear glass, although there are mice that have coping mechanisms for this. My $70 laser mouse (from two years ago) doesn’t do well on clear or slick surfaces, but glides through anything opaque.

If you have the extra money, you should get a laser mouse if you plan on editing photography with it, work with sliders on a daily basis, or play lots of first-person shooter video games with a mouse. If you’re strapped for cash, an optical mouse will more than compensate for having no mouse at all, and it’ll do a wonderful job if you get a mid-range model. Settle for the low end and you’ll get an awful mouse that may have performance issues a few months in.

Be sure to leave a comment if you feel like adding more input to this!

4 comments

  1. Just a minor correction. A LASER is not a radio frequency device. LASER is an acronym for Light Amplification by Stimulated Emission of Radiation. Infra-red is classified as light.

    Before LASERs we had MASERs which is an acronym for Microwave Amplification by Stimulation of Radiation. The ones I know of operated at around 10 GHz. And that is a radio frequency.

    In 1961 I began working for Trion Instruments, the first commercial manufacturer of Lasers. Our founder had built 2 masers before lasers were invented. He decided to get into the laser business after Theodore Maiman announced the invention of the laser in July of 1960.

    In the sixties we knew lasers would have a lot of applications but we never dreamed they would be such a part of our everyday life.

    In spite of the minor error it was an interesting article.

    • Thank you for your insight and correction. Instead of “actual” light, I should have said “visible”, since infrared, by definition, is still some form of light.

  2. We have had 2 Logitech optical mice for years (I am guessing at least 8 – they were bought when the technology was new). After all that use, and a little unintentional abuse (dropped a few times), they are still going strong. One of the best products we have ever owned.

    • Nothing wrong whatsoever with optical mice. I don’t see a genuinely impressive advantage on my laser mouse when compared to my wife’s optical (both are Logitech). The difference is that mine cost $70 and hers cost $20. I do notice some minor improvement in precision, which is greatly appreciated when I’m making tiny adjustments like editing the photos that go into articles like these. Other than that, I’m not necessarily seeing an outstanding advantage.

      In fact, here’s something interesting: Laser mice used to be much more delicate than optical mice. There’s no doubt that your optical mice have lasted this long because:

      a) Optical mice had a very long shelf life back then and they still do.
      b) Logitech is known for highly-durable product construction.

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