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What's the difference between laser and optical mice?

Now that the mechanical ball mouse has long been forgotten for most PC users, the majority of mice available today are classified as either "optical" or "laser". The old ball mice were highly mechanical (the ball spun two wheels that rotated slotted discs that blocked and unblocked a li— you know what, it doesn't matter), but the newer mice use an LED or laser reflected off the surface to determine the mouse's movement.

So just what are the differences?

Optical Mouse

The main difference between the two types of technology is in the name. An optical-based mouse utilizes an LED light source and a laser mouse uses... a laser. Both illumination sources enable a CMOS sensor to quickly take photos of the surface and detect movement. This is where high DPI comes into play, which enables a particular mouse to be more sensitive to movement, though both optical and laser mice can be configured to track a serious number of dots per inch.

Because of the LED light, it's best to use optical mice on mouse pads and surfaces that do not have glossy finishes. Laser-assisted mice can be used on any surface — even glass — but because the way the laser is able to penetrate a surface it can be more susceptible to picking up useless information, especially at slower movements. This can cause jitter-like movements and is often referred to as acceleration, though most laser mice manufacturers have worked to reduce jitter.

Those who require pinpoint accuracy for graphics in Photoshop or sniping in an FPS game may notice the problem more than others. While it's possible to turn down the DPI setting on most mice, it may be worth checking out an optical mouse if a laser appears to be too sensitive for productivity.

Right, so which do I go for?

Laser Mouse

It's entirely down to personal preference, which is what we normally say when it comes to recommending the best mouse you can buy. Some may prefer laser and other may enjoy using optical. The latter is generally priced more aggressively than a decent laser mouse, which could prove a deciding factor if you're tight on a budget. If you need a quality mouse that works on any surface you may happen to have access to, laser is the choice for you.

While some optical mice can sport DPI configurations of 4000, the newer laser technology will pave the way for a more precise and accurate experience.

Rich Edmonds is a word conjurer at Windows Central, covering everything related to Windows, gaming, and hardware. He's been involved in technology for more than a decade and knows a thing or two about the magic inside a device chassis. You can follow him over on Twitter at @RichEdmonds.

40 Comments
  • Nice article. But acceleration has nothing to do with jitter. Jitter is the worst thing, while acc. CAN be a good thing.
  • I use a trackball. Doesn't jitter.
  • So, how to know my existing mouse is laser or optical if there is no label
  • Look into the light... Wait... No...
  • Too late. Stopped reading after first sentence. I am an eye surgeon now.
  • "Pew Pew" LOL Love it!
  • Yeah. It's visible only in the all article view but vanishes once the article is opened. I hate that !! Because these writers really know what to put in there. :) It makes reading fun.
  • i had this exact same descision about 3 weeks ago when i purchased my new mouse. In the end i chose Optical :) 
  • Logitech G9x (wired) - discontinued, hard to get and expensive but very good. I have seen tons of top Korean Starcraft pros use it. Anyone used it?
  • I still have that mouse kicking around. Pretty good but the "rubber" texture finish did not hold up well on the palm covers. I'm using a G900 now and it is excellent.
  • Yep. I have G35, G15, G9... But The G15 keyboard, the spacebar wore down from 'jumping' constantly. The Mouse had multiple bouts with double clicking, and the G35 headphones...Well, they are the only thing I still use, but the rubber over ear coverings have peeled off entirely. But Besides those things, the hardware is solid. About six years old. Now, I have a Corsair mechanical keyboard and logitec g502 mouse.
  • My trusty HP one has lasted me nearly a decade !
  • My favorite is the cheapest one.
  • Someone after my own heart.
  • How are we calling Holographic gestures? This method still functions as a mouse and cursor right?
  • In Windows Holographic, aiming the cursor with your head is called Gaze, contrary to what some people might believe, it does not follow your eyes pupils currently, instead it is just a straight line from between your eyes (so you really "Gaze" by moving your head, not your eyes). The clicking gesture is called an Air-Tap. These can be used by application similarly to how they would use a mouse pointer, to aim and select, but it does not simulate a mouse.
    If you connect two mice to a PC, Windows will merge the movements from both and move a single cursor (except in apps especially designed for MultiPoint input). The holographic gaze pointer is independent from the mouse pointer, their movements are not combined. Somewhat like touchscreens simulate mouse inputs for apps not designed for touch, but do not influence the pointer itself if used as the same time as a mouse. Applications can, if they want, differentiate between individual touchscreen touch points, individual mice when several are connected, individual pens with active digitizers that support pen-IDs, and the holographic gaze pointer (in fact the user's head position and orientation for now, until we get pupils tracking). Not to mention specific devices that can also provide some kind of pointing such as Kinect v2 for Windows (two hands times 6 users simultaneously), and Tobii that provides pupil tracking to see where the user is looking on a monitor.
    ​This gives a lot of simultaneous pointers...
  • Thanks a lot for this info. :)
  • WC has been copying every single tech article PCGamer posts lmao. It's been going on for weeks now.
  • Wait, you guys forgot the 3rd kind....a trackball mouse!! Granted I couldn't find one available.....but that doesn't mean......oh I guess it does....oh well.
  • They do have thumb mouses too. Where you control the mouse with your thumb :)  
  • Did you even look? Because they do still make plenty of them. I use a logitech trackball daily.
  • I use a Logitech M570 trackball (thumb position) at work (CAD/CGI) everyday and can still buy them. Actually pretty good for shooters with the trackball to allow quick spin-o-ramas for character/gun movement. Otherwise pretty limited compared to other gaming mice. The one benefit of trackball is now wrist/finger/thumb discomfort or carpal potential for long useage.
  • I know they make a thumb trackball mouse....I was talking about the original trackball kind. I actually never had a problem with carpel tunnel....and I game, and work everyday with a mouse and keyboard....Guess I'm just lucky in that way....lol
  • Lawrence just saved me a trip to the PCGamer site
  • From 1 to 10 how useful this article is ? Try to look at it objectively and taking into consideration what you can find on google when you do a search about those mice.
  • I found it interesting just cuz I would never have thought about it otherwise.
  • Saved me a search, so I guess it was useful.  Also, I can't find anything on Google since I only use Bing.
  • You're the other one! I KNEW they couldn't be keeping Bing going just for me.
  • Microsoft has a patent on Blu Track I think k it is best
    Paul Thurrott got me hooked years ago.
    Not sure of tech used but it works great
  • For a gamer or a professional computer user, tracking of every movement matters and this is where Microsoft’s Explorer mice with BlueTrack technology has been proven to be the best mice. The only drawback of this technology is it has made Microsoft’s Explorer mice costly and you will need to spend a good amount to buy a Microsoft’s Explorer mouse.
    Got mine in 2009. Never looked back
  • So is Microsoft's BlueTrack optical or laser then? You mentioned optical doesn't work well on certain shiny or reflective surfaces but Microsoft's bluetrack mouse works fine on these surfaces.
  • I thought it was a good article. I didn't know mice had different DPI. And I learned even more reading the comments. Now I can understand what they mean by a "gaming" mouse.
  • I have used it (Logitech g9x). Still in my 2 cents one if the best ever made. Still use mine
  • My new Razer mouse supports up to 16,000 DPI Posted via the Windows Central App for Android
  • Bring back the Ball!!
  • I hated cleaning those things.
  • Does anyone know what BlueTrace is? I can't find much info on it. I found a cheap one from Wal-mart after my laser mouse quit qorking. Optical mice would cause the cursor to jump all over the screen on my faux wood grain computer desk. This BlueTrace works well, but I can't tell if it's a knock off of Microsoft's BlueTrack or if it's just an optical or laser mouse with a blue light.
  • Had my Razer Taipan die on me .. changed it with an optical Zowie Fk1 mouse, this thing is amazing and no required software for it to run like the Razer.
  • Interesting article but my decision was made for me when I was given a steelseries optical mouse as compensation for poor service, best thing is it has an LED on the side that has my name on it (its a gimmic but do like that little touch). Its a pretty expensive mouse but honestly do not see any real difference over my old G series Logitech that I had for a number of years. Well thats not true the SteelSeries gets pretty hot in my palm but as for accuracy no real difference, certainly has settings coming out of the rear end though.
  • I've used a Logitech G602 optical wireless gaming mouse, and it's comfortable ans responsive. Wired mice are nice, but my desk has retractable keyboard and mouse traps, so my mouse is usually quite far from a USB port. I have the receiver on a USB extension that lurks under my computer so it doesn't have much input lag. Not even noticeable. :)