What Is a Computer Mouse?

A computer mouse is an input device to control on-screen objects

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The mouse, sometimes called a pointer, is a hand-operated input device used to manipulate objects on a computer screen.

Whether it uses a laser or ball, or the mouse is wired or wireless, a movement detected from the mouse sends instructions to the computer to move the cursor on the screen in order to interact with files, windows, and other software elements.

Even though the mouse is a peripheral device that sits outside the main computer housing, it's an essential piece of computer hardware in most systems...at least non-touch ones.

Mouse Physical Description

Computer mice come in many shapes and sizes but are all designed to fit either the left or right hand, and be used on a flat surface.

The standard mouse has two buttons toward the front (to left-click and right-click) and a scroll wheel in the center (to quickly move the screen up and down). However, a computer mouse can have anywhere from one to several more buttons to provide a wide variety of other functions (like the 12-button Razer Naga Chroma MMO Gaming Mouse).

While older mice use a small ball on the bottom to control the cursor, newer ones use a laser. Some computer mice instead have a large ball on top of the mouse so that instead of moving the mouse across a surface to interact with the computer, the user keeps the mouse stationary and instead moves the ball with a finger. The Logitech M570 is one example of this type of mouse.

There are also mice made for special uses, such as travel mice, which are smaller than a typical mouse and often have a retractable cord. Another type is the ergonomic mouse that has a very different shape than a standard mouse to help prevent hand strain.

As you can see, mice come in all sorts of shapes, sizes, and colors:

Photo of a Microsoft Wireless Mobile Mouse 1850
VicTsing MM057 Mouse, black with white logo, CPI button and scroll wheel
Jelly Comb 2.4G Slim Wireless Mouse with gold trim
HAVIT HV-MS672 3200DPI Wired Mouse, black with aqua-colored lightning detail, DPI button and scroll wheel
Anker AK-UBA 2.4G Wireless Vertical Ergonomic Optical Mouse
PICTEK Gaming Mouse, black, with electric blue light-up logo and scroll wheel

No matter what type of mouse is used, they all communicate with the computer either wirelessly or via a physical, wired connection.

If wireless, mice connect to the computer either via RF communication or Bluetooth. An RF-based wireless mouse will require a receiver that will physically connect to the computer. A Bluetooth wireless mouse connects via the computer's Bluetooth hardware. See How to Install a Wireless Keyboard and Mouse for a short look at how a wireless mouse setup works.

If wired, mice connect to the computer via USB using a Type-A connector. Older mice connect via PS/2 ports. Either way, it's usually a direct connection to the motherboard.

Drivers for a Computer Mouse

Like any piece of hardware, a computer mouse works with a computer only if the proper device driver is installed. A basic mouse will work right out of the box because the operating system likely already has the driver ready for installation, but special software is needed for a more advanced mouse that has more functions.

The advanced mouse might work just fine as a regular mouse, but it's likely that the extra buttons won't function until the right driver is installed.

The best way to install a missing mouse driver is through the manufacturer's website. Logitech and Microsoft are the most popular manufacturers of mice, but you'll see them from other hardware makers as well. See How Do I Update Drivers in Windows? for instructions on manually installing these types of drivers in Windows.

However, one of the easiest ways to install drivers is to use a free driver updater tool. If you go this route, just be sure the mouse is plugged in when you start the driver scan.

Some drivers can be downloaded through Windows Update, so that's another option if you still can't seem to find the right one.

Basic options for controlling the mouse can be configured in Windows through Control Panel. Search for the Mouse Control Panel applet, or use the control mouse Run command, to open a set of options that let you swap the mouse buttons, pick a new mouse pointer, change the double-click speed, display pointer trails, hide the pointer when typing, adjust the pointer speed, and more.

More Information on the Computer Mouse

A mouse is supported only on devices that have a graphical user interface. This is why you must use your keyboard when working with text-only tools, like many programs that run from a disc before the operating system starts—these bootable antivirus programs are one example.

While laptops, touch-screen phones/tablets, and other similar devices don't require a mouse, they all use the same concept to communicate with the device. That is, a stylus, trackpad, or your own finger is used in place of the traditional computer mouse.

However, most of those devices support using a mouse as an optional attachment if you'd prefer to use one anyway. When you do that, you sometimes have the option to turn off the built-in mouse so you can use the external one only—e.g., you can disable the touchpad in Windows 11.

Some computer mice power down after a certain period of inactivity to save on battery life, while others that require a lot of power will be wired-only to favor performance over the convenience of being wireless.

The mouse was originally referred to as an "X-Y position indicator for a display system" and was nicknamed a "mouse" because of the tail-like cord that came out the end of it. It was invented by Douglas Engelbart in 1964.

Prior to the invention of the mouse, computer users had to enter text-based commands to do even the simplest of tasks, like moving through directories and opening files/folders.

  • What is DPI on a mouse?

    DPI is like a mouse's sensitivity. At higher DPIs, the mouse is more sensitive and will move your cursor further on your screen than lower DPI mice over the same physical distance. You can change your mouse sensitivity in a few quick steps.

  • What is CPI on a mouse?

    CPI and DPI are used interchangeably in the mice world, though they have slightly different technical definitions. CPI and DPI will refer to the same value when buying or using a mouse.

  • What is polling rate on a mouse?

    A mouse's polling rate is the number of times per second a mouse reports its position to your computer.

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