Optical Mice vs. Laser Mice

Which should you choose?

Close-up of hand on an optical mouse
Ponsulak Kunsub / EyeEm / Getty Images

A computer mouse is an input device used to move a cursor around the screen. The original mechanical computer mouse has given way to optical mice and laser mice. We've taken a look at the differences between optical mice and laser mice so you can decide which type of computer mouse is right for you.

Overall Findings

Optical Mouse

  • Uses an ​​LED light as an illumination source.

  • Uses CMOS image sensors.

  • Has a resolution of around 3,000 dpi.

  • Senses the top of the surface it's on.

  • Works well on a mouse pad or any non-glossy surface.

  • Inexpensive, generally running from $10 and up.

Laser Mouse

  • Uses a laser as an illumination source.

  • Uses CMOS image sensors.

  • Has resolutions between 6,000 and 15,000+ dpi.

  • Senses peaks and valleys in a surface.

  • Will work on any surface.

  • More expensive than optical, though the price gap has narrowed.

Though the internal technology in optical mice and laser mice differs, the average user may not notice a huge distinction between the devices. Price used to be the most compelling factor when choosing between an optical mouse or a laser mouse, but the price gap has narrowed.

Other factors may drive your choice, for example, if specific applications or situations call for certain features. You might be a hardcore gamer who needs a mouse with particular functionality, or if you need flexibility, you may opt for a mouse that works on any surface.

Technology: What's Different in Optical and Laser Mice?

Optical Mouse

  • LED light is illumination source.

  • Lower dpi than laser.

  • Surface illumination.

Laser Mouse

  • Laser is illumination source.

  • Higher dpi, so it's more sensitive.

  • Deep illumination.

Optical and laser mice differ in the types of technology they use to track movement. The optical mouse uses an ​​LED light as an illumination source, while the laser mouse, as its name indicates, uses a laser.

Optical mice have a resolution of around 3,000 dpi, while laser mice have a resolution between 6,000 and 15,000+ dpi. Since laser mice have a higher dpi, they can track more dots per inch and are more sensitive. This may have been an issue in the past, but the average user probably can't tell the difference.

Some users, however, such as gamers and graphic designers, may notice the difference and prefer a laser mouse or a specialized mouse.

Both optical and laser mice use CMOS sensors, the same tiny, low-resolution video cameras in smartphones. The CMOS image sensors take photos of the surface the mouse is on and use those images to determine movement.

Surfaces: How Do Laser and Optical Mice Differ?

Optical Mouse

  • Senses top of surface.

  • Smooth feel at slow speeds.

  • Works best on mouse pad or non-glossy surface.

  • Few acceleration problems.

Laser Mouse

  • Senses more deeply into surface.

  • Jittery feel at slow speeds.

  • Works on any surface.

  • Can be prone to acceleration problems.

Optical mice generally sense only the top of the surface they are on, such as a fabric mouse pad. But the laser light looks more deeply, so it's more sensitive to peaks and valleys on a surface.

A laser mouse's sensitivity has a downside: it's vulnerable to speed-related accuracy variance, or acceleration. If you quickly run your mouse across its mouse pad and then slowly bring it back to its original position, your cursor on the screen should also return to its initial spot. If it doesn’t, your mouse is suffering from acceleration. 

Optical mice aren't as sensitive as laser mice, so you can't use them on as many surfaces, but they are not as vulnerable to acceleration.

An optical mouse works well on a mouse pad or any non-glossy surface. A laser mouse will work on any surface. If you plan to use your mouse on glossy surfaces, you may want a laser mouse.

It's possible to adjust the speed of your mouse, whether it's laser or optical. However, this shouldn't affect how the mouse sees the surface you're using it on.

Price: Not a Huge Difference These Days

Optical Mouse

  • Prices vary.

  • Price gap has narrowed between optical and laser.

  • Can find a good one under $20.

Laser Mouse

  • Prices vary.

  • Not as expensive as they used to be.

  • Gamers and graphics types may need additional mouse features.

Laser mice used to be distinctly more expensive than optical mice. This price gap has narrowed, with both laser and optical mice retailing anywhere from $10 to $40. (Specialized mice can cost much more.)

The higher-priced mice these days have additional features for specific functions. These added bells and whistles drive up the cost more than internal tracking technology. For example, massively multiplayer online role-playing game fans, or users into heavy multimedia editing or graphics applications, are able to take advantage of mice with extra buttons on the side. Other uses may prefer a certain color or design.

Final Verdict: You Can't Lose With Either One

If you are trying to decide whether to buy an optical mouse or a laser mouse, the good news is that you can't really go wrong. Laser mice used to be much more expensive, but the price gap has narrowed. Optical mice have a lower dpi, but this isn't something an average user would notice.

Both types of mice perform well, though various brands and models may appeal to individual uses. Someone who wants to use their mouse on a variety of surfaces will likely opt for a laser mouse, but an optical mouse is a good choice for someone comfortable with their mouse pad.