Optical Mice vs. Laser Mice

Which should you choose?

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

Optical vs Laser Mouse

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 non-glossy surface.

  • Inexpensive, generally cost $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.

  • Works on any surface.

  • More expensive, but the price gap has narrowed.

Though the internal technology in optical mice and laser mice differs, the average user may not notice a distinction between the devices. Price used to be a factor when choosing between an optical mouse and 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. Hardcore gamers may need a mouse with particular functionality. If you need flexibility, choose a mouse that works on any surface.

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

Optical Mouse
  • LED light is the illumination source.

  • Lower dpi than a laser mouse.

  • Surface illumination.

Laser Mouse
  • Laser is the illumination source.

  • Higher dpi, so it's more sensitive.

  • Deep illumination.

Optical and laser mice differ in the types of technology used to track movement. The optical mouse uses an ​​LED light as an illumination source. 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, these devices 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. These sensors are also used in 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 the top of a surface.

  • Smooth feel at slow speeds.

  • Works best on a 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.

An optical mouse generally senses only the top of the surface it's on, such as a fabric mouse pad. But the laser light looks more deeply, so it's sensitive to peaks and valleys on a surface.

The sensitivity of a laser mouse has a downside. It's vulnerable to speed-related accuracy variance, or acceleration. If you quickly run your mouse across its mouse pad and slowly bring it back to its original position, the cursor on the screen should also return to its initial spot. If it doesn’t, the mouse suffers 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 works 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 a mouse, whether it's laser or optical. However, this shouldn't affect how the mouse sees the surface it's 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 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 more.

The higher-priced mice 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 those into heavy multimedia editing or graphics applications, 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're trying to decide between an optical mouse or a laser mouse, the good news is that you can't go wrong. Laser mice used to be 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. If you want to use a mouse on a variety of surfaces, opt for a laser mouse. Choose an optical mouse if you're comfortable with your mouse pad.