Optical Mice Vs. Laser Mice: What's the Difference?

The average user may not notice much difference

A woman using an optical mouse with a laptop.

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A computer mouse translates the movement you make with the mouse over a surface into actions of the cursor on the computer screen. The original mechanical mouse has given way to optical mice and laser mice. What is the difference between them? For the average user, the answer is there isn't much of a difference in how it will work for most purposes. It may come down to cost, as an optical mouse is usually less expensive than a laser mouse.

Illumination Source Is the Difference Between Optical and Laser Mice

Optical and laser mice differ by 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 moniker indicates, uses a laser for illumination. Both use CMOS sensors, a tiny, low-resolution video camera such as in our smartphones, to take photos of the surface it's on and to use those to determine movement.

Higher DPI With Laser Mouse

Laser mice have a higher dpi, which means that they can track more dots per inch, which in turn means that they're more sensitive. But while this may have been an issue in the past, both optical and laser mice are now able to hit high dpi marks, and your average user will never notice the difference. Gamers and graphic designers may still perceive one and have personal preferences for a device. Optical mice have a resolution around 3000 dpi, while laser mice have a resolution around 6000 dpi.

Surface Vs. Deeper Illumination

Meanwhile, optical mice mostly 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 is more likely to sense peaks and valleys in a surface, giving it a jittery movement at slow speeds. It's picking up too much useless information. Optical sensors have less than a one percent variation in tracking at different speeds, while laser mice can have five percent or more variation. 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 the mouse on glossy surfaces, you may want a laser mouse.

Note: You can also 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.

The different performance of a laser mouse at different speeds is noted as acceleration. Your hand movement translates into a different distance of movement by the cursor if you move it at a slower or faster speed. It is the resolution error versus speed as the laser mouse picks up more noise or less noise in the image of the mousing surface at different speeds. This can be annoying for someone who is ​gaming or trying to draw graphics.

Which Mouse Should You Use?

If you are trying to decide which mouse to buy, an optical mouse is likely to be less expensive. A laser mouse might be preferred if you are going to use it on a variety of surfaces.