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Optical vs Laser Mouse: Which is the Best Mouse for Gaming?
May 20, 2019
Remember the good ol’ days of the mechanical mouse? That’s the mouse that had a metal or rubber ball on the bottom. It was fun to fiddle with when you lounged at your computer desk, the ultimate instrument of procrastination.
But it wasn’t the most accurate or durable peripheral, and so the mechanical mouse era has come and gone. Nowadays, you’ll find on most computer desks one of two mice: the optical mouse or the laser mouse.
If you’re a PC gamer, you’ve probably heard some chatter about which mouse is ideal for gaming. The common belief is that an optical mouse is better for gaming than a laser mouse. Is that really true? And what’s the difference between an optical mouse and a laser mouse, anyway?
Let’s dive into the debate.
Differences between an optical mouse and a laser mouse
“Optical mouse” is a somewhat misleading term. If we refer to the Merriam-Webster definition of optics we find: “1: a science that deals with the genesis and propagation of light, the changes that it undergoes and produces, and other phenomena closely associated with it.” 
But actually, mechanical mice, optical mice, and laser mice all work by using light as a reference point. In essence, they’re all optics-based peripherals. But the ways in which they use light are slightly different.
How a mechanical mouse works
A mechanical mouse, for example, works by detecting whether or not light is present or absent. There are two small wheels within a mechanical mouse, one representing vertical movement and the other representing horizontal movement.
When you move the mouse, the rubber ball spins the corresponding wheel. And, yes, the ball spins both wheels if you’re moving the mouse diagonally.
Each wheel has spokes and each wheel also has a beam of light that shoots through the spokes. When a wheel turns, it momentarily blocks the beam of light. The mouse registers when a light beam is blocked, and on which wheel it was blocked. Then it tells your computer which way to move the cursor. 
While an optical mouse and a laser mouse use light in different ways, but they also have similarities.
Here’s a mind-blowing fact: both optical mice and laser mice are basically just video cameras. Each mouse is equipped with a CMOS sensor. A CMOS sensor detects light. It’s the same kind of technology that’s used in digital cameras.
When you move your mouse, the CMOS sensor records the surface that you’re moving the mouse on. By tracking the movement of the surface, it can tell which way you’re moving the mouse.
Most surfaces on which you use your mouse are not perfectly smooth. A mousepad, for example, has an interlaced cloth texture to it. It’s not very noticeable to your human eyes, but examine it through a magnifying glass and you’ll see it more clearly.
Other surfaces on which you use your mouse, like your table or desktop, also have a unique texture. They might even have small scratches or accumulation of dust.
Similarities in what both optical and laser mice do:
- They record a flurry of images, sometimes as many as 1,000 per second.
- The mouse examines one image at a time, trying to detect surface features like textures or scratches.
- The mouse compares back-to-back images, analyzing whether or not those features have changed position.
If the surface features have moved to the left, that means that you moved your mouse to the right. The mouse signals to your computer that the cursor should move to the right.
Can your computer mouse actually record and process that many images in a single second? You bet. Welcome to the lightning-fast Age of Electricity.
Truth is, optical and laser mice can’t actually distinguish surface textures. But they recognize light patterns. When you move your mouse:
- Your mouse shines a light down on the surface
- The light reflects off the surface
- The CMOS sensor captures the reflection
The uneven surface of your mouse pad or desktop means that the reflection will have slight variances as you move it across the surface. Your mouse analyzes each image’s unique light variance and then tracks its movement from image to image.
Do you know what stop-motion animation is? You start with a clay figure. You move the clay figure ever-so-slightly, and you take a picture. You move it again, ever-so-slightly, and you take another picture. You repeat the process dozens of times.
When you play all the images back-to-back at fast speed, it appears as if the clay figure is moving all on its own. Your mouse works in the same way. It tracks the movement of the light pattern image by image and tells your computer to move the cursor a pixel at a time. It processes so many images in a second, that it appears as if your cursor is moving fluidly.
The difference between an optical mouse and a laser mouse
The key difference between an optical mouse and a laser mouse is their illumination source. An optical mouse uses an infrared LED light to illuminate the surface. A laser mouse illuminates the surface with a laser beam.
3. Surface compatibility
The illumination source affects how each mouse functions on different surfaces
The LED light that an optical mouse uses is not very strong. It can’t penetrate most surfaces. That means that it tends to be more reflective. After all, if the light can’t penetrate the surface, it’ll just bounce back off the surface. That’s a good thing, right? Didn’t you say that a CMOS sensor captures the reflection? It must be good to have lots of reflected light.
Well, yes and no.
If you’re using an optical mouse on a very glossy surface, like glass, the LED could be reflected too much. If the reflection is too bright, then the light pattern will be entirely washed out. The CMOS sensor won’t be able to recognize any variations in the light pattern. That’s why optical mice don’t work well on highly reflective surfaces. They’re much better suited for a non-glossy surface, like a mousepad.
A laser is much more powerful than an LED light. The laser can penetrate lots of surfaces, including glossy ones. Since some of the light will penetrate the surface, there won’t be so much light that’s reflected. You don’t have to worry about any of the reflections being too bright for the CMOS sensor.
There are 2 advantages to a laser illumination source. As mentioned, you’re able to use a laser mouse on glossy surfaces. The second advantage is that a laser provides the CMOS sensor with a more detailed reflection.
A laser is strong enough to bounce light off all the little nooks and crannies that are present on top of the surface and in the underlying surface layers. The reflections will have more light variances, which makes it easier for the mouse to track the movement of the surface. Greater detail equals greater accuracy - in theory, anyway.
But it also causes problems.
Many PC gamers harp on acceleration as the main reason why laser mice aren’t good for gaming. What is acceleration?
Ideally, you’d move your mouse across the mousepad, and then the cursor would move a proportional distance across the display. It doesn’t matter how quickly you move the mouse. The cursor only moves relative to how far you glide the mouse.
Acceleration occurs when you move the mouse quickly, and the cursor moves at an errant pace and loses its synchronized position with your gaming mouse.
Why does acceleration happen?
Acceleration occurs because the sensor can’t keep up with the fast speed at which you move the mouse. It overcompensates for unimportant light variances. You could say that the mouse gets “distracted” or “overwhelmed” by all the detail, and that’s why the cursor gets shaky or makes big leaps across the display. 
PC gamers despise acceleration because it makes your cursor movement inconsistent. Inconsistent cursor movement makes it difficult for you to develop muscle memory with your mouse. And let’s not downplay the importance of muscle memory in PC gaming.
The more online PC games you play, the more comfortable you get at using your mouse to control your in-game movements. You get a feel for the mouse, so to speak. Your muscles learn how much you need to move the mouse in order to place the crosshair just where you want it, so it becomes instinctive.
You can’t develop muscle memory when your cursor jumps around uncontrollably. That’s the big problem with acceleration.
Laser mice are more prone to acceleration because of all the detail that a laser mouse picks up. All the tiny variances detected on the surface can make the tracking go haywire, especially when you’re moving the mouse at a fast speed.
But do optical mice suffer from acceleration? Contrary to popular belief - yes. While optical mice don’t suffer from acceleration as frequently as laser mice do, you’ll still find it happening in some models. We’ll go into more detail about this below.
This is an important consideration, especially if you’re a gamer on a budget. In the early days, laser mice were much more expensive than optical mice. The price gap has narrowed, though, and now you can find both mice at relatively similar prices. Most laser mice are still more expensive, but only by a few bucks.
What makes the best mouse for PC gaming?
So is the optical mouse is the obvious winner? Nope!
Undoubtedly, the best PC gaming mouse is the one that doesn’t suffer from acceleration. But both optical mice and laser mice suffer from it. Acceleration isn’t exclusive to laser mice. It’s caused by the type of hardware that your mouse is built with.
Traditionally, laser mice were more commonly built with those dastardly specs. But some optical mice are built in the very same fashion.
It all comes down to:
- The hardware that the mouse is built with
- The surface that you use the mouse on
When you’re shopping for a gaming mouse, make sure that it has fewer dots per image (DPI) and a high polling rate.
- Low DPI + high polling rate + compatible surface = less chance of acceleration.
1. Low DPI
Let’s discuss DPI first. Remember how the mouse sensor captures images of the surface? An image is composed of pixels, and DPI typically refers to how many pixels you can fit in a single image. High DPI is preferable on your gaming monitor because more pixels amounts to great color variation.
But mouse DPI works differently. You want the mouse sensor to capture images that are composed of fewer pixels. Why fewer pixels? Because it means less work that the mouse has to do.
Your mouse sensor picks up two kinds of signals. The first signal is a base frequency called the “noise floor.” The other signals are high-frequency spikes. Your mouse is looking for these spikes because those spikes are caused by trackable surface features.
When you have fewer pixels, it’s easier for the mouse sensor to determine what’s a spike and what’s part of the noise floor. 
What’s easier to put together: a 100-piece puzzle or a 1,000-piece puzzle? Usually, it’s the 100-piece puzzle. There are fewer pieces, so it’s easier for you to see what the big picture is and how all the parts fit together.
Likewise, your mouse works faster and more efficiently when it has fewer pixels to sort through.
DPI target range
A good gaming DPI ranges from about 800 to 1600 DPI. A low DPI means that your cursor movement will be a little slower. To circumvent this, adjust your mouse sensitivity settings and make your mouse more sensitive to movement. Play around with the settings until you find the right balance.
2. High polling rate
Polling rate is the number of times that your mouse reports its position to your computer. Having a high polling rate is the key to preventing acceleration from happening. The more often your mouse reports its position, the more accurately your computer can adjust the cursor to match. 
Target polling rate
A good polling rate for gaming is between 500 and 1,000 Hz. That means that your mouse is reporting its position 500 to 1,000 times per second.
3. Compatible surface
Lastly, take into account the surface that you’ll be using your mouse on. If you’re buying an optical mouse, get a cloth mousepad.
If you’re buying a laser mouse, get either a hard, plastic mouse pad, or a very thin cloth mousepad (about 1.5 mm thick). If the gaming mousepad is thin, the laser won’t permeate so many layers and cause acceleration.
To sum up the difference between an optical mouse and a laser mouse
Remember that the main difference between an optical and laser mouse is in their illumination source: optical mice use LED lights while laser mice use lasers. It’s not the illumination source that makes a mouse better or worse for gaming. It’s the hardware.
The best gaming mice have:
- Low DPI
- High polling rates
Additionally, make sure that you use an optical mouse on a cloth mousepad, and use a laser mouse on a plastic mousepad or a mousepad that’s very thin (around 1.5 mm thick).
A gaming mouse is your tool of destruction. You’ll use it to make headshots or command armies, so you want it to be as accurate as possible. Either an optical mouse or a laser mouse will suffice, so long as they’re built with the right machinery to keep your gaming guns blazing.
One last thing to remember
Remember that a fast and accurate mouse isn’t very helpful if the rest of your gaming rig isn’t up-to-speed. Upgrade your PC hardware to ensure the best performance while you’re gaming.
 Merriam-Webster; Optics
 ExplainThatStuff; Computer Mouse
 PCGamer; Gaming Mouse Myths Busted
 Prosettings.net; What is Polling Rate?
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About the Author: Zach Cabading is a contributing writer for HP® Tech Takes. Zach is a content creation specialist based in Southern California, and creates a variety of content for the tech industry.