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Optical vs. Laser Mouse: You Tracking with Me?

If you’ve embarked on a search for the perfect gaming mouse then chances are you’ve stumbled across the optical versus laser debate at least once. Google, Bing, and even Jeeves, in his all-knowing glory, are all saturated with a ton of misinformation when it comes to an analysis of these sensor types side-by-side.

Clearing up Some Confusion: All Mice are Actually Optical

While it isn’t necessarily by a huge margin, optical gaming mice are widely considered to be more accurate than laser gaming mice. This is because many laser mice have traditionally suffered from what’s called “acceleration,” which is a change in how quickly the cursor tracks when you move it. While the online consensus is that optical mice beat out laser mice by a mile, the difference isn’t actually that significant anymore. That being said, I’d still recommend going with the more efficient optical sensor.

The truth is, despite gamers on both sides thumbing their noses and jeering at each other, the margin between these has narrowed so considerably that it’s hard to have any sort of a pulse on what’s really worth your time and money. Fortunately, we’ve muddled through many of the misconceptions out there (it’s a slog) and compiled a straight-to-the-point and, most importantly, informative guide on what you really need to know.

Optical vs Laser Mouse

The first piece of misinformation stems from the title: all mice are optical. The term ‘optical’ refers to imaging data and all gaming mice act as low-resolution cameras via these things called CMOS sensors. Basically, an angled lens in the mouse moves a form of light, either LED or laser, to whatever you’re using as a mousepad where it takes tens of thousands of grayscale images and compares them to determine where you’re moving your mouse. These images, usually 16×16 or 30×30, are turned into electrical signals that are beamed into a processor in your mouse and read differently depending on how you’ve tuned its settings. The difference, as you’ve probably guessed, lies in the pictures taken between LED and laser mice. This makes for the very crux of the optical vs. laser mice debate.

The Difference Between Optical and Laser Mice

So, we’ve determined that the famously mistagged “laser vs. optical mouse” is really a battle between illumination sources, but which is better? This is where you start to hear the prime arguments for both. Basically, optical mice rely on LED lights to scan the surface, which gives you a surface-only view for comparison. If you were to look at a series of pictures stored within an optical mouse, you’d basically see what looks like a palette of grays with varying levels of brightness. This, of course, depends on the surface it’s snapping pictures of but let’s assume it’s an opaque mousemat, which is optimal for these kinds of mice.

Why are these sensors even relevant? In an interview with PC Gamer, Senior Product Manager of Logitech Chris Pate explains that laser sensors are optical sensors that use lasers to illuminate surfaces while optical sensors used LED lights. Basically, these sensors are taking thousands of images every second to more precisely determine how far to move. The problem is that lasers reveal the nature of the surface, and as such, pick up too much useless information about soft surfaces like cloth mousepads to move as efficiently as their optical counterparts.

Optical vs Laser Mouse
Optical Design (Top) vs. Laser Design (Bottom)

Laser mice are different. They use vertical-cavity surface-emitting laser diodes, or VCSELs, which are what you find in barcode scanners, laser printers, cellphone cameras (most recently the FaceID scanner for the iPhone X), and tunar diode laser absorption spectroscopies (thanks Wikipedia). Unlike the LED lights, these penetrate the surfaces they capture and provide more information about them. If you were to look at the pictures of a laser sensor, you’d see grainy, pixeled photos that vary in texture depending on the surface they’re used upon. So, with what you know, which of these do you think is better? More information or less?

vertical cavity surface emitting laser vs red LED
Laser (VCSEL) vs. Red LED

If you answered ‘less information,’ you’ve probably read these articles before, but that is the most common answer you’ll find in regards to this argument. In an interview with PCGamer, Logitech senior engineer François Morier cited a 5-6 percent variation in tracking speed with the best laser mice on soft mousepads, with the best optical mice having a 1 percent variation. Why? Because the laser goes really deep into the surface at low speeds, picks up a ton of junk data, and behaves oddly as a result. This creates mouse jittering, which means that the cursor isn’t where you want it to be at the time you want it to be there. On the flip side, laser mice offer superior tracking on glossy surfaces since they aren’t just taking surface-level pictures, but that’s about it. As a side note, optical gaming mice must not be used on reflective surfaces. This can cause a variety of performance issues and is, admittedly, something that laser mice deal with better.

Anyhow, this is the cause of the “acceleration” we defined earlier, which is much more obtrusive when moving a laser mouse at low speeds along something like a clock surface. It basically means that your cursor will fail to appear where you want it to at the exact time it should.

Laser or Optical Mice: Which is Better?

No one likes an answer that straddles the fence, but this is yet another one of those ‘it depends’ questions. If you’re moving across a lot of different surfaces or use a glossy countertop of some kind, a laser mouse might be the best option for you. If you want the lowest possible margin for error on an opaque. Cloth mousepad? Go with optical mice. For hardcore gamers, we realize this may seem like a no-brainer, but we decided to go one step further and see what the pros are using and which of the two has the best reviews.

Own3d.tv did a roundup of pro gamers to advertise the mice they were using, including some notable names such as FaZe’s Niko, Fnatic’s Golden, and Twitch streamer Towelliee. Of the 25 pros they listed, 23 of them used some kind of optical mouse, with Invictus Gaming’s RooKie and Team Roccat’s Jebus being the two outliers. RooKie was listed as using the Sensei RAW: a $45 Steelseries 7 macro mouse while Jebus, on the other hand, used a $126 Roccat Kone XTD gaming mouse. As you can tell, optical mice were the most popular sensors among pros by far.

That’s not all, either. TechRadar, PC Gamer, and Tom’s Guide have all put out their ‘best of 2018’ gaming mice lists. TechRadar’s list consisted of all optical mice, PCGamer awarded their ‘best of’ categories to all optical mice except one (though they listed a much broader assortment of laser mice as ‘competitors’) and Tom’s Guide acknowledged optical mice in all but two categories. I don’t think I have to mention that, judging from these lists, optical mice are the industry standard by far. Razer puts up some noteworthy products but, in the end, gamers and reviewers are drawn to the market that’s been mostly reliable for the longest.

Optical vs Laser Mouse Summary

So there you have it — optical mice are more likely to be worth your time than laser mice, but that doesn’t mean you should rule out the latter completely. While optical mice have made excellent use of a five year head start on their rival, much of the gap between them performance-wise has been bridged. You’re just as capable of finding budget gaming mice with laser sensors as you are gaming mice with optical sensors, and if you’re into the idea of wireless, it’s worth noting that neither sensor uses up more battery than the other (that depends on the quality of the mouse). In the end, you’re better off judging the mouse of your interest by the reviews.

Non-neutral answer? Optical mice totally win this argument. As mentioned earlier, Senior Engineer of Logitech François Morier cites a statistic that laser sensors track 6% differently at varying speeds while optical sensors bring that figure to below 1%. Consistency is key and that is why optical sensors are king.

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