In its most basic form, the mouse is a rather simple piece of equipment. It has a sensor for determining position, and two or three buttons. Your typical Windows desktop PC doesn’t ship with a mouse more complex than this.
You might be taken by surprise, then, by the complexity available in the modern mouse. Once you start looking at options over $40 you begin to run in to fancy sensors and built-in memory. Is all of this stuff useful, or just a way to charge you more? Let’s find out.
Sensible Sensor Technology
I remember my first mouse. It had a little ball inside, along with some rollers, and the mouse position was determined by mechanical movement of the ball and the rollers. I always despised it, because the rollers would pick up dirt, and stop rolling smoothly.
Today, old-fashioned mechanical sensors have been replaced by optical technology. This consists of a LED that shines downwards (usually at an angle) and a video sensor that captures images of the surface lit by the LED. A processor then uses the image data to calculate how far the mouse has moved. Optical is the most common sensor type today, and it has the benefits of reasonable accuracy at a low price.
However, optical can be easily tripped up by strange textures or surface irregularities, which means a smooth surface like a mouse pad still works best. In response companies offer mice that use laser technology. The basic concepts are the same as optical technology but laser is more powerful, which increases the accuracy of imaging. Laser mice have higher maximum sensitivity and can be used on most surfaces, so you can throw out your mouse pad. Also, laser mice are usually infrared, so there’s no glow.
In the past few years, new lasers and sensors have allowed for the use of laser mice on transparent surfaces. In slang these are sometimes called glaser mice (because they have laser, and work on glass), but there’s no official term, so you’ll have to keep an eye out for products advertising this capability.
In addition, Logitech has begun to use a proprietary technology called ‘Dark Field’ which uses two infrared lasers and advanced image processing to allow for mouse use on virtually any surface. I own a Logitech Anywhere MX mouse that uses Dark Field, and it does indeed seem to work on anything large enough to place a mouse on. However, they can be a bit pricey.
There are also some with motion sensors that don’t have to be on a surface at all. I’ve used these before and found them great for their purpose (presentations), but they’re not a good choice for your standard desktop.
What’s The Big Deal About DPI?
As you begin to look at high-end laser mice, you’ll start to see them advertising their maximum DPI. Unfortunately, they don’t usually explain the importance of it.
DPI stands for dots per inch, and it expresses how far the mouse cursor can possibly move in response to a given physical movement of the mouse. The higher this number, the more sensitive a mouse cursor will be. This is advertised as beneficial because it allows the use to theoretically move the mouse more quickly and accurately. Note that a “dot” is usually just a “pixel.” I’m not sure why the term used is not PPI – maybe it’s because that would conjure images of urinals.
Critics have noted that a high DPI may not be useful, and I generally am inclined to agree. Mice with an absurdly high DPI rating often have several sensitivity levels built in to a hardware button because the highest sensitivity is too twitchy to be practical. Only hardcore gamers (who practice enough to use the sensitivity as an advantage) and people with multiple high-resolution displays (who’d like to move across them in one quick motion) should care to look for high DPI. And even for these users, there are limits, though each user will have to determine what they are for themselves.
Wireless vs. Wired
Many of today’s mice are wireless, but not all of them, including some pricey options. Given how easy wireless is to implement, you may wonder why some are available without.
It’s because wireless is not 100% reliable. There can be occasional degradation in connectivity. Personally, I won’t play games on a wireless mouse, because I’ve too often had one cut out for a few seconds in the middle of a multiplayer session.
In addition, there’s the battery issue. Some people don’t want to hassle with a battery, in which case wired works better.
So Many Buttons!
Technically, all a Windows mouse really needs is a left mouse button, and a right one. Yet many modern mice come with a plethora of options. Are they actually useful?
That depends, but at the very least, having back/forward buttons on the side of a mouse can be useful for web browsing. I also recommend a scroll wheel with button functionality (this can be bound to open links in a new tab). So now we’re up to five buttons, and I think that’s about right for the average user.
Of course, you can go for even more, and again gamers are the most likely to use this extra functionality. Mice like the Razer Naga can be useful for MMOs. But if you don’t have a specific purpose in mind for the extra buttons, they’re probably not necessary.
A modern mouse can still be a simple device. If you just want two buttons and maybe a scroll wheel, a $10 or $20 option will do just fine.
But don’t discount the more expensive and advanced options. Having used laser mice, I’d never willingly go back to optical, because I like how well it works on irregular surfaces and I like the enhanced sensitivity.
Do you have some buying advice or an opinion on the latest and greatest mice? Let us know in the comments.
Image Credit: Hardforum