How to buy the right mouse

As far as your PC goes, the keyboard and mouse are your most direct connections to your PC, and the most hands-on aspects of your desktop. If you want to know about keyboards, then see our buyer’s guide on keyboards from yesterday. If it’s a mouse you’re wanting, though, then read on…

In its most basic form, a computer mouse is a simple device – a sensor on the bottom with two buttons on top, and a scroll wheel. But while all mice are simple in concept, this basic pointing device has found several unique incarnations. Thus, it pays to know what distinguishes one from another when you go shopping for a new mouse.

Types of mice

The mouse may be a simple device conceptually, but over time several categories of mice have evolved, each made for different uses. The most common of these are mainstream desktop mice, designed for use with a desktop or laptop PC at a desk or table. Aside from the usual right and left mouse buttons, common features include a scroll wheel, and there may also be additional thumb buttons that let you navigate forward and back in your web browser.

Travel mice offer many of these same features, but come in a smaller size. They're designed to fit easily into the pocket of a backpack or laptop bag. But while the small size might fit well into a bag, travel mice tend to be too small for human hands – you can use them just fine, but they become uncomfortable during long periods of usage. Generally speaking, travel mice are wireless and battery powered, so you may want to bring along a spare set of triple-A's.

Gaming mice take the basic mouse concept and then amplify every element to extremes. Depending upon the style of game that the mouse is intended for (MMORPG, first-person shooter, real-time strategy) you'll see a variety of specialised features. What these mice have in common is a combination of high performance parts – laser sensors, light-click buttons, gold-plated USB connectors – and customisation options, like adjustable weight, programmable macro commands, and on-the-fly DPI switching. For non-gamers, these features are overkill; for dedicated gamers, they provide a definite competitive edge.

Ergonomic mice put all of the usual mouse functions into a design that ensures your hand is kept in a neutral position (in theory, anyway). Sculpted to fit your hand and reduce the stresses that cause carpal tunnel and repetitive stress injury, ergonomic mice may look unusual and take some getting used to, but they do alleviate some very real problems.

There's also the "touch" mouse, which is basically a standard desktop mouse, but with a touch-sensitive strip added to enable some gesture navigation capabilities under Windows 8 for those without a touchscreen (for example, there's Microsoft's Sculpt Touch Mouse).

Connectivity options

Just as with a keyboard, the simplest way to connect a mouse to your PC is through a wired USB connection. Computer mice are usually plug-and-play devices, with no additional software to install (with the exception of some gaming mice), meaning that plugging in the cable is all the setup you'll need to deal with. Unlike wireless alternatives, a wired device will draw its power from the USB port, so there are no batteries to worry about. Wired connections are also preferred for gaming use, as they’re free from the lag and interference issues that wireless options can suffer from.

If you want more freedom and less cable clutter on your desk, however, it's hard to beat a wireless mouse. Instead of a wired connection, wireless mice transmit data to your PC via one of two primary means: An RF connection to a USB receiver, or via Bluetooth. Both have their pros and cons, but if you want to reduce the number of cables on your desk and gain the flexibility to use your mouse unhindered, wireless is what you want.

Most wireless computer mice connect to the PC via the same 2.4GHz wireless frequencies used for cordless phones and Wi-Fi Internet. A small USB dongle – one that’s tiny enough to plug in and forget about – provides the link to your PC. Companies use proprietary connections like these because they allow optimal battery life. These USB dongles also provide connectivity to more than one device, meaning that you can use the single adapter for your wireless mouse – or mice, if you have one at work and one at home – as well as one or more keyboard, assuming that all are the same brand.

Bluetooth options are regaining popularity of late, largely because they don't monopolise a USB port, and because the stable, easy-to-manage Bluetooth connections are ideal for use with more mobile devices such as Ultrabooks and tablet PCs. In regular use, a Bluetooth connection gives you roughly thirty feet of wireless range, but may not match the battery life offered by devices with a USB dongle. New innovations, such as motion sensors tied to power and connection management, improve battery life over older Bluetooth devices, which maintained an always-on link, running the battery down more swiftly.

Sensors and sensitivity

The humble trackball has been superseded by two types of light-based motion sensors: Optical (or LED) sensors, and laser sensors. Unlike previous mechanical tracking options, light-based sensors have fewer issues with dust and dirt, and the absence of moving parts means that there are fewer failures.

Optical sensors pair a glowing LED light – often red, blue, or infrared – with a small photo sensor, tracking movement by repeatedly imaging the surface below (the frequency of imaging is called the polling rate, and numbers in the hundreds every second) the mouse, translating any movement into cursor movement. Because of the imaging sensor used, optical mice are less prone to problems caused by lifting the mouse in use, or by mousing on an uneven surface.

Laser mice operate in a similar way, but use an infrared laser diode instead of an LED. This allows for greater sensitivity (measured in dots per inch, or DPI), and a faster polling rate. The one drawback is that the increased sensitivity makes laser mice more finicky about the surface they are used on. Premium gaming mice generally use laser sensors, but are recommended for use with mouse pad surfaces that are made specifically for gaming.

In order to offer the higher sensitivity of a laser sensor and the versatility of an optical mouse, some mice use both in tandem. Gaming mice also offer sensitivity adjustment, allowing you to shift from high DPI for tight cursor control circumstances (such as lining up a sniper shot) to low DPI (and thus faster cursor movement) for melee combat and run-and-gun situations.