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The different types of computer mice

by Parm Mann on 10 July 2009, 00:00

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Today’s computer mice come in a variety of flavours, including mechanical, optical, laser and bluetrack. This HEXUS.help guide explains what each variety has to offer.

Whatever happened to mechanical mice?

The mouse, first developed in the early 60’s, has since become the de facto standard in computer input.

In the 70’s, mechanical mouse devices began to become mainstream with the invention and production of ball mice.

The ball mouse – pictured right – typically features two built-in rollers that are able to detect the movement of the ball. That movement is then translated by computer software into the motion of a mouse pointer along the X and Y axes.

We’re certain most readers have used a ball mouse at some point in their lives, and many will be aware of their shortcomings. A ball-based mechanical mouse generally requires a flat surface or mouse mat and has a nasty habit of collecting dust.

Fortunately, mechanical mice have all but faded into the past following the introduction of newer technologies – namely optical and laser.

Optical or laser, which one’s for me?

Optical mice, introduced in the late 90’s, offer a number of advantages – they’re able to work on many surfaces, and offer greater precision than a mechanical mouse.

Here’s how they work. The modern optical mouse is likely to feature a tiny camera or optoelectronic sensor that is able to capture over a thousand frames per second. Usually equipped with a red light-emitting diode (LED), an optical mouse illuminates a surface and captured images are fed back to a digital signal processor (DSP) for translation into movement. Using complex algorithms, changes in a sequence of images are translated into movement on the X and Y axes. With movements detected hundreds of times each second, the motion of the on-screen pointer appears very smooth.

With the advance of computing power, optical mice became cheap to produce and have since become far more popular than their mechanical predecessors. Optical mice have the advantage of featuring no moving parts and no large openings to collect dust – meaning less all-round wear and tear. Optical mice are also more accurate and – depending on the surface - don’t require a mouse mat.

So what about laser mice?

In recent years, laser mice have been introduced as a logical successor to optical mice. Using very similar technology, laser mice feature one notable change – they utilise an infrared laser diode as opposed to a coloured light-emitting diode (LED).

By using an infrared laser, these mice are able to capture images at a far-greater resolution (denoted as dots per inch or dpi), consequently resulting in greater accuracy and improved precision.

A laser mouse, then, clearly has its advantages – but be aware that it’s a device that targets certain markets. The precision of a laser pointer is ideal for professionals working with computer graphics, or indeed gamers. For the everyday user, an optical mouse is likely to be cheaper and plenty sufficient.

Got all that? Good, but we’re not quite finished yet. In 2008, Microsoft came along and launched a proprietary tracking technology of its own, dubbed BlueTrack.

BlueTrack mice - available only from Microsoft – feature a new tracking engine that makes use of high-angle imaging optics and a powerful blue beam. Together, they capture detailed images of a surface area – and with a beam up to four times more powerful than the average laser, it’s able to track on just about any surface, even carpet.

Is there a need for even greater accuracy when both optical and laser mice will prove to be sufficient for most? Well, for most, probably not. But BlueTrack does have its merits – its promise of better-than-the-rest precision will appeal to gamers, and the ability to work on just about any surface other than a mirror or clear glass will be a key selling point.

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