How Does a Computer Mouse Work?

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Updated November 9, 2022

If you are new to modern computing, you may wonder how a computer mouse works. Modern PCs, gaming consoles, and other gadgets all integrate with the best computer mouse, but how do they work, and what are the various types to choose from? Keep reading to find out.


  • A computer mouse works in various ways depending on the underlying design of the accessory.
  • Trackball mice and mechanical mice use moving components, such as that trackball, to track location and mouse movement.
  • An optical computer mouse and a laser mouse use a tiny camera and light to track location and movement, and both are available as wireless mice.

Why Learn How a Computer Mouse Works?

After learning how long a computer mouse lasts, it is helpful to understand how they work. This helps you answer questions like “what is a trackball,” among other queries. It is also helpful to learn the various types of mice if you are wondering what an optical mouse is. In other words, learn about the inner workings of a computer mouse so you can move on to that Logitech M570 wireless trackball review.

Insider Tip

No matter which type of computer mouse you choose, be sure to clean and maintain it regularly according to the instructions.

How Do Computer Mice Work?

There are several major types of computer mice, and they all feature unique designs and implementations.

Trackball Mice

Old-school ball-based mice have a rubber ball inside them and a spring that keeps the ball in position. A switch detects clicks of either mouse button, and the trackball designates location and movement. These mice were the defacto leader in the industry for decades, though they tend to attract dirt and debris, which makes them inefficient during use.

Optical Mice

This popular design eschews the trackball in favor of light, which explains the “optical” designation. This type of mouse uses a tiny camera to take thousands of pictures every second. This camera integrates with a red light-emitting diode (LED) to accurately describe the location and movement. There are no moving parts inside, so optical mice resist dirt and debris.

STAT: The earliest known written use of the term mouse in reference to a computer pointing device is in Bill English’s July 1965 publication, “Computer-Aided Display Control,” likely originating from its resemblance to the shape and size of a mouse, a rodent, with the cord resembling its tail. (source)

Laser Mice

This type of mouse works similarly to an optical mouse but drops the LED in favor of a highly concentrated laser. In other words, these mice still include a camera that snaps thousands of pictures every second; a laser and not an LED just determine the location. Laser mice are considered to be slightly more reliable than traditional optical mice.

Mechanical Mice

This is the modern version of an old-school trackball mouse. It still has the trackball sensor, but this is combined with various newer technologies to allow for greater detail during movement and the reduction of any dirt and debris-adjacent issues. Modern mechanical mice are considered to be extremely reliable.

Computer Mice FAQs

How do the wheels measure distance?

The wheels don’t actually measure distance with typical mice, as the bright light of the LED or the trackball handles the task of tracking the mouse cursor.

Who invented the computer mouse?

The computer mouse was invented by Douglas Engelbart in 1963. Modern computer mice have advanced rapidly since then, with the addition of ball mice, the mouse cursor, a USB port, a graphical user interface, and more.

What is the best surface for an optical mouse?

This type of mouse excels on nearly any surface except for glass surfaces and reflective surfaces like mirrors. This is also true of wireless mice with optical designs due to the light beam design and USB port on the back.
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