What Is A Computer Mouse?

There’s something that we use with our computers all the time that we really never think about that much. Every time we sit down in front of our computers we lay a hand on it and we use it to navigate everything we see on the monitor. I’m talking about the mouse of course. It’s something everyone is very familiar with, but we never really stop to consider what exactly it is, or how it works. I was in the same boat, so I decided to do some research and wanted to share what I found.

So what is a computer mouse? A computer mouse is a hand held input device that detects two-dimensional movement on a flat surface. The mouse converts this motion of our hand to the computer monitor, allowing us to interact with what we see on the screen. This motion tracking used to be accomplished with a rubber ball, but has widely been replaced by LED and lasers.

There is certainly a lot more to a computer mouse than a short definition though. I intend to give a much more detailed look at mice in this article.


Important Terms to Know About Computer Mice

Before we go much further, it’s important to break down a few important terms about computer mice. Not all of these will necessarily be used in every discussion you have about a mouse, but knowing them is still important!

  • Left Mouse Button – One of the two main mouse buttons on a common computer mouse. The left button is often used to interact with things you see on the screen.
  • Right Mouse Button – One of the two main mouse buttons on a common computer mouse. The right button is often used to bring up alternative actions and ways to interact with what you see on the screen.
  • Scroll Wheel – The sliding wheel located between the right and left mouse buttons. The scroll wheel is true to its namesake and is typically used to scroll up and down a page, or to navigate through a menu quickly.
  • LED – Short for Light Emitting Diode. LED is commonly used in modern day mice to replace the rubber ball that used to be the main way of a mouse to track movement.
  • USB – Short for Universal Serial Bus. USB ports are common on modern day computers and are typically where mice are plugged into these days.
  • Bluetooth – A common form of wireless connectivity for many electronic devices. Some wireless mice use Bluetooth functionality to connect to a computer.
  • Mechanical Mouse – This is the old-fashioned way a mouse used to work. A rubber or metal ball was used to spin wheels inside the mouse, allowing it to track motion and convert it to the monitor. This method has widely been replaced with LED and laser tracking technology.

Most of these terminologies are pretty basic, but knowing them will give you a core understanding of a computer mouse.

A Closer Look at Computer Mice

While the term “mouse” for these input devices wasn’t coined until 1965, the idea of a mouse has been around since World War II. Back then, they used a metal trackball sliding along rubber wheels in order to interact with an analog computer. It wasn’t quite what we envision when we think of a computer mouse today, but it laid the groundwork for what would eventually become the definitive “mouse” in 1968.

By the mid 1980s, when Apple and Microsoft released the operating systems that would define home computers, the mouse was well on its way to becoming a staple of the computer market. While they didn’t look as sleek as they do these days, the same common features were there.

Most computer mice from back then, and now, have a rest for your palm, at least two buttons (the left and right mouse buttons), and a scroll wheel. The scroll wheel might find itself absent from some designs, but everything else is a constant in the mouse design philosophy.

For the longest time, mice were also mechanical, meaning they used a rubber ball that slid along two rotating wheels. These wheels connected to simple logic circuits inside the mouse to determine the direction and speed the mouse was moving in order to translate that to the on screen pointer for your eyes to see.

These days, most modern computer mice use LED and lasers to digitally track the motion of the mouse. The mechanical version having long since been replaced, with production having even been ceased entirely.


How Do Computer Mice Work

The main purpose of a mouse is to translate the movement of your hand to motion of the pointer on the monitor for your eyes to see. This allows for you to interact with the graphical user interface of your computer in order to click on files or applications, move them around, create folders, and many other actions. A computer mouse compliments the fascinating functionality of your computer’s operating system. If you’d like to learn more about operating systems, I wrote an article about them here.

How a mouse accomplishes the calculation of movement is different depending on whether or not you’re using a mechanical or optical (LED and laser) mouse. An optical mouse, for instance, uses the emitted light or laser to reflect back into the mouse and into a processing chip. This chip is used to digitally track every precise movement of your hand to translate it to movement of the pointer on screen.

A mechanical mouse, like it was explained earlier, uses a rubber ball and two plastic wheels. When you move your hand, the ball rolls to match the movement, and in turn spins the wheels in an X and Y axis. As the wheels spin on the inside of the mouse, they break a small beam of light. The simple logic circuits in the mouse then count the amount of times the light was broken, and use that as a calculation for how to translate that movement on the monitor.

Different Kinds of Computer Mice

There are several different kinds of mice for a computer. Some are more specialized than others, but they all serve the same general function.


Mechanical Mouse – This type of mouse is no longer manufactured and is considered obsolete technology by today’s standards. As previously mentioned, the main components of this mouse are the rubber ball and spinning plastic wheels that calculate hand movement to translate it to the computer.

Mechanical Mouse Advantages:

  • Sturdy – These mice were very robust and had a lot of simple and interchangeable parts.
  • Unique – In today’s world, these mice are becoming rare, and so having one has a nice novelty factor to it.

Mechanical Mouse Disadvantages:

  • Wears and tear – Like all things with moving parts, a mechanical mouse has a shelf life. Eventually, something will break that needs to be replaced, which is very difficult to do now since they’re no longer produced.
  • Slower input – Compared to optical mice that we use today, the method of using a rubber ball and tracking wheels is understandably slower.


Optical Mouse – Widely used in today’s market, you could consider it the de facto mouse for the modern age. Using an LED or laser to reflect light off the surface it’s used on, it uses this beam of light to bounce back into a microchip inside the mouse. This chip precisely tracks the motion of your hand and the mouse and accurately translates it on the monitor.

Optical Mouse Advantages:

  • Cheap – Optical mice these days are almost dirt cheap if you go for a basic one. This makes replacing them a breeze.
  • Reliable – Typically the only thing that can malfunction in an optical mouse is the laser used to track motion. Sometimes a simple wiping of the lens will fix this issue.

Optical Mouse Disadvantages:

  • Surface dependent – The laser used in optical mice can be picky about the surfaces they operate on. Glass and clear plastic especially will cause the optical light to not reflect properly and for the mouse to not work properly.


Wireless Mouse – While a wireless mouse is still technically an optical mouse, there are a few unique differences. Mainly being that it’s wireless and runs on batteries. They’re typically smaller in size too, though this is not always the case.

Wireless Mouse Advantages:

  • Wireless – The obvious advantage of this type of mouse is the fact that it’s not tethered to the computer by a cable. You can pick it up and put it anywhere.

Wireless Mouse Disadvantages:

  • Batteries – This is the main drawback of a wireless mouse without a doubt. While battery life for all sorts of equipment is getting longer as technology improves, it still something that will have to be replaced when the juice runs dry. It can be a bummer when the batteries die in the middle of a session.


Gaming Mouse – Also a form of optical mouse, but with a few defining characteristics that set it apart from the pack. Most notably the multitude of buttons. Gaming mice typically have many extra buttons that can be programmed, making your mouse a robust way to control what’s happening on the monitor.

Gaming Mouse Advantages:

  • Accurate – These types of mice pride themselves on their precision and market it to gamers as a way to improve their accuracy in a video game.
  • Programmable buttons – Gaming mice have the ability to reprogram many of the extra buttons they come with. This allows for the user to customize the use of their mouse to cover exactly what they need it to do.

Gaming Mouse Disadvantages:

  • Bulky – Although designs are slimming down in recent years, there’s no denying that all those extra buttons require extra space. As a result, gaming mice tend to be a big larger than their more basic counterparts.
  • Specialized – A gaming mouse isn’t for everyone. A lot of the functions and features they’re marketed for are for video game enthusiasts. Someone not using their computer for gaming might not find a lot of use from all these bells and whistles.


Trackball Mouse – A bit of an oddity in today’s computer market. The trackball mouse is unique in its own right because it still retains the use of a moving ball, much like the mechanical mouse. However, it instead has the ball on top of the mouse, and it’s typically made of glass or plastic. You use your thumb or palm to move the trackball, and as a result, the mouse itself remains entirely stationary.

Trackball Mouse Advantages:

  • Stationary – Since you move the trackball with your hand or fingers, the mouse itself never moves. This means you won’t be having to constantly readjust your hand and wrist to continue sliding the pointer around on screen.

Trackball Mouse Disadvantages:

  • Range of motion – Because you do not move the mouse with your hand, and instead move the trackball, it’s undeniable that your range of motion is more limited and less precise. Trackballs require you to put in more effort to move your pointer around on your screen, and often are harder to control because it’s less intuitive than simply moving your hand.


Point and Click (Conclusion)

A computer mouse is a pretty simplistic device for your computer that does something a lot more complex than we give it credit for. It’s able to make your body an extension of the way the computer operates. Allowing you to take direct control of what you’re doing and what you see on screen. This direct control also feel seamless and natural. Just like driving or riding a bike, a computer mouse allows us to use our basic bodily motions to influence what we’re doing.

I hope you learned something new about computer mice from this article. If you have any questions or comments please feel free to leave them below and I will do my best to respond to them directly!

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