Targeting, slashing, hacking, attacking: The key actions you take in any PC game happen at the click of your mouse, so you can’t skimp on your weapon if you want to win. Today, though, the quality bar is high for all but the cheapest gaming mice, so you can afford to be picky. Nowadays, you should expect reliable connectivity, smooth and responsive tracking, and crisp click and scroll functions. Those are the table stakes—it takes much more to elevate a “good” gaming mouse to “great.”
So, what makes the difference? Comfort and accuracy come more naturally to some models than others. An extra button in the right spot can speed up switching modes or weapons, saving you life-or-death fractions of a second. And the right supporting software can power simple or complex shortcuts that decide defeat or victory.
Here’s what to look for in a right-fit gaming mouse.
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Sensors and Resolutions: Don’t Overthink ‘Em
Nailing down a high-quality mouse sensor is tricky without getting hands-on time with a given mouse. The two key sensor types are “optical” and “laser” sensors, but you can’t apply absolutes when judging them. Your best bet is to try out a mouse in person, or to rely on formal reviews like ours, as well as online forums, for the skinny on how a mouse feels in specific play situations.
Less-expensive mice tend to have optical sensors, which offer good tracking sensitivity and tend to map well on a variety of surfaces, including textured ones such as cloth. Laser sensors, on the other hand, map onto the same or more kinds of surfaces (including some smooth or glossy ones that may give optical sensors fits), but they can be more finicky about rough surface textures. That said, we wouldn’t let one kind or the other be the main reason you choose a mouse. Likewise, some vendors market branded versions of sensors that track, say, on glass or reflective surfaces. Don’t take them too seriously, as you can solve any challenging mousing surface with…a $2 mousepad.
More important to look for is a suitable resolution range, measured in dots per inch (dpi), that allows for fine-grained and wide-sweep tracking. Just as crucial is a button or toggle that lets you adjust the setting easily on the fly—as opposed to only in software. Sometimes this button is on the top of the mouse for fast changes; on other mice, it’s on the underside for resolution changes outside the flow of the game. Which you want depends on your style of gameplay. (More about resolution switching in a moment.)
The numbers you see in terms of mouse resolution, though, are less crucial. Mouse resolution is mostly a marketing numbers game. You would use extreme dpi settings in the five-figure range only if you have one or more very high-pixel-count displays, such as 4K monitors, to mouse across. So don’t put a whole lot of stock, say, in a 16,000dpi maximum setting versus a 14,000dpi one. Either will serve you well under most real-world circumstances.
It’s (Still) a Wired World: Mouse Interfaces
Gaming mice are either wired or wireless in design, but most of today’s high-end models still, surprisingly, use an old-school USB cable to connect to your computer.
For a long time, competitive gamers strongly preferred wired gaming mice to wireless ones to eliminate perceived latency, as well as the possibility of a battery running down in the midst of a heated match. Many serious players still hold that bias, but Razer, Logitech, and others have released higher-end mice of late with low latency ratings that ought to satisfy all but the most extreme of gamers. (See our favorite wireless mice.)
More the issue is knowing how your mouse connects to its host. The three main possibilities are USB (via a typical cable), USB (wirelessly, via an RF USB dongle), or Bluetooth (also wireless, usually via the host’s built-in Bluetooth radio). Bluetooth is the least common of the three among gaming mice; it tends to be found more often in productivity or mobile mice. Note that some wireless models with rechargeable batteries come with a USB charging cable that can double as a mouse cable while you’re juicing back up, letting you continue using the mouse with the battery depleted.
The key thing here is to know what you’re getting, and to make sure you have the appropriate port free (or that you have Bluetooth support). If you opt for a cabled mouse, don’t forget to check the cable length. Is it long enough to reach from a PC tower on the floor to your desk? Is it six feet long, but only needs to run from your mouse pad to the laptop beside it? Also look at the cable itself. A braided nylon or cloth cover is more durable than a standard rubber coating.
Niche Mice: Know Your Genre
The best gaming mice offer comfort and customization that will please a wide range of users, but in some cases, the core features of a mouse revolve around certain kinds of games. Blazing away in a firefight, staving off an advancing horde in a real-time strategy (RTS) title, or commanding an NFL franchise: Game genres have specific needs, and some mice outright target specific ones.
Mice aimed at first-person shooters, for one, tend to feature ratcheting scroll wheels—letting you cycle accurately through your arsenal without selecting the wrong weapon—and on-the-fly resolution switchers mentioned earlier. The latter will help you snap-change between the broad tracking you need in a frantic shootout and the tight control for lining up a precision shot. (Sometimes this feature is dubbed something like “sniper mode,” and it may involve a dedicated button for getting granular.)
Mice that are specially designed for RTS games and MMOs, on the other hand, look quite different. The most extreme come outfitted with an array of 10 or more programmable buttons. Usually set just under the tip of the thumb, these buttons can serve as simple shortcut triggers, or be programmed to execute longer macro commands. (For more on these mice, see our specialized guide to the best mice for MMO games.)
Another, newer niche variety is mice aimed at esports players and professionals. The games they play vary widely, so there is a lot of crossover between these and MMO or other more generic gaming-mouse types. Indeed, many esports players don’t feel the need to gravitate to an “esports-specific” mouse at all, and find that general-use gaming mice work just fine. Nonetheless, a subgenre of esports mice has emerged that emphasizes light body weight and simplicity of design, in terms of buttons and overall sculpting. At the extreme, some lightweight esports mice have holes molded into their shells to reduce the mass of the mouse itself. (See our guide to our favorite esports mice.)
Customization Software: Why It Matters
Just as crucial as shortcut buttons and tracking-speed toggles is the software utility—if any—that the mouse maker provides for the hardware.
All of the major (and some of the minor) gaming-gear manufacturers have developed their own mouse-control customization software, which usually encompasses advanced macro programming. Often, the software also enables you to control and customize a gaming keyboard of the same brand. In addition to recording macro commands, these software dashboards let you activate premade, game-specific profiles; create your own profiles; and adjust any on-mouse lighting/LED bling. Many also offer presets for non-gaming use, letting you leverage your mouse’s programmability in Excel or Photoshop when you’re not blowing up starships or hapless zombies.
At this point, the major mouse makers’ software packages have been through generations of refinement, so they are slick. Logitech Gaming System (LGS) and G Hub, Corsair Utility Engine (iCUE), and Razer Synapse are among the best-regarded mouse- and keyboard-control utilities that cater to gamers. All offer advanced tweakability, with iCUE regarded by many users and reviewers as the deepest, but also the trickiest to master in depth.
A few less common items are worth looking for if you’re a serious mouse tweaker. The software might control “lift distance,” or how far you can raise a mouse off the pad or desk before it stops tracking. A slider or, better, a wizard-style setup function will dictate this in the utility, if present. Another feature is surface calibration, in which the mouse software runs a routine that optimizes the mouse and its sensor for the texture and traits of your mousing surface. On the even more esoteric side: support for angle snapping (a movement-compensation feature that helps you move the mouse in straight lines) and for designating different resolutions for the X and Y axes (say, for faster tracking only side to side, to traverse a vast landscape in an real-time strategy gameworld).
Know that the presence or absence of a dedicated control utility is a big differentiator between low-end and high-end gaming mice. Some cheap gaming mice will come with no software of their own. Without such a utility, you’ll be able to customize mouse commands only within a game (via its in-game menus) or in Windows’ own mouse settings. That’s not necessarily a bad thing; just know what you are getting, or not getting.
Other Possible Tweakables: Shape and Weight
For increased comfort, some gaming mice allow you to customize their actual bodies to your hand. Removable weights, often resembling small steel pills, are common in better gaming mice. Adding or removing these weights from slots inside the mouse body will shift the overall feel and the amount of drag. Some models take this even further, letting you adjust the center of balance, or change the height and pitch of the palm rest.
Body tweaks more radical than that are rare, but a few models have swap-out side grips that snap or screw onto the left or right edge. Swapping out sides might enable you to adjust the mouse to your personal grip “style,” or to compensate for different hand sizes, if the mouse will be used by more than one person.
Finally, note that most gaming-mouse designs sculpted for a specific hand cater to right-handed users. Few and far between, alas, are the models that are just for lefties. The most that a left-handed user can hope for is a good ambidextrous design.
So, Which Gaming Mouse to Buy?
Finding the best gaming mouse for you comes down to knowing your preferred style of game, determining whether or not you will take advantage of more complex functions, and then tweaking the chosen mouse to your specific tastes. Our advice above should arm you with what to seek out; the list below, of our top-rated gaming mice, is a great place to start shopping.