Do You Really Need a Mouse Pad?

Computer mice have been around in one form or another for the better part of 50 years (or longer, based on your definition of invention), and for most of that time they’ve been paired with mouse pads. But modern optical and laser mice can track on just about any surface, unless you’re somehow using your computer on a sand bed. So do those nerdy-looking pads even serve a purpose anymore?

Yes, actually. A mouse pad isn’t technically necessary these days, but there are some obvious and serious benefits of using one, even if you’re not spending a lot of money on a fancy “gamer” model.

When Did Mouse Pads Start to Disappear?

Some computer users used to simply roll their ancient ball-driven mice along a desktop, presumably using their other hand to shove spears at woolly mammoths. But before the advent of optical mice, mouse pads served some very important functions: not only did they offer a smooth and predictable tracking area, they helped keep the tracking ball clean of dirt, skin oils, and other gunk.

An old-fashioned mechanical mouse ball mechanism. Note the horizontal and vertical rollers.

Microsoft and Logitech later introduced consumer-grade optical mice, which ditched the physical roller mechanism for a tiny and low-powered optical sensor and LED combo, around the turn of the century. These offered more consistent tracking on almost any surface (as long as it wasn’t reflective or transparent, like glass) without the possibility of dirt and oil buildup on a conventional ball. A few years later, laser-equipped mice erased even those limitations, and now you can get an inexpensive mouse that will track on more or less any surface.

Microsoft’s Intellimouse Optical, believed to be the first commercial optical mouse, circa 1999.

Consequently, mouse pads began to fall out of fashion. Since optical and laser mice don’t actually contact the surface that they’re tracking (except for the feet of the mouse, which isn’t part of the tracking mechanism), there’s no operational downside to using your desk, or your lap, or the spare pizza box you really should have thrown away after last night’s raid. Goodbye to the desktop equivalent of the pocket protector, right?

Mouse Pads Are Good for Your Desk and Your Mouse

Mouse pads still serve several important functions. For starters, they keep your desk from looking like a piece of driftwood. The repeated motions of the rubber or plastic feet of your mouse against the surface of your desk will wear away the finish on most pressed wood, particle board, leather, and even polished hardwood if it’s not maintained. Mouse Pads will protect the finish of your desk, keeping it from wearing out over your usual mousing spot. It’s much cheaper to replace a mouse pad than replace your desktop surface.

This is what one of our desks looks like after a few years of pad-less mouse usage. Don’t make our mistakes.

A high-quality wood desk that’s regularly waxed, or a tempered glass or metal desk, won’t have these problems. But the desk isn’t the only surface you need to think about. Even if your mouse’s tracking function no longer picks up dirt and oils from your skin, your desk does… and it will be transferred to the feet of your mouse as it moves over the surface. A mouse pad won’t completely alleviate this, but it will keep those feet fresh for longer. (Incidentally, if the feet on your mouse itself are worn down to the point that the plastic body is dragging, you can usually buy replacements and stick them on.)

An example of plastic mouse feet in poor condition.

PC Games Are Better With a Good Pad

Even if you prefer the aesthetics of your workplace free of any kind of mouse pad, you might still want to consider one if you use your desktop for frequent gaming. The consistent tracking of a conventional mouse pad is a huge boon to gamers, especially those who play games with fast movement like shooters or MOBAs. And “gaming” branded mouse pads tend to be oversized, allowing for consistent tracking with big, sweeping motions that would make a $10 puppy-printed pad wimper in fear. Some specialty models will cover a whole desktop, including underneath a keyboard and anything else you happen to be using.

There’s a speed element, too. Gaming-specific pads are designed to enable quick movements without skipping or dropping refresh cycles on your mouse’s sensor. There’s a lot of variety to be had here—standard cloth pads in various sizes and thickness, hard plastic pads for a super-fast glide, even a few metal pads for something heavy and reliable. Some gaming mice even come with specialized software that allows the user to set up specific profiles for different surfaces.

There are now many gaming mousepads that come with RGB LEDs. Because if something’s worth doing, it’s worth over-doing.

So, do you need a mouse pad for your desk? Technically, no. But you should probably use one if you’re in the same place for any extended amount of time. Both your desk and your mouse will thank you.

Image Credits: Amazon, Corsair, Microsoft, Wikimedia

Michael Crider has been covering technology on the web since 2011. His interests include folk music, football, science fiction, and salsa verde, in no particular order. He wrote a novel called Good Intentions: A Supervillain Story, and it's available on Amazon. You can follow him on Twitter if you want.