It’s 2020, but in a world filled with wireless technology, many gamers don’t want to cut the cord on their input devices. Vendors are releasing more and more wireless mice with specs worthy of the best gaming mouse, but plenty of players remain committed to the cable. A glance at a recent conversation about wireless mice on the Tom’s Hardware Twitter shows numerous enthusiasts sold on the reputation wired mice have as reliable, lag-free gaming peripherals. But has wireless mouse tech evolved enough to leave those concerns in the past?
How Do Wireless Mice Work?
When shopping wireless gaming mice, you’ll find options that connect via Bluetooth and/or a 2.4 GHz dongle that goes into a PC’s USB port. There is such a thing as a Bluetooth dongle, but for our purposes when we refer to a gaming mouse’s Bluetooth connection it’s the type that doesn’t require a port, instead connecting the mouse’s Bluetooth chip directly to a PC’s Bluetooth chip without using a dongle.
The Bluetooth SIG, comprised of over 36,000 companies, develops Bluetooth standards. Like many gaming mice dongle connections, Bluetooth connections also use the 2.4 GHz band. Bluetooth mice (and other Bluetooth products) break that band into 40 different channels, providing the mouse with multiple paths to connecting to your PC. If one is busy, the mouse can hop onto another one. This is called frequency hopping spread spectrum, with “spread” referring to over many frequencies. It takes about 0.625ms for a mouse with a Bluetooth 4.2 or newer connection to hop between channels at the specifications’ standard hop rate of 1,600 hops per second.
“Once you connect your mouse to your laptop and start using it, [the mouse] communicates on which ones to listen to, so it knows which one it’s going to hop to and it does it very quickly,” Jim Katsandres, director of developer relations at the Bluetooth SIG, told Tom’s Hardware.
“It actually is an adaptive frequency hopping, so if it sees that there's some interference on one of the channels, it'll actually remove that from the hopping scheme, and then go on and hop through the other ones. And so it'll adjust itself.”
The 2.4 GHz technology used in Bluetooth gaming mice is standardized, but the 2.4 GHz dongle radio frequency (RF) tech available varies. While Bluetooth breaks up the 2.4 GHz band into 40 channels for frequency hopping, numerous gaming vendors develop their own schemes for allowing dongle mice to find an open channel. Again, that’s particularly important if there’s interference, such as from other RF devices, like microwaves, appliances with motors generating interference or multi-path signals, or those that bounce off of walls.
Gaming companies design their own hardware and firmware in an effort to make their proprietary dongle connections more reliable than a Bluetooth one. Of course, some have more success than others, which is why wireless gaming mice from some brands may perform better than others.
Mouse Dongle Tech Done Right
Wireless gaming peripherals in general have gotten more reliable over the years, and that’s partly because vendors have focused on developing implementations that are suitable for hardcore gamers. We list the Razer DeathAdder V2 Pro as the best wireless mouse for gaming. It, along with many of Razer’s premium wireless peripherals, uses Razer’s HyperSpeed wireless dongle tech, a combination of bespoke hardware and firmware that Razer claims is “25% faster than any other wireless gaming technology.”
“That hardware is available to anyone, but that by itself isn't enough to give you as stable a connection and as strong a connection,” Ayush Sharma, Razer lead product developer, told Tom’s Hardware.
HyperSpeed’s 2.4-GHz adaptive frequency technology scans available channels every millisecond to find the fastest path to sending info to your computer.
“Essentially, there are a lot of firmware that will have a lot of redundancies and handling mechanisms for all sorts of noisy conditions and things that can make a connection drop off. We have redundancies and workarounds for all of them, so that we make sure that you have the strongest connection,” Sharma explained.
“And obviously, our adaptive frequency technology, which is able to hop between frequencies in much less than 1ms. So even if, for example, you lose one data packet due to interference, the mouse is actually able to send a duplicate within that 1ms.”
Razer tests HyperSpeed mice for performance and connection stability in “multiple scenarios,” starting with anechoic chambers to ensure clean signals and proper functionality.
“Then, we move to denser and denser RF environments at extremely noisy labs and signal generators that make it extremely difficult for mice to operate in those frequencies,” he said. “We basically test all across the region, basically increasing the distance at each step to optimize our hardware … so that we can make sure that we keep the performance while also being able to keep latency [down].”
Logitech’s Lightspeed dongle technology has also proved reliable in gaming mice, such as the Logitech G502 Lightspeed, another one of our most recommended gaming mice (if you can afford it). Lightspeed’s also used with keyboards, including the Logitech G915 TKL that rarely ever lagged during months of regular, daily use during our testing, even when used alongside other wireless mice and the occasional wireless headset. Lightspeed claims a 1ms report rate and low latency, due to next-gen transmitters and receivers.
“From every circuit pathway to every bend in antenna geometry, from hardware to firmware, we simulate and test each protocol and algorithm for maximum performance even in the most arduous and data-saturated gaming environments,” Logitech’s Lightspeed page explains.
Dongle vs Bluetooth Connections
The Asus ROG Chakram connects wirelessly over Bluetooth or a dongle. Credit: Tom’s Hardware
Gaming mice (and the best wireless keyboards for gaming) that offer both Bluetooth and dongle connections often come with instructions that advise you to use the dongle for gaming.
Razer claims a HyperSpeed mouse is less likely to drop its connection than a Bluetooth one, due to dependencies built into the tech’s firmware.
“Bluetooth, especially BLE [Bluetooth Low Energy],has been defined by the Bluetooth SIG, and they don't have these redundancies built into the protocol. So a mouse that has Bluetooth is basically just following the Bluetooth spec one to one, and it's really not meant for gaming applications,” the Razer exec said.
Sharma added that in addition to lacking redundancies, Bluetooth devices are capped at a 133 Hz polling rate, meaning it can only send up to 133 reports to your PC (informing the system of the mouse’s position) every second. Most of the best gaming mice claim a polling rate of 1,000 Hz, and Razer’s currently developing a mouse with an 8,000 Hz polling rate.
“If there’s a lost poll, you’ll see stutters on your screen,” Sharma said.
While both Sharma and Katsandres have reason to be biased, Bluetooth’s Katsandres believes Bluetooth mice are less prone to interference than 2.4 GHz, non-Bluetooth models. He noted that Bluetooth SIG has “all the silicon vendors.” The exec also pointed to members coming together to improve the technology when an issue that’ll affect performance is identified.
And while Bluetooth has a whole team of vendors working on the technology, not every individual company does a good job of developing its own wireless tech, meaning lags and dropouts aren’t out of the question.
Why Isn’t My Wireless Mouse Working?
So both Bluetooth SIG and high-end gaming vendors claim to work hard to ensure reliable connections. So why do some gamers still claim to suffer from connection dropouts or lag?
Katsandres notes that 2.4 GHz devices that aren’t tested properly can bring issues.
“That's why for the Bluetooth SIG, we have a world-class qualification process; we make sure that all logo devices are tested,” Katsandres said. “So we're very good stewards of the 2.4 GHz band, but sometimes products that are not designed well or tested well can cause interference in that area.”
Appliances can also cause wireless interference; although, Katsandres said this issue has generally gotten better. He attributed this to greater emphasis on ensuring devices are good to the spectrum. He noted that Bluetooth is “adapted” to this challenge anyway, but both mice with dongle connections and Bluetooth ones can suffer from this type of interference.
When it comes to Bluetooth, performance can also depend on the version of Bluetooth your mouse is running. Katsandres said it’s important to keep up with the current standard, which is Bluetooth 5.2, for better speedy communication. Bluetooth 5.0 allows for 2 Mbps max data transfer speeds, which is double what Bluetooth 4.2 offers.
According to Katsandres, when a Bluetooth device isn’t working as expected, it's often due to how the technology was implemented, including use of antennas and how the receiver and transmitters are designed.
“It's really in the lower level of the design of the radio networks,” Katsandres said.
Of course, there are also performance differences between versions of Bluetooth. And to reap the performance gains of your gaming mouse’s Bluetooth 5.0 connection, for example, the connected system also has to have Bluetooth 5.0. If your system or mouse isn’t running the fastest version of Bluetooth, that could be your problem. If you need Bluetooth 5.0 but don't have it, you can buy a Bluetooth dongle (this one from Asus is only $20) and connect your mouse that way.
Katsandres also suggested talking to the mouse manufacturer, as you may need a new driver. He doesn’t think moving away from appliances will make a big difference with Bluetooth. But if you’re struggling, you can move and see if it helps “over time.”
But what about multiple wireless devices? Should you get rid of those to make your Bluetooth mouse more reliable? Your PC may be able to connect to eight wireless devices per hardware controller, depending on the Bluetooth version, but that doesn’t necessarily mean you’ll be able to successfully run those eight simultaneously. It depends on the peripherals connected, Katsandres said, pointing to things like drivers, hardware and implementation-specific dependencies.
Ultimately, in the case of an inexplicably funky Bluetooth connection, Katsandres put the blame on how the vendor added Bluetooth to the gaming mouse, not Bluetooth technology itself.
We asked Razer what gamers should do if they are having problems with their HyperSpeed dongle connection. The first recommendation was to move from a USB 3.0 port, which is known to emit 2.4 GHz frequency radiation to USB 2.0. As explained in a 2012 Intel whitepaper [PDF], “the noise from USB 3.0 data spectrum can be high (in the 2.4–2.5 GHz range).”
“This noise can radiate from the USB 3.0 connector on a PC platform, the USB 3.0 connector on the peripheral device or the USB 3.0 cable. If the antenna of a wireless device operating in this band is placed close to any of the above USB 3.0 radiation channels, it can pick up the broadband noise,” the whitepaper says.
“The broadband noise emitted from a USB 3.0 device can affect the SNR and limit the sensitivity of any wireless receiver whose antenna is physically located close to the USB 3.0 device. This may result in a drop in throughput on the wireless link.”
Sharma advised gamers to use an extender to get a further distance from USB 3.0 ports.
Similarly, plugging the USB dongle directly into your PC rather than a USB hub can also help avoid interference.
“If the USB hub is drawing too much current at a certain point in time or, for example, if there’s too much data, the USB hub might reset itself for a fraction of a second and that’ll rest the dongle itself,” Sharma said. “We recommend people have a direct connection to their PC using the extender.”
He also recommended moving your dongle away from any other 2.4 GHz devices, like a router, microwave or anything else that has a very high 2.4GHz emission.
“At the end of a day, if there's a strong microwave oven right next to your desk...there’s no way that a tiny dongle with such low-power emissions will be able to overpower that,” Sharma said.
A metallic table could also be at fault as 2.4 GHz signal can’t penetrate metal surfaces,If you have dongle underneath your metallic table, for example, you can expect there to be connection drops “because it’s just not strong enough to go through the metal,” according to Sharma.
Cutting the Cord
Wireless technology has come a long way. Gaming vendors are getting so confident in developing 2.4 GHz tech that they’re putting their stamps on the dongles, betting their reputation on their own wireless hardware and firmware. These wireless gaming mice have high price tags too, representing some vendors’ most premium offerings. Many tech vendors also have stakes in Bluetooth, which is a collaboration among tens of thousands of companies.
But we’ve also enumerated ways both dongle and Bluetooth connections can be disrupted. You can work to avoid these issues, but there are just certain environments where 2.4 GHz connections won’t work.
If you’re not an elite gamer, chances are you can build a suitable environment for an acceptable wireless gaming mouse connection. But if you’re a pro or someone who just demands a guaranteed connection to their PC at all every millisecond, a good wire still gets the win.