Mouse pads used to be the gray, necessary evil atop every PC owner’s desk. These days, gamers customize their setups from their CPU to the case size to the color of their keyboard’s cable. While mouse pads are much more customizable and come in different styles and designs, there are still only two main kinds of mouse pads: hard and soft.
Physical differences in hard and soft mouse pads are straightforward. A soft mouse pad can range from as small an 8-inch square to as large as the entire surface of your desk. Hard mouse pads are generally considered medium to large and usually take the shape of a rectangle. Soft mouse pads are covered in fabric supported by foam or rubber padding. Hard mouse pads are completely flat and can be made from plastic or metal. While soft pads are cushioned and can become warm from the user’s body heat, hard pads offer no cushioning but do not tend to heat up with body heat. Because of their flat surface, hard mouse pads are also easier to clean than soft mouse pads.
Despite the physical differences being somewhat obvious, there are less obvious differences that factor into choosing between the two options. It all comes down to your personal preferences, like whether you prefer something easier to clean, better ergonomics, what kind of mouse you’re using, and more.
How mouse pads affect mouse performance
Once upon a time, people only used soft mouse pads. Computer mice during the dawn of their creation contained a roller-ball to detect movement, and that rubber or metal ball needed a soft, cushioned mouse pad to function correctly. The roller-ball sat inside the mouse over an opening in the bottom. As a person dragged the mouse over the mouse pad, the ball would roll across the surface, sending that information to the computer. Without a soft mouse pad to cause enough friction to roll the ball, the mouse was pretty ineffective. It could work without a mouse pad, but it would be imprecise and possibly catch on crumbs or lint.
Now, we have optical and laser computer mice. Optical and laser mice have become more popular than the roller-ball because of their precision, speed, and accuracy.
Optical mice, like the name suggests, capture images received by a sensor. Information is sent to a digital signal processor (DSP) that analyzes the data. Because the mouse figuratively has eyes to track movement and doesn’t need a soft, padded surface. Laser mice are also optical, but they use a red laser beam to detect the images.
How mouse pads affect gameplay
Soft mouse pads offer more friction, which can lower speed but improve handling. Say you are playing, and you need to stop mouse movement at an exact moment. If you can stop on a dime in-game without any overcorrection, then you might not need that extra resistance provided by a soft pad. But a soft mouse pad can offer just enough push back so that your microscopic, involuntary movements are not picked up. For example, cloth mouse pads like the SteelSeries QCK Heavy are popular among CS:GO pros and other esports athletes who require more control.
Hard mouse pads eliminate extra friction, which can greatly increase speed. Without any material catching on the bottom of the mouse, no friction will hold the mouse back from movement. However, because of the lack of friction, stopping suddenly requires skill and control. If you know you can maintain precise handling without the help of friction, hard mouse pads could make a noticeable difference in your gameplay by making your mouse movement faster.
What all of this comes down to is preference. It may not be a satisfying answer, but you are the best person to decide which kind of mouse pad is best for you. If you want an extra-large or extra small mouse pad, if you want more resistance and friction in your gameplay to help you stop on a dime, if you like your wrist to be warmly cushioned while playing, then you probably will do better with a soft mouse pad. If you want something that allows you to free your speed and skillful precision, if you want something easy to clean regularly, then you probably will do better with a hard mouse pad.
Last of all, if you are still using a roller-ball mouse on the off chance, stick with the soft mouse pad.