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What is an Optical Pen?

Britt Archer
Britt Archer

Artists are limited by the tools they use, and the only tool available in the past to digital or computer artists was the standard computer mouse. Increasingly, though, digital artists and the public at large are turning their attentions to the optical pen as a solution to replace the cumbersome mouse. Optical pens offer some advantages over standard computer mice, but also have some disadvantages.

An optical pen is a lightweight, pen-shaped pointing device. It can be utilized much like a normal pen, used to write or draw in computer software programs. An optical pen can also be used as a normal mouse, as it has a trackball with which to move objects and buttons with which to click. This unique input device can be used anywhere a normal mouse might be used, and it does not require a special mouse pad.

An optical pen may be used to write or draw in computer software programs.
An optical pen may be used to write or draw in computer software programs.

Optical pens work equally well for individuals who are right or left handed, although special models are available to ease the difference between writing and computing styles in these two groups. It does not take up much storage space. Some optical pen models have the option of being wireless, allowing them to rely on battery power and transmitting a signal from the pointer to an input device that is commonly plugged into an empty USB slot on a computer.

One disadvantage many consumers have complained about is that optical pens are often flimsy, and they do not take much effort to break. Some individuals find that working with optical pens takes a bit of getting used to, and that moving the pen in certain ways causes the input to become skewed. The price of an optical pen is often much more than a standard USB mouse, however the prices of both lower with each subsequent year.

Discussion Comments


I wonder if there is an advantage or disadvantage over a mouse in that the optical pen must be held differently. I know that I end up with a sore wrist and elbow when I use my mouse for too long without a break, just because of the angle I end up putting my arm in to use it. If there was a tool that could alleviate that, I'd be happy to switch to it, but I wouldn't want to make the problem worse.


@clintflint - There are different kinds of optical pens. I think most of them actually work differently than an artist's tablet, in that they don't need a special surface to work on, the same way that a mouse does not. They are basically a mouse that happens to be shaped like a pen.

I'm not sure if this kind of optical mouse pen has the same kind of capabilities as a drawing tablet though, such as being able to respond to differing amounts of pressure. It probably depends on the program and the kind of pen you buy.


One of my friends recently surprised me with a drawing tablet that comes with an optical pen and it is absolutely wonderful. I never realized how limited I felt using a mouse to draw freehand until I got to play with this pen.

I always thought I would need special software, which is one of the reasons I never bought it for myself, but it works with every kind of software I already have (and most of those are free). I'm not a professional artist, but I would definitely recommend one of these if you happen to be one.

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    • An optical pen may be used to write or draw in computer software programs.
      By: Igor Mojzes
      An optical pen may be used to write or draw in computer software programs.