Under the keycaps of your mechanical keyboard lay the components that truly make the keyboard work. These are key switches. And indeed, they are the key to making your typing and gaming experience awesome and satisfying.
In this guide to mechanical keyboard switches, we will explore the different types of switches available for mechanical keyboards and help you choose the right one for your needs.
We will also delve into the inner workings of these switches, discussing factors such as longevity, actuation, spring force, and travel distance.
Understanding the basics of keyboard switches
Mechanical key switches are a type of switch used in keyboards and other input devices that provide linear, tactile, or audible feedback when pressed. Mechanical switches tend to be more durable and responsive.
Unlike membrane switches commonly found in low-cost keyboards, mechanical switches consist of individual switch mechanisms for each key. Each switch is made up of several components, including a spring, a stem, and electrical contacts. When a key is pressed, the stem of the switch moves downward, compressing the spring and making the electrical contacts connect, registering the keystroke.
Mechanical switches come in various types or designs, each offering different characteristics in terms of actuation force, travel distance, tactile feedback, and sound profile. The most popular mechanical switch designs include Cherry MX switches (such as Cherry MX Red, Blue, Brown, and Black), Gateron switches, Kailh switches, and many others. These switches are often differentiated by their actuation force (the amount of force required to register a keystroke) and the presence or absence of tactile feedback and audible click sounds.
Mechanical switches are favored by many users, including gamers, programmers, and typists, for their precise actuation, comfortable typing experience, and customization options. They are often considered a step up from membrane switches in terms of performance and overall typing feel.
Different types of keyboard switches
There are several different switch types available in the market. Each offers unique characteristics in terms of actuation force, tactile feedback, and sound. Here are some of the most common types of mechanical switches:
Linear Switches: Linear switches have a smooth keystroke without any tactile feedback or audible click. They have a consistent force curve throughout the key press. Examples include Cherry MX Red, Gateron Red, and Kailh Black switches.
Tactile Switches: Tactile switches provide a noticeable bump or tactile feedback when the key actuates. This feedback can help typists to feel when a keystroke has been registered. Examples include Cherry MX Brown, Gateron Brown, and Kailh Brown switches.
Clicky Switches: Clicky switches provide tactile feedback and an audible click sound when the key is actuated. The click provides a clear indication of the keystroke being registered. Examples include Cherry MX Blue, Gateron Blue, and Kailh Blue switches.
Silent Switches: Silent switches are designed to reduce or eliminate the sound produced during key actuation. They can be linear or tactile switches but incorporate features to dampen the noise, making them quieter compared to their non-silent counterparts. Examples include Cherry MX Silent Red, Cherry MX Silent Black, and Gateron Silent Brown switches.
Custom Switches: In addition to the mainstream switch options, there are also custom mechanical switches available from various manufacturers. These switches often come with unique characteristics and are favored by keyboard enthusiasts who value customization and niche features.
Note that different switch manufacturers may have their own variations and proprietary designs, resulting in slight differences in feel and performance even within the same switch category.
Pros and cons of mechanical switches
Mechanical switches offer several advantages and some drawbacks compared to other types of switches.
Durable: Mechanical switches are known for their durability and long lifespan. They are designed to withstand millions of keystrokes, making them more reliable and longer-lasting compared to membrane switches.
Tactile Feedback: Many mechanical switches provide tactile feedback when pressed, which means you can feel a physical bump or resistance when pressing a key. This feedback helps with typing accuracy and can be satisfying for users who prefer a more tactile typing experience.
Highly responsive: Mechanical switches are highly responsive and register keystrokes with a light touch. They have a consistent actuation force, allowing for faster and more precise typing or gaming input.
High Degree of Customization: Mechanical switches, along with key caps, offer a wide range of options for customization. You can choose different switch types with varying actuation forces, tactile feedback, and sound profiles to suit your personal preferences and typing style.
Unique Typing Experience: The distinct "clicky" or "clacky" sound produced by some mechanical switches, along with the tactile feedback, can enhance the typing experience and make it more enjoyable for many users.
Expensive: Mechanical keyboards with genuine mechanical switches tend to be more expensive compared to keyboards with membrane switches. The higher cost is primarily due to the more complex construction and premium materials used in mechanical switches.
Noisy: While the audible feedback from mechanical switches can be a desirable feature for some, it can also be a disadvantage in certain environments or situations where noise is a concern. Clicky switches, in particular, can be quite loud.
Steep Learning Curve: Some users may find that it takes time to adjust to the feel and actuation of mechanical switches, especially if they are accustomed to membrane or scissor switches commonly found in low-profile keyboards.
Prone to Dust and Debris: Mechanical switches have small gaps and openings that can potentially accumulate dust and debris over time. Regular cleaning may be required to maintain optimal performance.
Common misconceptions about keyboard switches
There are a few common misconceptions about keyboard switches that are worth addressing. Here are some of them:
Misconception: Mechanical switches are always better than membrane switches. Fact: While mechanical switches are often preferred by enthusiasts for their durability and tactile feedback, the choice between mechanical and membrane switches depends on personal preference and specific use cases. Membrane switches can still provide a satisfactory typing experience for general use and are often more affordable.
Misconception: All mechanical switches feel the same. Fact: There is a wide variety of mechanical keyboard switch types. They can differ in terms of actuation force, tactile feedback, travel distance, and sound. It's important to try out different types of switches to find the one that suits your preferences and typing style.
Misconception: Clicky switches are always the loudest. While clicky switches like Cherry MX Blue are known for their distinct clicking sound, it doesn't mean they are always the loudest. Some non-clicky switches can still produce noticeable sound due to bottoming out or other factors.
Misconception: Higher actuation force means better switch. Fact: Actuation force is a matter of personal preference. Some users prefer lighter switches with lower actuation force for faster typing. Other people prefer heavier switches for more deliberate keystrokes.
Misconception: RGB lighting indicates better switch quality. Fact: RGB lighting is a popular feature in many mechanical keyboards, but it doesn't necessarily indicate the quality of the switch itself. RGB lighting is primarily an aesthetic feature and does not directly impact the performance or feel of the switch.
How do mechanical switches work?
All mechanical switches on the market work by using physical mechanisms to register keystrokes. Here's a general overview of how mechanical switches function:
Housing: The housing is the outer casing of the switch that encloses all the internal components.
Spring: A spring is located inside the switch and provides resistance and the force required to actuate the switch.
Stem: The stem is a slender component that extends from the switch housing and connects to the keycap. When the switch is pressed, the stem moves downward.
Electrical Contacts: Inside the switch, there are electrical contacts that connect or disconnect when the switch is pressed or released, registering the keystroke.
When you press a key on a keyboard with mechanical switches, the stem of the corresponding switch moves downward. This downward movement compresses the spring inside the switch, applying force.
As the stem moves down, it pushes against the spring and eventually makes contact with the electrical contacts inside the switch. When the electrical contacts connect, an electrical circuit is completed, signaling to the keyboard's controller that a specific key has been pressed.
The keyboard's controller then processes this input and sends the corresponding signal to the computer or device, registering the keystroke.
The release of the key works in a similar manner. When you release the key, the spring pushes the stem back up, causing the electrical contacts to disconnect. This break in the electrical circuit signals the controller that the key has been released.
The specific characteristics of a mechanical switch, such as the actuation force, tactile feedback, and sound, are determined by the design and construction of the switch. Different types of mechanical switches have varying attributes, allowing users to choose switches that suit their preferences for typing or gaming.
What is the difference between linear, tactile, and clicky switches?
As mentioned earlier, there are several mechanical switch types. Most fall into linear, tactile, and clicky switches. Let's dig deeper into each of these types:
Linear switches are a type of mechanical switch that provides a smooth keystroke without any tactile feedback or audible click. They are known for their consistent actuation force throughout the key press.
Advantages and disadvantages of linear switches
Linear switches have their own set of advantages and disadvantages.
Advantages of Linear Switches
Smoother Keystrokes: Linear switches are great if you want a smooth and consistent keystroke experience. There is no tactile bump or audible click, resulting in a consistent feel throughout the key press. Many users prefer linear switches due to this consistent and uninterrupted typing or gaming experience.
Faster Typing: Linear switches are often favored by fast typists due to their smooth action. The absence of a tactile bump or audible click allows for quick, uninterrupted keystrokes, enabling faster typing speeds and rapid keystroke execution in gaming scenarios.
Reduced Finger Fatigue: Without tactile bumps, there is less strain on the fingers during prolonged typing sessions. This can contribute to reduced finger fatigue and improved comfort during extended use.
Quieter Operation: Linear switches are generally quieter compared to clicky switches as they lack the audible click mechanism. While there may still be some sound from the keycap bottoming out, it is typically less noisy compared to clicky switches.
Disadvantages of Linear Switches
Lack of Tactile Feedback: Without a tactile bump or feedback mechanism, users may find it harder to discern when a keystroke is registered, which can lead to increased typing errors, especially for those accustomed to tactile feedback.
Less Engaging Typing Experience: Some users find the lack of tactile feedback in linear switches less engaging and less satisfying to type on compared to switches with tactile feedback.
Popular linear switch options
There are several popular linear switches available on the market, each with its own characteristics and variations. Here are some of the well-known linear switches:
Cherry MX Red: Cherry MX Red switches are widely recognized and used in mechanical keyboards. They have a light actuation force of around 45 grams, providing a smooth linear keystroke without tactile feedback. Cherry MX Red switches are popular among gamers for their fast and responsive typing experience.
Gateron Red: Gateron Red switches are often considered alternatives to Cherry MX Red switches. They have similar characteristics with a light actuation force and a smooth linear keystroke. Gateron Red switches are known for their affordability and popularity among keyboard enthusiasts.
Kailh Red: Kailh Red switches are another popular linear option. They feature a light actuation force and a smooth linear feel. Kailh Red switches are often used in gaming keyboards for their responsiveness and rapid keystroke execution.
Gateron Yellow: Gateron Yellow switches are a slightly heavier version of the Gateron Red switches. They offer a smooth linear keystroke with a slightly higher actuation force. Gateron Yellow switches strike a balance between gaming and typing preferences, appealing to users who prefer a slightly heavier linear switch.
Cherry MX Speed Silver: Cherry MX Speed Silver switches are known for their short actuation distance and low actuation force. They provide a light and quick keystroke, making them popular for gaming and fast typing. These switches are designed to reduce the time it takes for a key to register, enhancing responsiveness.
NovelKeys Cream: NovelKeys Cream switches have gained popularity in the mechanical keyboard community for their smooth linear action. They are known for their unique self-lubricating properties, which provide a frictionless keystroke experience.
Tactile switches are a type of mechanical switches that provide tactile feedback when pressed. They have a distinct bump or tactile point during the keypress, providing a physical indication that the keystroke has been registered. Tactile switches are popular among typists who prefer a more pronounced tactile response while typing.
Advantages and Disadvantages of Tactile Switches
Tactile switches offer their own set of advantages and disadvantages.
Advantages of Tactile Switches
Tactile Feedback: One of the primary advantages of tactile switches is the tactile feedback they provide. The distinct bump or tactile point during the keypress gives users a physical indication that the keystroke has been registered. This feedback can improve typing accuracy and provide a satisfying typing experience, especially for touch typists.
Enhanced Typing Experience: Tactile switches offer a more engaging and responsive typing experience compared to linear switches. The tactile bump provides a level of feedback that can help typists find the actuation point without bottoming out the keys, resulting in faster and more precise typing.
Increased Key Control: The tactile feedback in these switches allows users to develop a sense of key control. By feeling the bump, typists can learn to apply the optimal force required to actuate the switch, which can lead to more consistent typing and reduced typing errors.
Versatility: Tactile switches are often considered a good middle ground between linear and clicky switches. They provide the benefits of a tactile response without the audible click, making them suitable for both office environments and gaming scenarios where noise may be a concern.
Disadvantages of Tactile Switches
Reduced Typing Speed: The tactile bump in these switches can slow down typing speeds for some users, particularly those who prefer a smoother linear switch for rapid key actuation. The bump may require users to overcome a slight resistance, which can slightly decrease the overall typing speed.
Limited Silence: While tactile switches are not as loud as clicky switches, they still generate some sound when the key is bottomed out. If noise reduction is a top priority, silent or dampened variants of tactile switches may be preferred.
Learning Curve: Some users may require an adjustment period to become accustomed to the tactile feedback of these switches. It may take time to develop muscle memory and adapt typing techniques to fully benefit from the tactile response.
Popular tactile switch options
Check out these examples of Tactile Switches:
Cherry MX Brown: Cherry MX Brown switches are among the most well-known tactile switches. They have a tactile bump in the middle of the keypress, offering subtle tactile feedback without an audible click. Cherry MX Brown switches are often favored by typists who want a tactile response while maintaining relatively quiet operation.
Gateron Brown: Gateron Brown switches are a popular alternative to Cherry MX Brown switches. They have a similar tactile feel with a moderate actuation force. Gateron Brown switches are known for their smooth keystrokes and are often chosen for a tactile typing experience.
Kailh Brown: Kailh Brown switches also provide a tactile bump during the keypress, though their tactile feedback may vary compared to other tactile switches. They are designed to have a slightly lighter actuation force, making them suitable for users who prefer a lighter tactile switch.
Zealios: Zealios switches, developed by Zeal PC, are highly regarded for their tactile feedback. They come in different variations (such as Zealios V2 and Zealios V2 R2), offering a range of tactile experiences, from light to more pronounced bumps. Zealios switches are popular among keyboard enthusiasts for their smoothness and customizable tactile feel.
Clicky switches are a type of mechanical keyboard switch that provides both tactile feedback and an audible click sound when pressed. These switches are known for their distinct "click" noise, which occurs at the actuation point of the switch. The click sound provides an audible confirmation that the keystroke has been registered. Clicky switches are popular among typists who enjoy the tactile feedback and the satisfying click sound while typing.
At the point of actuation, a part of the switch, often referred to as a click jacket or click bar, creates a physical click sound. This mechanism is responsible for the audible "click" that is distinctive to clicky switches.
Advantages and disadvantages of clicky switches
When considering clicky switches, it's important to evaluate these advantages and disadvantages in the context of personal preferences, working environment, and typing requirements.
Advantages of Clicky Switches
Better Tactile Feedback: Clicky switches offer tactile feedback with a pronounced bump during the keypress. This tactile feedback provides a physical indication to the typist that the keystroke has been registered. The feedback can improve typing accuracy and give a satisfying feel to the keystrokes.
Audible Confirmation: Clicky switches produce an audible click sound at the actuation point. This click sound serves as an audible confirmation that the keystroke has been registered. The click can provide an additional layer of feedback and assurance, especially for touch typists who rely on auditory cues. For some, clicky switches are fun.
Enhanced Typing Experience: The combination of tactile feedback and the audible click creates a more engaging and responsive typing experience. The tactile bump and click sound can help typists find the actuation point and establish a rhythmic typing flow. Some typists find the distinct feedback of clicky switches enjoyable and satisfying.
Better Typing Accuracy: The tactile feedback and audible click of clicky switches can enhance typing accuracy. The tactile bump allows typists to feel when the key is actuated, which can reduce typing errors and improve overall typing speed and precision.
Disadvantages of Clicky Switches
Noisy: The most notable drawback of clicky switches is the noise they produce. The audible click sound can be loud and may be disruptive, especially in quiet environments or shared spaces. The noise factor makes clicky switches less suitable for environments where noise reduction is a priority. Tactile switches are quieter.
Distracting: The click sound can be distracting to some users or those around them. It may take time to adjust to the noise and for others to become accustomed to it. If concentration is a priority or if working in close proximity to others, the click sound may be considered a disadvantage.
Reduced Typing Speed: Some users may find that the click mechanism slows down their typing speed. The pronounced tactile bump and the audible click can require more force and a more deliberate keystroke, which can slightly decrease the overall typing speed.
Popular clicky switch options
Explore some of the most popular clicky switch options available to enhance your typing experience.
Cherry MX Blue: Cherry MX Blue switches are among the most well-known and widely used clicky switches. They have a tactile bump and a distinct audible click sound. Cherry MX Blue switches are appreciated by typists who enjoy the tactile feedback and the satisfying click sound during typing.
Kailh Box White: Kailh Box White switches provide a tactile bump and a pronounced click sound. They are known for their durability and resistance to dust and moisture due to their box design. Kailh Box White switches are popular for their crisp tactile feel and loud click.
Gateron Blue: Gateron Blue switches offer a tactile bump and a satisfying click sound. They are often regarded as an alternative to Cherry MX Blue switches, providing similar characteristics and a pleasant typing experience.
Outemu Blue: Outemu Blue switches also provide a tactile bump and a distinctive click sound. They are known for their affordability and are often found in budget mechanical keyboards.
Choosing the right switch for your needs
Choosing the right switch for your needs involves considering several factors and personal preferences.
Typing Preference: Consider your typing style and preference. Do you prefer a smooth linear switch, a tactile bump, or an audible click? Think about the typing experience you find most comfortable and enjoyable. If possible, try out different switch types firsthand to determine which one feels the best for you.
Intended Use: Determine the primary purpose for which you'll be using the keyboard. Are you primarily typing, gaming, or using it for a combination of both? Different switch characteristics may be more suitable for specific tasks. For example, gamers may feel linear switches are the best due to smooth and rapid actuation. Typists may prefer clicky or tactile switches for enhanced feedback and accuracy.
Actuation Force: Consider the actuation force or the force required to register a keystroke. Lighter switches with lower actuation forces may be preferred for faster typing or gaming, while heavier switches may be favored for a more deliberate keystroke and reduced accidental presses.
Noise Level: Think about the noise factor. If you require a quieter keyboard, consider switches with silent variants or non-clicky switches. Linear switches or tactile switches without an audible click may be more suitable in noise-sensitive environments.
Keyboard Customization: Consider the availability of switch options and customization. Some keyboards offer hot-swappable switches, allowing you to easily change or customize the switches to suit your preference. This can be beneficial if you want the flexibility to experiment with different switch types.
Personal Testing: Whenever possible, try out keyboards with different switch types firsthand. Visit electronics stores or events where you can test keyboards and switches. This hands-on experience can provide valuable insight into the feel and characteristics of various switches and help you make an informed decision.
Research and Reviews: Read reviews and gather information about different switch types, brands, and models. Consider the experiences and recommendations of others who have used specific switches. Online communities and forums dedicated to mechanical keyboards can be excellent resources for gathering information and insights from enthusiasts.
So there you have it, a complete guide to linear, tactile, and clicky switches for mechanical keyboards. Now that you understand the differences between these types of switches, you can make an informed decision when choosing the right switch for your needs.
Whether you're a gamer, blogger, programmer, or just someone looking to upgrade their typing experience, mechanical keyboards offer superior build quality, tactile feedback, and durability. While they may be more expensive, their quality and longevity make them worth the investment.
A designer and outdoor enthusiast, Erickson has a deep passion for human-based solutions tailored to the needs of the modern workplace. He believes that everyone should use ergonomic products to make daily life (and not just work-life) healthier and more comfortable. Erickson regularly writes helpful reviews for ergonomic solutions and brands for a broad range of applications: working, gaming, traveling, sleeping, and more! When not writing, Erickson finds time to trek, hike, or spend the day at the beach.
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