Optical vs Mechanical Keyboard Switches

August 30, 2023

In the dynamic landscape of mechanical keyboard technology, the choice between optical switches and mechanical switches has emerged as a pivotal consideration for users seeking an optimal typing experience. These two distinct types of switches offer a variety of features, each with its own advantages and drawbacks.

This article delves deep into the comparison between optical switches and mechanical switches, shedding light on their unique mechanisms, key features, user preferences, and applications.

By understanding the intricacies of these two switch types, readers can make informed decisions tailored to their individual needs and preferences, ensuring that their keyboard journey aligns seamlessly with their technological aspirations.

Understanding the Basics of Optical and Mechanical Switches

You've probably wondered about the differences between optical and mechanical switches. Let's delve into how both types work, their respective advantages and potential drawbacks, and which one might be better suited for your gaming needs.

We'll also explore whether they can be used interchangeably on a keyboard, so you can make an informed decision on your next purchase.

What are Mechanical Keyboard Switches?

Mechanical keyboard switches are a type of switch commonly used in various input devices, particularly in keyboards. They are designed to provide tactile feedback and actuate through a physical mechanism involving moving parts. Unlike other types of switches, such as membrane or rubber dome switches, which use a pressure-sensitive pad to register key presses, mechanical switches employ individual mechanical components for each key.

Mechanical Switches: Components and Operation

So how do mechanical switches work? Here's how mechanical switches work and some of their key characteristics:

  1. Keycap: The visible part of the key that users press.
  2. Actuation Mechanism: Below the keycap, there is a stem that moves up and down.
  3. Spring: A spring underneath the stem provides resistance and determines the actuation force required to press the key.
  4. Contacts: When the stem is pressed down, it pushes metal contacts together, completing the electrical circuit and registering a key press.
  5. Tactile Bump: Many mechanical switches have a tactile bump that users can feel when the key actuates. This provides tactile feedback, indicating that the key press has been registered.
  6. Audible Click: Some mechanical switches also produce an audible click sound when the key is actuated. This can enhance the typing experience and provide additional sensory feedback.

What are Optical Keyboard Switches?

Unlike mechanical switches, optical switches are a type of switch that utilizes light-based actuation to register key presses. They are an alternative to traditional mechanical switches and are commonly used in keyboards and other input devices. Optical switches differ from mechanical switches in how they detect and transmit keystrokes, offering unique advantages and characteristics.

Optical Switches: Components and Operation

Optical switches work similarly to mechanical switches. But rather than mechanical parts, they use light to register key presses. Here's how optical switches work and some of their key features:

  1. Keycap: The visible part of the key that users press.
  2. Infrared (IR) Light Source: Each key has an infrared light emitter and a sensor located beneath it.
  3. Actuation Mechanism: When the keycap is pressed, it interrupts the infrared light beam between the emitter and the sensor.
  4. Light Detection: The sensor detects the interruption of the light beam, which signals the key press.
  5. Actuation Signal: The interruption of the light beam generates an electronic signal that registers the key press.

Can optical switches and mechanical switches be used interchangeably on a keyboard?

In most cases, optical switches and mechanical switches are not directly interchangeable on the same keyboard without some modifications or compatibility considerations. This is because they have different underlying mechanisms for actuation and require specific components to function properly. 

Physical Design and Components: Optical switches and mechanical switches have distinct designs and components. Optical switches rely on light-based actuation, which requires infrared (IR) light sources and sensors beneath each key. Mechanical switches, on the other hand, use physical components such as springs, contacts, and stems. The physical structure of the switches and the necessary circuitry to support their respective actuation methods are key differences.

Circuitry and Electronics: Keyboards that use optical switches require specific electronics to process the signals generated by the light-based actuation. These electronics need to be compatible with the characteristics of optical switches. Similarly, keyboards designed for mechanical switches are equipped with the necessary circuits to accommodate their physical actuation mechanism.

Keycap Compatibility: The shape and design of the keycaps for optical switches and mechanical switches can also vary. The stems on which the keycaps are mounted may have different dimensions or configurations, making it challenging to directly interchange keycaps between the two switch types.

Mounting and Housing: The housing that holds the switches in place within the keyboard may also differ between optical and mechanical switches. This can impact how the switches fit into the keyboard's chassis or PCB (Printed Circuit Board).

Compatibility Considerations: If a keyboard is designed to support one type of switch, it's unlikely to be compatible with the other type without modifications. Some keyboard manufacturers do offer models that are specifically designed to be switch-interchangeable, but even in these cases, you might still need to use specific switch modules designed by the manufacturer.

Key Features of Optical and Mechanical Switches

Both mechanical and optical switches come with distinct key features that set them apart in the world of input devices. Each offers unique features and characteristics based on factors such as tactile feedback, actuation mechanisms, and durability.

Let's discover some of the features of optical and mechanical keyboard switches.

Features of Mechanical Switches

Mechanical switches bring a classic charm to keyboard design with their tactile feedback and customizable actuation forces. These features make them a favored choice among enthusiasts and professionals seeking a versatile typing experience.

  1. Tactile Feedback: One of the defining features of mechanical switches is their tactile feedback. Each key press provides a physical sensation, allowing users to feel when a key press has been registered. This can lead to more accurate typing and enhanced user satisfaction.
  2. Actuation Mechanism: Mechanical switches use individual mechanical switches for each key, which consist of components like springs, stems, and contacts. When a key is pressed, these components interact to complete an electrical circuit and register the keystroke.
  3. Customizability: Mechanical switches come in various switch types, such as linear, tactile, and clicky. Users can choose switches based on their preferred typing experience, actuation force, and noise level. This level of customization caters to individual preferences.
  4. Durability and Longevity: Mechanical switches are known for their durability. They are designed to withstand millions of keystrokes, making them suitable for heavy typists and gamers. This longevity is attributed to the absence of the rubber domes found in membrane keyboards.
  5. Audible Feedback (Clicky Switches): Some mechanical switches, known as clicky switches, produce an audible click sound when the key actuates. This auditory feedback can enhance the typing experience and help users confirm that a key press has been registered.
  6. N-Key Rollover and Anti-Ghosting: Many mechanical keyboards support n-key rollover, which means that multiple keys can be pressed simultaneously and all will register accurately. This is crucial for gamers and users who require precise input.
  7. Keycap Customization: Mechanical switches are designed with removable keycaps in mind, allowing users to swap out keycaps for different colors, shapes, or materials. This level of customization is popular among keyboard enthusiasts.
  8. Variety of Switch Brands: Different brands offer their own versions of mechanical switches, each with unique characteristics. Cherry MX, Razer, and Gateron are examples of well-known switch manufacturers, each offering a range of switches with varying actuation profiles.
  9. Typing Experience: The tactile feedback, audible clicks (if present), and consistent actuation force contribute to a satisfying typing experience, making mechanical keyboards favored by writers, programmers, and professionals who spend a lot of time typing.
  10. Applications: Mechanical switches are widely used in various settings, including office environments, programming, content creation, and gaming. They are especially favored by those who prioritize typing comfort and accuracy.

Features of Optical Switches

Optical switches bring a modern twist to keyboard technology with their light-based actuation and rapid response times. These features help define a distinctive advantage over mechanical. This makes them an appealing choice for users seeking high-speed performance and durability.

  1. Light-Based Actuation: Optical switches utilize light signals to detect key presses, leading to exceptionally fast response times due to the absence of physical contact within the switch mechanism.
  2. Swift Response Times: The light-based actuation of optical switches translates to minimal delay between pressing a key and the corresponding input registering, making them ideal for gaming and situations requiring rapid reactions.
  3. Durability and Longevity: Optical switches lack physical components that wear down over time, contributing to their longevity and ability to withstand a high number of key presses, making them durable for prolonged usage.
  4. Low Debounce Rate: Optical switches inherently possess low debounce rates, reducing the likelihood of unintended double key presses that may occur with some mechanical switches.
  5. Water and Dust Resistance: The absence of physical contact makes optical switches more resistant to the ingress of water, dust, and debris, enhancing their reliability in various environments.
  6. Consistent Actuation: Optical switches often offer consistent actuation force and actuation points across all keys, ensuring uniform typing feedback and performance.
  7. Silent Operation: Many optical switches feature silent actuation, minimizing the audible noise produced during key presses, which can be particularly useful in quiet environments.
  8. Customization: As the technology matures, optical switches are becoming available in different variations, allowing users to choose switches with preferred actuation characteristics and noise profiles.
  9. Gaming Advantage: The combination of rapid response times and durability makes optical switches favored among gamers seeking a competitive edge and precise control during gaming sessions.
  10. Reduced Wear and Tear: The lack of physical contact in optical switches contributes to reduced wear and tear over time, potentially extending the overall lifespan of the keyboard.
  11. Enhanced Performance in High-Demand Scenarios: Optical switches excel in scenarios requiring consistent performance over extended periods, such as data centers, control rooms, and professional environments.

Users of Mechanical Switches and Optical Switches

Understanding the perspectives and preferences of users who gravitate toward mechanical switches and optical switches sheds light on the factors influencing their choices in keyboard technology.

Who Uses Mechanical Switches?

Mechanical switches are most likely to be used by individuals who value tactile feedback, customizable typing experiences, and versatile switch options. This includes writers, programmers, gamers, professionals who spend extensive time typing, and keyboard enthusiasts seeking a personalized and satisfying typing experience.

Who Uses Optical Switches? 

Optical switches are often preferred by individuals who prioritize fast response times, durability, and low latency, making them particularly popular among gamers, competitive typists, and professionals in fast-paced environments where quick and precise input is crucial.

Common Types of Mechanical Switches

There are several common types of mechanical switches, each offering distinct characteristics in terms of tactile feedback, actuation force, and noise. Here are some well-known types:

1. Cherry MX Blue: Known for its tactile bump and audible click sound upon actuation, making it popular among typists who enjoy a tactile and auditory typing experience.

Cherry MX Blue

Elevate your typing experience with the engaging Cherry MX Blue Keyswitches - Tactile and Clicky, perfect for a satisfying keystroke.

2. Cherry MX Brown: Offers a tactile bump without the audible click, providing a quieter typing experience while retaining tactile feedback. Suited for those who want tactile feedback without the noise.

Cherry MX Brown

Upgrade your keyboard with the smooth and versatile Cherry MX Brown switches - a 10-pack for effortless DIY replacement.

3. Cherry MX Red: A linear switch without tactile feedback, making it smooth and quiet to type on. It's often favored by gamers due to its fast actuation and lack of bump.

Cherry MX Red

Cherry MX Red Key Switches (Model: MX1A-L1NN) - Tactile perfection, Made in Germany.

4. Cherry MX Black: Similar to Cherry MX Red, but with a higher actuation force, offering a heavier keystroke and suited for typists who prefer more resistance.

Cherry MX Black

Elevate your keyboard experience with 10 Cherry MX Black Switches for seamless DIY replacement.

5. Cherry MX Green: Similar to Cherry MX Blue, this switch has a tactile bump and audible click, providing a typing experience reminiscent of traditional typewriters.

Cherry MX Green

Unleash your typing with a pack of 10 Cherry MX Green Keyswitches, delivering satisfying tactility and clicks for an enhanced keyboard feel.

6. Cherry MX Clear: A heavier version of Cherry MX Brown, offering a tactile bump and higher actuation force, suited for users who prefer more resistance.

Cherry MX Clear

Upgrade your keyboard experience with 10 Cherry MX Brown switches for seamless DIY replacement, adding tactile feedback and responsiveness to your typing.

7. Cherry MX Silent Red and Silent Black: Variations of Cherry MX Red and Black switches, respectively, with dampening mechanisms to reduce noise during key presses.

Cherry MX Silent Red and Silent Black

Elevate your typing with Cherry MX Silent Black Key Switches (Model: MX3A-11NN) for a smooth, German-engineered, and quiet keystroke experience.

8. Gateron Switches: Gateron produces switches similar to Cherry MX switches but often with smoother keystrokes and competitive pricing.

Gateron Switches

Glorious PC Gaming Race Gateron Red switches (120 pieces): Quality for gamers and enthusiasts.

9. Kailh Switches: Kailh offers a wide variety of switches, including options with unique tactile feedback, actuation profiles, and colors.

Kailh Switches

Kailh Box switches: Stable, satisfying, and versatile with 3 Pins plate-mounted design, SMD LED compatibility, and hotswap compatibility.

10. Razer Switches: Designed by Razer, these switches offer customizable actuation points and tactile feedback, catering to both gaming and typing needs.

11. Topre Switches: Unlike traditional mechanical switches, Topre switches use a combination of mechanical and rubber dome technology, offering a unique tactile experience.

12. Buckling Spring Switches: Popularized by IBM Model M keyboards, these switches use a buckling spring mechanism for distinct tactile and audible feedback.

Common Types of Optical Switches

Several optical switch manufacturers offer a variety of optical switches, each with distinct characteristics. Here are some common types of optical switches:

1. Razer Optical Switches: Razer produces a range of optical switches including Razer Green (tactile and clicky), Razer Yellow (linear and silent), and Razer Orange (tactile and silent), providing options for different preferences.

2. SteelSeries OmniPoint Switches: SteelSeries offers OmniPoint switches with adjustable actuation points, allowing users to customize the point at which a key press registers.

3. Gateron Optical Switches: Similar to their mechanical counterparts, Gateron offers optical switches with different actuation profiles, such as Gateron Blue, Red, Brown, and more.

Gateron Optical Switches

Gateron ks-15 Optical Switches: Standard profile, plate-mounted design, and includes a switch puller for easy customization.

4. Kailh Choc Optical Switches: Kailh Choc switches are low-profile optical switches suitable for slim keyboards and laptops, available in various types including linear, clicky, and tactile.

5. Bloody Light Strike Optical Switches: Known for their extremely fast actuation, Bloody Light Strike switches are designed for gaming and are available in various types including linear, tactile, and clicky.

6. Topre Realforce RGB: Combining optical technology with electrostatic capacitive key switches, the Topre Realforce RGB offers a unique blend of tactile feedback and accuracy.

7. Keychron Optical Switches: Keychron produces optical switches designed for their wireless mechanical keyboards, offering a range of options including red, blue, and brown variants.

Keychron Optical Switches

Elevate your typing experience with the Keychron Low-Profile Optical Red Switch Set - 87 Pcs for a smoother and quieter performance.

8. Wooting Analog Optical Switches: These switches offer variable actuation points and pressure sensitivity, allowing for analog input similar to a game controller.

9. Optical Flaretech Switches: Flaretech switches use infrared light for actuation, offering rapid response times and durability.

10. HyperX Red Switches: HyperX offers Red optical switches with linear actuation and fast response times, suitable for gaming and typing.

A Comparison: Optical Vs Mechanical Switches

You're probably wondering about the performance differences between optical and mechanical switches. Should you choose mechanical or optical switches? Let's discuss the pros and cons of these two types of switches.

Pros and Cons of Mechanical Switches

Mechanical switches come with various advantages and drawbacks. Here are the pros and cons of mechanical switches:

Pros of Mechanical Switches

  1. Tactile Feedback: Mechanical switches offer tactile feedback, allowing users to feel when a key press registers. This can enhance typing accuracy and provide a satisfying typing experience.
  2. Customizability: Mechanical keyboards come in a variety of switch types, including linear, tactile, and clicky switches, each catering to different preferences. Users can choose switches based on their desired feel and actuation force.
  3. Durability: Mechanical switches are designed to withstand millions of keystrokes, making them more durable and longer-lasting compared to membrane switches.
  4. Typing Comfort: The tactile feedback and customizable actuation force can lead to a comfortable and ergonomic typing experience, reducing strain on the fingers.
  5. N-Key Rollover and Anti-Ghosting: Many mechanical keyboards offer n-key rollover, allowing multiple simultaneous key presses without missed inputs. Anti-ghosting prevents unwanted key combinations.
  6. Auditory Feedback (Clicky Switches): Clicky mechanical switches provide an audible click sound during key presses, which can be satisfying and help confirm key registration.
  7. Keycap Customization: Mechanical keyboards often have standardized keycap sizes, allowing users to customize their keyboards with various keycap sets for aesthetic or functional reasons.

Cons of Mechanical Switches

  1. Noise (Clicky Switches): Clicky mechanical switches can produce loud and disruptive noise, which may be distracting in quiet environments or shared spaces.
  2. Weight and Size: Mechanical keyboards can be heavier and bulkier due to the mechanical switch mechanism, which might not be ideal for those who prefer portability.
  3. Higher Cost: Mechanical keyboards tend to be more expensive than membrane or rubber dome keyboards due to the complexity of the switch design and the premium materials used.
  4. Debris Accumulation: The open design of mechanical switches can lead to debris, dust, or liquids getting lodged inside, potentially affecting their performance over time.
  5. Variability in Feel: While customizability is a pro, the wide range of switch options can also be overwhelming for some users, requiring trial and error to find the preferred switch type.
  6. Limited Silence Options: While there are quiet switches available, many mechanical switches, especially the tactile and clicky ones, can still produce some noise during typing.

Mechanical switches offer a tactile and customizable typing experience, catering to a range of preferences. However, the noise level, cost, and potential for debris accumulation might be drawbacks that can affect work, typing, and gaming experiences for some users.

Pros and Cons of Optical Switches

Optical switches come with their own set of advantages and disadvantages, making them an appealing choice for some users while potentially posing challenges for others.

Pros of Optical Switches:

  1. Fast Response Times: Optical switches are faster due to their light-based actuation. This makes them ideal for gaming and scenarios requiring quick reactions.
  2. Durability: Optical switches are usually often more durable than mechanical switches since they lack moving parts and physical contacts that wear out over time.
  3. Consistency: Optical switches tend to provide more consistent actuation force and actuation points across all keys, leading to a uniform typing experience.
  4. Reduced Wear and Tear: Without physical contact, optical switches experience less wear and tear, potentially leading to more reliable long-term performance.
  5. Low Debounce Rate: Optical switches inherently possess low debounce rates, reducing the occurrence of unintended double key presses.
  6. Quiet Typing: Optical switches feel smoother and quieter than some mechanical switches, especially clicky ones. This makes them suitable for quiet environments.
  7. Water and Dust Resistance: The absence of moving parts makes optical switches more resistant to water, dust, and debris.
  8. Gaming Advantage: The combination of fast response times and durability makes optical switches favored among gamers seeking precise and quick input.

Cons of Optical Switches

  1. Limited Selection: While the variety of optical switches is growing, the range of available options may not be as extensive as that of mechanical switches, limiting customization.
  2. Less Tactile Feedback: Some optical switches lack the tactile bump that many mechanical switches offer, which may not be preferred by users who value tactile feedback.
  3. Lack of Auditory Feedback: Optical switches don't produce the audible click sound that clicky mechanical switches offer, potentially reducing the sensory typing experience.
  4. New Technology: Optical switches are still relatively new compared to mechanical switches, and some users might be more familiar and comfortable with the latter.
  5. Potential Learning Curve: Switching from mechanical to optical switches might require an adjustment period for users accustomed to the tactile and auditory cues of mechanical switches.
  6. Higher Cost: Similar to mechanical switches, optical switches can be more expensive than membrane switches due to their design and technology.

Optical switches offer speed, durability, and quiet operation, making them particularly attractive for gamers and users seeking fast and reliable input. However, the lack of tactile and auditory feedback might be a drawback for those who enjoy the sensory experience of traditional mechanical switches. 

Regular Key Maintenance 

Whether you're using mechanical or optical switches, their continued optimized performance depends on how you take care of them.

Tips for Maintaining Mechanical Key Switches

Maintaining mechanical switches can help ensure their longevity, consistent performance, and overall typing experience. Here are some tips to help you maintain mechanical switches effectively:

  1. Keep your keyboard clean.
    • Regularly clean your keyboard to prevent dust, debris, and dirt from accumulating between the keycaps and switches. Use a can of compressed air or a soft brush to gently remove particles.
  2. Avoid eating and drinking near your keyboard.
    • Food crumbs and liquid spills can damage switches and affect their performance. To minimize the risk, avoid eating and drinking while using your keyboard.
  3. Use a keyboard cover.
    • If you're concerned about debris getting inside your keyboard, consider using a keyboard cover to protect it from dust, spills, and other potential contaminants.
  4. Perform occasional keycap removal.
    • Periodically remove the keycaps to access the switches beneath. This allows you to easily clean more thoroughly and prevent buildup that can affect keypresses.
  5. Use a keycap and key switch puller.
    • When removing keycaps or key switches, use pullers to avoid damaging the switches or keycaps. Gently wiggle the puller to release the keycap or from the stem.
  6. Inspect for debris
    • While the keycaps are off, visually inspect the switches for any debris or foreign particles that might be affecting the switches' performance.
  7. Avoid excessive force.
    • Press keys with a reasonable amount of force. Excessive force can lead to unnecessary wear on the switches and may affect their longevity.
  8. Regularly test all keys.
    • Periodically test all keys to ensure they register correctly. This can help you identify any switches that might be developing issues.
  9. Apply lubrication periodically.
    • Some keyboard enthusiasts apply a small amount of switch-specific lubricant to the moving parts of the switches. This can enhance the smoothness of the keystrokes, but it's an advanced technique that requires caution and knowledge.
  10. Store your keyboard properly.
    • If you're not using your keyboard for an extended period, consider storing it in a cool and dry environment to prevent exposure to humidity and extreme temperatures.
  11. Avoid excessive impact.
    • Avoid hitting or dropping your keyboard as impacts can damage the switches and other components.

Mechanical switches remain reliable and functioning for a long time through regular maintenance, coupled with careful usage.

Tips for Maintaining Optical Key Switches

Maintaining optical switches is important to ensure their optimal performance and longevity. Here are some tips to help you maintain optical switches effectively. 

  1. Follow the tips above.
    • Most of the tips mentioned in maintaining mechanical switches are applicable to keeping optical switches in excellent condition. Thus, these similar tips won't be repeated here.
  2. Keep your working or gaming area dry.
    • Optical switches are sensitive to moisture. Avoid using the keyboard in humid environments or exposing it to liquid spills.
  3. Check for debris.
    • Occasionally inspect the optical switches for any debris or foreign particles that might be affecting their performance.
  4. Avoid direct sunlight.
    • Prolonged exposure to direct sunlight can lead to discoloration and potentially damage the switches and other components.
  5. Update your firmware.
    • If your keyboard has software support, check for firmware updates from the manufacturer. These updates may include improvements to switch performance and functionality.
  6. Avoid disassembling your keyboard.
    • Disassembling optical switches is complex and should be done by experienced individuals. Avoid opening switches unless you have the necessary expertise to avoid damaging them.

While optical switches generally require less maintenance than mechanical switches due to their lack of mechanical parts, regular care can help ensure their continued reliability and performance over time.

Conclusion

The choice between optical switches vs mechanical switches boils down to a careful consideration of individual preferences and specific use cases. Which is the better option? Both options offer distinct advantages that cater to different needs, and understanding their features can guide users toward the optimal choice.

Mechanical switches, with their tactile feedback, customizable actuation forces, and established legacy, provide a classic and versatile typing experience. They are well-suited for writers, programmers, and enthusiasts seeking a balance between feedback and customization.

Optical switches introduce a modern and innovative approach to key actuation with their light-based mechanism, boasting rapid response times, enhanced durability, and reduced wear and tear. This technology appeals to gamers, professionals in demanding environments, and those who prioritize speed and reliability.

As technology continues to evolve, both optical and mechanical switches pave the way for innovative keyboard experiences that inspire productivity, gaming prowess, and creative expression.

Chris Greiner, a Mechanical Keyboard specialist, boasts a solid educational background with dual bachelor's degrees in Computer Science and Business Management from Lewis University. His additional certification in Mechanical Keyboard Design showcases his dedication to staying on the forefront of keyboard technology. Chris primarily writes for keyboard enthusiasts and has been featured on platforms like Jestik, solidifying his reputation as a thought leader in the mechanical keyboard community.
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