How to Choose Mechanical Switches for Keyboards
In the world of mechanical keyboards, the typing experience reigns supreme. This encompasses both the tactile sensation under your fingers and the auditory feedback produced by the keys. The type of switches a keyboard uses greatly influences these factors, with numerous switch varieties on the market.
For newcomers, it can be a daunting task to find the perfect switch, but ultimately, it’s all about personal taste. From the satisfying “click” of a clicky switch to the bubble wrap-like sensation of a tactile switch, or even the whisper-quiet press of a linear switch, the choice is yours.
Tracing the origins of mechanical switches, they evolved from the buckling spring mechanism found in the iconic IBM Model M keyboards of the 1980s and 1990s. Each switch consists of a plastic housing, a keycap-holding stem, and a crucial spring that imparts a specific feel to the key.
Pressing a key activates a physical switch, which then signals the keyboard to register a particular keypress. Thanks to the spring, the key returns to its resting position.
Though there’s an array of switches to explore, the mechanics are rather simple. Key factors such as pre-travel, total travel distance, operating force, and actuation force are all determined by the switch type.
Keyswitches play a crucial role in the mechanical keyboard experience. Familiarizing yourself with the available options will help you make the most of your keyboard.
What are Mechanical Keyswitches?
Unlike the soft rubber membrane found in most keyboards, each key on a mechanical keyboard houses an actual physical switch beneath it. Typing on these mechanical switches offers a distinct experience compared to regular ones.
The keys possess greater travel and provide a more tactile sensation. You don’t need to press the keys all the way down for them to register, making typing easier on the fingers. Additionally, mechanical keyboards produce their own unique sound, giving them a characteristic keyboard feel.
There’s a whole bunch of switch types out there on today’s keyboards, but the coolest ones are on gaming keyboards and fancy productivity models. These bad boys, called “mechanical switches,” give you awesome sounds, finger feels, or smooth operation – or even a mix of all three.
Every key on a mechanical keyboard has its own spring and switch thingy. They’re super springy and have a different feel compared to those cheap membrane keyboards that come with most budget desktop towers.
Parts of a Key Switch
The basic structure of a mechanical switch is pretty much the same for all mechanical keyboards. A switch has these parts:
- Keycap: That’s the plastic top of the key with the label (letter, number, or symbol) on it.
- Stem: The keycap sits on a vertical post, or stem, which can have slightly different designs depending on the switch type.
- Switch housing: This is the outer case that keeps all the parts of a single switch together.
- Metal contact leaves: These bad boys register every keystroke.
- Spring: The coil spring creates resistance when you press down on a mechanical key and pushes the switch back to its chillin’ position. The amount of resistance can vary, as we’ll see. The springs in today’s mechanical keyboards compress straight down, not like those bendy ones in old-school buckling designs.
- Slider: The slider pushes against the spring and breaks the connection between the metal contact leaves.
Key-switch and keyboard peeps (and their marketing squads) use their own lingo to talk about features and capabilities. Some terms you might come across include:
- Actuation Point: Measured from the top of the keycap, the actuation point is how far you gotta press the key for the switch to register an input. A smaller actuation-point measurement means the key registers a press with less downward motion, so in theory, you can react faster.
- Travel: This is the max distance a switch can go down, and it’s more than the actuation point.
- Debounce Time: Debouncing is like a signal-processing trick that makes sure only one signal is registered when you press a key.
- Reset Point: How far the key needs to bounce back up for the switch to be ready for another potential press.
- Hysteresis: Nope, not a scary keyboard sickness; hysteresis just means the actuation point and reset point aren’t the same.
What Do the Different Color Switches Mean?
Key makers use colors to tell different types of switches apart. For example, Cherry MX Red is a switch by Cherry with a red stem.
Cherry Silent MX Red has a red stem too but doesn’t click, while Cherry MX Speed Silver is super fast and has a silver stem. Other manufacturers just use colors, like Kailh Gold.
Switch color meanings can vary between brands, but some common definitions are:
- Blue: These are usually clicky switches. They make a loud click sound, so they’re awesome for typing but might not be cool in an office.
- Red and Yellow: These are usually linear switches. They give you a smooth press with no click or a soft clicking sound. They’re not completely silent, but there are quiet options.
- Brown: These are usually tactile switches. They give you a physical feel when you hit the actuation point. They’re generally not as noisy as true clicky switches.
- Silver: These are usually linear switches built for speed. They’re great for gamers ’cause it takes less time for each button press to register.
- Green: These are usually clicky and tactile. The actuation force can vary between manufacturers.
- Black: These are usually linear switches. They need a bit more force to activate compared to average switches.
While those are some popular switch colors a lot of companies use, there can be cases where the same color means different things from different manufacturers.
When picking a mechanical switch type, make sure to check with the manufacturer to see what kind of switch it is and how much force it takes to activate, so you get the right one.
Mechanical Switches with Their Specifications
|Cherry MX Brown
|Cherry MX Brown switches are great for office use cuz they’re both tactile and quiet. Perfect for devs, writers, and all you peeps who spend hours at the computer.
|Cherry MX Blue
|MX Blues are dope for peeps working from home or anyone with teammates who dig old-school mechanical keyboards.
|Cherry MX Clear
|MX Clears are like Browns but with a bit more resistance, so if you’re into that extra tactile feedback, these are for you.
|Cherry MX Red
|Gamers love these switches cuz they’re light and don’t have that tactile bump. They’re great for fast keypresses.
|Cherry MX Silent Red
|This super quiet keyswitch is as close as you can get to laptop typing. Perfect for conference calls and working near your coworkers. So quiet, peeps might not even know it’s a mechanical keyboard!
|Cherry MX Black
|Imagine Cherry MX Reds, but a bit heavier. They’re linear with no tactile or audible feedback.
|Cherry MX Speed Silver
|These are the smoothest Cherry MX switches around. Like Reds, but lighter and more responsive, they’re springy enough for that sweet mechanical feel and light enough for hours of typing.
|Compared to Cherry MX Browns, these have a lower and more chill sound, and the return action is less noticeable.
|Kailh Thick Gold
|These switches click once when you press ’em down and again when you release ’em. They’ve got a high-pitched, sharp click that’s light, accurate, and totally one-of-a-kind. Super addictive, for real!
|The click on these babies is on point and accurate, while the actuation is smooth as butter.
|These switches are super smooth and light enough to keep your fingers from getting tired. They’re also pretty quiet, which makes ’em perfect for typing softly in the office.
|These are kinda like Kailh Silvers, but with a tactile feel. You could say they’re like “Brown-lite.”
|Kailh Box Brown
|These switches are solid, right in between a loud clicky one and a smooth linear one. If you press ’em slowly, you’ll feel an almost buckling sensation when you hit the tactile point.
|Kailh Box Red
|These switches are so polite! Typing on ’em is a chill, easy-going experience. The linear action is gentle on your fingers, and the sound is a bit muffled. Like other Kailh switches, they’re super smooth and fluid.
|Kailh Box White
|A bit lower pitched than Kailh Gold, these switches are clicky to the point of being crunchy. The actuation is a tad lighter, and the box design seems to make the click a bit more resonant.
|Kailh Box Black
|Oh, the springy smoothness! You might think Black switches are a bit firm ’cause of the high actuation force, but the silky smooth action of the Box Black makes ’em feel lighter. They still push back, but they don’t wear you out.
When It Matters
To better understand switch preferences, laptop keyboards serve as a useful reference point. Although most laptops use membrane or scissor switches instead of mechanical ones, they help gauge the preferred switch type.
Laptop keyboards typically have a “tactile bump” or resistance when pressing a key, providing feedback on a successful keypress. Both tactile and clicky switches share this feature, with clicky switches producing an audible “click” sound. If you like this sensation, consider tactile or clicky switches.
Another aspect to consider is Operating Force, or the required force to register an input. Laptop keyboards often need around 43 grams of force, placing them in the “light” range. Some “heavy” switches may require twice as much force. Operating Force is measured in gram force (gf) or centinewton (cN), with brands using their preferred units.
Each switch type has a unique feel, sound, pre-travel distance, and total travel distance. Pre-travel distance, measured in millimeters (mm), indicates the depth needed for a key to actuate, while total travel distance shows how far the key goes before bottoming out. Pre-travel distance also reflects a key’s “sensitivity.”
A shorter pre-travel distance means faster reactions, ideal for gaming, but could lead to accidental keypresses due to increased sensitivity.
Check out these keyboards with Macro Keys
Types of Switches
In general, there are three primary switch types: linear, tactile, and clicky. Companies often use color labels to differentiate them, with Red for linear, Brown for tactile, and Blue for clicky.
However, colors and switch types may vary among brands, such as Razer, which has its own switches and color schemes.
Regardless, a specific color switch usually behaves similarly across brands, meaning a Cherry MX Red switch feels quite like a Kailh or Gateron Red switch, although minor differences might exist.
First up, let’s explore linear switches. These switches offer a smooth keypress from start to finish, with the spring being the only source of resistance. They don’t possess the tactile bump or clicky sound that tactile and clicky switches have.
Linear switches often have a lighter actuation force due to the absence of a tactile bump, making them well-suited for gaming. Some, like Cherry MX Speed Silver switches, are explicitly designed for gaming with a short pre-travel distance and light actuation force, resulting in high sensitivity and responsiveness.
Linear switches have a linear actuation curve, as implied by their name. As force is applied, the key moves downward without resistance or additional force needed. The actuation point is typically around the 2.0mm depth.
Linear switches are also notably quiet, with most noise generated when bottoming out the keys.
Tactile switches are characterized by a “bump” in the middle of the keypress, which signals when a key is about to actuate. Typically, the actuation point follows the bump.
For touch-typists who don’t glance at their keyboards while typing, tactile switches are a fantastic choice, as the bump helps prevent accidental keypresses and typos. Gamers also appreciate these switches for similar reasons.
Generally quiet, tactile switches don’t produce the “click” or “ping” associated with clicky switches, making them suitable for open office environments. However, if you tend to bottom out keys while typing, they can still generate some noise.
As previously mentioned, even though switches with the same color tend to behave similarly across brands, some differences might exist.
For example, pre-lubed switches like Gateron G Pro Brown switches have a small amount of lube on the switch stem, resulting in a smoother feel. In contrast, regular Gateron Brown switches may feel slightly scratchier due to the lack of lubrication between the switch stem and housing components.
Clicky switches are defined by their signature feature: the click. These switches provide the same tactile feedback as tactile switches, but with an added “click” or “ping” generated by an internal mechanism around the actuation point. This audible feedback is perfect for touch-typists, as it confirms when a key has been pressed.
Though clicky switches have a dedicated fanbase among mechanical keyboard enthusiasts, their volume can be too much for open office settings. Some workplaces even ban them outright for being too disruptive. If you’re considering a mechanical keyboard for the office, a tactile switch might be a more appropriate choice.
Optical switches set themselves apart from standard mechanical switches by eliminating the physical metal contact point. Instead, they utilize a light beam to detect the stem’s position within the switch.
As a result, some optical switches offer the ability to set a custom actuation point using companion software, providing a wide range of sensitivity options.
Keyboards like the Razer Huntsman V2 Analog demonstrate the full potential of optical switches with an analog mode. In this mode, your keystrokes mimic a gamepad joystick.
For example, in a racing game, pressing the A-key to steer left will result in a sharper turn the further down you press the key. Essentially, the depth of the keypress correlates to the in-game movement.
While optical switches typically have a linear feel, clicky and tactile options are also available. These switches are commonly found on high-end gaming boards, as they’re more suited for gaming than general typing tasks.
Low-profile optical switches can be found on keyboards like the Razer DeathStalker V2 Pro and Keychron K3 (Version 2).
Low-profile switches function similarly to standard mechanical switches, but as the name implies, they’re shorter and feature a lower profile. This means they have a shorter total travel distance, causing them to bottom out more quickly.
However, the feel of low-profile switches isn’t for everyone, and choosing between low-profile and standard switches ultimately depends on personal preference. Low-profile switches can exhibit linear, tactile, or clicky characteristics.
To help you visualize them, here’s a reference to the NuPhy Air75, a keyboard that utilizes low-profile mechanical switches.
HALL EFFECT SWITCHES
Hall Effect switches function similarly to optical switches but with some key differences. Instead of a light beam, Hall Effect switches use magnets to register inputs. Like optical switches, these switches also offer adjustable pre-travel distance and an Analog Mode option.
However, Hall Effect switches tend to provide a more consistent and accurate implementation of these features, as seen when comparing the keystroke results of the Razer Huntsman V2 Analog (optical switches) and the Wooting two HE (Hall Effect switches).
While Hall Effect switches are based on an older patent dating back to the 1960s, their widespread integration into keyboards is relatively recent. At the moment, they appear in high-end gaming boards such as the SteelSeries Apex Pro and the Wooting two HE.
Most Hall Effect switches exhibit a linear feel and very light actuation force, contributing to their responsiveness in gaming scenarios.
Also Read: Budget Gaming Keyboards