Everything you need to know about mechanical keyboard switches

When we review keyboards we often mention many different types of mechanical key switches and terminology describing their characteristics. As the market is getting saturated with plenty of different brands, deciding which will fit you personally the best gets increasingly harder. We’ve created this guide to hopefully answer all the questions you might have about all types of switches.

One guide to end them all

What’s the deal anway?
Here’s a small digression to all the persisting membrane keyboard fanatics.

Membrane keyboards, or “dome switch keyboards”, use a continuous membrane underneath their keys. Under each keycap sits a slider and a metal dome. When you press a key, it moves the slider, pushing down the dome to create contact with a circuit board, registering an input. This mechanism usually doesn’t have much tactile feedback, can be unpleasant to use and is irresponsive more often than not.

Mechanical keyboards use individual switch mechanisms under each and every key. This mechanism isn’t only more robust and less prone to failure, but also much more responsive. If your lifestyle ties a strong bond with your keyboard, then upgrading to a mechanical one will change your life in a small, yet undeniable way.

But wait, my membrane keyboard from the 80s is much cheaper!

Depending on your budget, cheaper brands retail mechanical keyboards for as little as $ 60,00. If you don’t mind getting an older model, you can get away with even less than that.

Prices of popular brands start at about $ 80,00 for TKL (tenkeyless) keyboards and about $ 110,00 for full size keyboards. If you’re looking for a high-end keyboard, with RGBs and the whole feature set, prices can even break the $ 200,00 mark.

Anyway, let’s not put the cart before the horse and start at the very beginning.

1. What are mechanical switches?

Each keycap houses a mechanical switch underneath it. This switch is used to register every input of a key.

Different switches header image

Components of mechanical switches

Mechanical switches are built from several different components. Just like an orchestra, each part has his own function and depends on the other parts to play as a whole.

 

    1. The keycap
      This is the plastic top cap of every switch. It usually has a letter, symbol, or number printed onto it. It’s not part of the switch and can be changed for other keycaps that are compatible with the stem.
    2. The stem
      Different types of switches get determined by the shape of their stem. The stem decides how a keystroke feels – the actuation and total travel distance get defined by it. This is also where the keycap gets mounted on.
    3. The upper housing
      The main purpose of the upper housing is to protect the stem. When you fully press down a button, that’s also the part that the keycap will hit (a.k.a. bottoming out)
    4. The coil spring
      Through the resistance of the coil spring, the amount of pressure needed to actuate a key is defined. The spring also moves the switch back to it’s original position after a button is released.
    5. The base housing
      The base is where the upper housing get’s mounted and clips to the PCB (printed circuit board) of the keyboard.
    6. The crosspoint contact
      The contact is made of metal and completes the electric circuit when a button is pressed, registering an input.



2. Types of mechanical switches

There are three different types of mechanical switches: Linear, Tactile and Clicky. They are defined by their keystroke behaviour.

Linear switches

Linear switches are the simplest operating mechanical switches. When pressed, the stem travels down and up in a linear way, without being obstructed in any way.

Gamers usually prefer this kind of switch, because it allows rapid and definite control over the keys.

Cherry MX red switch animation

Cherry MX Red Linear switch mechanism.

Listen to the sound of this switch here.

Tactile switches

Tactile switches operate similar to Linear ones, but there’s a feedback when the keystroke gets registered. In other words: You can feel a noticable bump when a key is pressed. The bump lines up with the actuation point and happens before a key bottoms out.

This type of key switch is ideal for typists. The tactile feedback allows for faster typing, as you don’t have to press down the whole travel distance for a key to actuate.

Bottoming out generates a sound when the keycap hits the upper housing. As you won’t bottom out as much with Tactile switches, they are usually the most quiet ones.

Cherry MX brown switch animation

Cherry MX Brown Tactile switch mechanism. The detent on the side of the stem creates the “bump” when pressed.

Listen to the sound of this switch here.

Clicky switches

Clicky switches are very similar to Tactile ones, but additionally generate a “click” sound every time an input is registered. This is definitely a matter of taste. Some people find having this distinct sound very satisfying.

This type of mechanical switch is the loudest one, which should be taken into consideration before buying them.

Cherry MX blue switch animation

Cherry MX Blue Clicky switch mechanism.

Listen to the sound of this switch here.

3. Characteristics of mechanical switches

The feel of a keystroke isn’t the only thing to pay attention to when finding your optimal mechanical switch. There are five technical characteristics that differentiate every mechanical switch from another. Emphasis on different characteristics will make a switch more optimal for specific preferences.

1. Activation Force

This determines how much force is needed to register a keystroke and is measured in grams (or cN).

2. Actuation Point (or Operating Point)

This is the distance a switch has to travel, to register an input.

3. Total Travel Distance

This is the distance a keycap has to move until it hits the upper housing of the switch. This is also the distance until you bottom out.

4. Tactile Position

This is the position where you feel the feedback on Tactile and Clicky switches. Linear switches don’t have a tactile position.

5. Reset Point

This measures how far a button has to be released to be deactivated after you’ve pressed it.

Linear vs Clicky in a graph

Cherry MX red graphCherry MX blue graph

Left: Linear Cherry MX Red / Right: Clicky Cherry MX Blue
Red line: Represents the force and distance when a key is pressed

Black line: Represents the force and distance when a key is released

The light Linear Cherry MX Red switches need only an activation force of 45g. At the end of its 4.0mm total travel distance the force increases to 60g.
The switch actuates at 2.0mm and resets at 1.8mm. Having the reset and the actuation point (operating position) close to each other is great for gaming, as repeatedly taping the same key is fast and responsive.

In comparision, the Clicky Cherry MX Blue switches need a higher activation force of 60g. After the tactile position is surpassed, the force only slightly increases until they bottom out at the end of the total travel distance of 4.0mm.
The activation point is farther at 2.2mm and the reset point is at 1.6mm. The trade off here is speed for accuracy and tactile feedback.

Concerning their activation force, the Cherry MX Red can be categorized as light and the Cherry MX Blue as medium switches.

Activation Force graph from light to heavy

How long will mechanical switches last

To test the lifetime, manufacturers have created testing machines that will click switches until they break. This allows them to accurately determine how many clicks a switch will survive.

The testing conditions for the switches are quite intense as well. For example the Cherry MX switches get tested in extremely cold and hot scenarios, that reach anywhere between -40° to 180°. Only this way the manufacturer can guarantee that shipping in sea freights won’t damage the switches.

And the results are quite impressive. Standard mechanical key switches will last you anywhere from 50 to 100 million clicks. Converting that number of clicks to an absolute value of time depends on many different variables. It’s save to say that these switches will last you for many years though.

Hot-swappable

When buying a gaming keyboard, you usually get to select from a handful of different switches. Most of the time you decide for the switches and the keyboard will get delivered with the switches soldered onto them. In this case you won’t be able to change to different switches or easily exchange one in case of damage.

Important to know is, that almost any switches can be used as hot-swappable ones. For example, all the Cherry MX switches and their alikes are hot-swappable. However, to be able to use them, you need a keyboard that has sockets that allow for hot-swaps. If you have a compatible keyboard, you can simply push the switches in their sockets.

Mechanical Switches hot-swappable

This is obviously great. If a switch should ever break, you can exchange it for a new one. You can also change to different types of switches whenever you want, or you could even mix different switches on your keyboard.

When purchasing new switches there’s only one thing you really need to pay attention to and that’s the amount of pins the switches have. They are available as 5-pin and 3-pin switches.

Each switch comes with at least two metal pins and a larger circular plastic pin at the bottom. These parts are used to hold the switches firmly in the PCB (printed circuit board) of a keyboard, so there won’t be any sort of wobbling. This particular design is referred to as a 3-pin switch (2 metal, 1 plastic). Some switches have two additional plastic pegs to further increaes the stability inside the PCB. These switches are called 5-pin switches.

Mechanical switches 3-Pin

Hot-swappable keyboards come with either 5- or 3-pin sockets as well. Keyboards with a 5-pin socket are compatible with either of the named switches. On a keyboard with 3-pin sockets, only the 3-pin switches will fit.

5-pin switches can be converted to 3-pin switches by carefully clipping the two extra plastic pegs.

If you’re interest in keyboards that feature hot-swappable sockets, you can check out the Mountain Everest Max.


Switch variations

Speed switches

They can be found as Linear, Tactile, or Clicky. For example, let’s have a closer look at the Linear Cherry MX Speed Silver switches.

Cherry MX Speed Silver graph

Speed switches usually have a shorter total travel distance and a short actuation point.

The Cherry MX Speed Silver switches have an activation force of 45g, just like the Cherry MX Red switches. Unlike the Red switches though, they actuate at only 1.2mm and reset at 1.1mm. The total travel distance is also shorter at only 3.4mm.

The extremely short actuation point and the low distance between actuation and reset allows for incredibly fast consecutive tapping of a key. These characteristics make Speed switches ideal for gaming.

Optical Switches

Optical switches, also called Opto-mechanical switches, are one of the younger innovations of the key switch industry. Regular mechanical switches register an input by establishing contact between two metals to close a circuit. Optical switches rely less on physical parts and register an input with a little laser. This benefits the lifespan of the switch, as less physical contact means less wear and tear.

One of the most popular uses of Opto-mechanical switches is the Razer Huntsman Elite. Razer builds Optical switches since 2018 and has established the foundation of a concept with great potential.

The upsides of Optical switches are increased durability, stability and speed, while not affecting the price. The enhanced performance is a result of the different actuation method. Instead of using metallic contacts, every switch houses a little light beam. When a switch gets pressed, the light beam passes through the stem, which then registers an input. Actuating literally with the speed of light.

Concerning the lifespan, the optomechanical switches are rated to last at least 110 million clicks, with the actual number possibly being even higher than that.

Because there aren’t any mechanical parts used to complete the circuit, Optomechanical switches can register inputs with virtually no delay. These switches also instantly reset, which means that every input will be registered consistently, even if you repeatedly smash a button.

In the case of Razer, the Optical switches are available in Clicky and Linear. The Clicky switches have an actuation force of 45g and actuate at 1.5mm. The linear switches have an activation force of 40g and actuate at 1.0mm. These numbers are incredibly low and ideal for gaming.

Low-Profile Switches

Low-profile switches are known to offer a unique typing experience. The availability is limited when compared to normal switches, but some brands like Cherry, Kailh an Gateron retail them.

These switches have less height than normal ones and thus usually have a very low actuation point.

For example the Cherry Low-Profile switches use an activation force of 45g and have an activation point of about 1.0 to 1.2mm. Their total travel distance is 3.2mm, which isn’t far off of regular switches. The switches are smaller, actuate quickly, but maintain enough total travel distance to not feel odd. The compact build of these switches lead them to be about 2/3 the height of regular switches.

Cherry MX red low profile key switches

Resting your fingers on keys with smaller switches allow for a more ergonomic angle, leading to less strain on your wrists. They actuate quick and have a relatively low total travel distance. This allows for fast, consecutive inputs while gaming and typing. If you’ve never tried them before, it might take you some time to get used to them and opting for them really comes down to personal preference.

The Cherry Low-Profile switches use the standard Cherry stem and are compatible with most custom keycaps. Other brands usually use different stems on their low-profile switches, to save some extra height. This makes them very limited in their compatibility. Keycaps that aren’t compatible might collide with the upper housing of the switch. And having two objects unintentionally colliding with each other is considered a bad thing in most cultures.

Since the springs in Low-Profile switches have to be smaller, there are also less different levels of strength. This limits the variance of activation force.

One thing to keep in mind is the reduced life expectancy on low-profile switches. They are rated to last about 50 million clicks, which is still pretty long, but only about half of the lifespan of a regular switch.

If you’re interested in Low-Profile keyboards, you can check out the Logitech G915 TKL or the Corsair K60 Low-Profile.

Finding your perfect match

Different switches arranged in a cone

Environment

Consider your surroundings when deciding for the optimal switches. Are you using the keyboard in an open room? Maybe even an office? Or are you chilling alone in your cave?

It’s an important factor, especially since it’s very easy to underestimate how loud certain switches can be. My first mechanical keyboard was the Razer BlackWidow Chroma with Razer’s green switches. And heck, were they loud. Even though my PC was in a separate room, the clicking noises would still keep my girlfriend up during nights. She hated it, especially when I kept smashing buttons or was typing long texts. So yeah. Consider your environment, loud switches may let you become unpopular very quickly in the wrong setting.

If you’re surrounded by people sensible to sounds, consider opting for Tactile or Linear switches.

However, that doesn’t mean clicky noises are bad. Not only does the sound have something oddly satisfying to it, but especially when writing the audible feedback may help you increase your words per minute.

Type of switch

The second factor depends on your preferences of the feeling of keystrokes.

While Linear switches are smooth throughout the whole distance, Tactile and Clicky switches have a distinct bump right where an input gets registered.

The tactile feedback on Tactile and Clicky switches come in handy when typing. The feedback helps you write more accurately and faster, as you don’t have to bottom out on your strokes.

Typing style and hand size

Different hand sizes and typing styles fundamentally change the way a keyboard is used. I will lead you through different scenarios and mention the best mechanical switches respectively.

When you’re looking to type a lot, but you’re prone to misclicks, you generally want to look for a high actuation point and medium to heavy activation force. Look for an actuation point of 2.0mm or higher and an activation force of 50g or higher. The added resistance will drastically decrease the amount of misclicks.

What if you intend to use your keyboard for typing, but don’t enjoy having such high resistance, or you just don’t misclick often. Look for a medium to high actuation point of 1.4mm or higher and an activation force of 50 to 75g. Since you have high accuracy anyway, you can go for switches with a shorter actuation point.

In case of you being more on the gentle side of typers, you can also go for Speed switches. These switches won’t just give you an edge while gaming, but are also great for typing – as long as you don’t smash the buttons, that is. The short actuation point on Speed switches will benefit for fast typing. As a light typist you can also go for Tactile or Clicky feedback, as you don’t intend to bottom out anyway.

And if you really want to go all out on your keyboard. Your fingers are the valves of your anger and you release your wrath in a wild fury, devastating the buttons beneath your fingertips. Try to look for an activation force of 75g or upwards. You can also get O-rings, they dampen the sound your keycaps make when they hit the upper housing of a switch. Bottoming out won’t feel as harsh, as they act like a little cushion. And let’s face it, you need a little softness in your life.

Bottoming out

Bottoming out means that you push your keycaps all the way down, until they hit the upper housing of the key switch. This will always create a sound, even if you have Linear switches, which are else very quiet.

If you don’t like the sound of bottoming out, then there are some things you can do to prevent it:

  • Adapt keycap/keyboard material
  • O-rings
  • Anger management

Intention of use

Well, the options here won’t blow your mind. It’s either gaming, typing, or gaming and typing. That is unless you find another use for your keyboard, like smashing it against a wall. In this case we recommend a hot-swappable keyboard, as it’s more satisfying watching the switches pop out after a hit.

If you use your keyboard solely for gaming, then Linear switches will be your best choice, specifically Speed switches. Key presses are smooth and consistent, allowing for rapid button presses.

In case you intend to mainly type with your keyboard, then Tactile or Clicky switches will be the main types to go for. The feedback they give help you maximize your typing speed and offer the best typing experience. If you don’t like the Tactile feedback and/or the “click” sound, then Speed switches are also a good recommendation.

If you want to use your keyboard for both, then many factors come into play. To find the best fit for mixed intentions, we recommend to get a keyboard that allows for hot-swaps. This way you can experiment easily and explore what fits you best.

Disclaimer: The switches named above are all recommendations and what they’re best to use for on paper. This doesn’t help you at all if you don’t enjoy the switches you’re using. So be sure to make every decision for yourself.

The brands

By now you should know enough about mechanical switches to fully understand their functionality and terminology. Each brand offers a broad range of different mechanical switches and every switch feels a little different to use. I won’t give you a direct comparison of individual switches, but will rather give you a little background of major brands in the industry.

My best advice would be to find a company you like and then choose a switch that fits your needs. When in doubt, you can always go with Cherry MX switches, as they have been considered the golden standard for a while now.

Cherry MX

Cherry MX Logo

This brand is the grandaddy of mechanical switches. The company was founded in 1953 and basically had a monopoly on switches at one point.

Today, the Cherry MX switches are still the most widely used mechanical switches. They are considered being the standard for mechanical keyboards and are available in many different kinds. You can get them in different colors and every color represents different characterisitcs for pressure, texture and feedback.

Cherry MX switches hold a cross-shaped stem, that often is referred to the “Cherry MX mount”. With these switches you can’t go wrong. Cherry MX are praised for their quality and durability and are considered being the best mechanical switches available.

Kaihua / Kailh

Kailh Logo

Kailh are one of the pioneers in the industry. They have helped several brands to develop their own switches and have a selection of their own to offer as well. They’re often called out to mimic Cherry MX switches, because they show undendeniable similarities.

All switches are rated to last about 50 million keystrokes. Every Kailh switch has the typical actuation point of 2.0mm. They even offer the same backlightning as the Cherry MX switches, completing the almost identical feature set.

One thing that sets Kailh switches apart, is that they usually come for a cheaper price and can be found in more affordable keyboards.

Gateron

Not unsimilar to Kailh, the Gateron switches have a very close resemblance to Cherry MX switches. They are available with some varying actuation forces, but generally line up pretty well with Cherry MX switches.

The switches are rated to last about 50 million keystrokes and you guessed it, they have an actuation point of 2.0mm. They’re more widely spread in Europe, as they’re usually rather hard to find in Western markets.

Logitech – Romer-G

Logitech Logo

Initially Logitech used other brands mechanical switches in their keyboards, but they’re slowly shifting away and put increasing focus on their own switches.

Romer-G have been developed in collaboration with the Japanese manufacturer Omron. The switches have a total travel distance of only 3.2mm, which is the lowest one among all competitors. They feature dual contacts and have an expected lifespan of about 70 million keystrokes. Romer-G are available as Tactile and Linear switches, even though both switches have the exact same stats, apart from the bump.

Romer-G switches have a hollow center, to create some nice backlightning effects with the keyboard’s LEDs.

The Romer-G switches are only available in Logitech keyboards and can’t be bought for themselves.

Razer

Razer Logo

To initially create their own mechanical switches, Razer teamed up with different manufacturers. The first mechanical switches have been used on the Razer BlackWidow series. Ever since then Razer has developed their own line of production. The brand’s switches are rated to last about 80 million clicks and have an off-center placement to give the LEDs a nice backlightning effect.

Razer was the company to introduce Opto-mechanical switches, as seen on the Razer Huntsman Elite.

Similarly to Logitech, Razer switches cannot be bought off-the-shelf.

Roccat

Roccat Logo

Even though Roccat is relatively new to the competition, it has made quite an impact with their Titan switches. These switches are available in Linear and Tactile and have an actuation point of 1.8mm, actuating faster than most competitors.

The Titan swtiches employ a clear switch housing and a central LED placement, allowing the backlightning of keys to spread even further and smoother. You can see how that looks on our Roccat Vulcan 120 AIMO review.

SteelSeries – QX2 and OmniPoint

SteelSeries Logo

SteelSeries initially worked in collaboration with Kaihua Electronics to design their mechanical switches. After some generations SteelSeries decided to work on their very own product, which was called the QS1. The newest models are called QX2 and are available in many different variations.

All of the QX2 switches have an activation force of 45g. They are available in Linear, Tactile and Clicky and match colors with the Cherry MX switches. The switches are slightly shallower though, creating a bit of a low-profile design. The QX2 are rated to last about 50 million clicks.

The OmniPoint on the other hand are rated to last 100 million clicks and that’s not even the best part about them. Their actuation distance is adjustable. This means on OmniPoint keyboards you can customize the actuation distance for every key individually. If you want to learn more about them you can check out our SteelSeries Apex Pro review.

Accessories

Keycap & switch puller

To easily remove keycaps and switches, you can use a keycap-switch puller. Both sides of the puller have a different set of tongs. One side is to remove keycaps and the other one is to remove switches.

You can buy them on Amazon: NA or EU

Keycap and switch puller in action

O-rings

O-rings can be placed around the stems. Their purpose is to dampen the sound whenever you bottom out.

O-Rings showcase

They won’t absolutely silence your presses, but they definitely reduce the noise.

When you’re looking to buy O-rings, you have to consider the diamter, thickness and hardness of the material.

Diameter

The most common O-rings are the ones that are Cherry MX compatible and have a diameter of 5.0 mm.

Thickness

Keep in mind that the thickness of the O-rings will shorten the keycap travel distance. The very common 0.4mm thick O-rings will also reduce the travel distance respectively. There are also rings with a thickness of 0.2mm available.

Hardness

The hardness and flexibility of O-rings gets measured with the Shore A hardness scale. Numbers closer to 0 will be soft and numbers closer to 100 will be hard. Sticking to a hardness of about 40A to 50A will probably the best choice. Choosing too hard O-rings will have negative impact on their sound dampening.

They are also available on Amazon here: NA or EU

 

Please feel free to leave suggestions to this guide in the comments, I will update relevant information to keep this guide up to date.

 

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