Mechanical Keyboard Switches - What are the differences
21 April 2021
A mechanical keyboard isn’t just a fundamental part of a gaming PC. Mechanical keyboards can be essential to our working lives. The vast majority of people today will now grow up and spend their adult lives working and playing at a keyboard, and those keystrokes quickly add up.
Consider this. If you’re using a keyboard for 8 hours a day, 5 days a week like most office workers, you could easily register over 16 million keystrokes over the course of a year. And that’s not including any time you spend gaming at home, using a second laptop, or any other work you might do in the rest of your day.
So for that alone, it makes sense to invest in a mechanical keyboard. But once you do that, there’s all the other considerations. Do you want something as quiet as possible? Do you want a keyboard that’s specifically tuned for typing? Do you want a full-size keyboard with a keypad/numberpad? Or do you just want the smallest possible keyboard because you want to sit more ergonomically or maybe have a small desk? Either way, there’s a mechanical keyboard for you.
Why mechanical keyboards are better on your hands
But hang on, you might be asking: how exactly are keyboards better for you in the first place?
It all has to do with what happens every time you press a switch. On regular keyboards, hitting a key results in the button pushing down through a plastic layer with electrical contacts. Pushing the key down then brings it into contact with a second layer, which closes an electrical loop that gets translated to your computer as the key being pressed.
Regular keyboards have been made by this for decades, because the plastic is cheap to manufacture at scale. But the design means you get little feedback when typing, and many users struggle to type quickly or without lots of errors as a result.
Mechanical keyboards have individual switches instead of a single plastic layer. This allows manufacturers to customise the feeling and force required to activate each switch, meaning you can get keyboards that can be quieter, faster, clickier and more satisfying to type on than any regular office or laptop keyboard.
Types of Mechanical Keyboard Switches
When you first look at mechanical keyboards, you’ll see a massive range of brands, names mentioned and all kinds of benefits. But something they will all have in common is a focus on the “switches” used, which indicates what kind of tactile experience you can expect.
Putting individual manufacturers and brands aside for a moment, most keyboards will feature one of three main switch types: tactile switches, linear switches and clicky switches.
The main difference between each switch is the feeling and sound when you push the key down. Linear switches are like a regular keyboard, in that they won’t have any audible bump or click when the key is pressed. These switches will often be faster than regular office keyboards, since mechanical switches require less force, and the keypresses are registered much faster. So if you’re in an environment where having a loud, clicky keyboard is a problem, linear switches are the choice for you.
Tactile switches add an extra bit of feedback by providing a small bump when the key reaches the actuation point -- that’s the stage where the keyboard sends an electrical signal to your computer letting it know a key has been pressed. These keyboards are generally recommended for people who want to improve their typing accuracy, as the extra bit of feedback helps guard against errors. Keyboards with tactile switches can be used for gaming as well, so keyboards featuring these can be considered a good middle ground, or a good choice if you’re just buying your first mechanical keyboard.
Clicky switches are exactly what they sound like. If you ever remember the giant, super-loud IBM keyboards from the ‘80s and early ‘90s, then you’ve experienced a clicky switch before. When you push the key down, a clicky switch provides a physical bump and an extra sound when the actuation point is reached.
Those are the base models from which all switches are made. When you actually go to buy a mechanical keyboard, however, what you’ll actually see is this:
Cherry MX Red? Kailh Brown? Silent Red? Outemu Blue? Which switch is clicky, linear or tactile? What does it all mean?
Understanding which switches are which
The reason why there are so many different names requires a little bit of history. Back in the early 1980’s, German manufacturers Cherry registered a patent specifically for mechanical keyboards, which would become known as the Cherry MX Switch. Even after Cherry’s patent expired in 2016, the colour conventions stuck (on the whole). Makers of other mechanical keyboard switches, and other brands, use the same colours to help users identify which keyboards offer more of a linear, tactile and clicky experience.
There’s more switches than ever before. A new type of switch is called “Speed” (Cherry MX Silver), which is specifically designed for gaming due to a shorter actuation distance and bottom-out. These keys also don’t have any kind of ‘clicky’ feedback, so they can also be used for typing or office environments if you prefer that style.
Corsair K70 MK.2 SE RGB Mechanical Gaming Keyboard features Cherry MX Silver Switches (Linear Speed type)
Some companies have a “Green” switch which requires more force to press (sometimes as much as 80 grams), and are consequently considered the “heaviest” of all keyboard switches.
Other types include “Silent” switches, which are usually variants of an existing model that use added rubber components to dampen the end sound. These aren’t exclusive for office environments though -- they can also be handy if you want a good gaming keyboard that isn’t loud late at night. (Examples of these include the Cherry MX Silent/Pink and Kailh Box Pink.)
“Black” switches -- not to be confused with keyboards marketed with black exteriors -- are linear switches that usually require 60 grams of force to press, instead of the regular 45 grams that reds require.
A popular rival to Cherry’s MX Switches is a brand called Kailh, made by the Chinese manufacturer Kaihua Electronics. They have a similar colour-coding to Cherry and other brands, although there are some slight differences with the sound, actuation points and the mechanics. There’s a great table from keyboard manufacturers ErgodoxEZ outlining the differences, which you can see below:
Kailh Switch Comparison (source: ErgodoxEZ)
Traditional gaming brands have begun making their own keyboard switches too. Logitech’s first foray into keyboards with their Romer-G branded switches was a partnership with the Japanese company Omron, whose switches are typically found in most gaming mice today. The Romer-G Linear and Romer-G Tactile both attempted to emulate the characteristics of Red and Brown keyboards before albeit with a slightly softer feel – subjectively almost bridging the gap between traditional mechanical keyboard switches and standard membrane/rubber-dome switches. Logitech has since gone on to release its own low-profile mechanical switches as well.
Razer partnered with Kaihua Electronics when it released its first generation of in-house switches. Razer’s colour convention was slightly different, with its Green, Orange and Yellow switches emulating Cherry’s clicky, tactile and linear keyboards respectively.
Razer Mechanical Keyboard Switches (source: Razer)
But more recently the company has started releasing keyboards featuring optical switches. Optical switches are far more advanced in that they don’t rely on mechanical springs, but beams of light inside the switch itself. By using light, the keyboard can send the signal to the computer at the exact same time you feel the key actuating, reducing wear over time and eliminating the tiny input latency you get from traditional designs. You can view Razer's behind the scenes video here.
Some manufacturers have even worked out how to make their keyboards adjustable on the fly. Steelseries OmniPoint is a new technology that lets users set the exact actuation point for their keyboard (or each individual key) via software. Normally, your actuation point would be determined by the switches in the keyboard you bought -- and once you’ve made your purchase, there’s no changing it. But the OmniPoint functionality means lets users adjust the actuation from 0.4mm to 3.6mm, effectively letting you change your keyboard from a quick, linear keyboard for gaming into a firmer, clicky keyboard for typing with the click of a button.
Another new trend is the advent of low-profile switches, which were designed to allow for slimmer keyboard designs. These can be handy for people who want the improved feeling of a mechanical keyboard but want something more accustomed to an Apple or laptop keyboard. Low profile keyboards can also be more ergonomic thanks to their thinner chassis, although these are still relatively new and there are few models available on the market. Keycap compatibility can also be a challenge if you wish to replace the stock keycaps due to their unique stem designs.
Logitech G915 LIGHTSPEED Wireless RGB Mechanical Gaming Keyboard features a super slim design that utilises Logitech's low-profile GL mechanical switches
Manufacturers are also starting to explore the potential of analog optical keyboard switches, which allow for different actuation points depending on how far a key was pressed. This isn’t functionality that most PC games support, but the principle is similar to how triggers and thumbsticks work in gaming controllers today. If you hold down the trigger button harder in a racing game, for instance, the car will attempt to accelerate more quickly. Traditional keyboards aren’t capable of supporting such a fine input: you’re either going at full throttle or not at all. Razer has a showcase video on their analog optical switches that you can watch here.
So companies are hopeful that this new technology will allow for a more immersive gaming experience -- like being able to switch between walking and running simply by registering how hard you’re pushing down on a key, rather than relying on a secondary input.
But there’s more: customisation
Because mechanical keyboards have individual switches for every key, that also means you can pull out every keycap and customise them individually (sometimes even the switch on hotswap mechanical keyboards).
When you press a key on a keyboard, what you’re actually touching is what’s known as the keycap. The keycaps are made of plastic, typically acrylonitrile butadiene styrene (ABS) or polybutylene terephthalate (PBT), which is melted and then injected into a steel mould at high pressure.
Kraken Keyboards (Purple Rain) Keycap Set features PBT plastic
Some users have even begun 3D printing their own keycaps these days, although 3D printed keycaps are typically less durable than higher-grade materials. Most keyboards will use what’s called “double shot ABS”, largely because ABS is cheaper and easier to work with than PBT. PBT keycaps can last for much longer, but because they are far more difficult to mold, they’re harder to customise on the production line. So manufacturers will usually offer more colours and variety with double ABS keycaps instead.
Of course, some people have even gone as far as to make keycaps out of clay! It starts by making a clay mold of a shape, which is then used to produce a silicon mold of the design. Resin is then used to cast the final shape, and you can see an example of this below. Understandably given the handmade nature of the process, these keycaps are by far the most expensive -- but also the most extraordinary.
If you want to try customising your mechanical keyboard, it’s actually pretty simple. Most mechanical keyboards will ship with a keycap puller, which is a plastic tool that looks like a pair of rectangular tweezers. These hook under a keycap, and all you have to do is gently pull the keycap up to remove it. After that, you can simply pop a new keycap on top.
But why would you want to replace the keycaps in the first place? A simple reason is for customisable colour schemes, ones that manufacturers don’t directly provide. You might want a bright black and neon-yellow keyboard to match the colours of your favourite Counter-Strike team, for instance, but that’s not something manufacturers sell. But that’s no problem: simply buy the right coloured keycaps, spend a few minutes swapping them out, and now you’ve got a keyboard that’s truly yours.
Another benefit of replacing the keycaps is for better lighting. Pudding keycaps are especially great for this, as they have a dual-layer design that allows more light to shine through from the bottom of the keyboard. It’s actually quite hard for most keyboards to light up properly, because most of the light emanates from the switches -- which inevitably gets blocked or dulled out by the moulded plastic keycaps that sit on top. Pudding keycaps are designed to have a translucent bottom layer, with the regular moulded layer on top, allowing your keyboard to shine brighter than ever.
The only trick here is that you have to double check your new keycaps are compatible with your existing keyboard. If you check individual listings, it should typically say what keyboard or switch types the keycaps are compatible with. These pink and white keycaps from Tai-Hao, for instance, are compatible with any keyboard that uses Cherry MX switches. Some will also list specific keyboards or brands they’re compatible with.
The good thing is that replacement keycaps can be had relatively cheaply -- usually starting around 30 to 50 dollars. So, if you feel like changing up your gaming space, customising your keyboard’s colour is a super cheap way of doing it.
For a complete guide on keycaps you learn more with our Keycaps for Mechanical Keyboards article.
Take the time to know which keyboard switch is for you
There are tons of choices available on the market, so much so that it can be a bit overwhelming. But it’s worth taking the time to figure out what suits you best. Keyboards can last decades, so if you’re going to be spending the rest of your life gaming and typing in some capacity -- as we all are -- then you might as well have the tool that’s the most comfortable for you.
If you’re not sure where to start, it helps to ask yourself what you’ll be doing the most with your keyboard and what environment you’re in. Someone who spends a lot of time writing reports, transcribing and typing in an office will have different needs to a teenager at home looking for something to play Escape from Tarkov or Fortnite on. Keyboards with silent switches are probably best for the office worker, and ideally Silent Browns since they have that tactility that’s designed to improve typing accuracy.
On the other hand, noise might not be a concern for someone gaming at home. If it’s a single person in a space that’s not shared, they might prefer the clicky-clack of Blue keyboards. But if you’re gaming and you have partners, or especially thin walls, then Red or linear-based switches might be a more suitable choice.
And don’t discount your own preferences either. Plenty of people have no issues typing accurately on silent or speed switches, and there are many gamers who don’t mind the extra force required from Green keyboards.
There’s no one perfect keyboard for any situation, but there is absolutely a mechanical keyboard for everyone. It’s all down to the amount of resistance, the sound and the feedback you want -- and if you’re going to spend days, weeks and months of your life typing away for work and pleasure, you might as well invest in the best experience you can get!