A Brief Mechanical Keyboard Switch Guide

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Zealios, Gateron blue, Gateron green, JTK PoW keycap

Switches are the defining part of a mechanical keyboard. Each one of them is an individual component and a lot of the time this is why mechanical keyboards are expensive when compared to conventional keyboards.

There’s so many terms and names used when it comes to switches that it’s hard to know what you’re getting. Even the colouring system isn’t standardised.

So, in order to shed some light, I’ve written this article. I’ll round up necessary inforamtion and breakdown the differences so that you can get an idea of what switch is best for you. I will attempt to use as many analogies as possible to describe the typing sensation.

What’s the importance of switch choice?

Cherry MX blue switches on top the white steel plate of the Masterkeys Pro L

Cherry MX blue switches on top the white steel plate – Cooler Master Masterkeys Pro L RGB

My second mechanical keyboard had Cherry MX red switches. I sold it within a week, I hated it. Now, this isn’t a dig at linear switches, it’s a lesson in switch preference. That keyboard taught me that linear switches don’t fit my typing style and that my preference for feedback when typing is necessary.

You may completely disagree with me about linear switches and that’s perfectly fine. However, that highlights how important it is to determine what switch is best for you. One switch does not suit everyone’s typing experience. Even Cherry MX and their clone switches may not be as suitable to you over something like Topre or even membrane keyboards.

A Gateron Blue switch

Terms

Actuation – The point at which a keystroke is registered by completing the electrical circuit

Bottom out – When a key is pressed down until it will move no further as it’s hit the plate or PCB

Metal leaf – A thin piece of metal that touches to complete the electrical circuit

cN – Centi-Newtons, 0.01 of a Newton

Switch breakdown

So, let’s start with the basics. Linear, tactile, and clicky. These are the three most common terms when it comes to mechanical keyboards. They’re an identifier of how each switch functions and feels.

Linear – Unusually red or black

Cherry MX Red switch

Linear means the motion of the switch is unimpeded until it hits the bottom of the switch. Therefore you will not feel nor hear anything when pressed until the key bottoms out.

The quietest of the three switch types.

What they feel like?

Pressing down on a spring. You feel little to nothing but your finger continues to move until it stops.

Tactile – Usually brown or clear or expensive purple

Cherry MX Brown switch

Tactile switches are two stage. There’s the tactile bump and the switch actuation point. Depending on the switch manufacturer this can be more pronounced than others. Finally, the bottom out.

In the middle when it comes to noise generated.

What they feel like?

When you open a door with a set of keys, except the key hits every bump, where as tactile switches are simply one bump.

Clicky – Usually blue or green

Cherry MX Blue switch

Clicky switches operate in the same fashion as brown. A tactile bump and then bottoming out. At the actuation point, a metal leaf slaps shut thus increasing the tactile bump feeling and giving an audible click sound.

These switches are loud and may irritate some. 

What they feel like?

Pressing buttons on an old Nokia phone. A noise is emitted when the button is pressed.

Which switch is best for gaming or typing?

Zealencios attached to a red switch

Zealencios attached to a red switch

It’s common to find certain switches to be suggested for specific tasks over others. Like linear switches for gaming or clicky switches for typing. This is only partially correct. It’s entirely possible to type with linear or game with clicky switches.  To illustrate that blue switches don’t hinder gameplay I play Overwatch at mid Diamond.

Consideration for how much typing or gaming can determine what switch to buy. Following the notion that linear switches are for gaming they should be given preference if you spend more time gaming than typing.

Inversely if you are doing less gaming then tactile or clicky switches should take precedent.

This should be looked at like a loose guide. If you simply don’t like a specific switch then it’s not going to matter if clicky is for typing, you’ll simply not enjoy the typing experience. Clicky switches are perfectly fine for gaming just as linears are fine for typing.

There’s now more of an emphasis on what switch feels best to the user rather than specific tasks.

Also give some thought to those around you when it comes to buying switches. Clicky switches are loud and may disrupt others. The sound can even travel in a quite house at night. Tactile switches offer feedback but with less sound. Should even linear switches be consider too loud you can buy o-rings or Zealencio clips that dampen the sound.

Personally, I use clicky switches. I like the sound and the feel of feedback with each keystroke. I’m also privy to letting everyone know that I’m hard at work by mashing away at my keyboard, loudly. I type a large amount, but I also game at the same time with them.

Gateron Green Case Open

A Gateron green switch with the top removed

Springs and spring strength

Now for first mechanical keyboard purchases switch strength is nowhere near as a important as switch type.

But when researching switches you’ll commonly see the term actuation force, measured in cN. What good is a number representation unless you actually know the difference between 55cN and 80cN?

A lower cN means you don’t have to push as hard as you would on a higher cN switch. This means that a 35cN spring is softer than a 55cN spring while an 85cN spring is stiffer. Hence the terms in this picture:

Cherry Switches Table

Picking the right switches makes the experience

Furthermore, higher cN springs retain more energy and pop back to its starting position with more vigour. Stiffer springs feel like they “pop” more which in turn feels like more responsive switches.

Requiring greater amounts of pushing force can cause fatigue in the hands. Users can feel that their fingers may not adjust to stiffer springs, feeling that they’re too much effort to use.

In summary, switches with a stiffer spring push against your fingers with more force. This makes them more responsive, feeling like they pop over their softer counterparts. They also require more energy to operate which may cause fatigue. Difference between medium and soft springs aren’t as important as switch type, don’t worry too much about spring strength

What do I recommend?

For a potential first time buyer you’re better off sticking with the standard colour switches – Red, Brown, Blue. These are easier to find, and while you will feel the differences between a stiffer or softer switch it’s not enough to ruin your typing experience.

Those of you who bottom out whenever you type you may not feel too fatigued after using stiffer switches. Medium stiffness springs may be right up your alley.

 

That’s it for now. I’ll update as I continue , though to keep the articles short and readable I’ll make a new post and link it. Details about switch manufacturers and Alps and EC (Topre) switches are still to come as well.

More details to come on Electro Capacitive switches

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