Mechanical Keyboard Switchs

When getting into the world of mechanical keyboards there are several different switches available. Things can start to get confusing when you are trying to choose between different brands and the type of switches. Mechanical keyboard switches are not black and white some are tactile while others are clicky. There are also different actuation points and the quality of the switch. That is why we created this guide to help you figure out what will suit your needs.

Through this guide, we will be going over the basics of mechanical keyboard switches. from what they are to what brands have to offer. In hopes that this gives you a basic understanding of mechanical switches.

What is a mechanical keyboard switch?

A mechanical keyboard switch is a mechanism to register keystrokes on a keyboard. Each key on the board will have an individual mechanical switch. That when pressed will activate and spring back to its original position. Mechanical switches are most commonly defined by there noise that they make when clicking as well or by their accuracy and feel when typing. Mechanical keyboards are most commonly used for typists and gamers.

Different Types of Mechanical Switches

Other than being produced by different brands they are a few different types of mechanical switches. Those are defined by their keystroke behavior. The 3 Mains types are linear, tactile, and clicky. Companies will also use color to help define the type of switches like Blue, Red, and Brown Some switch will use a combination like tactile and clicky when describing their switches.

Linear – This is the most simple switch. It offers a straight up and down motion that doesn’t have any tactile feedback or even clicking noise. Creating a smooth keystroke for better actuation. These switches tend to be highly sensitive and are preferred by gamers.

Tactile – Tactile Switches works similarly to linear switches but offer one distinct difference. Midway through travel, there is a bump that can be felt. This bump indicates that the switch has been press and registered a keystroke. Tactile keys are preferred by typists as there is a physical feeling that the key has been clicked.

Clicky – Clicky is pretty self-explanatory. When the key is pressed it will make a distinctive clicking noise. Giving you an audio cue to know that the key has been pressed and registered a keystroke. typist generally like the audio feedback and some gamers too. Just beware this might get picked up by your mic and will make it annoying for anyone on discord with you 😛

Linear VS Tactical

Source: Cherrymx.de

The two main switch types are liner and tactile. Pretty much every combination of switches that you will be choosing will be either one of the two. That is why it is important to fully understand the differences so you can make the decision that best suits your needs.

Linear switches don’t offer any feedback from the switch it is straight up and down motion. tactile will offer feedback by having a bump halfway through the activation of the key. As you can see from the above images of a Cherry MX Red and a Cherry MX Blue. The red switch on the left offers a linear key that is silent. the blue on the right is tactile and clicky as there is a bump halfway through activation. That bump is great for feeling out the key for gamers and typists. Some gamers will prefer the red as there is no friction between pressing the key. while typists might like the tactile feeling with each keystroke.

Anatomy of a Key Switch

  1. Keycap
    The keycap doesn’t represent the mechanical aspect of the switch. But are the part of the button that you press. These are generally interchangeable on mechanical keyboards. They sometimes add to the sound when bottoming out after pressing a key.
  2. Upper Housing The upper housing helps protect and align the stem, it also connects to the base housing.
  3. Stem
    The stem of a mechanical switch dictates the actuation and travel distance of each keystroke. It also determines the keystroke feel and switch type.
  4. Coil Spring
    The main purpose of the spring coil is to determine the amount of pressure needed to actuate the key. While guiding the key back into its default position.
  5. Base Housing
    The base housing connects to the upper housing to enclose the Coil spring. The base housing will also clip to the PCB underneath.
  6. Crosspoint Contact
    Is a metal piece or gold that will make contact with the PCB to register a keystroke

Membrane vs. Mechanical Keyboards

The majority of cheap keyboards tend to be membrane. Membrane keyboards work by using a flexible membrane layer that is shared beneath all the keys on the board. When pressed the membrane layer makes contact with the bottom layer allowing the current to flow and registering a keystroke. Which is pretty simple, the problem with this thou. Is that you have to completely bottom out the key for it to register a keystroke. There isn’t tactile feedback that you would feel with a mechanical keyboard and the response of each key can be a lot slower. Registering keys stokes is limited on the membrane, so pressing multiple buttons at once will lose out on stokes. mechanical keyboards are generally the only ones capable of registering all keys at one time. So that you won’t miss any information when pressing multiple keys.

As mentioned above mechanical keyboards use a unique switch for each key. As you can see from the picture on the right. The membrane will use an entire layer across the whole board. Making it cheaper from a manufacturing standpoint. The response from each key is dictated by the membrane layer. This tends to get worn out at around 5 million keystrokes. Compared to a mechanical keyboard that can last around 50 Million keystones about 10X the length of a membrane.

open membrane keyboard

Solder vs hot-swap

This is a term you might come across when shopping for a mechanical switch when you want to build your own board. Basically, these terms help describe how the switches attach themselves to the board. Solder means you will have to solder each switch to the PCB. Hotswap requires no soldering, you are able to simply plug in each of the switches to the PCB.

Hot Swap

Hot-swap is perfect for people for anyone that doesn’t want to solder on each individual key. There is less risk in breaking components and it is easier to switch out keys on the board for new ones.

PROS

Easy to change between different switch sets.

Less risk of damaging components. because don’t need to solder on and off.

Easy to maintain and replace switches if needed.

CONS

Fewer layouts available.

Little to no tinkering. Which is one of the main draws to creating your own mechanical keyboards.

Solder

Solder is how the majority of key switches come. Most hobbyists will most likely want to solder their keys as there is more tinkering involved in the process. At the end of the day, you are making your own keyboard might as well solder the keys too. Also, there is a wide selection of PCB’s, Switches, and layouts with Solder than there is with hot-swapping.

PROS

Learn how to solder and desolder

More Variety of layouts and PCB options.

Get to tinker and create something on your own.

CONS

Higher Risk of damaging components if you don’t know what you are doing.

Difficult to maintain or replace switches once they are attached to the board.

Time consuming to solder all the keys to a PCB.

Mechanical Keyboard Switch Brands

Cherry MX

It is hard to talk about mechanical keyboard switches without mentioning Cherry MX. They are the ones who started it all and have became the gold standard for mechanical switches. Other manufacturers try to imitate them even going as far as copying their color scheme for the type of switch. Now that is not to say they are the best switch in the market. There is plenty of competitors out there offering fantastic switches. But Cherry MX for some will still be considered the best.

Cherry MX started as an American Company making an electronic switch for the automotive industry. In 1984 Cherry received a patient for what we would know today as the Cherry MX. After a good solid run, Cherry lost the patient in 2004 leaving behind the monopoly they had in the mechanical switch industry. Which gave rise to other brands on this list to go ahead and copy or make their own switches.

In 2008 Cherry Corp merged with a German company ZF electronics. Moving most of the production to Germany.

Most Popular Cherry MX switches

Most switches from other brands tend to go by Cherry MX classification. Other brands will create a red, blue, or brown switch that will have the same function as Cherry MX. Below we will be going through their most popular keys as noted other brands on the list will have similar keys based on these colorings.

Cherry MX Red

Behavior: Linear

Feel: Light

Actuation Force: 45g

Actuation Point: 2mm

Sound Level: Quiet

Total Travel Distance: 4mm

Cherry MX Red Switch

If you are looking for fast, fluent and minimal resistance in your keystroke then the Cherry MX Red is the switch for you. This is a linear switch so there is no tactile feedback or a distinctive click. just a light actuation and quit key.

Cherry MX Blue

Behavior: Clicky

Feel: Heavy

Actuation Force: 60g

Actuation Point: 2mm

Sound Level: Loud

Total Travel Distance: 4mm

Cherry mx Blue SWITCH

The MX blue is made primarily for the typist due to its distinctive click and tactile feedback. It has a two-piece slide construction which helps give the switch it that awesome sound. Due to its tactile point it requires a little bit more force to actuate at around 60g. Making rapid firing slightly harder to do comepared to linear switchs.

Cherry MX Black

Behavior: Linear

Feel: Heavy

Actuation Force: 60g

Actuation Point: 2mm

Total Travel Distance: 4mm

Sound Level: Quite

mx Cherry Black Switch

The Mx Black is a linear switch similar to the red but with a higher resistance by having an actuation force of 60 g. This is compared to the red switch which only has 45 g. Making it great for gaming and rapidly spamming those keys.

Cherry MX Brown

Behavior: Tactile

Feel: Medium

Actuation Force: 45g

Actuation Point: 2mm

Sound Level: Loud

Total Travel Distance: 4mm

MX Cherry Brown switch

The would be the middle ground of the keys offering tactile feedback, with medium actuation force. Perfect for both gamers and typist.

Cherry MX Speed

Behavior: Linear

Feel: Light

Actuation Force: 45 g

Actuation Point: 1.2mm

Total Travel Distance: 4mm

Sound Level: Silent

Cherry MX Speed

Cherry MX Speed is built for gamers. Similar to Reds in that they are a linear switch with a 45 g actuation force. They differ by having a lower actuation point of 1.2 mm. Allowing the user to press the button faster.


Cherry MX offers more than what I have just listed above. Like the Cherry MX Green or the Cherry MX Clear. These are just not as popular as the ones that are listed above.

Gateron

Depending on who you talk to. Gateron is a name that will most likely come up in conversation. They are regarded as one of the best mechanical switches on the market and offer a full range of linear, tactile, and clicky. For example, Gateron browns are considered to be smoother than their Cherry counterparts. While their blues also have a slightly more recognizable bump sensation on actuation. This might just all be a personal opinion.

Logitech

Logitech did their own thing and created proprietary Romer G switches from the scratch. Trying to keep the gamer in mind and created a key that would suit their needs. Cherries no matter how good they are were originally created for the typist and not the gamer. The Romer G series offer tactile, quiet, and linear each switch requires around 45 g of force but has a faster spring back.

interesting to note that the stem of the Romer G series is different from the traditional mechanical switches. Which makes finding aftermarket keycaps that much hard. Logitech did release their GX Blue switch which can be found on their G512 Mechanical keyboard have the same stem as you would find on cherry switches.

Kailh

If it can be made in Germany, then it can be made in china. Kailh switches are basically the cheaper version of Cherry MX. That is produced and manufactured in china by Kaihua Electronics Co. I wouldn’t pay too much attention to the stigma associated with products being produced in China. Kailh does offer high-quality switches for a decent price along with over 25 years of experience in the industry producing switches for top brands.

Kailh switch operates identical to Cherry MX, these are legal copy cat switches everything down to the coloring is the same. ( Main reason I only described the coloring of the switches on the Cherry.) Blue is tactile/clicky, Brown is tactile, and Red is linear so on and so forth.

Razor

Speaking of Kailh, Razor has there own line of mechanical switches that are manufactured by you guessed it Kailhua Electronics Company (Kailh). Now Razor didn’t do a direct copy of the switches from Cherry MX they just used Kailh for the manufacturing. Razor designed the switches to be more gamer orientated just like Logitech. Razor changed up the coloring a little when it comes to the difference between the keys and all of them have a less travel distance that you would generally see. The Razer Green Switch is similar to the Cherry MX Blue, Orange Switch can be compared to the Cherry MX Brown, and The Yellow Switch has similar characteristics as the Cherry MX Red. But as I said before the Orange, Green and Yellow switches all have less actuation distance.

SteelSeries

SteelSeries is still relatively new to the mechanical keyboard switches. But they do offer something no other brand does. Which is their Omnipoint mechanical switch. Which allows you to manually see the actuation distance. Anywhere from 0.4 mm to 3.6 mm, each key can be individually set to a certain actuation. This is achieved by using magnetic sensors that measure the pressed distance with each keystroke. The switches are linear and can be compared to Cherry MX Red. But the key difference is setting the actuation point yourself. Currently the Omnipoints are only available on the Apex 7 Pro.

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