Mechanical keyboard switches: The straightforward guide
When it comes to keyboards, some folks are real particular about the way in which it feels and sounds. Me? The more it click-clacks, the better. If you’re a gamer, you may prefer a keyboard with mechanical switches, as they provide better tactile feedback by springing back when you press down on them. Mechanical keyboards are both durable and customizable, too. But mechanical keyboards simply wouldn’t exist without mechanical switches, which are the mechanisms under the keycaps that directly impact feel and precision.
If you’re looking to customize your gaming keyboard with new switches, we’re here to help you through that process. From the three major switch types to how these mechanisms actually work, we’ll cover just about everything.
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What is a mechanical switch and how does it work??
Simply put, mechanical switches are the mechanisms that live underneath the keycaps on a mechanical keyboard. These switches impact everything from feel to sound and make for a more precise typing experience. Membrane keyboards, on the other hand, have rubber domes underneath the keycaps, so the typing experience feel rather mushy as a result. You won’t feel any tactile feedback or hear a satisfying click when you push the key down.
The switch beneath the keycap consists of a spring, prong, and stem. As you can see in the gif above, when the key is pressed down, the prong moves out of the way. When you release the key, the spring snaps back up and the prong returns to its resting position. This whole mechanism is responsible for providing tactile feedback and a loud clicking nose.
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When it comes to mechanical switches, there are three different types. As with most things that exist in the universe, each switch type has its pros and cons. But it really boils down to what kind of typing experience you’re looking for. Are you interested in more precision when it comes to first-person-shooter games? You may want to consider linear switches then, as they allow for faster actuation. Want your keyboard to sound more like an old-fashioned typewriter? Clicky switches are a cacophony of sound.
Here’s an easy-to-follow breakdown of the different switch types:
- Linear switches: If you’re looking for a quiet typing experience, linear switches are your best bet. They’re pretty straightforward in terms of how they operate. Basically, they just go up and down. Unlike tactile switches, which offer feedback, you won’t feel a bump before the key reaches the bottom of the keyboard. They’re completely noiseless, too. That said, if you’re heavy-handed, you may hurt your fingers. Linear switches offer such a smooth and consistent typing experience, so it’s easy to bottom out when pressing on them. These types of switches really take some getting used to.
- Tactile switches: If you want to know if your keystrokes are being logged, tactile switches are a very good option. When a tactile switch depresses, you’ll feel a bump at the midway point. This lines up with the moment the key actuates, which is when the key sends a command to the computer’s brain. If you’re a relatively fast typist, the infamous “bump” serves as a good indicator of actuation. They’re also quieter than clicky switches and they’re pretty durable.
- Clicky switches: These switches are just plain fun. They produce a loud audible click and tactile feedback (much like tactile switches). They’re a good option for writers (hey girl). That said, they might not be the best choice for gamers. They’re pretty darn loud, which might be distracting if you’re talking to your teammates over Discord. The same goes for an office setting or environment. You don’t want to ignite the ire of your fellow coworkers.
When it comes to mechanical switches, most enthusiasts refer to different “Cherry MX” colors from that company’s popular lineup. There’s a lot of variety out there, but for the four main types, you’ll find the tactile and clicky Blues, the tactile but quieter Browns (and their stiffer Clear cousins), the heavy linear Blacks, and the light linear Reds. Many keyboard companies offer alternative switches, some based on the sound and feel of more popular Cherry offerings. Razer’s Green switches are a decent stand-in for Cherry Blues, for example.
Which one should I pick?
Depends! Do you prefer a quieter typing experience or a grand symphony of clickity-clacks? Personally, as someone who writes and edits for a living, I enjoy a louder typing experience. If the sound of clicking makes your ears bleed, you’ll want to spring for linear switches, which produce little to no sound. Many gamers prefer linear switches because they allow for faster typing and more precise keystrokes. In other words, they require less force to press on your end. This is important for competitive shooters, where every second counts. The idea is to minimize as many accidental keystrokes as possible.
If you want to make sure your keystrokes are actually actuating (say that five times fast), tactile or clicky switches are best suited for that. Not only are they loud, but they also offer tactile feedback. While these types of switches are great fun to use, they may not be the best option for a work environment or gaming purposes. Honestly? They’re just very loud. They could easily be a distraction in an office setting or if you’re trying to chat with your gaming buddies.
If you’re looking to go even deeper down the rabbit hole, check out our guide on 6 points to consider when buying a mechanical keyboard, which is focused on the sort of ultra-custom boards that mechanical keyboard enthusiasts love to cobble together. Whatever you end up choosing, we hope you’re able to make a more informed decision.