Last time, I’ve written a piece that served as a little bit of a basic guide to the world of keycaps. Now that you know – or have a relative idea – of what you would like for keycaps, now it is time to give you the talk about mechanical keyboard switches, or the mechanism underneath the keycap that vary in terms of feel.
And yes, believe it or not, it goes beyond “membrane vs mechanical” for keyboards. On the mechanical side, it gets much, much deeper – the feel of each key as you press down on it. And the feel differs from person to person.
In this guide you’ll learn not only each part that comprises the mechanical keyboard switch but also the types of switches available, categories of switches, family of switches, and what you should look out for when you’re purchasing your first set of switches, so you can get an idea of what you may desire in your switch.
What you should look for when purchasing your first keycap switch sets
Actuation point. The point where the keypress is recognized by the PCB board, measured in millimeters.
Operation force. How hard you have to press the key, measured in centinewton (cN).
Total travel distance. Distance between the starting point of the keycap and bottoming out, measured in millimeters.
Tactile position. Where you feel the bump, only registered on tactile and clicky switches.
Reset point. The distance where the key is deactivated when released.
Life cycle. The number of presses a keycap is able to withstand before failing.
Light: 0 – 55cN
Medium: 55 – 75cN
Heavy: 75 – 95cN
Super Heavy: 95+cN
Parts of the mechanical keyboard switch
Keycap. Technically not part of the switch, but the keycap helps the switch create the noise that occurs when the key is bottomed out.
Stem/Plunger/Slider. The part directly underneath the keycap. The stem comes in various shapes and sizes and affects the travel distance and actuation point. It’s largely responsible for the feel of the key when pressed.
Switch housing. This part protects the stem, consisting of the upper housing that guides the stem, and the base housing is where the upper housing is mounted and is where PCB is clipped. The upper housing also determines the lighting effect of the LED/RGB (a hole in the upper housing means more light to shine through).
Spring. Determines the amount of pressure needed to actuate the key and also guides the key back to its original position after pressing.
Metal contact leaves. The tiny metallic piece that serves as a conductor for electricity. When a key is pressed, this piece sends a message to the PCB, registering the press.
Categories of Keyboard Switches
Membrane. These particular switches utilize dome rubber or silicones to simulate the spring structure of the mechanical keyboard. However, membrane switches are a lot quieter compared to mechanical switches, are lighter (making them easier to carry around), and are more affordable. It typically requires a lot more effort to type on them, being mushy.
Linear. Linears have no bump attached to the switch, making them the smoothest experience possible on a switch. Red, Speed switches fall under the linear category.
Tactile. These switches contain a tactile bump you feel after you press down, letting you know that the key has been activated. Brown and blue switches are two popular tactile switches.
Clicky. These switches make a “click” sound when pressed. Not to be confused with tactile switches – some clicky switches are tactile, but not all tactile switches are clicky.
Popular Families of Switches
Cherry MX switch. This is the standard switch type found in modern mechanical keyboards (especially in popular gaming keyboards), developed by German manufacturer Cherry back in the 1980s. Cherry MX switches are available in various colors. Features a cross-shaped stem.
Kailh/Kaihua. Kailh switches are Cherry clone switches that is often considered to be higher quality (according to enthusiasts).
Razer. Razer’s own manufactured switches to go alongside its keyboards. Created in 2014, these switches are known to be responsive, with higher durability compared to Cherry MX switches.
Logitech. Yes, Logitech may have Cherry MX switches equipped to some of its mechanical keyboards, but it does craft and use its own switches, namely the Romer G switch and GX.
Steelseries. Like Logitech and Razer, Steelseries has its own proprietary switches, named the QS1. QS1 switches are quiet and tactile with just 45g of actuation force, making them somewhat similar to Cherry MX Browns.
Scissor. Scissor switches are switches that feature two interconnecting plastic pieces that attach the key to the keyboard. When pressed and depressed, the switch moves in a scissor-esque fashion. These particular keys are most commonly used on laptop keyboards.
Membrane. This is the most common keyboard switch type, crafted with simplicity in mind and is for budget-conscious users. Membrane utilizes rubber dome switches, which – when depressed – completes the circuit layered onto the PCB board. The lifespan of membrane switches is only 5 to 10 million keystrokes. They also sound mushy, making them undesirable for many keyboard users.
Roccat. Roccat like the other mechanical keyboard Titans has created its own proprietary switch – the Roccat Titan – which is the heavier cousin of the Cherry MX Brown.
Topre. Topre switches are huge in Japan, but it is possible to get these switches in the West. These are a blend between the membrane and mechanical keys, featuring rubber dome switches. Topre switches have an actuation force of just 5g, so if you want the lightest touch (and don’t like the idea of finger exercises), then consider the topre switches.
Gateron. Another Cherry MX clone that is known for its low costs. Also widely enjoyed. It was established by the Huizhou Gateron Electronic Technology Co., Ltd back in 2000.
Alps. Alps has been around for almost four decades, and for good reason. To this day, Alps Electric Corporation has created several switches, with a life span of 20 million keystrokes.
Invyr. Creates the Panda linear switch, produced by the same manufacturers as BSUN switches.
Greetech. Greetech is another Chinese brand that sells Cherry MX clones cheaper than the value of Cherry MX switches.
Outemu. Cherry clones that differ from Cherry by the switch housing design. Outemu LED switches have a clear top so they’ll be most compatible with backlighting. As for quality, it seems to go either way for the community. You either love them or hate ’em.
Popular Types of Switches
Blue Switches. Blue switches are tactile and clicky, often preferred by writers and programmers alike (personally, I prefer light linears for writing/programming, but it is a personal preference). Cherry MX Blue is the most popular blue switch.
Red Switch. Red switches are popular among gaming keyboards and require little pressure to activate, bearing linear qualities.
Black Switch. These void switches are linear, similar to red switches, but require a bit more force to activate. If you go with black, you’ll build muscle in your fingers (not really, as fingers don’t contain muscles).
Brown Switch. Brown switches contain tactile bumps and are a preference for writers and programmers. These have a lighter bump compared to blue switches.
Clear Switch. Clear switches are light, linear, and require little to no effort to activate, making them a favorite among typists.
Silver Switch. The silver switches, such as Cherry MX Silver, are similar to their red switch counterparts in the sense that they are both linear and light to the touch. However, the silver switch is lighter, with the actuation point being at just a whopping 1.2mm, whereas the other Cherry MX switches are 2mm.
Zealios Zilents. Zilents are, as the name suggests, are all about not annoying your roommates/family members/pets (who can be roommates and family members). Zilents feature tactile feedback and come in four varieties, rated by the “bottom out” force rather than by actuation point: 62g, 65g, 67g, and 78g. The V2 series features a redesigned dampener.
Oreo. Okay, so this one isn’t exactly the most popular, but the Everglide Oreo sounds delicious, doesn’t it? Well, this particular switch comes with a crisp and responsive tactile bump, though when you bottom out, you’ll end up with a cushy experience. Features smokey housing and clear/white stems.
Trash Panda. BSUN GSUS switch clones, with the same housing, stem, leaf, and spring. Perfect for creating Holy Panda switches (combing the stem of Halo switch with the housing of a YOK Trash Panda).
Holy Pandas. These ethereal, cuddly switches are born from the stems of Halo Clears/Halo Trues and the housing of Invyr Panda switches. This creates one of the most tactile switches ever crafted.
Polar Pandas. Brr… these switches are essentially BSUN GSUS switch clones, with the same housing, stem, leaf, and spring, but with a blue color. The spring weight is 60g (bottom out), and the actuation is a mere 50g.
Where to Buy Switches
Remember: Switches Determine the Feel of the Keyboard
And there you have it! Switches are just one aspect of the keyboard, next to the keycaps and artisan keycaps. Of course, there’s so much more to switches. For instance, you can increase the smoothness of the keypress by lubing the switches, so if you feel that your keys/switches are a little too scratchy, lube them up!
That’s the beauty of custom mechanical keyboards – you can customize however you’d like!