What are keyboard switches?
When people are talking about mechanical keyboards they always mention the type of switches that the keyboard has. This might sounds as if it’s something trivial, after all a key press is a key press, but it’s anything but trivial.
Let’s first clarify: there are two main ‘types’ of keyboard, generally speaking. Rubber dome keyboards (which is what most cheaper/consumer grade keyboards are) and mechanical keyboards.
Rubber dome keyboards work by putting a sheet of of rubber over the keyboard circuitry with a little dome (hence the name) over the space where each key is, with the inside of every dome being coated in conductive materials. The keys are then placed on top of those domes. Each time you press a key you depress the dome, causing the top of the dome to make contact with the circuitry on the bottom of the keyboard, which completes the circuit and thus registers a key has been pressed.
Mechanical keyboards, on the other hand, have a complete switch (made up out of the housing, stem, and spring on top of which the actual keycap is placed) per key which provides a much snappier, more precise, and overall more pleasant feeling typing sensation. This, in itself, poses an advantage over regular rubber dome keyboards but the beauty of mechanical keyboards is that there’s a whole world of different keyboard switches out there. To the right there’s a gif (source: Razer) which visually explains how these things work as well.
Generally speaking, there are three different types of switches. Linear switches have a consistent and smooth feeling when pressed, with no real bump or resistance when the key press registers. Tactile switches have a noticeable ‘bump’ when you press them, and clicky switches also have a bump, but it comes with an audible clicking sound.
It is sometimes said that for gaming you’ll want linear switches (since they require less force to actuate) and for typing you’ll want tactile/clicky switches, but in practice this isn’t always the case. Plenty of gamers really love their clicky switches so this really is a matter of preference. But that’s one of the beautiful things about mechanical keyboards: you can just go with what you prefer.
Back when mechanical keyboards started getting popular in gaming there used to be only a handful of switch manufacturers, but nowadays there’s almost too many to list. That won’t stop us from trying though.
We’ll go over the most popular (gaming) switch manufacturers and briefly highlight what features they offer on their different switches. For now we’ve got the most commonly used switches on here, but of course we’ll keep updating this article in the future.
In this list we talk about the required actuation force (which basically means how hard you have to press the key for it to be registered), the actuation point (how far the key has to physically travel for it to active) and the total travel distance (how far the key goes before bottoming out).
Cherry MX is one of the ‘OG’ gaming keyboard switch manufacturers, which makes sense since they’ve been producing keyboard switches since the early 1980’s. The company itself is even older than that, being founded by Walter Cherry in 1953.
They produce a lot of switches, but we’ll go over the most often used ones here. All of these have an actuation point of 2 mm and a total travel distance of 4 mm, except for the Speed switches.
Red: A linear switch, and still one of the most popular choices out there. It’s a quiet and light switch (45G actuation force) which is very easy to actuate, making it an often chosen option for gaming.
Silent Red: Basically a silenced version of the red switches. There’s a small rubber piece inside the switch that muffles the sound of the key returning to its original position. The actuation force remains the same as that of the basic Reds.
Speed: These are basically Reds with a shorter actuation point (1.2 mm), which in theory makes them even faster to actuate, but since the difference is less than one millimeter the difference is really hard to notice in practice.
Black: Another linear option. Black switches are basically heavier versions of the Reds. They require an actuation force of 60g instead of the Reds 45g, which makes it so that there’s quite a bit more resistance.
Brown: This is Cherry MX’s most widely used tactile switch. It’s a great ‘split the difference’ option between linear and clicky switches. It offers a nice tactile bump when it’s actuated but doesn’t make a lot of noise in the process. These have an actuation force of 45G.
Blue: If you opt for Blues people will immediately notice that you’re using a mechanical keyboard, since these are very clicky. They offer a nice and tactile feedback and a very audible clicking sound whenever a key is actuated. They’re also quite a bit harder to press when compared to most other switches on this list, coming in at 60G.
Cherry MX thus offers a switch for every user, whether you want your switches to be dead silent or you want everyone to know when you’re typing.
Kailh is another company that’s been making switches for a pretty long time. They started producing mechanical switches in the early 90’s and were initially known to almost exactly copy Cherry MX’s designs. Nowadays they have a bunch of their own designs as well, which is why we’ve included them in this list. Some people even prefer the feeling of the Kailh clones over the Cherry MX originals. The experience on these clones is mostly the same, but there are slight differences to be found between the Cherry MX and Kailh versions.
All of the Cherry MX clones have an actuation point of 2 mm and a total travel distance of 4 mm. The Speed line has a shortened travel distance of 3.5 mm, with varying actuation points.
Red: This is a linear switch. Reds are often recommended for gaming because of their lightness and quietness. The Kailh variant is just a little heavier to press (50G) than the Cherry MX counterpart (45G).
Black: The same principle as with Cherry MX applies here; the Blacks are basically a heavier version (60G) of the Reds.
Brown: Kailh’s tactile switch. It offers a noticeable tactile feedback when actuated (50G) but doesn’t have an audible clicking sound to it.
Blue: If you read the Cherry MX entry you can guess what this is. It’s Kailh’s version of the clicky Blue switches. This one requires just a little less actuation force (55G) than the Cherry MX originals though.
Speed Silver: Kailh’s rendition of the Cherry MX Speed switches. It features a shorter actuation distance (1.1 mm) as opposed to the Reds, as well as a lighter actuation force (40G) which in theory makes it faster to use. These are also linear.
Speed Bronze: This is basically the same as the Speed Silver version, but this one offers a tactile and clicky sensation as opposed to the Silvers, which are linear. Great for if you want fast, gaming style key presses which are also pretty light at 50G, but you also like your clicks, since this has an extra spring that provides the click effect.
Speed Gold: Essentially the same as the Bronzes but with a slightly lower actuation point and without the extra spring, resulting in a slightly lighter actuation force at 50G. The actuation point here lies at 1.4 mm.
Speed Copper: This uses the same principle as their other Speed switches (shorter actuation distance) but offers a tactile bump without the clicks of the Bronze and Gold. This is a great middle ground switch between lightning fast gaming switches and tactile typing switches, requiring an actuation force of just 40G.
Box: Kailh also offers ‘boxed’ switches which reduce key wobble and make for an overall more stable typing experience. The color codes here are the same as with their standard switches, Red is linear, Black is also linear (but heavier), Brown is tactile, and White is clicky
As you can see Kailh offers a bit more than just Cherry MX clones these days. Their various Speed switches are a great option to consider if you want to have a light actuation force (and short actuation distance) while also having audible clicks or tactile bumps and the Box editions are a cool thing if you absolute want to eliminate key wobble.
Razer is one of the most popular peripheral manufacturers in the world, so it only makes sense that they have made their own keyboard switches. Razer tries to combine the popular characteristics of mainstay manufacturers such as Cherry MX but they also try to put their own spin on things. One of their focus point is durability; whereas most regular switches will ‘only’ last about 50 million presses, Razer’s own switches have a lifetime of 80 million strokes. While they initially tried to emulate the more traditional switches of this world they are now also designing their own, unique-feeling switches, which is something that we can only applaud.
Green: If you’re a fan of Cherry MX Blues then these are the ones to go for. The Greens are tactile and clicky yet their actuation force (50G) is slightly lighter than that of most similar switches. The actuation point lies at 1.9 mm and the total travel distance is 4 mm.
Orange: The equivalent of Cherry MX Browns. It has a slightly lighter actuation force (45G) than the Razer Greens, and does away with the clicky sound, making it ideal for someone who loves their tactile feedback but doesn’t want to make a lot of noise in the process. It has the same actuation point (1.9 mm) and travel distance (4 mm).
Yellow: Razer’s linear switch is one of the fastest and lightest on the mainstream market today. They’re light (45G) and silent and that combined with very little actuation travel (actuation point at 1.2 mm with a total travel of 3.5 mm) make these a very light and swift switch.
Opto-Mechanical: This is Razer’s attempt to make the fastest clicky and tactile switches on the market. It combines an optical laser (hence, the ‘opto‘) with a mechanical switch, making for a super light (45G) and fast switch (actuation point at 1.5 mm, total travel 3.5 mm) while still remaining clicky. These also have a durability rating of a whopping 100 million keystrokes.
Razer, as most keyboard manufacturers, started out using switches made by external companies, but lately they’ve been actively pushing their own technology, with success. Razer’s switches (especially the Yellows and Opto-Mechanicals) really do offer something new to the market while also offering familiar feeling switches.
Logitech, being that other huge peripheral manufacturer, obviously also wanted to shy away from using external solutions for their keycaps, and they as well have gotten to designing their own in-house solutions. This, so far, has produced some interesting results, with their own switches having a distinctive feeling that sets them apart from the pack of Cherry MX clones out there. Aside from that they also have a higher lifespan of 70 million keystrokes.
Romer-G Tactile: This is, as you could’ve guessed by the name, Logitech’s tactile switch. It has minimal travel distance (3.2 mm total distance, 1.5 mm actuation point) and a very low actuation force (45G), meaning that it’s a very swift feeling switch with a nice tactile bump to it.
Romer-G Linear: This is the linear version of the Romer-G Tactile, featuring the same travel distance, actuation point, and actuation force without the tactile bump.
GX Blue: This is Logitech’s version of the classic clicky MX Blues. If you’re looking for that familiar Blue feeling on a Logitech board this is the one to go for. With a 50G actuation force and an actuation point at 1.9 mm (with a total travel distance of 4 mm) these are a bit lighter to use than their traditional counterparts, however.
Logitech has managed to create their own switches, not just in name, but also in feel. There’s lots of room for different types of switches out there so that’s something we can only applaud.