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 come 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. Do note that this isn’t a review list: we’re merely trying to gather all the popular switches in one spot to help you decide on what you would want. For reviews on specific switches and keyboards you can always check our review section.
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 activate) 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.
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.
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.
Green: This is a slightly heavier version of the Blue switches. They offer the same clicky experience as well as a tactile bump but they’re heavier to actuate and have a longer pre travel, making them feel quite a bit heavier when in use.
Clear: This isn’t a very often used switch but it’s pretty much the heavier version of the Cherry brown. With a tactile bump but not real clicky sound it shares the same characteristics (down to the total travel distance and actuation distance) but requires more force to operate.
Grey: This is another switch that’s not often used. This is a linear switch but due to its heavy actuation force it’s not often used for gaming purposes.
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.
Silent Black: This is a silenced version of the black switches. It requires the same force but has slightly shorter travel times due to the dampeners inside the switch.
Speed Silver: These are basically reds with a shorter actuation point (1.2 mm), which makes them even faster to actuate. The required force is the same, though the total travel distance is shorter than what you find on red switches.
Low Profile Red: These are a much lower profile version of the regular Cherry MX switches. With a total travel distance of 3.2 mm and an actuation point of 1.2 mm they’re noticeably faster than most other Cherry MX switches, though the actuation force stays the same at 45G.
Low Profile Speed: These are very similar to the Low Profile Reds but their actuation point is at 1mm, making them even faster than the Reds. The total travel distance and required action force is the same though, at 3.2mm and 45G respectively.
Viola: These are switched made for ‘the value market’. They are linear with an actuation point at 2 mm and a total travel distance of 4 mm. What’s noticeable here is that the required force to press the switch is the regular 45G before you hit the actuation point, but it becomes 75G after you’ve hit that point. This gives them a rather unique feeling.
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 versions 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.
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 1.3 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
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 originally tried to combine the popular characteristics of mainstay manufacturers such as Cherry MX but they also try to put their own spin on things but have now pretty much gone their own way with their line of optical switches.
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. 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.
Optical Switches: These combine an optical laser with a mechanical switch, making for a super light and fast switch. Currently they’re available in a clicky and a linear version. Both feature very little actuation travel and a low total travel distance which gives them that speedy feeling. They’re also very durable: they’re rated at 100 million keystrokes.
Logitech, being another 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 Clicky: 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 2 mm (with a total travel distance of 3.7 mm) these are a bit lighter to use than their traditional counterparts, however.
GX Red Linear: These are Logitech’s version of the famed Cherry MX Red switches. They’re linear and with an actuation distance of 1.9 mm and travel distance of 4 mm they’re pretty much the same as their Cherry counterparts, though they’re a slight bit heavier to click with a required force of 50G.
GX Brown Tactile: You guessed it: this is Logitech’s take on Cherry MX Browns. The actuation distance of 1.9 mm and travel distance of 4 mm again come very close to their Cherry counterparts, though the Logitech switches are a bit heavier to press at 50G. These are tactile.
GL Switches: These are specifically designed low profile switches. They’re made to match their non-low profile counterparts as (so there’s a linear, tactile, and clicky offering) but they have shorter travel and are designed for low profile keyboards.
Gateron is another company that has started off focusing on making Cherry MX clones. Though they have a whole assortment of different switches you will usually see these Cherry-based ones in most gaming keyboards so that’s where we’re focusing on. Of course every company has slightly different feeling switches, even if they’re all based on the same principle. Gateron is known for having very smooth switches, which makes them a good brand to consider when you’re looking at linear switches in particular, doubly so because they offer a large lineup of linear switches where only the required force is different.
Clear: These are linear with a very low actuation force, making them feel very light. The actuation point and travel distance is pretty standard so it’s not the speediest feeling switch out there all things considered, but if you like a super light switch this is a very good one to consider.
Red: These are your basic Cherry red clones. It’s a linear switch.
Yellow: Is a slightly heavier version of the linear red switches.
Black: The heaviest linear switch in the ‘regular’ lineup.
Brown: Gateron’s take on the tactile Cherry brown switches.
Blue: This is a clicky switch and is Gateron’s version of the Cherry blues.
Green: This is a heavier version of the very clicky blue switches.
HyperX are the makers of some of the most popular keyboards in the pro scene, and recently they’ve started using their own switches instead of Cherry MX switches. As you’ll see they haven’t been too adventurous in creating their own switches so far but that of course doesn’t make them bad or not worth checking out.
Red: This is HyperX’s take on the super popular red type switch. It’s a linear switch with the same actuation force as its Cherry counterpart though the travel distance and actuation force is shorter, making it feel a bit faster.
Aqua: This is a tactile switch that you could say is based on browns but the aqua switch is noticeably lighter with an actuation force of 45 grams versus the 55 grams of the Cherry MX brown.
Blue: This is HyperX’s clicky switch. Once again this is noticeably lighter than the Cherry MX that it’s based on, and that combined with the shorter overall travel makes it feel quite a bit faster.
Fnatic uses Cherry MX switches in their (older) boards but have recently developed their own switches too. The Low Profile Speed switches were developed along with Kailh and are currently (according to Fnatic) the fastest purely mechanical switches on the market. With an actuation point at just 1 millimeter and a total travel distance of 3.2 millimeter they are indeed very quick to actuate, and that combined with the rather light 45G actuation force that’s required makes for some very speedy switches. The Low Profile Speed switches are linear.
SteelSeries uses Kailh switches in their boards but has recently been using OmniPoint switches in their boards. That is a linear switch with a customizable actuation point, ranging anywhere from 0.4 to 3.6 mm. What’s cool here is that this is configurable on a per-key basis. This means that you can set your WASD keys, for example, to be super light and have some of the more important keys be heavier so that you don’t accidentally chuck a grenade when you touch your key.