Mechanical keyboard switches are the secret to a great keyboard. There are a variety of different switch types, each with its own advantages and disadvantages. Some switches are more tactile, while others are quieter. Some are better for gaming, while others are better for typing. It’s important to know what kind of mechanical switches you want on your keyboard before making a purchase.
What Are Keyboard Switches?
The popularity of mechanical keyboards has not diminished, even with the advent of membrane keyboards and their low cost of production. Ask any gamer or touch-typist, and they will detail the benefits of using mechanical keyboards – keyboards with switches under each key.
Mechanical keyboard switches are physical switches underneath the keys of a mechanical keyboard that register strokes and give the user more precise and accurate feedback compared to rubber membrane keyboards and their “mushy” feel – hence the name.
Key Switch Terminology
To become a proper enthusiast, it would be wise to learn about the key switch terminology for mechanical switches. Plus, if you’re going to learn about something, always build your knowledge from the ground up. Let’s look at the following terms:
- O-Ring: it’s a small ring that can be installed on a key stem (see under Switch Components) to prevent the key from hitting the bottom of the keyboard. They serve to dampen the sound of clicks and adjust the feel.
- Bottoming Out: it means pressing the key down. Unlike rubber dome keys, mechanical switches can actuate without the key bottoming out.
- Key Bounce: mechanical switches make and break electrical contact multiple times, so one switch press can be registered as multiple presses – also called chattering.
- Key Lifecycle: lifespan of a key switch represented by “n” million keystrokes.
- Double Tap: commonly used in gaming to rapidly hit the same key.
- Alps: an alternative switch style from the ’80s. Its rectangular stem is incompatible with other keycaps.
- Key Switch Colors: similar mechanical keyboard switches can be manufactured in several “colors,” each with different traits, such as sound, actuation force, or type of mechanical switches. Cherry MX switch color-coding is typically followed as a standard.
The Switch Components
There are five main components of mechanical switches that you should be concerned about: keycap, stem, coil spring, upper housing, and base housing. Let’s find out what they are!
This is the visible part of the keys on a keyboard. The keycap covers the switch and contributes to the sound generated when bottomed out.
The stem is the long plastic stick protruding from underneath the keycap. It’s responsible for actuating the mechanical switch and is what determines and regulates the keystroke feel and switch type.
The coil spring sits at the bottom of the switch. Its rigidity determines the pressure required to actuate the key and guides the switch back to its original position after actuation.
The upper housing is the visible covering on the switch. It holds down the various switch components while protecting and guiding the stem to the crosspoint contact. When you press the key, the housing secures all these parts and is the structure hit by the keycap.
The base housing holds all the components of a key switch together, including the upper housing. It is also the piece that attaches to the PCB and aids the crosspoint contact to connect to it.
4 Things to Consider When Choosing Your Switches
You need to consider 4 basic things when choosing your mechanical keyboard switches. Some of the factors that can affect your choice are related to the different types of mechanical switches, while others are concerned with technical factors.
Types of Switches
There are three types of mechanical keyboard switches depending on the keystroke behavior: tactile, linear, and clicky.
Linear switches are dubbed quiet switches and follow a simple operation; the keystroke involves a smooth up and down movement without tactile feedback or clicking noise.
You might prefer quiet switches if you’re an avid gamer or a fast typist since they allow for rapid actuation, are easy on your fingers, and are not annoying when double-tapping keys or typing quickly.
Unlike quiet switches, tactile switches provide tactile feedback – pressure patterns on the skin. You can notice a bump when pressing the key. Tactical feedback lets the user know that a key has been pressed before bottoming out.
To be more aware of their keystrokes, beginners and perfection-oriented typists might opt for these instead of quiet switches. If you don’t want to miss a keystroke or need a slight response to a keypress without bottoming out the keys, tactile mechanical switches are just for you.
Clicky switches are the exact opposite of quiet switches and provide auditory feedback to the user in the form of a satisfying clicking sound each time the key actuates.
Clicky switches are great if you like fun keys that make sounds. They’re also a good choice if you want distinct feedback of key actuating before bottoming out. However, if you find the repetitive clicking sounds annoying, these might not be for you.
You might want to consider the longevity of mechanical switches as well. They can generally last for 10 to 15 years or between 30 and 100 million keystrokes but depend on how they are used. Some brands like Cherry MX make switches rated at 50 million keystrokes, while others aim even higher.
Sound is another important factor. Mechanical switches can be quieter than rubber dome switches, so you might want to rethink your feedback preference. If you prefer silence, then go for linear or quiet switches. If accuracy is your goal and you require tactile or auditory feedback, go for the latter two switch types.
You also need to consider certain technical factors and understand their values depending on your keyboard usage or typing technique.
It’s the force required to press a key – measured in centinewton (cN) or gram-force (gf). Both are approximately equal to each other: 1 gf = 0.98 cN
Higher operation force switches are made for gamers, or anyone who loves key smashing.
Also called the actuation point, it is the point when the keystroke is registered by the keyboard and is measured in millimeters.
Total Travel Distance
Total travel distance is measured in millimeters and is the distance until your key bottoms out.
This is a characteristic of tactile and clicky switches. It is the position where your finger can register the tactile feedback from mechanical switches.
The reset point is the distance at which the key rebounds or deactivates to reset the switch.
Mechanical Keyboard Switch Brand
Cherry MX mechanical keyboard switches reign over the keyboard market for making superior quality switches. Their mechanical switches are very durable and are considered the gold standard of keyboard switches.
Other famous manufacturers include the names mentioned below. Many manufacturers, such as Gateron, use the Cherry MX cross stem design.
Kailh switches rival Cherry MX switches with dust and water-resistant Box switches and highly responsive Speed switches.
Razer is a famous gaming hardware manufacturer. The award-winning Razer mechanical switches were made in collaboration with Kaihua in 2014.
Gateron switches are popular with people who do not like the “scratchy” Cherry MX switches and share the same stem design.
Matias is a Canadian company famously recognized as a recreation of the Alps. It’s one of the most famous brands for people interested in mechanical keyboard switches.
Logitech is another company providing mechanical switches specifically designed for gaming. Its Romer-G boasts the shortest travel distance among all of Logitech’s competitors.
How to Change Mechanical Switches
You can change the mechanical switches on any keyboard, but consider getting a hot-swappable keyboard because other keyboards require soldering. With a hot-swappable keyboard, you can quickly change the switches without any experience!
Now follow these steps:
- Get mechanical switches of your choice (tactile, clicky, or quiet switches)
- Get a hot-swap keyboard.
- Use the keycap puller it came with to pull the keys. Carefully secure the arms of the puller underneath the keycap.
- Hook your switch puller under the top and bottom tabs of the switches.
- Squeeze with the puller to pull out the mechanical switches. (Switch pullers are often included with the hot-swap keyboard; otherwise, you can purchase them separately.)
- Replace with new switches while making sure not to bend the copper wires. A clicking sound will verify the switch has been inserted correctly.
- Put the keycaps back on, and voila!
We hope you’ve now learned everything there is to know about mechanical switches. If you’re a gamer or like a superior feeling when typing, mechanical switches are just for you. Although slightly on the pricey end, mechanical switches are far more durable than rubber membrane switches.
You even have plenty of options, from quiet switches to tactile and clicky ones! Grab a pack of mechanical switches, a hot-swap keyboard, and keycaps, and have fun customizing your very own keyboard!