Keyboards Knowledge Hub

Which Mechanical Keyboard Switch Is the Best? – Our Full Guide!

FI_Mechanical Keyboard Switches Explained

Mechanical keyboards have significantly grown in popularity over a number of years. New designs are constantly hitting the market, offering new switches, or providing the end-user with the option to swap out some of the individual parts. But this begs the question, what are mechanical keyboard switches? And what are the differences between them?

In this article, we’ll be answering all of your burning questions when it comes to mechanical switches. This series of knowledge hub articles seeks to provide all of the answers for anything PC building and gaming, whether you’re upgrading or starting from fresh. In today’s piece, we’ll be taking a look at keyboard switches, what they are, and how they differ.

What Are Mechanical Switches?

A mechanical switch is the piece of hardware that sits underneath the keycaps of your keyboard. When you push down a mechanical switch, your finger is pushing a low-friction stem that is resisted by a spring. The resistance and feel that each mechanical switch provides is the main point to focus on here.

Mechanical keyboards have been around for a while. Options like the IBM Model F and Model M brought mechanical switches into the limelight back in the 70s and 80s. These keyboards used a ‘buckling spring’ switch. These nostalgic and rather shrill designs contained a spring that ‘buckled’ when pressed.

MPI_LoFree Flow Switch and PCB Hole

The vast majority of mechanical switches are all constructed similarly, but the resistance between them will differ, resulting in a different feel when you type and play games. Mechanical switches are made up of five component parts, these are:

  • Top Housing – This half holds your mechanical switch together and also contributes to the sound and resistance of your switch dependent on the materials used.
  • Stem – The internal pole of the switch moves down a shaft actuating a keypress, while producing some form of feedback.
  • Leaves – Two leaves sit inside your switch and will connect once your stem is pressed far enough completing a circuit and actuating a keypress.
  • Spring – The spring provides the physical resistance of your switch and will entirely differ, dependent on the switches your keyboard uses.
  • Bottom Housing – This is the lower half of the switch that holds the entire mechanism together, and holds the click or tactile jacket. The pins on the bottom also connect to your keyboard’s PCB.

Why is Choosing the Right Switch Important?

Choosing the right mechanical switch is important for a few reasons. The main ones are feel, sound, and responsiveness. These factors are entirely preferential, but they are still important nonetheless.

The feel and sound of a mechanical switch go hand in hand. You could be looking for creamy and silent keyboard with switches that offer minimal resistance, or even instant feedback with high noise levels. But because there are so many different types of switch on the market that offer a different feel, choosing the right set of switches is vital.

MPI_Corsair K70 Core Red Switch and Keycap

Responsiveness effectively determines how much force you need to apply which then actuates the switch. The resistance of the spring inside a mechanical switch changes, dependent on the switch that you’ve chosen.

This is particularly important for both typing and gaming. Gaming requires speed and high responsiveness, so picking out a switch with minimal resistance is important. While typists can get away with more resistance as you’re normally using more than just a couple fingers and your hand muscles to press down on each key.

Mechanical Switch Types

Clicky Switches

The most well known type of switches are known as ‘Clicky’. The reason why they are called this, is because of the sound they make when pressed, which is a click. These switches are amongst the most popular options on the market, and have a long history.

MPI_MSI Vigor GK50 Elite Clicky Switches
MSI Vigor GK50 Elite Clicky Switches

As a general rule of thumb, Clicky switches tend to have a bit more resistance in comparison to other options, because the switch doesn’t actuate until you hear a click sound. For this reason, Clicky switches are generally more popular among typists as opposed to gamers, as responsiveness is key during an intense game.

Tactile Switches

Tactile switches are similar in responsiveness to Clicky switches, but instead of an audible click sound, you’re provided with a quieter ‘bump’. For this reason, Tactile switches offer a nice middle ground for those that want the physical feedback response, but aren’t a big fan of the noise that comes with Clicky switches.

MPI_Tinker 65 CherryMX Brown Switch
CherryMX Brown Tactile Switch

It is relatively easy to denote whether your switch is Tactile based on its colour. Tactile is generally represented by brown, but there are other brands that will use alternative colours. In terms of specs, Tactile switches offer less resistance than most Clicky switches, while providing less travel too.

Linear Switches

Linear switches are the smoothest of the three types, providing no physical feedback as the switch bottoms out. These switches are ideal for those that prefer minimal noise from their keyboard. Linear options are incredibly popular, and are generally geared more towards gamers, as you’re able to rapidly press the switch with little resistance.

MPI_LoFree Flow KailhxTTC POM Switch
Lofree Flow Linear Switch

Linear switches come in a plethora of different colours and shapes, but they are normally represented by the colour Red. The main goal of a Linear switch is to maximise smoothness, which is why you’ll find so many different options on the market that are finely tuned to provide a smooth actuation but with different levels of force required.

Switch Specs Explained

Each mechanical keyboard switch has a set of specs which determine the responsiveness, feel, and force required for the keypress to provide a response. We’ve briefly explained these specs and what they affect below:

  • Operating Force: This is the physical force required for the switch to actuate and for your desktop or laptop to provide a response. This is measured in centinewtons (cN), but is also denoted as ‘gf’ (which is gram force).
  • Travel: Travel refers to the stem of the switch moving down the switch shaft as you press a key. This is measured in millimetres.
  • Actuation Distance: The actuation distance is how far the stem of your mechanical switch has to go down before it activates. This is also known as ‘pre-travel’.
  • Total Travel: The total travel of your mechanical switch is the full distance that the stem will travel before it hits the bottom of the switch. This is referred to as ‘bottoming out’.

Available Switches

In this section we’ll be taking a look at some of the most popular switches on the market from a range of manufacturers that offer a different feeling and responsiveness.

CherryMX Switches

CherryMX Switches are the foundational designs that the vast majority of modern switches are built upon. CherryMX revolutionised the market with more affordable parts, and a simplistic switch design that made building a mechanical keyboard much easier. They are one of the most popular brands, offering reliable and premium switches that cater to a plethora of buyers.

Switch NameSwitch TypeOperating ForceActuation Distance Total Travel
MX BlueClicky60cN2.2mm4m
MX BrownTactile55cN2mm4mm
MX RedLinear45cN2mm4mm
MX Black Linear60cN2mm4mm
MX Speed SilverLinear45cN1.2mm3.6mm
MX Silent RedLinear45cN1.9mm3.7mm
MX Silent BlackLinear60cN1.9mm3.7mm
MX Low-Profile RedLinear45cN1.2mm3.2mm
MX Low-Profile SpeedLinear45cN1mm3.2mm
MX GreenTactile80cN2.2mm4mm
MX GreyTactile80cN2mm4mm

CherryMX Blue, Browns, and Reds are the main three that are in the favour of most gamers and typists. Clicky and Tactile are generally geared towards everyday users, and typists, while Reds are perfect for gaming.

The alternative colours like Black, Green and Grey offer a different feeling, while minimising errors due to a higher operating force. The low-profile designs are specifically designed for small form factor keyboards. MX Speed switches have a lesser actuation distance, enabling fast key presses which again is perfect for competitive gaming.

Kailh Switches

A popular Cherry ‘clone’ are Kailh switches. These designs have surged in popularity with Kailh becoming a go-to option for many buyers and enthusiasts. Many Kailh switches are closely aligned with the CherryMX options, with similar naming schemes and colours.

Switch NameSwitch TypeOperating ForceActuation DistanceTotal Travel
Kailh RedLinear49cN1.9mm4mm
Kailh BlueClicky58cN1.9mm4mm
Kailh BrownTactile58cN1.9mm4mm
Kailh Box RedLinear44cN1.8mm3.6mm
Kailh Box BrownTactile44cN1.8mm3.6mm
Kailh Box WhiteClicky44cN1.8mm3.6mm
Kailh Speed SilverLinear39cN1.1mm3.5mm
Kailh Speed BronzeClicky49cN1.1mm3.5mm
Kailh Speed GoldTactile49cN1.4mm3.5mm
Kailh Box JadeClicky49cN1.8mm3.6mm
Kailh CanaryTactile41cN2mm4mm

Kailh popularised the ‘Box’ variants that are used in a variety of OEM keyboards. You can easily distinguish a Box switch versus a regular one, by looking at the walled stem. This design approach provides extra stability, minimising any keycap wobble. Box switches are also protected from dust and moisture, reducing the possibility of any dust clogging up the switch shaft and creating extra friction.

While Kailh switches are similar to CherryMX in terms of the way each switch works, these designs are more refined in terms of their actuation force, feel, and materials used. Kailh mechanical switches are generally more affordable, which is why you’ll see them used in a range of budget-oriented keyboards. However, they offer a myriad of switches, with all of them catering to a vast set of use-cases. The table that we’ve provided only scratches the surface when it comes to Kailh options.

Gateron Switches

Gateron is a major manufacturer from China offering a range of Cherry clones and alternative options. The main selling point of Gateron switches (especially their Cherry clones), is smoothness. Out of the box, Gateron switches offer minimal friction, providing smooth travel regardless of the switch type.

Keyboards with Gateron switches are very popular amongst typists and enthusiasts due to their overall smoothness, and are commonly seen within high-end keyboards on the market.

Switch NameSwitch TypeOperating ForceActuation DistanceTotal Travel
G Pro RedLinear44cN2mm4mm
G Pro BlueClicky58cN2.3mm4mm
G Pro BrownTactile53cN2mm4mm
G Pro YellowLinear49cN2mm4mm
Zealio V2Tactile60cN4mm4mm
Oil KingLinear53cN2mm4mm
Ink V2Linear58cN2mm4mm
AlpacaLinear60cN2mm4mm
Milky Yellow KS-3X1 ProLinear49cN2mm4mm
Baby Kangaroo 2.0Tactile57cN2mm3.4mm

Much like Kailh, there are a vast amount of Gateron switches available, but they primarily specialise in Linear options with their Oil King, Zealio, and Alpaca sets sitting at the top of many wishlists. The table we’ve provided covers some common and popular Gateron switches that you’re likely to encounter in the wild.

Corsair, ASUS & Other Switches

We’ve covered some of the most popular switches on the market from reputable and well recognised manufacturers. However, there are a number of other brands such as Corsair, ASUS, Logitech, Razer and others, that all produce their own switches for mechanical gaming keyboards. Most of these brands offer the three main types of switch, adhering to the standardised Clicky, Tactile, and Linear options.

Switch NameSwitch TypeOperating ForceActuation DistanceTotal Travel
Romer-G GX BlueClicky49cN2mm4mm
Romer-G GX BrownTactile49cN1.9mm4mm
Romer-G GX RedLinear49cN1.9mm4mm
GL Low-Profile BrownTactile49cN1.5mm2.7mm
GL Low-Profile RedLinear49cN1.5mm2.7mm
GL Low-Profile WhiteClicky49cN1.5mm2.7mm
Razer GreenClicky49cN1.9mm4mm
Razer YellowLinear44cN1.2mm3.5mm
Razer Orange Tactile49cN2mm3.5mm
ASUS NX SnowLinear44cN1.8mm3.6mm
ASUS NX StormClicky63cN1.8mm3.6mm
ASUS NX RedLinear44cN1.8mm4mm
ASUS NX BlueClicky63cN2.3mm4mm
ASUS NX BrownTactile56cN2mm4mm
ASUS RX RedLinear53cN1.5mm4mm
ASUS RX BlueClicky63cN1.5mm4mm
Corsair OPXLinear44cN1mm3.2mm
Corsair MGXLinear44cN0.4mm – 3.6mm4mm
Corsair MLXLinear44cN1.9mm4mm

While some of these switches will offer slightly different profiles that change the actuation force, sound, and feel, there are some similarities between them. Corsair and ASUS in particular, stand out versus the competition due to the innovative nature of their newer switches.

Corsair’s MGX magnetic Linear switches provide you with the ability to customise the actuation distance. Alternatively, ASUS’ optical RX switches are incredibly smooth and offer a walled design that minimises wobble.

Conclusion

In this article we’ve done a deep dive on mechanical keyboard switches, delving into the various types, along with how they affect the feeling, noise levels, and responsiveness of your keyboard. There are a myriad of switches on the market geared towards a huge range of different buyers, with Linear being one of the most popular options based on how many manufacturers produce this type.

Before we wrap up, we wanted to highlight some keyboards that we’ve reviewed that utilise one of the three main switch types. We’ve given all of these keyboards an award, based on their various design qualities making them standout against the competition.

Best Linear Switch Keyboard: LoFree Flow

The LoFree Flow is one of the smoothest keyboards on the market, offering near-silent keystrokes within a compact form factor. The sleek minimalist design will blend in well with most setups, and the Kailh POM switches are fully hot-swappable, allowing you to alter the design to your heart’s content.

MPI_Lofree Flow

Best Clicky Switch Keyboard: MSI Vigor GK50 Elite

MSI’s Vigor GK50 Elite is an excellent budget keyboard that utilises Kailh Box White switches. This mechanical keyboard offers a satisfying click upon every key press, along with a rigid and robust design that has customisable RGB lighting.

MPI_MSI Vigor GK50 Elite

Best Tactile Switch Keyboard: ProjectD Tinker65

ProjectD’s Tinker65 is a keyboard geared towards enthusiasts on a budget. Sporting CherryMX brown switches out of the box, each keystroke is both quiet and gratifying, providing responsiveness in the form of a small bump. The Tinker65 also has a hot-swappable PCB, allowing you to change out the switches and keycaps as you please.

MPI_Tinker 65 Wide

editor
Jay Harris is an expert in everything PC hardware! With a degree in Cybersecurity, and a PC hardware background Jay has all of the technical knowledge required to make informed recommendations. Jay is an avid keyboard builder and gamer, with a major passion for tech. In fact, Jay's personal rig boasts a white RX 7900 XTX graphics card, inside of the Lian O11D Mini - a true enthusiast's dream!