Mechanical keyboard switches: A guide to switch options

  • Mechanical keyboard switches are the mechanisms under the keycaps on a mechanical keyboard that enable you to type faster and more precisely.
  • There are three kinds of mechanical keyboard switches: linear, tactile, and clicky. 
  • Linear switches are the smoothest and fastest, and are generally preferred by gamers. 
  • Touch typists tend to prefer tactile switches because of the feedback. 
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While membrane keyboards are more common thanks to their low cost, touch typists and gamers will often opt to use a mechanical keyboard instead. Thanks to the mechanical switches hiding under the keycaps, these keyboards are more precise and allow you to type faster. 

Mechanical keyboard switches are not all the same, though, and the kind of switch literally defines the style of keyboard and what it’s best used for in the same way a car is defined by the kind of motor under the hood. Here is what you need to know about mechanical keyboard switches. 

How a mechanical keyboard switch works

A mechanical keyboard gets its name from the fact that there is a mechanical switch under the keycap. Rather than a rubber membrane that provides mushy resistance to your keystroke, a mechanical key feels precise because your finger is forcing a low-friction mechanism to slide down a shaft that’s actively resisted by a spring. 

Every switch is composed of a few key components. The easily removable keycap snaps onto the stem, which, depending on its shape and height, determines the total distance it can travel and how far to its actuation distance — how far it must be pushed to register the keystroke. The stem is supported by a spring, which is contained within the housing. 

mechanical keyboard switch

Typical mechanical keyboard switches look like this, with the stem visibly protruding from the housing.

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Some keys have an additional component — a “bump” or click midway through the key’s travel, usually made possible by a springy metal clip that the stem needs to push past as it’s depressed. 

Finally, the switch needs to complete an electrical circuit when actuated with metal contacts.  

Types of mechanical keyboard switches

There are three types of mechanical switches, and these define the keyboard, as well as who will want to use it (and why). 

Linear switches

A linear switch is the simplest mechanical switch because the stem travels up and down without being impeded in any way — hence the name. The key registers the stroke, or actuates, when it bottoms out at the end of its travel. Gamers tend to prefer this kind of switch because it allows for fast and unambiguous control within a game when fractions of a second count. 

While there are a number of brands that sell mechanical keyboards, Cherry is the best known. The Cherry MX Red is a very common linear switch, so much so that gamers tend to refer to “red switches” as a shorthand for linear.  

Tactile switches 

This is similar to a linear switch but there is a bump in the middle of its downward travel. This bump lines up with the actuation point, which happens before the key bottoms out. This does a few things. It enables faster typing because each key doesn’t need to travel as far to actuate. At the same time, it’s quieter than linear switches because touch typists don’t need to bottom out the keys. And they have a feel that many typists prefer, thanks to the noticeable tactile bump. 

For all those reasons, this is generally the switch of choice for typists who don’t also play games. Cherry’s Cherry MX Brown is a common tactile switch.

Mechanical keyboard switches 2

A detent on the side of the stem lets tactile switches like the Cherry MX Brown feel “bumpy” when pressed.


Clicky switches 

A variation of the tactile switch, a clicky switch makes a noticeable click at the bump. As you can imagine, these are the loudest of the mechanical keyboards, because every stroke results in a clicking sound. They’re reassuring for beginners who aren’t yet comfortable behind a keyboard and need additional feedback while typing. Some typists simply prefer the sound of clicky keyboards as well. 

Keep in mind, though, that these are loud keyboards and can be distracting if you’re working around other people. The Cherry MX Blue is perhaps the best-known clicky switch.

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