Mechanical Keyboard Switches Explained: Types, Colors, & More

Mechanical Keyboard Switches Explained: Types, Colors, & More

A pile of mechanical keyboard switches
Switches are the assemblies that give mechanical keyboard keys a unique feel and sound. Linear (red) switches are best for gaming and provide constant resistance. Tactile (brown) switches offer stronger resistance right before they’re activated, while clicky (blue) switches do much the same but also provide an audible “click.”

Mechanical keyboard switches come in a variety of shapes and sizes, making it easy to find one to fit your needs. Here’s a look at the three categories of switches and why you should consider each one.

What Is a Keyboard Switch?

Mechanical keyboard switches are the part of your keyboard responsible for registering all of your keystrokes. Many of them produce a tactile “click” when pressed, though they come in different styles with varying levels of noise. All switches are composed of several individual pieces—and familiarizing yourself with how keyboard switches work is an important part of shopping for a new keyboard.

An exploded view of the Cherry MX Red.

At the most basic level, keyboard switches sit underneath your keycaps and are responsible for registering every press of every button. Here’s a closer look at their anatomy to help you wade through all the jargon you’ll encounter while hunting down a new mechanical keyboard:

  • Stem: This is the part of the switch that actually moves when you make a keystroke. This part is also responsible for determining how a key feels when depressed, with some stems resulting in loud clicks and others offering a quieter response.
  • Metal Contacts: When the upper and lower metal contacts touch, a keystroke is registered.
  • Spring: After every keypress, your key needs to reset to its original position. This is carried out by the internal spring.
  • Housing: All the components of the switch are contained inside the housing, which is composed of both a top and bottom section.

While not technically part of a switch, you’ll also want to know about keycaps. These sit on top of switches and are the part of the keyboard you interact with when typing. Most keycaps can be swapped out at any time, so long as they share the same type of connection as the underlying switches.

Three Types of Mechanical Switches

The above components can be found in all mechanical switches, though not all mechanical switches are built the same way. Three distinct groups of mechanical switches exist, with each one offering unique performance and designed for different uses.

  • Linear – Red: These switches provide a consistent, smooth keypress. Linear switches don’t feature a tactile “click” or much resistance, making red the best mechanical switch color for gaming. Since you don’t have to deal with additional force as you press down these keys, they make for a smooth gaming experience and let you quickly react to the on-screen action.
  • Tactile – Brown: These keys are designed to let you know exactly when you’re about to actuate them. This is done with an added bit of resistance, or a noticeable bump, right before you hit the actuation depth. Tactile switches are among the best mechanical keyboard switches for typing.
  • Clicky – Blue: Clicky switches are similar to tactile switches, as they let you know when they’ll be actuated by offering additional resistance as you press down on your keys. However, blue switches combine the physical, tactile response with an audible click—which is popular with a wide variety of people but might be frustrating when used in a shared space.

What to Look for in a Good Keyboard Switch

Good keyboard switches will last you several years, and the most common way to see this advertised is in keystrokes. A product with a higher keystroke (or clicks) rating will typically last longer than products with a lower rating. Beyond determining which of the three types of switches is best for your needs, this keystroke rating is arguably the most important part of shopping for a good keyboard switch.

For example, most keyboard switches typically last for at least 20 million clicks. If you’re looking at the top end of the market, it’s not uncommon to see numbers that exceed 50 million clicks. Keep an eye on this value when comparing products, as it plays a key role in finding durable switches that’ll stand the test of time. And if you see anything that falls below 20 million, consider looking elsewhere.

How to Choose the Best Keyboard Switches for You

There are dozens of incredible mechanical keyboard switches available, but there are a few that stand out from the rest of the pack. If you’re looking for the best mechanical gaming switch, consider checking out the Cherry MX Red. This linear switch offers a short actuation depth, no loud clicking sounds (which is great if you’re a streamer), and is rated to last for more than 100 million clicks.

You can also check out the Cherry MX Black, which offers much the same but is built to provide a bit more pressure. This is great if you have a heavy keystroke or want keys that feel a bit stiffer.

Cherry MX Red Keyswitch (10 pack)

These linear switches have a short actuation depth that makes them great for gaming.

Cherry is always a great company to check out when looking for the best keyboard switches, but you’ll also want to consider Alpaca, Durock, and Glorious. From Alpaca, the linear Alpaca V2 is a great option for gaming, offering smooth and reliable performance.

Durock, meanwhile, offers another great product (POM Linear) if you’re looking for an alternative to Cherry and Alpaca products. As for tactile switches, it’s hard to go wrong with the Glorious Panda Tactile Switches, which offer a solid tactile bump prior to actuation and are built with premium copper for superior durability.

Glorious Panda Tactile Switches

These tactile switches from Glorious Panda offer a noticeable bump before hitting the actuation depth. They’re also constructed with high-end materials for added durability.

Plenty of other great switches exist, but the five above are some of the best keyboard switches available today, and they’re bound to serve you well for years to come. If none of these fit your preferences, be sure to keep the above details in mind (specifically the difference between linear, tactile, and clicky) when shopping for the best keyboard switches for your needs.

Want some additional help on your search? Be sure to check out our guide to the best keyboards. If you’re specifically interested in gaming, then check out best gaming keyboards.

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