Mechanical Switches
How to Choose

Updated

Switch types

One of the most important aspects of a mechanical keyboard is how it feels. Each key sits on top of a switch, and different mechanical switches have their own unique characteristics. There are a ton of switch types available, all with a different feel, and they impact the user experience differently. There are many manufacturers of keyboard switches, and some companies tend to use their own switches. For those looking to buy a mechanical keyboard for the first time, it could definitely be overwhelming trying to figure out which switch to get. At the end of the day, you might spend hours doing research only to find out you personally don't like a certain type of switch.

Switches are fairly straightforward, and there's only a limited amount of testing we can do on a switch. We test for a key's pre-travel, total travel distance, operating force, and actuation force, which are all impacted by the switch type, and you can read about our testing here.

Test results

When It Matters

Modern keyboards are filled with extra features, such as macro-programmable keys, RGB lighting, and USB passthroughs. However, one thing that hasn't changed much over the years, and remains an integral part of the user experience, are the mechanical switches used. Mechanical switches are an evolution from the buckling spring mechanism used in the IBM Model M in the 1980s and 1990s. Each mechanical switch has a plastic housing, a stem that holds the keycaps, and a spring, which is one of the more important parts because it gives the key a certain feel. When you press down on the key, it activates a physical switch in the housing, which then sends a signal to the keyboard to say a specific key was pressed. With the help of the spring, the key then comes back upwards to rest in its natural position.

There are three main types of switches: tactile, clicky, and linear. Most big companies label them as brown (tactile), blue (clicky), and red (linear), but it varies between each brand. Each provides a unique feel and provide their own sound feedback. Each switch type has its own unique pre-travel and total travel distance, as well as operating force. The pre-travel distance is the distance it takes to travel when you press it down before it actuates, and the total travel is how far it can go before it bottoms out. Most people will care more about pre-travel distance because most switches have roughly the same total travel distance. A lower pre-travel distance is generally better for gaming because it allows for quicker actuation, while a higher pre-travel is usually better for typing because it helps decrease the number of typos. However, this comes down to personal taste and whether you like a lower pre-travel or not.

Additionally, the operating and actuation force each represent how much force is needed to actuate the key. For tactile and clicky switches, there's a tactile 'bump' before actuation, which is known as tactile feedback. It kind of feels like the key is resisting before you press it all the way down. The operating force is the amount of force needed at the peak of that tactile bump, while the actuation force is the force needed to actuate the key. The important number is the operating force because that represents how heavy or light the key feels. Some switches are also labeled as 'RGB', but that doesn't affect their performance, as it just allows the RGB lighting to pass through the switch.

Switch Types

Cherry MX Brown switch in the Ducky One 2
Cherry MX Brown switch in the Ducky One 2
Razer Pro Type with the Razer Orange switch
Razer Pro Type with the Razer Orange switch
OmniPoint switch in the SteelSeries Apex Pro
OmniPoint switch in the SteelSeries Apex Pro

Tactile

Tactile switches are likely the most popular switch type on the market. They're known to have a good balance between typing and gaming because they offer good tactile feedback and, depending on the brand, aren't very heavy to press. This is ideal for typing, as you'll know when you're about to register a keypress, and it helps reduce typos. If you're looking for your first mechanical keyboard, they're a good place to start. They're also quiet compared to other switch types, but it may produce a lot of noise if you tend to bottom-out the keys.

We listed some of the most popular tactile switches. We're providing the advertised measurements because we haven't tested all of them, and even for the switches we've tested, results vary due to manufacturing tolerances. However, some companies either list operating or actuation force, but not both, so in that case, we list whatever is advertised. You can see which keyboards we've tested from each switch with the links below. We've also individually tested some switches from our switch test kit, that we haven't tested with individual keyboards. You can see the actuation graph by clicking on the thumbnails.

There are many other kinds of tactile switches that we haven't listed, such as Outemu Brown, Greetch Brown, KBT Brown, MOD M Tactile, MOD SH Tactile, Black Alps, and Topre, amongst many others. Also, we measure the operating force in gram force (gf), while some companies advertise it in centinewton (cN). We use the measurement that each brand advertises, but the two units are identical.

Note: We're in the middle of retesting keyboards as part of our Test Bench update. If there aren't any results in the 'Individual Results' link, it means we haven't retested the keyboard(s) with that switch. The table will update automatically once we do. Also, the graphs from our switch test kit is from the old test bench, so the operating force is labelled as 'Peak Force'. 

Brand Type Advertised Pre-Travel (mm) Advertised Total Travel (mm) Advertised Operating Force Individual Results Graph
Cherry MX Brown 2.0 4.0 55 cN Table Cherry MX Brown graph
Cherry MX Clear 2.0 4.0 65 cN - Cherry MX Clear 
Cherry MX Grey 2.0 4.0 80 cN - Cherry MX Grey graph 
Gateron Aliaz 60g Unknown Unknown 60 gf -  Gateron Aliaz 60g graph
Gateron Aliaz 70g Unknown Unknown 70 gf -  Gateron Aliaz 80g graph
Gateron Aliaz 80g Unknown Unknown 80 gf - Gateron Aliaz 80g graph 
Gateron Aliaz 100g Unknown Unknown 100gf -  Gateron Aliaz 100g graph
Gateron Brown 2.0 4.0 45 gf Table Gateron Brown graph 
Gateron Silent Brown 2.0 4.0 45 gf - Gateron Silent Brown graph 
Gateron Zealios 62g Unknown Unknown 62 gf -  Gateron Zealios 62g graph
Gateron Zealios 65g Unknown Unknown 65 gf -  Gateron Zealios 65g graph
Gateron Zealios 67g Unknown Unknown 67 gf -  Gateron Zealios 67g graph
Gateron Zealios 78g Unknown Unknown 78 gf -  Gateron Zealios 78g graph
Kaihua  Hako Clear  1.9 3.6 55 gf -  Hako Clear graph
Kaihua Hako Royal Clear Unknown Unknown 40 gf -  Hako Royal Clear graph
Kaihua  Hako True 1.9  3.6 60 gf - Hako True graph 
Kaihua Hako Violet   1.9 3.6 40 gf -  Hako Violet graph
Kaihua Halo Clear 1.9 4.0 65 gf - -
Kaihua Halo True 1.9 4.0 60 gf Table -
Kaihua Kailh BOX Brown 1.8  3.6  60 gf - Kailh BOX Brown graph 
Kaihua Kailh BOX Burnt Orange 1.8 3.6 70 gf - Kailh BOX Burn Orange graph 
Kaihua Kailh BOX Royal  1.8 3.6 75 gf -  Kailh BOX Royal graph
Kaihua Kailh BOX Silent Brown 1.8 3.6 45 gf -  
Kaihua Kailh Brown 1.9 4.0 60 gf -  
Kaihua Kailh Pro Purple 1.7 3.6 50 gf -  Kailh Pro Purple graph
Kaihua Kailh Speed Copper 1.1 3.5 50 gf -  Kailh Speed Copper graph
Logitech GX Brown 1.9 4.0 60 gf -  
Logitech Romer-G Tactile 1.5 3.2 55 gf Table  
Matias Quiet Click 2.2 3.5 60 gf Table  
Omron Gamma Zulu 1.5 3.5 50 gf Table  
Razer Orange 1.9 4.0 50 gf Table  
ROCCAT Titan Tactile 1.8 3.6 Unknown Table  
SteelSeries Brown 2.0 4.0 45 cN Table  

Clicky

Clicky switches are extremely similar to tactile switches. They provide the same tactile feedback, making them very popular for typing, and they produce an audible click. This could be particularly problematic if you work in an open-office environment, as the loud noise may bother people around you. You can listen to an example of the noise that clicky switches make here.

Below are the most popular clicky switches available with their advertised measurements, and we've provided tables to show the individual results of the keyboards we tested, as well as some individual switches we've tested. This is a small list of the countless clicky switches available, so if we've missed any popular ones, let us know.

Brand Type Advertised Pre-Travel (mm) Advertised Total Travel (mm) Advertised Operating Force Individual Results Graph
Cherry MX Blue 2.2 4.0 60 cN Table Cherry MX Blue graph
Cherry MX Green 2.2 4.0 80 cN -  Cherry MX Green graph
Gateron Blue 2.3 4.0 60 gf -  Gateron Blue graph
Gateron Green 2.3 4.0 80 gf - Gateron Green graph 
Kaihua Kailh Blue 1.9 4.0 60 gf -  
Kaihua Kailh BOX Jade 2.0 3.6 50 gf - Kailh BOX Jade graph 
Kaihua Kailh BOX Navy 2.0 3.6 60 gf -  Kailh BOX Navy graph
Kaihua Kailh BOX Pale Blue 1.8 3.6  70 gf - Kailh BOX Pale Blue graph 
Kaihua Kailh BOX White 1.8 3.6 50 gf -  Kailh BOX White graph
Kaihua Kailh Pro Green 1.7  3.6 50 gf - Kailh Pro Green graph 
Kaihua Kailh Speed Bronze 1.1 3.5 50 gf -  Kailh Speed Bronze graph
Kaihua Kailh Speed Gold 1.4 3.5 50 gf -  Kailh Speed Gold graph
Logitech GX Blue 2.0 4.0 60 gf Table  
Outemu Blue 2.7 4.0 60 gf Table  
Razer Green 1.9 4.0 55 gf Table  

Linear

Linear switches are entirely different from tactile and clicky switches. These are considered great for gaming because they're light to press, and they don't offer any tactile feedback, but again, this comes down to personal preference. There's no bump before the actuation point. The main downside to linear switches is that if you're going to use them for typing, they're so sensitive, and you might not know when you've actuated a key, but there are some linear types with high operating force, so they're not as sensitive. Linear switches are also quiet, so they won't bother people around you.

Below are the most popular linear switches with their advertised measurements. Our results may vary from the listed measurements due to manufacturing tolerances. There are many types of linear switches that we haven't listed, such as Greetech Red, Greetech Black, Hall Effect Linear, and Outemu Black, among many others. Let us know if we've missed any other popular brands.

Brand Type Advertised Pre-Travel (mm) Advertised Total Travel (mm) Advertised Operating Force Individual Results Graph
Cherry MX Black 2.0 4.0 60 cN -  Cherry MX Black graph
Cherry MX Red 2.0 4.0 45 cN Table Cherry MX Red graph
Cherry MX Silent Black 1.9 3.7 60 cN -  Cherry MX Silent Black graph
Cherry MX Silent Red 1.9 3.7 45 cN -  Cherry MX Silent Red graph
Cherry MX Speed Silver 1.2 3.4 45 cN Table  Cherry MX Speed Silver graph
Gateron Black 2.0 4.0 60 gf -  Gateron Black graph
Gateron Clear 2.0 4.0 35 gf - Gateron Clear graph
Gateron Red 2.0 4.0 45 gf - Gateron Red graph 
Gateron Silent Black 2.0 4.0  60 gf -  Gateron Silent Black graph
Gateron Silent Red 2.0 4.0 45 gf - Gateron Silent Red graph 
Gateron Tealios 67g Unknown Unknown 67 gf -  Gateron Tealios 67g graph
Gateron White 2.0 4.0 35 gf -  
Gateron Yellow 2.0 4.0 50 gf -  
HyperX Red 1.8 3.8 45 gf Table  
Kaihua Kailh Black 2.0 4.0 60 cN -  
Kaihua Kailh BOX Black 1.8 3.6 60 gf -  Kailh BOX Black graph
Kaihua Kailh BOX Dark Yellow 1.8 3.6 70 gf - Kailh Dark Yellow graph
Kaihua Kailh BOX Red 1.8 3.6 45 gf - Kailh BOX Red graph 
Kaihua Kailh BOX Silent Pink 1.8 3.6 35 gf -  
Kaihua Kailh Novelkeys Cream 2.0 4.0  55 gf -  Kailh Novelkeys Cream graph
Kaihua Kailh Pro Burgundy 1.7 3.6 50 gf  - Kailh Pro Burgundy graph
Kaihua Kailh Red 1.9 4.0 50 gf -  
Kaihua Kailh Silver Speed  1.1 3.5 50gf Table -
Razer Yellow 1.2 3.5 45 gf Table  
Varmilo EC Rosery 2.0 4.0 55 cN -  
Varmilo EC Rosery V2 2.0 4.0 55 cN -  
Varmilo EC Sakura 2.0 4.0 45 cN -  

Other Types

Manufacturers have pushed the pace of innovation and have come out with different types of switches over the years, besides the traditional ones. These new switches are still considered mechanical but behave differently from the linear, tactile, and clicky switches listed above. They each present their unique characteristics and typing experience.

Optical

Optical switches are starting to become more popular, and they're usually found on higher-end keyboards. They're similar to typical mechanical switches in that they use a spring to provide some resistance and recoil upwards once it's actuated. However, an optical switch doesn't trigger any physical switch, but rather, an infrared light detects when the key is pressed. This helps make the keys feel more responsive, which is great for gaming. Most of them have a linear feel, although there are some with tactile feedback. Also, some optical switches have customizable pre-travel distance, such as SteelSeries's OmniPoint of Flaretech's optical switches.

Listed below are a few optical switches. We haven't listed them all, so let us know if we've missed any.

Brand Type Feel Advertised Pre-Travel (mm) Advertised Total Travel (mm) Advertised Operating Force Individual Results
A4Tech LK Optical Blue Clicky 1.8 4.0 50 gf -
A4Tech LK Optical Brown Tactile 1.8 4.0 50 gf Table
A4Tech LK Optical Red Linear 1.8 4.0 40 gf -
Flaretech Clicky 55 'Blue Clicky 1.5-3.6 4.0 55 cN -
Flaretech Linear 80 'Black' Linear 1.5-3.6 4.0 80 cN -
Flaretech Linear 55 'Red' Linear 1.6-3.5 4.0 55 cN Table
Gateron Optical Black Linear 2.0 4.0 60 gf -
Gateron Optical Blue Clicky 2.3 4.0 55 gf -
Gateron Optical Brown Tactile 2.0 4.0 55 gf Table
Gateron Optical Red Linear 2.0 4.0 45 gf -
Gateron Optical Silver Linear 1.1 4.0 45 gf -
Gateron Optical Yellow Linear 1.1 4.0 35 gf -
Razer Clicky Optical Clicky 1.5 4.0 45 gf Table
Razer Linear Optical Linear 1.0 4.0 40 gf Table
ROCCAT Linear Optical Linear Unknown Unknown Unknown Table
SteelSeries OmniPoint Linear 0.4-3.6 4.0 45 cN Table

Low Profile

Low profile switches use the same mechanism as standard mechanical switches, but as the name suggests, they're shorter and have a lower profile. This means that the total travel distance is much lower than standard switches, so they bottom out quicker. However, not everyone likes the feel of low profile switches, and choosing a low profile over a standard really comes down to personal preference. Low profile switches can have a linear, tactile, or clicky feel, and we listed a few examples below.

Brand Type Feel Advertised Pre-Travel (mm) Advertised Total Travel (mm) Advertised Operating Force Individual Results
Cherry MX Low Profile Red Linear 1.2 3.2 45 cN -
Cherry MX Low Profile Speed Linear 1.0 3.2 45 cN Table
Gateron Low Profile Blue Clicky 1.5 2.5 50 gf -
Gateron Low Profile Brown Tactile 1.5 2.5 55 gf Table
Gateron Low Profile Red Linear 1.5 2.5 45 gf Table
Kaihua Kailh Choc Blue Clicky 1.3 3.2 55 gf -
Kaihua Kailh Choc Brown Tactile 1.3 3.2 50 gf -
Kaihua Kailh Choc Red Linear 1.3 3.2 50 gf -
Logitech GL Clicky Clicky 1.5 2.7 60 gf -
Logitech GL Linear Linear 1.5 2.7 50 gf -
Logitech GL Tactile Tactile 1.5 2.7 60 gf Table

Hybrid Mechanical

Only a few manufacturers have dived into the world of hybrid mechanical switches. Many non-mechanical keyboards have rubber dome switches, which feature a membrane underneath the key that, when pressed, closes an electric circuit and lets the computer know that the key has been actuated. Unlike mechanical switches, a hybrid switch doesn't have a spring. SteelSeries created a hybrid switch that uses a spring, like in a mechanical switch, and included a membrane at the bottom that closes the electric circuit to send signals to the computer. It doesn't use a physical switch like standard mechanical switches. You can read more about it in the SteelSeries Apex 5 Hybrid Mechanical Gaming Keyboard review.

Our Tests

The ways we measure a switch's characteristics are very simple. We use one test, called the keystroke test, to measure the pre-travel distance, total travel distance, operating force, and actuation force. We use a Mecmesin MultiTest-i System Test Stand and place it on an alphanumeric key to measure these aspects. We measure eight different keys and generate the average of the results, but the graph comes from one the keys. When looking at the graph, you can see the operating force, which is labelled as 'Tactile Point' and the actuation force, labelled as 'Actuation Point'. The 'Reset Point' is when the keyboard detects that the key has been let go; if it's held past its reset point, the keyboard will continuously type out the key. 

We also test for typing quality, which takes into account the keycap shape, spacing, quality, and ergonomics, so the switch type isn't the only deciding factor with the typing experience, but obviously, it impacts the typing experience. This is a subjective test, and you might not like typing on a certain keyboard while others do. We also measure the typing noise, and usually, clicky switches are the loudest, while linear switches are the quietest.

Cherry MX Brown (Ducky One 2 Mini)
Cherry MX Brown (Ducky One 2 Mini)
Cherry MX Blue (Corsair K95 RGB Platinum XT)
HyperX Red (HyperX Alloy Origins)
SteelSeries OmniPoint (SteelSeries Apex Pro)
SteelSeries OmniPoint (SteelSeries Apex Pro)

Conclusion

Entering the world of mechanical switches can seem daunting at first, and there are many different switches you can choose from. Each manufacturer creates their unique characteristics in a switch, and although a Gateron Brown and a Cherry MX Brown are both tactile switches, they perform and feel a bit different from each other. It's easy to get caught up in the details before buying a mechanical keyboard, but you won't know for sure how you like a certain type of switch until you try it yourself. Some switches are designed for gaming, while others are designed for office use, so it's important to know what you're going to use your keyboard for ahead of time. Overall, switches may be small, but they have a huge impact on the user, and you can eventually find the ones that suit your needs.

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