Introduction to mechanical key switches

The switch is the part of the keyboard hardware that sends the key press. On mechanical keyboards, each key has its own switch, all of which connect to the same circuit board. Many keyboards are “hot-swappable”, meaning that the user can change the switch by pulling it out and placing another in its stead: there is an intermediate socket that is attached to the board, so switches can easily be swapped out, which helps with experimentation.

As with everything pertaining to mechanical keyboards, the choice of switch is subjective.

The most common switch is MX type

There are several switches, though by far the most common one is the MX. You can tell it apart by the shape of its stem (the top part that connects to the keycap), which has the shape of the plus sign.

Some MX switches have walls around the stem. They are marketed as “dust-proof”, “less wobbly”, and the like. They still count as MX switches for our purposes.

Knowing this is important when searching for keycaps. Those that are designed for “choc” switches, for example, are not compatible with the MX ones.

Note that the MX switches are of a “normal” height, though there are some switches that are “low-profile” yet still have the familiar MX stem. Those are not compatible with most keycaps that are designed for the normal height, as the bottom side of the cap will hit against the board, which will cause damages over time.

The low-profile switches look shorter as they have a compact body, whereas the normal height is considerably more blocky. Consider low-profile switches only if you understand the implications with regard to the keycaps you can combine them with (and if they are compatible with your keyboard).

Three types of switch

  • Linear: The force required to actuate the switch is consistent from the top to the bottom. These switches are marketed for gamers or office use. They tend to be on the quiet side and are easy to work with when typing common keys repeatedly (what gamers have to do frequently).

  • Tactile: There is a noticeable pressure point after which the key press registers. This “bump” can make it easier to notice a key press. Depending on the person’s typing habits, such feedback is important to avoid misfiring keys and be more accurate as a result.

  • Clicky: Much like the tactile switches, these have a noticeable bump, but they also provide audible feedback. The exact sound profile depends on a number of factors, from the keycaps, to the materials below the switch and the keyboard, though these switches will always be on the noisier side of the spectrum. Some find the clicky sound pleasant to work with while othesr may consider it distracting at worst or a gimmick at best.

Switches are colour-coded

There is a plethora of switches differentiated by the aforementioned types but also by the speicific properties of their force curve . Perhaps the most common ones are red (linear), brown (tactile), and blue (clicky). People with no prior experience should consider one of these before experimenting with more specialised options.

Mind the curve

Suppliers provide graphs that show how much pressure is required to register a key press, as well as other characteristics of the switch. Beginners will not have a point of reference: they best opt for whichever is the default for the type of switch they are expecting to like the most.

Those curves are informative, though one does not need to be an engineer to make an informed decision. Plain terms such as “silent and tactile” will still give a good idea of what the switch is about.

Consider the noise factor

As noted above, the clicky switches will produce audible feedback. Though the other types are not completely silent. There exist switches which are designed specifically with that goal in mind, but the average mechanical switch still produces more noise than, say, a laptop’s keyboard.

Keyboard enthusiasts go to great lengths to get the exact sound profile they like, which usually involves changes to the keyboard and desk setup.

If one really cares about being silent, they must search for switches that are marketed as such and must further check for community resources on the matter to form an opinion. Plus there is the option of applying lube to the switches and other such postmarket modifications.

Where to start

A tactile switch provides that “mechanical” feel without deviating too much from mainstream keyboards. Linear switches might be too “boring” for newcomers, as they feel like what everyone is already used to (which is perfectly fine in its own right, though may not kindle that excitement to further explore mechanical keyboards). Clicky switches add that typewriter-esque feeling, which some may like, though they probably are too noisy and disturbing for people around the typist.