The Ultimate Keyboard - Part II: Switches
Linear, tactile or clicky? Cherry, Kailh or Gateron? So many questions, so few answers.
This post is part of a four part series, The Ultimate Keyboard.
The topic this time is, as the title of the post suggests, switches.
Important Terms & Metrics
First things first. Let’s learn some important mechanical keyboard switch jargon:
- Actuation force: The amount of pressure needed to depress a key and register a key press.
- Activation point: The point at which a keystroke is recognized by the keyboard.
- Pre-travel: The distance keys have to travel before the activation point is reached.
- Total travel: The distance keys have to travel before it bottoms out.
- Bottoming Out: Pushing a switch all the way down.
- Plate Mounted: A method in which switches are mounted to a metal or plastic plate that sits atop the PCB.
- PCB Mounted: A method in which switches are mounted directly onto the PCB (circuit board).
- RGB compatible: These switches usually have a translucent housing that allows light from RGB diodes to shine through them.
Behavior and Noise
Mechanical keyboard switches usually come in one of three types: Linear, tactile and clicky. The switch type determines how it feels and how much sound it makes.
- Linear switches do not have any tactile feedback and provide smooth actuation from the start of the keystroke to the end. These switches are usually the most quiet switches.
- Tactile switches provide feedback in the form of a “bump” during the actuation of the switch. The bump of the tactile switch means that is generates more sound than a linear switch.
- Clicky switches adds a “click” on top of tactile bump, giving auditory feedback when the switch is actuated as well as tactile feedback. Clicky switches can be quite noisy.
The noise generated by the switches can be decreased by adding switch dampeners. The dampeners are small rubber O-rings that you install between the switch and the keycap to prevent the keycap to slam into the switch surface. When you consider dampeners, diameter, thickness, and hardness all make a difference. Dampeners is not a topic for this post, since I hope to find a switch that is quite enough without dampeners. But if you want to read more about them, the article How to Quiet Your Mechanical Keyboard with Switch Dampeners over at How-To Geek might be of interest.
The Cherry MX switches are the de-facto standard, so if you want to go for something safe, Cherry MX switches are probably a good bet. But if you’re ready for an adventure, there are a myriad of other brands available. Varmelio, Zeal, Topre, Greetech, Hall Effect, Kailh, Gateron, KBT, and Wooting1 are just a few of the other brands I came across during my mechanical keyboard switches research. All these brands are MX clones, which means they can be used with any keyboard that supports Cherry MX switches. You can also use any MX keycap on the MX clone switches from these brands.
I have dipped my toes in the mechanical switch pool once before. For reasons I can’t remember, I stumbled across the WASD Keyboards site, and their Code keyboard. To get a better feel for the kind of switches they offered, I ordered a 6-key Cherry MX switch tester: The tester only contained a small subset of the Cherry MX product line; blue, brown, black, red, white, and green, but they still gave me an idea of what the different switches felt like.
After clicking on the tester for a while, I decided that the Cherry MX Black and Cherry MX Red linear switches were the ones I preferred. They are both relatively silent, and being linear switches, pressing them is a single, smooth motion. The Cherry MX Black and Cherry MC Red has the same pre-travel and total travel, 2.0 mm and 4.0 mm respectively, and differs only in actuation force, which is 60 cN on the Cherry MX Black and 45 cN on the Cherry MX Red. The 15 cN difference is surprisingly noticeable, and the Cherry MX Black requires considerably more force to operate than the Cherry MX Red.
Narrowing Everything Down
So, the Cherry MX Red would probably be a good choice for me. At least in theory. Since I purchased the sampler, a lot has happened in the world of mechanical keyboard switches. Cherry has developed some new linear switches, like the Cherry MX Silent Red, which is a very silent version of the MX Red with slightly shorter pre-travel (1.9 mm) and total travel (3.7 mm). Another new Cherry MX switch is the Cherry MX Speed Silver with the same actuation force as the Cherry MX Red, but with a pre-travel of only 1.2 mm and a total travel of 3.4 mm.
Other brands have also developed interesting linear switches. The Kailh Silver is one of them. With a required actuation force of 40 cN, they require slightly less force than the Cherry MX Silver, and it also has a considerably shorter pre-travel, only 1.1 mm. The total travel is a tiny bit longer, though, 3.5 mm.
Another brand, Gateron, offers a switch with an even lower actuation force than the Kailh Silver. The Gateron Clear has an actuation force of only 35 cN, but has a 2 mm pre-travel distance, and a total travel of 4 mm. So in terms of stats only, it’s basically the Cherry MX Red with a lower actuation force.
Of all the switches I’ve listed above, I have only actually tested the Cherry MX Black and Cherry MX Red I got with the 6-key tester from WASD Keyboards. Based on the numbers only, I think that the Kailh Silver might be the right switch for me, but as long as I haven’t actually played with the switch, it’s all theoretical guesswork. But I’m lucky enough to know a couple of mechanical keyboard nerds, so I hope to get my hands on all of the switches mentioned above in the not-so-distant future.
When I eventually make up my mind and order a particular set of switches, my first choice doesn’t have to be the perfect choice, either. If I purchase a mechanical keyboard where the switches can be easily replaced, I can replace them without having to replace the entire keyboard.
This post only scratches the surface of mechanical keyboard switch iceberg, and it’s mainly written to answer the initial questions I had about them. If you want to learn more about mechanical keyboard switches, do a quick search on the internet for “mechanical keyboard switches” and get ready to spend hours and hours reading about them.
Good night, and good luck.