As ever in the ol’ PC peripheral world the perfect mechanical keyboard has to take into account personal preference. What makes something aesthetically and physically pleasing for me may not be for you, and the same goes for the sort of switches you want to have sitting under the keycaps of your new gaming board.
While the difference between RGB lighting and non-RGB lighting might seem like a life and death choice when picking a new board, it is your choice of switches that makes all the difference to how it feels and performs. There are two main options: mechanical switches and membrane/dome/scissor switches (which are kind of all the same).
Mechanical switches are the ones which make your keyboard loud and sound like you’re working in some 1940s newsroom. Membrane, dome, or scissor switches are far quieter, mostly rubbish, have shorter keys, and are likely the ones used in your laptop and that cheap plastic board that came free with your computer.
The advantages of the mechanical switch are great: they’re more robust, will last far longer, can be more accurate, and are also able to send every single keypress from board to PC no matter how much you bury your face in the keys and roll around.
You don’t have to press a mechanical switch all the way down to register an input either, which makes them less fatiguing than non-mechanical switches where you do.
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Non-mechanical switches are liable to fail a lot sooner than solid mech switches too, leading to a bit of a false economy when it comes to making that initial keyboard purchase. They’re also limited on the number of key presses they can reliably send to the PC when many buttons are pressed at the same time, which arguably makes them less suitable for gaming.
There are also many, many different types of mechanical switch to choose from… whether you want fast, heavy, clicky, optical, or even low profile. The Corsair K70 RGB MK.2 exclusively uses the latest low profile Cherry MX Speed switches, and it’s fantastic.
The biggest difference between them is whether they have a linear travel, a tactile click, or a tactile bump. If they’re linear then the key has a smooth travel all the way down to the bottom of the switch, if they have a tactile click you’ll feel, as well as hear, the actuation point of the switch, and with a tactile bump you’ll just feel that actuation point.
We are starting to see more hybrid switches that combine the cost-effective nature of membrane switches with some of the mechanics of the costlier Cherry MX-type switches. Both Logitech and Cooler Master have released impressive budget keyboards with horribly named new membrane-ish switches, and we have admittedly fallen in love with the non-mech Topre switch used in the RealForce R2 keyboard.
There really are hundreds of different switch designs out there, but they mostly fall into three categories. If you want to see the technical differences between the switches there’s a great list of the key ones here.
It’s also important to look out for the mount type when searching for a new board and/or new switches. Most key switches on the market come equipped with Cherry MX mounts to attach the keycaps securely on the switch. This cross design is by far the most popular keycap mount on the market today, but it’s not the only one.
The benefit of the Cherry mount is that you can find new keycaps very easily. Most custom keycaps sets are built with this design in mind, but that doesn’t mean you can always guarantee an easy swap. Some keyboards, such as Corsair’s lineup, feature non-standard bottom rows, so the spacing between the key switches won’t always fit custom keycaps.
These switches are often utilised in gaming keyboards for their smooth and uninterrupted key travel. These are often touted as the best switch for gaming on this fact alone, which we heartily disagree with as a rule (speak for yourself – Ed), but for some they will find the lack of distinct bumps or clicks the best for rapid-fire and responsiveness in-game.
The most famed of which is the Cherry MX Red switch. A linear and fairly lightweight switch. Cherry is well-renowned in the keyboard world, and its switches are the go-to for many a keyboard manufacturer. Another one of its popular switches is the MX Black, a heavier switch for people that really love to smash their keyboard to smithereens.
But Cherry doesn’t rule entirely unopposed. It has some incredibly stern competition from the likes of Kailh, Gateron, and a whole heap of manufacturer proprietary switches. Luckily, to cut the confusion and try to make things just a little easier, many of these keyboard manufacturers retain the same naming scheme for their similarly designed switches. That means Kailh Reds, Gateron Reds, Cherry MX Reds are all pretty similar, as are many others.
What can make a big difference, however, is the actuation point and weight of a switch.
Weight plays an integral part in how a switch feels, and is largely determined by the spring used within the key switch. Measured in centinewtons (cn), or simply the interchangeable grams (g), switches largely lie somewhere within the 45g to 100g range, although the latter would make for a seriously heavy switch. For example, Cherry MX Reds feature a 45g actuation force, while Cherry MX Blacks require a heftier 60g.
To make all this a little easier, most manufacturers produce force curve graphs. The top line indicates downward force of a key press, while the other is the upward force as the key switch resets.
The point at which a mechanical switch actuates, or switches from off to on, varies between manufacturer and switch type, too. Cherry MX Red switches feature a 2mm actuation point, while Cherry MX Blue switches feature a 2.2mm actuation point, for example. Both bottom out at 4mm, which is referred to as the total travel distance.
Keys with actuation points higher in the travel have started to rise in popularity among gamers. Cherry now produces the MX Speed Silver switch with a 1.2mm actuation distance and a 3.4mm total travel distance, while Kailh produces its own speed switches with 1.1 to 1.4mm actuation points, and 3.5mm total travel.
Tactile switches are extremely popular, and are often touted as the perfect blend of linear and clicky. They feature a bump somewhere within the key switch travel, usually near the top of the key press after a short distance known as the pre-travel. You won’t hear any click with tactile switches, but you will feel this bump once the switch actuates.
Tactile switches are a pretty popular choice among gamers and typists alike, so you can find a heap of tactile switches on the market. From Cherry MX Brown and Clear; Kailh Brown, Speed Copper, and Brown Box; Gateron Brown; Outemu Brown; Novelkeys Box Royals, among other unique switches; and even Logitech’s own Romer-G Tactile to name only a few, you are spoilt for choice when selecting the perfect lumpy switch.
Unlike linear switches, which often require a fairly uniform amount of force to actuate, tactile switches often require more or less force depending on how far through a keypress you are.
If you’ve ever just sat back and thought “I wish everyone still used typewriters”, then clicky switches are for you.
Essentially, the clicky switch offers a tactile feedback in both key feel and the racket it makes when you type on them. That means every time you press the switch, the a loud snap will occur at, or close to, the actuation point.
This is achieved through various mechanisms within the switch. Some offer a single click on the downward keystroke, while others offer a audible clicking noise on both the downward and upward keystrokes. A few clicky switches from days gone even came with speakers to mimic that satisfying click.
Similar to the tactile switches, clicky switches have a sudden bump or fluctuation in force just before the actuation point and on reset.
See, it’s not so tough to find a switch that suits you down to a T. The worst thing that might happen is that you end up with an insatiable desire for more and more mechanical switches, eventually selling your house, car, gaming PC, and dog for a set of elusive tactile Holy Panda switches.
Still feeling indecisive? Pick up a switch tester, or try and find a local store with sample boards that haven’t had all the keycaps stolen, and give each switch type a test run. Who knows, maybe you’ll suddenly fall in love with a clicky switch, or maybe even prefer a super heavyweight spring you can really thud your digits on with totally unnecessary force.