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The complete guide to mechanical keyboard switches for gaming

Mechanical Keyboard Corsair Strafe

Whether you’re grinding out levels, trying to score headshots, or macroing while microing a drop, you probably spend a lot of time at your keyboard. Just like your mouse, your keyboard is an integral part to your computer setup. If you’re obsessing over your mouse’s DPI, you obviously care about what you use. A keyboard deserves the same level of scrutiny. Enter the mechanical keyboard.

Mechanical keyboards have individual keyswitches and metal springs. Rubber dome keyboards—most modern, cheap keyboards—have a sheet of rubber that provides the resistance, tactile feeling, and registers the keypress to the computer. Mechanical keyswitches give an unmistakable, stronger feedback as you type in the form of feeling a bump, hearing a click, and/or feeling a smooth bottom out to the keyboard’s base. Not only does it feel more satisfying than a rubber dome keyboard, it can be more precise, too.

gLOSSARY

Keyswitch or switch: The individual microswitch unit that the user presses to complete the circuit.
Keycap: The plastic cap that fits onto the stem of the switch.
Actuation Force: The force needed to have the switch register a keystroke with your computer.
Force: It’s often measured in grams of force. 1 gram of force is approximately 1 centinewton (cN). Please note that all actuation forces have a tolerance band.
Force Curve: A graph of the force over distance when the switch is being pressed.
Bottom Out: When the keyswitch is pressed all the way down.
MX-Mount: Switches that aren’t made by Cherry Corporation but have the same t-shaped stem as the Cherry MX stem. All MX mount switches can use the same MX-stem keycaps.
Alps-Mount: Switches that aren’t made by Alps Electric Corporation but have the same stem. All Alps-mount switches can use the same Alps-stem keycaps.
Tactile: The feeling of a switch when there’s a bump during actuation.
Click: The feeling of a switch when there’s sharp bump and click sound during actuation.
Linear: The switch feels smooth over the range of motion with no bumps or clicks
Hysteresis: The actuation point and reset point (opposite point of actuation) do not match. This means on the second press, you cannot get a keystroke to register as fast.

But there’s a lot more to keyboards than just rubber vs. mechanical. Even if you’re familiar with Cherry MX switches, that’s just the beginning. We’ve researched and tested over 25 switches to help guide you towards your new keyboard.

If you don't care much about the mechanics of mechanical keyboards and just want to know what to use for gaming, here are some of our favorites.

Mechanical switch history

If you know anything about mechanical keyboards, you probably know about Cherry MX switches. Cherry Corporation, a division of ZF Electronics, has been making keyboards since 1967. They patented their popular MX switch in 1983. The MX switch has since become the de-facto standard keyswitch used in mechanical keyboards. Their most common four switches (MX Red, Black, Blue, and Brown) are typically the switches people start out using.

In 2007, the Cherry MX switch patent (US 4467160A) expired. In the wake of the expiration, many MX-mount switches have been created. Kailh, Razer mechanical switches, Gateron, and other derivatives have now hit the market. These switches have slight differences from the Cherry MX.

Outside of the MX-mount switches and Cherry MX switches, there are a few other popular (at least, popular among keyboard enthusiasts) switch types: Topre, Alps-mount and buckling spring. Topre keyboards, made by the Topre Corporation in Japan, utilize a rubber dome sheet with springs underneath the sheet, which signals the controller through capacitance.

Matias of Canada produces three of their own Alps-mount switches and a few keyboards. Matias switches are clones or derivatives of the Alps Electric Corporation switches produced up until around 1996. Alps-mount switches have a high actuation point compared to Cherry MX switches. Matias produces quality keyboards, offers many of their parts for sale, and are involved in the enthusiast DIY community.

Buckling spring switches are the go-to vintage keyswitches. There are a few variants, but the most common version was made by IBM and Lexmark. These keyswitches are a little different from the MX-mount or Alps-mount switches because of how they work, how they feel, and what keycaps they use. They have a larger spring that buckles against the keyswitch barrels when depressed. This creates the unique clicking feeling and is guaranteed to give feedback when actuated.

IBM/Lexmark stopped making their buckling spring keyboards in 1995. In 1996, a few former Lexmark employees bought the equipment to make Lexmark buckling spring keyboards and formed Unicomp. Today, Unicomp continues to make buckling spring keyboards.

Ducky One Series

The mechanical switches you should know for gaming

No matter which type of switch you pick, mechanical keyboards are well-suited for playing PC games because they offer unmistakable feedback when pressed. That said, part of the fun of mechanical keyboards is getting one that perfectly suits your needs, and for that, you need to find the switches right for you.

With tactile and clicky switches, you have confirmation every single time you type that what you pressed is registering on the computer, with feedback in the form of a click or the feeling of the bump when you hit the actuation point. The actuation point is when the keystroke is registered on the computer. This means that the gamer does not have to press down fully to get the keystroke to register, leading to faster typing. This can be useful in game types such as RTS where your Actions Per Minute can play a factor in winning.

If you’re into faster paced game types, for example FPS games, linear switches may give you an edge. Because there is no dome to compress or a click to overcome, you can press the keyswitch faster and register keystrokes faster. Mechanical keyboards are also much more durable than rubber dome keyboards. For example, Cherry MX switches are rated to a lifespan 20-50 million keystrokes depending on the switch type. Rubber domes are rated to last 5 million.

WIth that general overview in mind, here are the specific mechanical switches you should know. All the Cherry MX switch animations below were created by Geekhack user Lethal Squirrel.

Cherry Red & black



Click the "expand" icon to see the switches animate.

Cherry MX Red and Black

Mount Type: original Cherry MX

Feeling: Linear

Actuation Force: MX Red = 45 cN // MX Black = 60 cN

Force Curve: Here

Sound: Quiet at actuation, sound is generated at bottom-out

Best for: Most game types, especially FPS. There is no bump or click to overcome so there is no hysteresis. This means you can press down on the keys and get a keystroke response faster.

Topre

Mount Type: Topre (mount is unique to Topre keyboards)

Feeling: Tactile

Actuation Force: 30, 35, 45, 55 cN

Force Curve: Here, via blogger Silencium

Sound: Quiet

Best for: Topre switches are very versatile and well suited for most game types. They provide excellent tactile bump feedback when pressed and are very quiet. However since you’re depressing a dome, there is hysteresis which isn’t ideal for FPS games.

Cherry Blue


Click the "expand" icon to see the switches animate.

Cherry MX Blue and Green

Mount Type: original Cherry MX

Feeling: Clicky

Actuation Force: MX Blue = 50 cN // MX Green = 80 cN

Force Curve: Here

Sound: Second loudest keyswitch family on this list after buckling spring

Best for: Anything with a lot of typing. These switches provide an audible click and a sharp bump when typing; these attributes can lead to a pleasant typing experience. Game types such as RTS, MOBAs, or MMOs all have a lot of typing and can benefit. However, having that sharp bump and click also means there’s hysteresis not ideal for FPS games. Also, you may annoy your friends on team chat due to how loud the switches are.

IBM Model M image via DansData

A classic buckling spring keyboard, the IBM Model M. Image via DansData

Buckling Spring

Mount Type: Buckling Spring (mount is unique to the buckling spring switches)

Feeling: Clicky

Actuation Force: Model M and Unicomp (over membrane) = 62.5 cN on average // Model F (over capacitive PCB) = 67.5 cN

Force Curve: Here

Sound: Loudest on this list

Best for: Not good for any team based games as the keyboards are very loud and may annoy teammates on voice chat. Unicomp and IBM Model Ms also only have 2KRO so the keyboard will only register two switches pressed at the same time. This means if you’re playing something where you have to press multiple keys to get multiple outputs, it won’t work correctly. The switches are better suited for slower paced games like single-player RPGs or adventure games. Finally these switches are most affected by hysteresis.

Cherry brown & clear



Click the "expand" icon to see the switches animate.

Cherry MX Brown and Clears

Mount Type: original Cherry MX

Feeling: Tactile

Actuation Force: MX Brown = 45 cN // MX Clear = 65 cN

Force Curve: Here

Sound: Quiet

Best for: Like MX Blues and Greens, these switches provide a nice tactile bump as feedback. If you don’t bottom out while typing, these are much quieter too. Again, anything with a lot of typing such as MMOs, RTS, MOBAs, or even rhythm games are good with these switches. Both of these switches have a tactile bump which has hysteresis. It’s not as bad as MX Blue or Greens but this can mean that these switches aren’t ideal for FPS.

Matias Quiet Click

Mount Type: Alps-mount

Stem Color: Grey

Feeling: Tactile

Actuation Force: 60 cN

Force Curve: Here

Sound: Second quietest switch on this list after Topre

Best for: These are tactile switches so a lot of the same ideas from the MX Brown and Clears section can be applied here. These switches have hysteresis just like Browns and Clears too. However, the actuation point on the Matias switches is much higher than MX switches. If you learn a soft touch, you can type and input commands even faster.

Matias Click

Mount Type: Alps-mount

Stem Color: White

Feeling: Click

Actuation Force: 60 cN

Force Curve: Here

Sound: Loud

Best for: These are tactile switches, so a lot of the same ideas from the MX Blue and Green section can be applied here. However, the actuation point on the Matias switches is much higher than MX switches. If you learn to not bottom out, you can type and input commands even faster. These are also quite loud so be careful if you’re using these in a team chat.

Matias switches image via Massdrop

Matias switches image via Massdrop

Matias Linear

Mount Type: Alps-mount

Stem Color: Red

Feeling: Linear

Actuation Force: 35 cN

Force Curve: Here

Sound: Quiet at actuation, sound is generated at bottom-out

Best for: These are linear switches, so a lot of the same ideas from the MX Red and Black section can be applied here. These switches don’t have any hysteresis. However, the actuation point on the Matias switches is much higher than MX switches. If you learn to not bottom out, you can type and input commands even faster. These switches are the second lightest switches on the list, meaning the force needed to press down on the keys is very low.

Other Mount Types

Gateron

Gateron is a Chinese manufacturer which makes MX-mount switches. Like Cherry, they have a range of different switch types which are classified by their stem colors. The enthusiast community has recently seen an influx of these switches and some say they favor the Gateron Clear and Black linear switches.

Kailh or Kaihua

Kailh is a Chinese manufacturer who was the first to make MX-mount switches in 2007. Kailh switches are also differentiated by their stem colors. Razer worked with Kaihua to release their own switches, which are Razer Green (Clicky) and Razor Orange (Tactile). These Razer switches are used in their Razer Blackwidow line of keyboards.

SKCL/SKCM “Complicated” Alps (Alps Electric Corporation)

These switches were made by Alps Electric Corporation from around 1983 until 1996. They are referred to as complicated Alps because they are comprised of 9 different parts. Like the rest of the switches on the list, they are differentiated by their stem color. Complicated Cream Alps serve as the basis for the Matias Quiet Click keyswitch. Like the Matias switches, they have a square stem, instead of a cross shaped stem like the MX-mount. Just like Matias switches, SKCL/SKCM switches also feature a higher actuation point. These switches are found in vintage keyboards.

Kailh switches image via Massdrop

Kailh switches image via Massdrop

Final Thoughts

There are few things you’ll interact with more than a keyboard while playing computer games. Mechanical keyboards offer a durable product that lasts years longer than a rubber keyboard. The audible and tactile feedback under hand means there's no mistaking when you've pressed a switch and when your finger is hovering at the ready. And it just feels so much better to type on.

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