A Beginner’s Guide To Mechanical Keyboard Switches

A Beginner's Guide To Mechanical Keyboard Switches


Whether you decide to go for an off-the-shelf PC or assemble your own gaming or office rig, there is a vital aspect of the computer buying process you should not overlook – your choice of keyboard. Selecting the ideal mechanical keyboard with the correct components can determine whether your typing experience is enjoyable or simply tolerable.


One of the crucial parts is the keyboard switch. Do not underestimate the purpose of this component, as failing to consider which type of switch is suitable for you can rob you of years of comfort, function, and style. That is especially true for those looking for a reliable work or gaming keyboard. In fact, you may find that a single button press can affect your gaming session or how productive you are.


However, casuals diving into the underlying technology in mechanical keyboards may find the entire process overwhelming, especially when dealing with the various terminologies present in the industry. Not to mention having to decide on your ideal switch given the numerous options available on the market. So before you get started, it is a good idea to familiarise yourself with the most crucial part of a mechanical keyboard – the keyboard switch – by checking out our helpful guide.




2.1. Mechanical Switches Explained


Mechanical Switches Explained


What are mechanical switches?


Many new to the hobby often mistakenly assume the keyboard switch refers to the actual tops of the keys you see when looking at a keyboard. However, that is not true, as these bits are actually called “keycaps”. Instead, the switch pertains to the actual physical mechanism underlying each key, and they determine the activation of a keystroke.


As a consumer, you will find a broad array of switch types peppering the various keyboards on the market today. However, the best and most advanced ones are found in gaming and high-end productivity models. These are collectively known as “mechanical keyboard switches”, and they deliver satisfying sounds, smooth operation, or tactile finger feedback. Specific switches even provide some combination of the three.


There is a reason why these mechanical switches are more sought after than their regular counterparts. Each key on a mechanical keyboard includes a spring and a surrounding switch mechanism, providing a distinct tactile feel and springiness that immediately separates the keyboard from the low-cost membrane keyboards accompanying most budget desktop PCs.


The basic anatomy of a conventional mechanical switch is the same across all mechanical keyboards. Let us examine the various components and learn their importance individually:


  1. Keycap – A plastic top cap containing a label, usually a letter, number, or symbol, printed on it.
  2. Stem – A vertical post, or stem, where the keycap is mounted on. Its shape can differ depending on the switch type.
  3. Switch housing – The outer enclosure holding all the components of a single switch together.
  4. Metal contact leaves – This component is responsible for registering a keystroke whenever the key is pressed.
  5. Spring – The coil spring wraps around the base of the slider, creating resistance whenever a user presses down on a mechanical key. Subsequently, the spring will return the switch back to its resting position after release.
  6. Slider – The slider pushes against the spring to interrupt the connection between the various metal contact leaves mounted on the side of the switch.

Other terms you should be familiar with


With various keyboard switch and mechanical keyboard manufacturers on the market, each with their own set of lingo to describe capabilities and features, here are some terms we believe you should familiarise yourself with:


  • Actuation point – The actuation point, measured from the top of the keycap, pertains to the travel distance point at which the switch registers an input. A smaller actuation-point measurement is generally preferred, as this means the key registers a press with a less downward motion, translating to a faster reaction time.
  • Travel – The maximum distance a switch can depress. This figure is usually higher than the actuation point.
  • Debounce time – Debouncing refers to a signal-processing technique which ensures only one signal is registered on a press.
  • Reset point – The distance at which the key needs to rebound for the switch to reset and be ready for another input.
  • Hysteresis – A term used to describe when a switch’s actuation and reset point are not identical.

2.2. Types Of Mechanical Switches: Linear, Tactile, And Clicky


Types Of Mechanical Switches


The different types of mechanical switches


Regardless of make or manufacturer, the behaviour of a keyboard switch can generally be divided into three categories – linear, tactile, and clicky. No matter your preference, each offers unmistakable feedback when pressed. With that said, part of the fun of choosing a mechanical keyboard, especially if you intend to create your own custom keyboard, is identifying the ideal switch that suits your needs.


As a gamer, you might find linear switches to be the ideal option due to their simple operation. With no dome to compress or clicks to overcome, the various keys move straight up and down without any tactile feedback or clicking noise, enabling you to press the switch and register keystrokes more quickly. The smooth keystroke allows for more rapid actuation, giving you an edge in faster-paced games like first-person shooters.


In contrast, you cannot go wrong with clicky switches if you prefer a more tactile experience when using a mechanical keyboard. They feature a bump at a specific point of travel, followed by a “click” sound whenever a key is pressed. Tactile switches are essentially the same as their clicky counterparts, without the distinct click at the end. Although most will still produce some sound when pressed firmly. As such, the latter is ideal for those seeking the same typing sensation as the former without the noise.


Colours: what do they mean?


Beyond these three types of mechanical switches, there is also the issue of the switch’s colour to consider. As the preeminent manufacturer of computer input devices, especially switches for mechanical keyboards, Cherry has established the standards for what a typical switch “behaviour” is by coding each with a specific colour. These colours have since become the accepted lingua franca in the industry, with most vendors adhering to the same colour scheme and behaviours.


Of course, some manufacturers have opted to introduce their own colour schemes with distinct traits. With that said, mechanical switches are still by and large distinguished by Cherry or Cherry-equivalent colours. Therefore, it is crucial for you to be aware of the primary colours used in the production of mechanical switches and the trait each colour symbolises.


1. Red


Linear switches are often red in colour, and they offer smooth presses with no clicks. However, that does not mean they are silent. It just means they are the quietest of all the colours available on the market. Black switches share similar characteristics but often feel “heavier” and offer more resistance to the touch.


2. Blue


Typists who want their custom mechanical keyboard to have a typewriter feel can opt for a blue switch. These clicky switches are loud, producing a pronounced clicking noise when pressed.


3. Brown


Brown switches are often the most versatile option available on the market. As tactile switches, they are the ideal middle ground between linear and clicky, offering the same feedback under your fingers as the latter, without the distinct “click” sound.


4. Black


As the keyboard switch with the highest actuation force ratings, meaning users must tap harder for keystrokes to register, it is most suitable for heavy-handed typists. Due to this feature, black switches are commonly found in jobs where extended typing is not required, and stray keystrokes are to be avoided, such as point-of-sale or data-entry usage, rather than gaming or everyday work.


5. Green


Those who desire a mechanical switch with a stiffer feel and higher actuation force can consider green keyboard switches, although this option is rare.


6. White


Speaking of mechanical switch colours that are rare, white switches are the lightest keyboard switches on the market. Soft to the touch, this switch will appeal to those who value accurate speed when typing. However, they may be too light for gamers.




3.1. Common Brands And Their Mechanical Switches


As we shared, Cherry is often considered the market leader, trend-setter, and lingo inspirer in the world of mechanical keyboard switches. However, this brand is not the only option available on the market, with various competitors springing up in recent years to tempt your wallet.


While most of the products offered by other manufacturers share similar DNA with Cherry switches, you can also expect plenty of differences across vendors. So let us share a breakdown of the most popular brands to help you make an informed decision on the matter.


Brand #1: Cherry




Characterised by their unique cross-shaped stem, the Cherry MX switches are widely regarded as the cream of the crop due to their quality and durability. In fact, the Cherry MX line cuts the template on which most modern keyboard switches are modelled, with various manufacturers using them as the inspiration for their own products.


Among the Cherry MX line, the Cherry MX Red remains a top pick among gamers and mechanical keyboard enthusiasts alike due to its low operating force and actuation point. However, some typists might find it too sensitive, resulting in typos. As a result, most writers prefer the classic, clicky MX Blue. Meanwhile, the MX Brown offers a happy medium in terms of actuation force, noise, and tactile feedback.


Brand #2: Kailh (Kaihua)




Kailh switches, made by the China-based manufacturer Kaihua, are often considered a prominent Cherry clone as many of its products are nearly identical to the Cherry MX switches. They even share a similar lingo. Because of that, some Kailh switches are even compatible with keycaps designed for Cherry MX switches.


As a more affordable option compared to Cherry, Kailh switches tend to appear in budget-priced mechanical keyboards. With that said, they have also appeared in specific premium models like the Kinesis TKO. Some users may find that Kailh switches feature a less smooth press-down action than their Cherry counterparts, with a bit more perceived abrasion in the keypress. However, this issue, and the degree of it, varies by the specific Kailh switch type installed.


Brand #3: Gateron




Another prominent Cherry clone based in China, Gateron switches are popular among keyboard aesthetes and enthusiasts, especially those who prefer a clean, fuss-free typing experience. In fact, some even prefer them over the arguably “scratchy” Cherry MX switches. As a result, Gateron switches tend to feature in higher-end specialised mechanical keyboards catering to keyboard-geek sets.


Learn More: Gateron Switches: The Essential Guide


Brand #4: Outemu




Among the various Cherry clones, Outemu switches are the most identical to the Cherry MX line. They even share the same characteristics corresponding to the same colour schemes as their MX counterparts. However, while these switches offer solid performance and well-defined tactility, they are usually not as smooth as Gateron switches or as durable as Cherry switches.

Nevertheless, they remain popular among mechanical keyboard fanbases due to the switch’s price-to-performance ratio, which is cheaper than Gateron and Kailh. As such, Outemu offers the ideal balance between quality and cost.


Brand #5: Akko




With the boom of Chinese companies in the keyboard switches industry, such as Kailh, Gateron, and Outemu, it is no surprise to find another player joining the market in recent years – Akko. Despite its relative newness compared to the other three manufacturers, Akko has managed to claim the hearts of many keyboard enthusiasts with its affordable products catering to their needs and desires.


Like Outemu, they offer quality switches at an attractively low price, ensuring every Akko switch is a bang for the bulk purchase. However, buyers must be aware that Akko switches, in particular, are known for their deep and thocky sound profile, even in their stock configuration, so this is something for you to note.


Brand #6: TTC




Compared to Cherry, TTC switches are relatively niche. Nevertheless, they remain an excellent option for beginners and professionals alike. In fact, TTC switches offer an unparalleled and smooth typing experience for mechanical keyboard enthusiasts thanks to their use of gold contact leaves and soft plastic stems.


However, TTC switches are also excellent and durable enough for competitive gaming sessions, as they do not need as much force to register a keystroke as Cherry switches require. With that said, there is a tradeoff between the two brands, with Cherry offering a bouncier and better tactile feel than TTC.


3.2. Factors To Consider When Choosing A Mechanical Switch


Factors To Consider When Choosing A Mechanical Switch


Now that you have a better understanding of the various types of mechanical switches and the popular brands available, you might feel ready to select the ideal keyboard switch for your customised keyboard. If that is not the case and you remain undecided, fret not! Let us help ensure you make the correct choice by examining the four crucial factors to consider beforehand.


Factor #1: The environment


Before you begin your search, it is a good idea to ask yourself this question: where will you be using your mechanical keyboard? Is it in an office surrounded by your co-workers, or will you be alone in your room? The answer could heavily influence your decision.


For example, a quieter switch option might be ideal if you find yourself using your mechanical keyboard in a shared space or noise-sensitive environment. While some might be a fan of the high-pitched and loud “click” sound produced by clicky switches, most would not appreciate the disturbance and may find it annoying.


In these instances, you should be considerate and opt for a linear or tactile switch. The latter, in particular, still offers the same typing experience as a clicky switch without the sound. Conversely, if noise is not a concern since you would be in a private setting, feel free to go with a clicky switch that offers a more pronounced tactile and audible response.


Factor #2: Your tactile preference


At the end of the day, your ideal keyboard switch comes down to a matter of preference. So do you prefer experiencing a slight bump with every keypress? Or is a smooth and consistent keystroke more essential? For those who prefer the latter, linear switches are the obvious choice.


Meanwhile, the tactile feedback provided by tactile and clicky switches offers greater accuracy and ensures fewer typos. You will know if an input has been registered without having to bottom out the keys. Once you feel the bump, you can move on to the next keystroke.


Factor #3: Your hand size, strength, and typing style


Do you know that something as simple as your hand size could fundamentally affect your mechanical switch collection? That is because those with large hands tend to produce unintended keystrokes while typing compared to those with smaller hands.


If that sounds like you, you can consider switches with high activation points (2mm or higher) and medium to heavy operating force (55cN and higher). That is because the farther the activation point, the farther distance is necessary to activate a key. Meanwhile, the higher the operating force, the higher the pressure required to trigger the mechanical switch. With these two properties combined, you will need more effort to register an input, thus helping to avoid misclicks.


As for those with big hands but remain light typists who hardly ever register a wrong input, you can consider keyboard switches with medium to high activation points (1.4mm or higher). Since you do not encounter misclicks often, a keyboard switch with a slightly shorter activation point will suffice. As for the operating force, a medium pressure force (55 to 75cN) would be suitable.


Furthermore, as a light typist, there is the chance you do not bottom out your keys. Therefore, you might find that tactile or clicky switches suit you best. Once you notice the bump mid-travel, you can proceed to the next keystroke.


Lastly, those with small to medium-sized hands who type lightly but sometimes bottom out can consider speed switches. While these keyboard switches are made for the purpose of gaming, they are not only suitable for gamers. They are also excellent for typing, so long as you are gentle and avoid smashing your keys, as the shorter activation point enables keypresses to register quickly, thus making it ideal for fast, accurate typing.


Factor #4: Purpose of the keyboard


Perhaps the most significant factor that will influence your choice of mechanical switches is the primary purpose of your mechanical keyboard. Is the keyboard for gaming or typing? Or both? Gamers tend to prioritise smooth and consistent keypress to help with rapid movement. As such, they usually gravitate towards keyboard switches offering quick actuation and minimal resistance, such as linear or speed switches.


Conversely, writers or programmers might want a switch that strikes a balance between comfortable typing and tactile feedback. In such cases, tactile and clicky keyboard switches suit their needs better. Those who prefer less noise disturbance will typically go with the former option.


However, we recommend getting a mechanical keyboard with hot-swappable switches if you prefer using a singular keyboard for both work and gaming. This way, you can try multiple keyboard switches and see which one fits your needs best.




At The Masked Studio, we love all things pertaining to mechanical keyboards, including keyboard switches. However, we know we are not alone in our enthusiasm, as we constantly encounter newbies enquiring about mechanical switches as they look to dive into the world of custom keyboards. So to help new users ease their way into this hobby, let us assemble a list of the common inquiries we receive from our customers and our responses to these questions.


Question #1: Are keycaps universal?


There is no straightforward answer to this question, as the answer can be yes or no. Cherry-style keycaps are the most universal since they fit any switch stem with a cross. However, there are also plenty of custom keycaps and switches that are not interchangeable or compatible with Cherry switches and mounts.


Besides, there are other factors to consider. For example, those looking to pair a Cherry-compatible keycap with a Cherry keyboard switch must also account for the keyboard layout, as it can impact the bigger keys, such as the Space bar, Enter, and Shift. Users must ensure these buttons match and do not extend over adjacent keys.


Question #2: Are mechanical switches universal?


The answer is no. Mechanical keyboard switches are not universal. With that said, most designs are Cherry-compatible. As such, you can use any type of switch you like with any compatible keycap or printed circuit board (PCB) if they follow this design.


Question #3: Which type of plastic is better for keycaps – ABS, PBT, or POM plastic?


The type of plastic used for keycaps influences the durability of the key finish, the sound it produces, and the way the mechanical keyboard feels. Therefore, you will want to ensure you make the correct choice. ABS is the cheapest material but is also regarded as the worse type of plastic, as it starts to shine within a few days of use when it comes into contact with oily fingers.


Meanwhile, PBT is more resistant to wear and features a harsh texture finish. However, its quality means it tends to be more expensive than ABS ones. Lastly, POM is less common than the other two types of plastic and is abrasion and solvent-resistant while also being low-friction.




Choosing suitable keyboard switches for your ideal mechanical keyboard can appear daunting. However, there is no need to worry too much about the choices available to you. Your final decision will depend entirely on your preference. So feel free to try different switches to see which suit your needs best.


If you seek quality and durable keyboard switches, you are already in the right place! At The Masked Studio, we offer an extensive selection of keyboard switches from various popular brands at affordable prices. Visit our website to browse our comprehensive catalogue today.


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