The Ultimate Guide to Mechanical Switches: Everything You Need to Know
You'll be surprised at how easy it is to understand every fundamental bit of mechanical switches, whether they're linear or clicky. All you need is 10 minutes to read this article!
Imagine typing on a vintage typewriter; that's exactly how it feels to type on a mechanical keyboard. Mechanical switches contribute 90% to this feeling, as they are the core of mechanical keyboards and determine how the keyboard feels on your fingertips.
Unlike mass-produced rubbery membrane boards, every key on a mechanical keyboard is connected to an individual switch. The benefits are significant, including never registering wrong input, providing stronger feedback when typing, and allowing you to press the keys smoothly - something you won't get from a rubber membrane keyboard.
In the early days, Cherry MX was the only company producing high-quality mechanical switches. Nowadays, many brands have joined the competition, and there are a plethora of switches available on the market.
2023 is the year of mechanical keyboard flourishing - at least that's what us keycap enthusiasts at The KapCo agree on!
Therefore, if you're planning to get yourself a mechanical keyboard right now, this guide will be super helpful - we guarantee it!
Common Brands of Mechanical Switches
There are tons of mechanical switches made by big factories or indie workshops catering to the exploding needs for switches in the market, but they typically do the same job. So what's the actual difference? Let's dive into the background and contribution of these brands that you might have heard before, starting with the pioneer of mechanical switches.
CHERRY MX is the oldest switch brand in the world dating back its origins to 1954. This Germany-based company revolutionized mechanical switches and introduced Cherry MX switch in 1983, making their legacy stand for 40 years! They manufacture the most common type of switch in the current market, with more than 6 billion switches sold worldwide!
Cherry MX switches provide high levels of performance, durability and comfort, and deliver the ultimate gaming experience. The best thing about this switch is the compatibility with many types of profiles namely Cherry, XDA, MDA, MOA, KSA and many more. Easy as it sounds, as long as the profile has a '+', it can fit on Cherry MX switches or its equivalents.
Overall, Cherry MXs are a great choice if you're looking for a high-compatibility and long lasting switch. However, they can be a lacking when it comes to feel and sound, when compared to other richer-sounding switches. Furthermore, they are rather costly, so consider your budget before investing in this durable, comfortable switch.
Gateron is a technology manufacturing company, mainly known for their various types of switches and switch customization. Gateron has more than 15 years of experience in the mechanical switch scene, making it second to Cherry MX. Gateron switches are currently accepted as one of the successful mass-produced MX-clone switches in the market. The smooth feeling when you type is the primary selling-point of Gateron switches. The array of switches they provide caters for the high demand of smoother feel and custom switches.
Most Gateron switches utilize MX-style stems, making them compatible with 90% of MX-style keycaps on the market. Because of this, Gateron has boosted the use of MX-style keycaps but is often chosen over Cherry MX due to its smoothness and affordability. To compare with Cherry MX, Gateron has exceptional smoothness at a great price, while still delivering similar levels of quality and compatibility.
Kailh switches are manufactured by Dongguan Kaihua Electronics established in 2005. Kaihua is the first company to modify and improve the original Cherry MX switch, enhancing the typing sensation. Kailh unique switches come in different shapes and sizes, standing out from the regular switch provided by Cherry MX and Gateron. Some innovative switches include Box switch, Speed switch and Pro switch.
To briefly introduce the three main types of switch, box switches are regular switches turned water and dust resistant. Speed switches are, you guessed it, has 40-50% faster reaction than your ordinary switch. That makes it an awesome upper-hand for competitive gaming. Pro switches are a good mix of box and speed, just that its slightly slower but is dust and waterproof. Overall, when compared to Cherry and Gateron, Kailh provides a unique touch to your typing, enhancing some features such as waterproof, dustproof and stability. Not only do they look good, sound and feel good, they are also budget-friendly!
Razer is a worldwide famous brand of mechanical keyboards, delivering quality, performance and customization. Founded in 2005, Razer is dual headquartered in California and Singapore. Their products range from gamer essentials to apparels. The mechanical switches they offer are the legendary three- linear (yellow), tactile (orange) and clicky (green).
Razer switches have better stability and longer life span as compared Cherry MX switches. However, there is a big downside to it. To experience any type of Razer mechanical switches, you have to buy an entire Razer keyboard! That is because they don't provide a hot-swappable keyboard, which means the switches are stuck to the keyboard for good. In other words, these switches are subpar, expensive, and are inconveniently hard to work with.
Outemu is a Chinese electronics company established in 2004, aimed to give direct competition to Cherry MX. It has garnered popularity worldwide for quality switches at a good price. There is a wide range of switches offered by Outemu, covering linear, tactile and clicky sensations.
Some of the switches offered by Outemu include low-profile, dustf-proof, ice, silent and cream switches. All in all, Outemu is well-known for its affordability when compared to popular MX clones like Gateron. Its assortment of switches strikes an excellent balance between performance and cost. Venturing into Outemu switches is a perfect budget option, and a good introduction to mechanical keyboard beginners.
CIY or also known as Shenzhen Cheyyou Technology is a mechanical switch company established in 2016, manufacturing high-end MX clone switches. You might not have heard of this brand but they are an uprising switch brand you ought to look out for!
Not only are their switches aesthetic, but also high quality with a great price! According to our experience, these CIY switches are nearly as smooth as Gateron. They offer linear, tactile and clicky to meet the needs of users around the world. If you'd like to add some personal touch to your switches and still have a similar feel with Gateron, you should try these CIY switches!
In a nutshell, these are some of the brands that deliver higher quality mechanical switches among others in the market. Some more pricier than others, but it all depends on your budget and function. Next, let's get into the nitty-gritty details of what's in a mechanical switch!
The Spare Parts of Mechanical Switches
To understand how switches work, you must first know what they are made of. There are 4 main components in a mechanical switch - stem, spring, upper and lower housing parts, and Crosspoint contact.
The stem is the key element of a switch because it determines the type of switch it would be; whether linear, tactile or clicky. The shape of the stem affects the actuation and travel distance and creates the keystroke feel. The feet of the stem is the most important part of the stem as they trigger a keystroke when contacting the Crosspoint contact. Here's a breakdown of how the feet affects its feel.
- Linear switch- Straight and smooth feet
- Tactile switch- Elevated feet to create a 'bump'.
- Clicky switch- Elevated feet and Click-Jacket
The spring is the next important component which affects the typing feel. It dictates the pressing and release force of a switch and how hard it can be pressed. The spring provides some resistance and resets the key after the switch is activated. Other than that, some factors affecting the typing feel include:
- Distance between coils
To briefly introduce, there are two types of springs: linear and progressive. With linear springs, you need more force the more you press them until you reach the bottom. Whereas in progressive springs, you'll need even more force even if its for the same length of linear spring. A combination of the two springs are called two-stage springs. These types of springs changes from linear to progressive and are currently trending in the market!
The housing is a two-piece construction consisting of the upper and lower housing. It encompasses all the switch components in a compact, neat space. The material used to build it can affect vibration and sound, whereas the quality of its construction can influence the stability of your keys. The housing of the switch functions to hold the switch together. The upper housing secures all the working components tightly in the space while the lower housing holds the Crosspoint contact in place. The stem moves between the upper and lower housing to register the keystroke.
The upper housing serves as a precision guiding mechanism for the stem to the crosspoint contact. This ensures the stem produces consistent keystrokes by moving in the same direction. When the key is pressed, the upper housing secures all the parts - the stem, spring and crosspoint contact. It is also the structure that contacts with the keycap when it is pressed.
The lower housing basically holds the mechanical switch together from the bottom. It contains the Crosspoint contact and has two pins to be inserted into the PCB. The two metal pins are in charge of communicating with the board. In the middle section, there is a hole for the stem to bypass as well as sliding guides on the sides. This is the part where the mechanical switch installation happens. In most cases, the switch needs to be soldered onto the board unless it is a hot-swap board.
4. Crosspoint Contact
The Crosspoint contact consists of the only metallic component of the switch. It is comprised of two metallic leaves that generates and delivers electric signals to the PCB. When the switch is pressed, the stem presses down into the leaf in the lower housing. The contact between the two leaves sends the signal of which key was pressed, and the symbol will appear on your screen. This is how a keystroke is registered.
Basically, here is the ascending order of how the signal is delivered.
- The key 'Q' is pressed.
- A force is created from the keycap to the (+) stem.
- The stem moves downwards with the help of the upper housing and sliding guides.
- The stem comes into contact with the two metal leaves which is the Crosspoint contact.
- The contact caused an electrical signal to be sent through the two metal pins connecting to the PCB.
- A 'Q' symbol appears on your screen as the keystroke is registered.
How to Choose the Most Suitable Mechanical Switches?
You might have seen many repeating terms of 'linear', 'tactile' and 'clicky' throughout this article or when purchasing mechanical switches. To the point where you're questioning yourself- what are these words?! What's the difference between these switches? How do I choose what's best for me?
To answer these million-dollar questions, we must first find out what those terms mean and what they sound like. Let's begin immediately.
Feel: Smooth, No Bump
Sound Profile: Quiet
Actuation force: Do not require force
Function: Best for Gaming
Linear switches have a smooth and consistent feel when pressed. There is no tactile bump, click or resistance, just a smooth travel until the switch actuates. The lack of feedback allows for quick reactions and is preferred by gamers. However, this in turn can create accidental keypresses and typos.
Feel: Tactile Bump
Sound Profile: Quiet
Actuation force: Require a bit of force
Function: Best for Typing
Tactile switches have quieter audible feedback with a pronounced tactile bump felt when a keystroke is registered. The bump acts as a resistance which improves accuracy when typing and reduces errors. This physical feedback are perfect for accurate keypresses and speed isn't an important factor. Typists generally enjoy tactile switches as words spelt correctly are more important than finishing a sentence full of errors in 10 seconds.
Feel: Tactile Bump
Sound Profile: Loud Click
Actuation force: Require a bit of force
Function: Best for Typing
Clicky switches are known for their loud "click" sounds when a key is pressed. Some enjoy the cacophony of sounds, while some refer to it as "noisy". It all depends on whether or not its clicks are music to your ears. There is a tactile bump that comes with a click sound and some pressing force is needed to register the keystroke. Clicky switches are preferred by typists who want to be able to hear each keystroke.
Additionally, you can check out this article for linear, tactile and clicky ASMR to hear how they sound like!
How to Install Barebone Kits
Now that you know the components of a mechanical switch and the types of mechanical switches, you can finally choose what to use on your mechanical keyboard. You can opt for a barebone kit to begin building your unique keyboard.
A Barebone Kit is a keyboard without keycaps or switches. Barebone kits are often made of plastic or aluminum, depending on the model that you prefer. Barebone mechanical keyboards give users the power to build their own custom mechanical keyboard simply by installing their favorite switches and keycaps without any soldering!
Here are some of the essential tools needed for you to install your barebone kit:
- Barebone kit (75%, TKL, 100%)
- Switches (sufficient for the number of keys)
- Keycap puller
- Switch puller
Steps To Take
To start, you need to purchase a barebone kit of your preferred keyboard size and layout. Common layouts are 60% , 65% , 75% , TKL and 100%. For smaller desk spaces, we recommend 60-65% layout with 66-75 keys. All the essential keys are on the keyboard. To understand better, take a read here.
However, if you have a bigger space, then opt for at least a 75% keyboard. A TKL (Tenkeyless) keyboard is a standard-sized keyboard that omits the numeric keypad on the side. You can read more about TKL boards in this article. Lastly, a 100% keyboard is a complete keyboard with the numeric pad. Read on the benefits of a full keyboard here.
Second step is that you need to purchase a sufficient number of switches to accommodate your keyboard layout. For instance, if you select a 65% keyboard, you need at least 75 switches, the more the better! You will need 88 keys for TKL and 108 keys for a 100% keyboard.
The next step is to select and purchase a keycap design that speaks to YOU. Never settle for dull looking keycaps. Get creative and choose from The Kapco collection! You'll definitely find something you like.
To put it all together, you need a switch puller to insert the switch into the PCB and a keycap puller to remove the switch if necessary. Lucky for you, we have a 2-in-1 keyswitch puller for easy installation. Shop it here!
Maintenance and Modding
Mechanical switches require little maintenance as they are durable to begin with. The switch will last for 80-100 million presses, stretching out to many years without wearing out. However, they do get dirty or dusty after some time, especially if you eat near your keyboard. Maintaining mechanical keyboards isn't rocket science. You just need a few tools to keep it spick and span!
Keeping your switches clean is important to maintain optimal performance, hygiene, and auditory and tactile feedback. Clean your switches once a year to prolong its lifespan and usage. Here are the basic cleaning equipment:
- Keycap puller
- Dust blower
- Cleaning solution (Isopropyl alcohol)
- Cotton Swab
Remove the keycaps with the puller and soak them in water. Since you're cleaning your switches, you might as well wash your keycaps. Find out how with this keyboard cleaning guide! Using the dust blower, puff some air through the rows of switches to remove debris. Next, dab the cotton swab into the alcohol (make sure to not use too much!) and wipe through the length of the keyboard. Ensure the keyboard is unplugged and has no power supply. Leave it to dry for a few minutes and then reassemble. And...you're done!
In the mechanical keyboard world, there are various methods to modify your keyboard to enhance its function and performance. Mechanical switches can also be modded - lubing and replacement.
- Lubing: Dismantling a mechanical switch and apply lubricant to the stem
- Replacement: Dismantling the switch and replacing the old spring with a new one.
Applying lubricant to the stem can heighten the smoothness of the stem motion, making it slide down faster and increasing speed. Furthermore, replacing your spring can also optimize performance and smoothness.
Debunking Common Myths of Mechanical Keyboards
Myth: Custom keyboards from unknown brands cannot last as long as famous brands.
It is often believed that uprising brands have lower quality compared to brands that have been in the mechanical keyboard scene for a long time. This is mainly due to price and quality difference. What if we told you that the longevity of the keyboards are actually similar, or even better at times. Brands such as Zuoya and Yunzii have extremely sturdy and quality build even at an affordable price. Not only do they offer high caliber goods, but also aesthetic keyboards catering to your style! Get more insights on why GMK67 is crowned our budget keyboard of the month here!
Myth: The sound quality of custom keyboards from unknown brands are not as rich as branded keyboards.
It's normal for people to expect cheap, crappy sounds coming from a $60 budget keyboard. That's why they are willing to invest in a $150 mechanical keyboard from a famous brand. But did you know you can get a rich, thocky sound without burning a hole in your wallet? The GMK67 from Zuoya is a $70 customizable keyboard with a knob. The sound it produces can arguably be music to your ears.
After going through our long and informative article, we hope you have gained some valuable insights. If you got lost halfway through, here's a TL:DR:
- Famous brands that have successfully penetrated the mechanical switch market are: Cherry MX, Gateron, Kailh and Razer.
- Outemu and CIY are uprising switch brands worth a try!
- There are 4 major parts of a switch: Stem, Upper and Lower Housing, Spring and Crosspoint Contact.
- Practical typists prefer tactile or clicky switch of medium weight and a medium to low actuation point.
- Gamers will likely prefer lightweight linear switches with a high actuation point.
- Barebone kits are ideal for switch customization. Affordable and quality picks include GMK67 and Yunzii AL71.
- Cleaning and lubing switches should be a yearly thing. Invest in good cleaning supplies for your keyboard, keycaps and switches.
- Uprising brands have the potential of giving high-quality and durable products. Give them a shot!
We hope you enjoyed this article. Thank you for reading!