How to Choose Mechanical Keyboard Switches

Find the best switch for your mechanical keyboard

What to Know

  • Linear switches are usually fast and quiet, and they’re good for gaming. 
  • Tactile switches give you a physical bump when pushing down, and they’re good for both gaming and typing. 
  • Clicky switches give an audible click you can also feel in your finger, so they’re better for typing than gaming.

This article explains how to choose mechanical keyboard switches, with information about different types of switches and advice on how to decide on the best type of switch for you.

How Do I Choose a Keyboard Switch?

Whether you’re building a custom keyboard or buying one off the shelf, the switches are always the most important keyboard feature to consider. When you push a key on your keyboard, the switch underneath is what transmits a signal to let your computer know you've pressed a key. In mechanical keyboards, these switches come in a variety of styles which all feel and work differently.

A mechanical keyboard switch tester.

To get a feel for the different switches available, buy a switch sampler. Switch samplers come with several types of switches, allowing you to check out how each one feels before you buy enough to build an entire keyboard.

There are three basic types of switches to choose from:

  • Linear switches: Linear switches are the best choice for gaming. These switches operate smoothly with no pushback or tactile feedback. Linear switches can provide a quiet clicking sound when they bottom out, or no sound.
  • Tactile switches: These switches are good for both typing and gaming. When you push down, you feel a distinct bump in the middle of the press. They usually aren’t silent, but the click isn’t as loud as a clicky switch.
  • Clicky switches: Clicky switches are great for typing. These are like tactile switches, but they make a lot more noise when they bottom out.

To choose the right keyboard switches, you can start by thinking about how you want to use the keyboard. If you’re a gamer, and you don’t do a lot of typing on your computer, then linear switches provide the best performance. If you do some gaming but also use your computer to type a lot, tactile switches provide a good balance. Clicky switches are great for typing and give a nice, satisfying click, but they can be annoying to play with (and they might annoy others around you because of them can be quite loud).

In addition to choosing between linear, tactile, and clicky, it’s also important to consider how much force a switch takes to activate. This force is measured in Newtons (N), with a typical range between 0.45 and 0.7 N. Switches at the low end are really easy to activate, and switches at the high end need to be pushed harder. In other words, the harder to push the quicker your hands (and wrists) can tire out.

Key travel and activation point are the last two factors to consider. Keys with a lot of key travel push in further than keys without a lot of key travel, but the actuation point actually tells you how far down you need to push to have the key send a signal to your computer. For example, a key with 4.0mm of travel and a 2.0mm actuation point sends a signal to your computer when it’s only depressed halfway.

Want clicky keys you can type on silently when you want? Choose a tactile switch which will only click after the actuation point. That lets you type lightly and silently, or push the keys all the way down and click as much as you want.

Mechanical Keyboard Switch Types

The main types of keyboard switches are linear, tactile, and clicky, but that doesn’t mean there are only three kinds of mechanical switches to choose from. There are a number of companies making compatible switches which can be used in the same keyboards and with the same keycaps, and some companies make dozens of different types of switches.

In addition to linear, tactile, and clicky, switches are often referred to as:

  • Silent: These switches don’t make a sound. They’re usually linear, because linear switches are naturally the quietest, but there are some tactile options.
  • Speed: These switches are designed for speed. They activate fast, so they’re great for gaming.
  • Optical: These can be linear, tactical, or clicky. The difference is they can be used with RGB keyboards to achieve lighting effects. If you want your keys to glow, you need optical switches and a compatible keyboard.  

These terms are all used in conjunction with the main types of switches. For example, you can get a clicky optical switch, or a linear speed switch. You can also find switches which combine two or even all three of these characteristics. For example, there are linear switches built for both speed and silence, and can also light up.

In general, silent switches are a good option if you work in an office environment or find clicking keys to be annoying. Speed switches are the best option if you’re a serious gamer, but they can also be useful if you spend a lot of time typing. Optical switches are purely for aesthetics, and they only work in keyboards specifically designed for the keys to light up.

What Do the Different Color Switches Mean?

Key manufacturers use colors to differentiate between different types of switches. For example, a Cherry MX Red is a switch made by the company Cherry and that switch has a red stem. The Cherry Silent MX Red is a related model that still has a red stem but doesn’t make a clicking sound. Similar terminology is used for the Cherry MX Speed Silver, which is a switch with fast operation and a silver stem. Other manufacturers just use a color without any additional terms, like the Kailh Gold, which is a speedy switch with a gold stem.

Switch color meanings aren’t always the same across brands, but some general colors include:

  • Blue: These are usually clicky switches. They make a very audible click sound, so they’re great for typing but don’t always work well in office situations.
  • Red and yellow: These are usually linear switches. They provide a smooth press and no click, or a light clicking sound. They usually make at least some noise, but there are silent options.
  • Brown: These are usually tactile switches. They provide physical feedback when you reach the actuation point. They’re usually quieter than true clicky switches.
  • Silver: These are usually linear switches. They are built for speed. They’re good for gamers, because it takes less time for each button press to register.
  • Green: These are usually clicky and tactile. The actuation force varies from one manufacturer to another.
  • Black: These are usually linear switches. They require a little more force to activate than the average switch.

While those are some of the more common switch colors a lot of companies use, there are cases where the same color can mean different things from different manufacturers. When choosing a mechanical switch type, it’s important to check with the manufacturer to see what type of switch it is and how much force it takes to activate to make sure that you select the right one.

What Is the Best Switch Color for a Mechanical Keyboard?

The best switch color for a mechanical keyboard depends on how the keyboard will be used. It also depends on the manufacturer of the switches, because some manufacturers use different color schemes than others.

In general, red switches are good for gaming because they help you react quickly in fast-paced games like Fortnite, blue switches are good for typing, and brown switches are a middle ground. Green switches also fit into the middle ground between gaming and typing, while red and yellow switches are usually good for gaming.

Instead of focusing entirely on the color, it’s a good idea to decide whether you want linear, tactile, or clicky, how much noise you want, how fast you want the switch to be, and how hard you want to press it.

Which Switches Are Best for a Mechanical Keyboard?

The best switches for a mechanical keyboard are purely personal preference. And it depends on how and where the keyboard will be used. Tactile switches are the best if you like some physical feedback when you’re typing, but you don’t like a loud click. They’re also good in office environments, because they usually aren’t especially loud. They’re also good for gaming, so tactile switches are the best middle ground option for the most people.

Serious gamers should consider linear switches, as they provide faster, more precise inputs. Clicky keyboards, and even loud tactical keyboards, don’t provide the best gaming experience. However, clicky keyboards are great for typing if you want a keyboard that really sounds like a keyboard used to sound (before the days of membranes). They give a nice, satisfying click that you don’t get from the other switch styles.

Cherry is generally accepted as one of the best switch manufacturers, so a Cherry MX keyboard is a good option for both gaming and typing. Gateron keys are also highly respected, and Razer switches are also good. Greetech and Kailh are lower cost options that are similar to Cherry switches and offer a decent alternative if you can’t afford Cherry. There are dozens, if not hundreds, of companies making switches now, so you can likely find the perfect switch for you.

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