The Mechanical Keyboard Guide
Mechanical keyboards became the first choice for gamers a while back, and they still are. Cherished for their reliance, durability, and that clicky sound every time a key is pressed, mechanical keyboards are living their second youth right now, but they are with us ever since the 1970’s.
Back then, there weren’t cheap, membrane keyboards around and manufacturers still tried to offer the best quality for the money along with durability few modern keyboards can brag with. If used correctly, a mechanical keyboard can last for decades, and more. The most famous mechanical keyboard is IBM’s Model M, which debuted in 1984 and which seen many revisions.
Nevertheless, each Model M iteration brought immense quality, unmatched durability and pleasant tactile feedback that was (and still is) one of the best ways to avoid typos. You know each time a key is pressed so you can’t make easy mistakes.
Difference between mechanical and membrane-based keyboards
During the 1990’s mechanical keyboards were replaced by cheaper and easier to manufacture membrane keyboards, which feature silicone membranes. Instead of mechanical switches, which are usually placed individually for every key, membrane keyboards feature a silicone mat positioned between the board and keys, which contains membranes for each key.
Further, although silicone can be very durable, membrane keyboards aren’t as lasting as mechanical ones. Each membrane is made to last through 5 to 10 million keystrokes, which may sound a lot. But, mechanical switches can last up to 50 million keystrokes, up to five times more than the best silicone membranes out there. This is the reason why mechanical keyboards are more expensive than membrane ones, and the reason why the bigger investment is worth the price.
And finally, while mechanical switches usually don’t have to be completely depressed for every keystroke, every membrane key has to. This is called “bottoming out” and can really be problematic, especially if you type a lot since it can cause excessive fatigue and be the cause of slower typing speed. And while mechanical switches provide some kind of tactile (and in some cases auditory) feedback, only the most expensive membrane keyboards can provide tactile feedback, which is far from the quality of mechanical one. This is why most gamers and writers prefer mechanical keyboards – they provide explicit feedback on each and every keystroke, instead of leaving you wondering did you just hit that key or not.
Also, one small, but important difference between the two is the fact that mechanical keyboards can register hitting all keys at once (if the PS/2 port is used), something membrane-based keyboards cannot. This is helpful for those who type really fast, as well as for gamers who can perform any combo in quick succession like they are able to do on controllers and arcade sticks.
Now that we explained differences between more popular membrane keyboards and more durable mechanical ones let us explain how mechanical switches work.
Technology behind mechanical switches
Again, let us explain the tech behind mechanical switches by first explaining how mainstream dome membrane keyboards register keystrokes. As we already mentioned, you have a silicone or rubber mat with membranes (one for each key) placed between keys and a circuit board. And once you press the key, the dome membrane below it is pressed against the board, closing out the circuit and registering a keystroke. This works just fine, but is prone to weariness and can start misbehaving after a couple of years of use because of wear and tear of the silicone membrane.
On the other hand, we have mechanical switches that work a bit different. The main difference is the lack of need for a membrane. Instead, below each keycap you can find a discrete switch, made out of two contacts that come together as a user presses a key, registering a keystroke. Further, instead of rubber or silicone, mechanical keyboards use springs to push the key back to its starting position, giving users more linear and smoother feel when pressing keys, which most users love more than the uneven feel when pressing a membrane.
A bit different, but similar is the mechanical switch technology used in the famous IBM Model M keyboards. Instead of two contacts and springs placed below the slider, these keys work by having a spring that, when a key is pressed, activates a small hammer positioned below the spring, and the hammer then hits a switch. While different than the two contacts method, a buckling spring is as durable and provides the same tactile feedback on a key press.
Now, let us describe main parts of every modern mechanical keyboard switch along with the most common terms used when talking about mechanical keyboards.
Common terms used when talking about mechanical keyboards
As with all other keyboards, the main part is the keycap with printing that covers the whole contraption. The cap is mounted on a stem, which is connected to the spring and is moved when pressing the keycap. Switch housing holds all the parts together and inside you can find metal contacts that, once connected, register a keystroke; a slider that allows for the contacts to connect (and that keeps them away one from another when in default position), and finally the spring placed below the stem that pushes the switch back to its starting position after a user releases the keycap.
First, we have something called total travel distance. That’s the total distance the stem can travel before being bottomed out.
Next, there’s the actuation point, the point when the keystroke is registered or, in other words, the point when the two contacts meet, and it is usually shorter than the total travel distance. In most cases, the actuation point is half the value of the total travel distance, but some switches use shorter actuation point in order to provide faster response.
Actuation force is the force necessary for the keystroke to be registered and in most cases, the user needs to apply a force between 45 and 60 centinewtons (cN). If you’re confused, don’t be, since centinewton is equal to 0.01 Newton and can be compared to grams. In other words, a force of 60cN is about the same as the force of 60 Grams, meaning that applied force is fairly low but noticeable. Some users prefer softer keys (especially those who like to play fast-paced games where a millisecond can be crucial), while most of us like a bit of stiffness while pressing keys.
And the tactile point is the point when the tactile feedback occurs, indicating that the switch has been activated.
There are three types of behavior when your press a mechanical switch, tactile, linear, and clicky.
The first is tactile, and it is the most common one. It is characterized by a sort of a bump in the middle of travel, usually at the same time when the switch activates, letting users know that the keystroke is registered.
Linear behavior means that there isn’t a bump during the keystroke, so you won’t know when a keystroke is registered, but at the same time, the lack of any feedback (and with it, the lack of any resistance during key press) means that keys can be pressed faster.
And finally, we have clicky behavior, best suited for typing. Aside from the noticeable bump, as with tactile behavior, the keystroke is also followed by a “click” sound, doubling the feedback. Keyboards with clicky switches are the loudest, but the double feedback is great for typing.
We have now finally explained all there is to know about mechanical keyboard switches. Now it is time to present the most popular switches used for mechanical keyboards.
Cherry mechanical switches
Cherry is the oldest keyboard manufacturer that is still in business. The company was founded back in 1953 and added keyboards to their lineup in 1967. The same year Cherry moved from the US to Germany, and the company’s headquarters are still there, but it’s no longer independent since it had been bought by ZF Friedrichshafen AG in 2008.
Nevertheless, the company’s brand is still used, and it is the most famous brand of mechanical switches in the world. Its Cherry MX mechanical switches saw the light of day in 1984 with the release of the Cherry MX Black. Since then, the company introduced around a dozen more switches, but the five most common are Black, Red, Blue, Brown and Clear. All Cherry MX switches have a lifespan of 50 million keystrokes per key.
Cherry MX Black
The oldest type of mechanical switches debuted in 1984 and Black is still one of the most popular switches offered by Cherry.
These switches are characterized by linear behavior, without any sort of tactile or clicking feedback. They are silent compared to other, non-linear switches, but still noticeably loud when compared to membrane switches.
They have actuation force of 60G, a total travel distance of 4mm and their actuation point is set at 2mm. Cherry MX Black are great for gaming since you don’t have any tactile of clicking feedback making you look away from the monitor, and can be solid for typing since some users don’t like the loud clicking noise of Cherry MX Blue. But, Cherry MX Red are considered better for typing, compared to Cherry MX Black, because they have a lower actuation force, making typing more pleasant.
Cherry MX Red
Another linear switch, the Cherry MX Red debuted in 2008, and they present a softer version of the Cherry MX Black switches.
The Cherry MX Red have actuation force of 45G, a third lower than the Black version, and are considered as gaming switches. If you’re searching for a gaming keyboard with mechanical switches chances are that most models will feature Cherry MX Red switches.
They are better for gaming because of a lower actuation force, with total travel distance and actuation point being the same as on Cherry MX Black switches (4mm and 2mm, respectively). They are considered better for typing than black switches, but the best ones for those who type a lot are the Cherry MX Blue.
Cherry MX Blue
If you look for mechanical switches that offer the feeling most similar to old IBM keyboards that used buckling springs, you should check out the Cherry MX Blue.
The Cherry MX Blue have both a clicky and tactile feedback when typing, offering the best experience for those who type a lot. But they are also incredibly loud, which could be a deal breaker for some (like for the author of this text), and if you think about typing on a Cherry MX Blue keyboard in office chances are your colleagues will start hating you.
But, since they offer two types of feedback, Cherry MX Blue are close to perfect when it comes to typing. They have actuation force of 50G; actuation point is set at 2mm with total travel distance being 4mm.
While the Cherry MX Blue are superb typing switches, they aren’t so good for gaming since there are two types of feedback activated on every keystroke, which can drive gamers mad, especially while playing some fast-paced fps. For those who game and type a lot, Cherry offers the MX brown.
Cherry MX Brown
The Cherry MX Brown offer tactile feedback without being as loud as the MX Blue. They are excellent for those who like gaming but also type a lot. They provide clear tactile feedback without making you look away from the monitor whenever hitting a key, but if you are a pure gamer, the Cherry MX Red is a better choice. On the other hand, if you want a mechanical keyboard suited for office use, the Cherry MX Brown switches are perfect since they provide clear feedback without making other people mad with their loud clicking.
Cherry MX Brown feature actuation force of 45G, their actuation point is set at 2mm with a total travel distance of 4mm. For those who want an ultimate gaming experience, Cherry constructed the Cherry MX Speed Silver switches that feature a higher actuation point than other switches made by the company.
Cherry MX Speed Silver
These switches are introduced recently in order to compete with gaming switches introduced by Razer and Logitech that offer shorter actuation points along with shorter total travel distance.
The Cherry MX Speed Silver have actuation point at just 1.2mm and total travel distance of 3.4mm. They are linear switches, and have actuation force of 45G, the same as the Cherry MX Red. If you’re a gamer who enjoys fast-paced games, these might be for you.
Razer mechanical switches
Since being the most recognizable manufacturer of gaming peripherals, Razer clearly has a wide gamut of mechanical keyboards, and in 2014 the company started designing their own line of mechanical switches.
At first, the Chinese mechanical switch manufacturer Kaihua (which will be mentioned further down) was responsible for manufacturing Razer-branded switches, but since then Razer hired other manufacturers to produce their switches. The company has three types of switches, with the most famous one being the Razer Green. The most notable points of difference, when compared to most of the Cherry MX switches, are longer lifespan (80 million keystrokes per key) and slightly higher actuation point placed at 1.9mm.
The Razer Green switches offer clicky feedback and are very similar to the Cherry MX Blue switches, albeit with some differences. Firstly, actuation point is slightly higher at 1.9mm, and the force needed for a keystroke to be performed is 50G.
Total travel distance is the same as on the Cherry MX Blue (4mm), and the Razer Green is suited for typing and gaming, but its loudness might drive off users who can’t accommodate to the signature clicky feedback.
The Razer Orange switches offer the same actuation point and total travel distance as the Razer Green (1.9mm and 4mm, respectively) but are quieter since they offer just tactile feedback. The actuation force is the same at 45G, making the Razer Orange a choice for those who want their switches to be quiet but still offer tactile feedback.
The Razer Orange switches are similar to the Cherry MX Brown making them an excellent choice for gaming and typing.
The Razer Yellow mechanical switch is the company’s linear behavior mechanical switch. It is suited for fast-paced gaming and typing since it features a very high actuation point placed at just 1.2mm with a total travel distance of 3.5mm.
The Razer Yellow switch features an activation force of 45G, making the keys pretty easy to press, and since there’s no feedback, gamers should definitely check this one out.
Logitech mechanical switch
Another famous maker of gaming peripherals, Logitech, also has its own mechanical switch. Their Romer-G switch is made in collaboration with Omron (a known Japanese electronics manufacturer), and it offers high actuation point in combination with a low actuation force.
The Romer-G features actuation point placed at just 1.5mm along with actuation force of 45G, with total travel distance being 3mm. The switch offers a subtle tactile feedback making it pretty quiet. The Romer-G switch is excellent for hardcore gamers who don’t like tactile feedback and want a switch that can be activated very fast.
Logitech’s mechanical switch comes with a lifespan of 70 million keystrokes per key (since each key is equipped with a set of redundant contacts, extending its lifespan).
Cooler Master mechanical switch (Topre switches)
Another company who makes their own mechanical switch – and uses it on just one of their keyboard, the Cooler Master Novatouch TKL, the company’s flagship model – is Cooler Master. Their Hybrid Capacitive switch is interesting because it uses a different design compared to the Cherry MX, Razer, and Logitech switches.
Cooler Master uses a design that’s made in collaboration with Topre, a Japanese electronics manufacturer. Topre switches use both conic spring and a silicone or rubber dome membrane. They are capacitive (there are no contacts that activate when touched), with the keystroke recorded once the dome membrane touches the circuit below it.
The spring is there to provide a sense of pressing a key, and these switches offer tactile feedback along with all other features of mechanical switches (light feel and actuation point placed at the middle of the path, not on the end), with rubber dome providing almost all of the actuation force.
All Topre switches come with a 2mm actuation point and a total travel distance of 4mm, they are pretty quiet and come with four different actuation force values – 30G, 35G, 45G, and 55G. They are great for typing and gaming and are excellent for those of us who game and type a lot. The only problem is that they are pretty tough to find.
The Cooler Master mechanical switch features actuation force of 45G, tactile feedback and extremely high actuation point at just 1mm. Total travel distance is 4mm. This makes the Cooler Master mechanical switch excellent for fast-paced gaming and for extremely fast typing.
ALPS mechanical switches (Matias switches)
Alps Electric Corporation manufactured their own ALPS mechanical switches back in the day, but the company stopped producing them in mid 90’s. Today, these switches are made by Matias, a mechanical keyboard manufacturer located in Canada that offers many high-quality keyboards that come with a hefty price.
The two types of ALPS switches made by Matias are Quiet Click, Click and Linear.
Matias Quiet Click and Matias Click
As the name suggests, Matias Quiet Click offer both tactile and clicky feedback but are quieter than other clicky switches. The company claims that the Quiet Click are much quieter than Cherry ones while at the same time more tactile. This makes them great for users who type a lot but can’t stand the noise of numerous clicks.
The Matias Quiet Click features actuation force of 60G, a lower actuation point compared to Cherry MX switches placed at 2.2mm and a total travel distance of 3.5mm.
The Matias Click switches are the same as the Quiet Click but louder, giving the feel of the old IBM mechanical keyboards.
The Matias Linear switches feature linear behavior (no tactile or clicky feedback), and they are very quiet while typing. The actuation force is set at 35G (great for fast typing), with actuation point being set at 2.2mm and total travel distance of 3.5mm.
Kailh mechanical switches
Kailh mechanical switches are made by Kaihua, a switch and keyboard manufacturer from China. Since the company makes switches that are almost identical to those made by Cherry, all we said about Cherry MX switches can be applied here.
Even the color branding is the same (Black, Red, Blue, and Brown) with each version offering almost the same features as its Cherry MX counterpart. The only difference is in actuation force, with the Kailh Red and Kailh Brown featuring actuation force of 50G instead of 45G, which is features on the Cherry MX Red and Cherry MX Brown switches.
There you have it, a complete guide on mechanical keyboards with almost every mechanical switch that exists out there presented and explained. Aside from being more pleasant to type on than classic membrane keyboards, mechanical keyboards are much heavier since the switches are usually mounted on a steel backplate.
Also, if you want to buy a mechanical keyboard, it is highly recommended to try out different switches. Since the Cherry MX are the most common (and since most other ones offer experience similar to a specific Cherry MX model), we found a nice switch tester that includes several different Cherry MX switches.
If you can’t get the tester, there’s a nice YouTube video made by Custom PC Review that compares sounds made by five different mechanical switch types (Cherry MX Brown, Cherry MX Blue, Cherry MX Red, Cherry MX Black, and ALPS style switch) that will give you a sense of how loud different switches are.
Below is a handy reference chart for the most common switches (but not all in existence).
|Switch type||Clicky||Tactile||Linear||Actuation force|
|Cherry MX Speed (Silver)||No||No||Yes||45 G|
|Cherry MX Black||No||No||Yes||60 G|
|Cherry MX Gray||No||No||Yes||80 G|
|Cherry MX Red||No||No||Yes||45 G|
|Cherry MX Silent||No||No||Yes||45 G|
|Cherry MX Nature White||No||No||Yes||55G|
|Cherry MX Brown||No||Yes||No||45G|
|Cherry MX Clear||No||Yes||No||55G|
|Cherry MX Blue||Yes||Yes||No||50G|
|Cherry MX White||Yes||Yes||No||50 – 70G|
|Cherry MX Green||Yes||Yes||No||70G|
|Torpre 30 G||No||Yes||No||30G|
|Torpre 35 G||No||Yes||No||35G|
|Torpre 45 G||No||Yes||No||45G|
|Torpre 55 G||No||Yes||No||55G|
|Maitias Quiet Click||Yes||Yes||No||55G|
I’m a big fan of Razer keyboards. Been using them for years and they have been very reliable. My personal experience with Razer support has also been pretty good all told.
The BlackWidow Ultimate line is pretty much where it’s at. I’d recommend the Razer BlackWidow Ultimate 2016 in either Green (clicky), Orange (silent), or Yellow (linear) switches.
This keyboard sport individually backlit keys, but the color is limited to only green. This keyboard also sports a braided USB cable and USB passthrough which is super handy. Mix in Razer Synapse configuration software and you have yourself a winner!
The Razer Synapse configuration software works on Windows and MacOS natively. In order to use on Linux you will need to use a 3rd party configuration tool.
But I want all the colors!
I’m pretty fond of having all the colors. Honestly it’s a little juvenile but it is nice to PIMP your keyboard. It just looks sweet right?
In that case, it’s almost a no-brainer to me, the Razer BlackWidow Chroma V2 is an excellent choice. It offers Green (clicky), orange (silent), and yellow (linear) switches. It offers everything you see in the non-Chroma version as well, just with additional lighting options.
Some games can even set custom lighting on your keyboard! Deus Ex: Mankind Divided and Overwatch come to mind.
Looking for Cherry keys instead?
The Corsair STRAFE is an excellent choice. This keyboard comes in an array of Cherry switches including blue (clicky), brown (tactile), red (linear), and silent (linear). Fully independent backlit keys, but the lighting is red only. They have also added a USB passthrough to this model. Corsair’s CUE software has kept getting better and better, and I feel good enough now to actually recommend it.
The one downside is that Corsair’s CUE software only works on Windows. You will need to use a 3rd party tool on MacOS and Linux.
If you are looking for customize the lighting, you are in luck there is the Corsair STRAFE RGB edition. Which has all the goodies of the non-RGB version but with the ability to change the backlighting on all the keys.