Mechanical switch keyboards might have been clacking away and infuriating sleeping loved ones since the '70s, but their popularity hasn't waned as much as you might expect for technology that's almost half a century old. While mainstream systems and laptops may have 'switched' to rubber domes and membrane boards to save money and space over the past couple of decades, gamers are still championing the faster, more reactive and more capable mechanical switches of old.
There are a lot of different types of switches though, with different colour schemes, features, lighting options and manufacturers behind them. So how do you pick the switch that's right for you?
Cherry MX switches are the industry classic at this point. Manufactured since the 70s, they have been proven time and again as some of the best in the world. However, that doesn't mean to say they haven't been updated a few times over the years. There's also a wide variety of switches to choose from if you go for the old guard and they all have their benefits and features.
Red – the classic, low actuation force (45g) switch that is today marketed at gamers. It doesn't have tactile feedback, so you'll want to bottom the switch out to make sure it's been pressed correctly, but since it's so light that won't prove problematic. You can find it with RGB backlighting in certain keyboards and it's one of the quieter switches available today – though saying that about any mechanical switch sometimes feels like an oxymoron.
Black – the tougher, bigger brother of the Red switches, Cherry MX Black switches offer the same tactile-less design, but with a stiffer spring to give it more resistance to your presses. Blacks require at least 60g of force to be actuated, which is enough to tire out fingers of those used to lighter switches. However, this does make it harder to miss-press, so some like that functionality. Others, perhaps with larger or stronger hands, simply find it more comfortable.
Blue – Cherry MX Blue switches offer a middle ground in actuation for the above two switch types, requiring 50g of force, but it's in their feel and sound that Blues really differentiate themselves. As a 'clicky' design they are far louder than your average switch, emitting a much more audible click at the point of actuation. This gives the user some feedback, making them a real favorite of typists, but beware that those around you will likely find them highly irritating.
Browns – the quieter cousin of the Blues, Cherry MX Brown switches offer the same tactile feedback, but without the additional noise. At 45g actuation they are lighter than most, but have proved a firm favourite among typists and gamers alike, for offering something that works for all parties.
The above switches are the most common Cherry MX designs you are going to come across, though there are a few other variants worth mentioning. All of the above come with clear plastic surrounds and RGB LEDs in some designs and there are new, “silent” versions of the Black and Red Switches, which dampen the feedback of their presses slightly. They work well, but in the wrong keyboard you can be left with a ringing noise from metal plate resonance in the board's backing plate.
Make sure to test such a board before you buy.
Logitech Romer G
Due to Cherry not always being able to fulfil orders, companies like Logitech teamed up with Chinese manufacturers to develop their own mechanical switches. Its Romer G is one of the more popular designs to have come out of the company and though it is rather analogous with Cherry designs, it also has a few unique features which are worth mentioning.
It has an actuation force of 45g, with a slightly lower profile, which makes its travel distance a third less than Cherry designs. That could technically make the switch slightly faster, though it's hard to feel such a difference in realtime usage.
Other features include centrally located LEDs for better key cap coverage and a double, metal actuation point, which should add redundancy to the switch over long term use and makes it harder for the material to degrade over time, effectively increasing switch longevity.
It also offers tactile feedback and can be found in Logitech's own boards like the G910 Orion Spark.
Razer is a company that has also fallen foul of Cherry's limited manufacturing capabilities and has opted to produce some of its own over the years. It's created a few colorful options to give consumers a choice when it comes to their mechanical boards.
Green – the Green switches come in monochrome and RGB LED versions (the latter designated by the Chroma nomenclature) and are most analogous of the Cherry MX Blue switches. They have a clicky response and purportedly a slightly shorter actuation distance than Cherry switches. Actuation force isn't known, though they are said to have a larger area of gold plating on the switch, which should extend their life by a few more million keystrokes, topping out at around 80 million.
Orange – these switches are Razer's option for MX Brown lovers, offering tactile feedback and RGB coloring if you so wish.
Yellow – ditching tactile feedback altogether, Razer's alternative to some of the more gaming offerings of Cherry's line up is the only linear switch it offers. Though there is a Chroma alternative for those who love RGB backlighting.
None of Razer's switches feature clear housings, so the LED coverage in key caps isn't as strong as you get with Logitech or Cherry's switches, but their longer shelf life is certainly something to consider.
There are a lot of other switch manufacturers out there, with a few worth giving special mention to. Steelseries QS1 switches are rather nice, with a quiet operation, good LED coverage and light touch actuation; Topre offers tactile feedback switches of various actuation forces, as well as a quiet base to push down on; Cooler Master has some nice tactile switches with a purple shell, they're also quiet and can last for many millions of key strokes.
There are a few chinese manufacturers producing knock offs of the various brands too. While they tend to be pretty decent and help bring down the cost on some boards, don't be fooled into thinking they are from the other manufacturers listed here. They are often simply called “brown switches,” rather than giving a manufacturer name, so be careful.
What are you favourite switches for mechanical boards? I'm a Cherry MX brown, or Steelseries QS1 man myself.
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