Mechanical Keyboard Switches 101 - MX Style Switches
If the heart of a mechanical keyboard is the PCB/Controller, the switches would surely be the soul. Mechanical keyboard switches provide the personality, if you will, and are what really make one keyboard capable of feeling entirely different than another.
For this introduction/guide I will be discussing MX switches, the most common switches currently used in keyboards and keyboard kits being manufactured today. I’ll have a follow up articles on the heels of this one talking about uncommon/vintage switches. I’ll also have a separate guide that covers modding switches, and how to really take a common switch and craft it into exactly what you want. I’m not including that in this guide because I think it is extremely important to be familiar with what is on the market first.
When trying to buy your first mechanical keyboard, researching switches is the most daunting and overwhelming task. The fear of spending a significant chunk of change on something you’ve never tested is tough. Hopefully by the end of this guide you’ll be confident enough to make a purchase that works best for you!
What Makes A Mechanical Switch?
The vast majority of switches on the market today are Cherry MX (and Cherry MX clones) switches. MX style switches are comprised of these parts:
The housings are the case that hold the switch together. The slider is what determines how tactile the switch is, if the switch clicks, and what type of keycaps will fit. The spring determines how much force is required to actuate the switch, and the metal leafs are what register the keystroke. Using just the parts listed above, there are three common types of switches available:
- Top Housing
- Bottom Housing
- Metal Leaf
Here is a gif that shows the examples listed above in action:
Is there a switch type that is clearly better than the others? Absolutely not. Is there a switch type that is better for certain types of usage (gaming, writing, work, etc) than others? That is arguable, but at the end of the day I want to make it very clear that there is not a definite answer to this question either.
How Do I Pick What Switches To Get?
There are a few tools out there to help you pick what switches you want. One of the best tools available would be a switch tester. Novelkeys has one that has TONS of options, so you can select the switches you are most interested in to test out (https://novelkeys.xyz/collections/frontpage/products/12-slot-switch-tester). I would like to mention that testing a single switch on a tester is not always the best representation of what typing on a full keyboard at speed would feel like, it just gives you a general idea of how the switch feels and sounds.
There is also an increasing number of mechanical keyboard meetups each year, and finding a meetup to attend and really try out a lot of keyboards and switches is by far what I would recommend the most. Attending a meeting will not only allow you to try out a plethora of common, custom, and vintage switches, but also try them out in a huge variety of keyboards.
Cherry MX: Summary
First, just to grasp the a bit more of the market here is a chart showing the different types of common Cherry MX switches. Lighter read = lighter switch and darker red = heavier switch:
After a quick glance this chart should simplify options quite a bit, but this is really just the tip of the iceberg. Once you find a style you like (tactile, for example) you can start to really drill down and find exactly what you enjoy weight wise.
Another option when purchasing switches on their own is what type of mounting the bottom housing has.
You may have the option of PCB mounted or Plate Mounted (or Metal Frame). PCB mounted switches have two additional plastic pins on the bottom that require a compatible PCB that has holes for the switch pins and the housing pins. Plate Mounted switches don't have the plastic pins. My general rule of thumb is just to always get PCB mounted switches as cutting off the pins is a super quick and easy task if you find yourself with a PCB that isn't compatible with PCB Mounted switches, though in my experience most are.
A Side Note From Bumpy:
For me, the weight of the switch matters far more than the style of the switch. Weight is something that follows me now (I prefer heavier switches), and I can very happily use any style of switch if the weight is in a range that I enjoy. I can't even begin to type on a super-light switch (like the 35g Gateron Clear), but can happily type on MX Blacks/MX Greens/MX Clears due to their higher actuation force. In the MX Modification article I am working on, I will detail how cheap and easy it is to procure and swap springs in MX switches. After you become intimately familiar with what is available in terms of switches, you can really start to piece together switches based on the nuances you enjoy (such as force curves or click sounds) . A fun experiment to try if you are just starting to try out different switches would be to get a few bags of springs in different weights and see how different the same switch can feel with heavier/lighter springs.
Cherry MX Clones: A Brief History
In the past few years Cherry MX Clones have exploded on the market. Initially, they weren’t well received by the community as they had subpar QC compared to Cherry and were often only used in crappy quality gaming keyboards. Had you asked me 3 years ago if Kailh switches would be loved by the community in a few years, I’d have (incorrectly) said “hell no.” Times have changed though.
ZealPC made the first big splash with non-Cherry switches in the enthusiast community with his Zealio line of switches, that were produced by Gateron. Even with some QC issues of their own, they were adored by the community for their smoothness. Since then the collaborations between Chinese manufacturers and community members have exploded. Novel Keys, Input Club, and Massdrop now all have their own lines of MX style switches.
MX Clones also have taken to innovating and not sticking to being just a “clone.” Kailh box switches (such as the Box Royals from NovelKeys seen below) have a unique stem that helps keep moisture out and even helps make them feel more stable.
Cherry isn’t out of the game yet though, did start offering Silent switches (switches silenced internally from bottoming out and the upstroke, a little trick from Alps switches) and low profile switches, though clones were out not long after their release.
For me personally I think that the NovelKeys switches have been some of the best products for the community in a long time. They are priced well, they have options galore making it easier to get a switch you love without any modifications, and they feel great. They also provide great deals on switch testers making it easy to get a handful of switches to test before doing a build or buying a new keyboard. Getting into super expensive artisinal switches or whatever the currently hyped hybrid switch is (ex. Holy Panda: part Invyr Panda part Halo) are definitely NOT where I would start as a beginner.
As I mentioned, options now are so numerous they would be hard to list in a single place. At this point the manufacturer of switches is much less important than feel of switches, and with Chinese manufacturers really upping their game in the last few years there is no clear answer to the best switches on the market. The best thing you can do before spending money on a new keyboard is to test out as many switches as you can and become familiar with how they sound and feel. Most people, myself included, don't enjoy just one style of switch and are very comfortable using a plethora of switches, so don't feel limited to liking just one type of switch! If you have a very specific style of switch you are looking for, you can always ask the community (or myself) as well, most people are more than happy to help out!
In the next article I'll discuss Alps and Topre, switches that can still be found in new keyboards that offer an entirely different experience than MX style switches.
If you have any specific questions feel free to reach out to me here or on Reddit/Geekhack/Deskthority under the same username at anytime!
- Linear (ex. Cherry MX Red)- These switches do not have any tactile feedback and provide smooth actuation from the start of the keystroke to the end. Many gaming keyboards utilize this type of switch.
- Tactile (ex. Cherry MX Brown) - These switches provide feedback in the form of a “bump” during the actuation of the switch. Almost all non-mechanical membrane keyboards are tactile, so this is a very familiar feeling to most people.
- Clicky and Tactile (ex. Cherry MX Blue) - This adds a “click” on top of tactile switch, giving auditory feedback on when the switch is actuated as well as tactile feedback.
Mechanical Keyboards 101: An Introduction To The Hobby (https://www.massdrop.com/talk/2784/mechanical-keyboards-101-an-introduction-to-the-hobby)
I am the owner of KeyChatter.com and also the designer of numerous keycap sets (Jukebox SA - the first SA set on Massdrop, GMK Mint Dolch, GMK Honeywell) and have worked on countless collaborations within the community.