Massdrop 101: Intro to Key Switches

What Are Key Switches?
Key switches are the soul of any mechanical keyboard. After all, they turn keystrokes into the numbers, letters, and symbols that appear on your computer screen. But they also play a huge role in the overall feeling of the keyboard, not to mention the sound of it. Are they tactile clicky switches? Linear? Tactile non-clicky? We’ll explain the jargon in a moment. For now, suffice it to say that a mechanical keyboard wouldn’t be mechanical without key switches.
Here’s How They Work Each switch is composed of a plastic stem, a spring, and two metal contacts. Once a key is pressed, the stem of the switch pushes the spring, allowing the metal contacts to touch and register an actuation. It’s these physical mechanisms that make mechanical keyboards preferable to rubber-dome keyboards. They not only minimize finger strain and maximize typing speeds, but also boast a lifetime of up to 50 million actuations, which translates to decades of normal use.
The Different Types of Key Switches
Cherry, Matias, Gateron—there are several companies that manufacture switches. Cherry is the best-known of the bunch, but as mechanical keyboards become more popular and enthusiasts seek to further customize their boards, other companies are entering the arena with slight variations on pre-existing switch designs. And most of these companies have mirrored Cherry’s approach to naming conventions, using the color of the stem to differentiate between switch types. Cherry MX Blacks, for example (MX is the series name), deliver a slightly different typing experience from Cherry MX Reds. Cherry MX Browns versus Cherry MX Blues, likewise. Almost all of these switch types fall into one of three main categories, though a select few fall under less-common subcategories. Which switch you choose will depend on the experience you prefer.
Linear switches, such as Cherry MX Reds and Blacks, require that the user applies an even amount of force—typically between 35 and 65 grams—to actuate a keystroke. Unlike other types of switches, linear switches are not designed to provide audible or tactile feedback, which lets you know when you’ve hit the actuation point. With linear switches, the only way to know a keystroke has registered is to see the letter, number, or symbol appear on your screen. The most common linear switches are 45-gram Reds and 60-gram Blacks, both of which are desirable for gaming, as they enable more rapid pressing of the keys.

Tactile Clicky
Tactile clicky switches, such as Cherry MX Blues, provide feedback in the form of a tactile “bump” and audible “click” each time a switch is actuated. This is useful for touch-typing, as the click alerts the user that the keystroke has registered. These switches have given mechanical keyboards a reputation for being considerably louder than their rubbery counterparts. To mitigate this effect and to prevent the keys from bottoming out, many manufacturers add a tiny O-ring to the bottom of the keycaps.

Tactile Non-Clicky
Some switches, such as Cherry MX Browns, provide tactile feedback without the noise. Cherry MX Clears, which are a slightly stiffer version of Browns, are immensely popular among the Massdrop community. They provide a satisfying typing experience, have an easily identifiable actuation point, and are quiet enough for use in offices and shared spaces.

Comparing Cherry MX Switches by Actuation Force
Red = 45 g
Black = 60 g
Tactile Clicky:
Blue = 50 g
White = 55 g
Green = 80 g Tactile Non-Clicky:
Brown = 45 g
Clear = 55 g
Gray = 80 g
The Right Switches for You
This is a mere glimpse at the wide world of mechanical key switches. Other varieties, such as Topre, feature a more complex mechanism that we’ll tackle in subsequent articles. For now, the takeaway is this: There’s no good or bad, right or wrong switch. The switches you choose should feel good to you—nobody else. They should maximize speed, minimize typos, and reduce finger fatigue. In short, they should elevate the experience of typing. Because that’s what mechanical keyboards are all about: a better user experience.
Questions, Comments, or Recommendations? Leave ‘em below, and someone from the community will be happy to help. Have personal recommendations or a switch tip to share? We’d love to hear about them—and see pictures, too!
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Jan 12, 2018 more in-depth guide with acuation force, peak force, bottom out force, spring force, travel distance (overall travel, tactile event, acutation), & force-travel diagrams for every switch included in the guide from brands: Cherry MX, Gateron, Kailh, Outemu, Greetech, Razer, Zelios, Halo, Matias, Epic Gear etc.. I wish InputClub had all of the new Kailh switches that Novelkeys carries, although this guide is continually being updated as new switches come to maket. ( ͡° ͜ʖ ͡°)
May 9, 2017
How about Cherry MX Speed and Silent?
Apr 22, 2017
Does anyone know how the Cherry MX latching switches worked? I got into DIY keyboards a bit too late to order some for caps-lock, num-lock, etc before they were discontinued. Now I'm trying to figure out if I can just "edit" an existing cherry switch, or if I'll have to find a way to mount something else there.
Jan 15, 2018
General info on Deskthority here:
Datasheet on Cherry's site here:
The Deskthority page has pics of the switch taken apart and of all the individual parts. The switch has a small cog that turns and locks into place when the key is pressed and turns and unlocks when pressed again. The holes for LEDs are off-center and will not fit most PCBs though (if there are custom PCBs supporting them, please give me a heads up!).
I got my hands on a bunch of them when The Van Keyboards got hold of some old stock and sold them through their site. You could hunt for some on /r/mechmarket.
EDIT: Just noticed the question was posted 38 weeks ago.
Apr 6, 2017
I don't think you should put Matias in the same line as Gateron and Cherry, their switches are simplified alps clones and work quite differently (they have a proper click plate for one, unlike cherries). I think you should make it clear that you are only covering how cherry types work.
It would be really great if you guys could compile the weights and style of the gateron switches and maybe some others compared to the cherry switches. As they get more popular in drops, I'm deterred from buying keyboards with other brands of switch because I don't know how it compares to my current knowledge base!
Jan 7, 2017
Have you checked out deskthority? They have a pretty extensive workup on pretty much every type of switch available.
Jul 4, 2016
Is Cherry a superior company to other manufacturers who seem to copy Cherry's every move or are they all equal in quality and only differ in feel?
Jan 7, 2017
It varies. Gateron is probably the highest quality Cherry clone that's widely available, and some of their linear switches are actually more sought after than their Cherry counterparts due to a smoother feel. Their clicky switches are a mixed bag imo, and can be very inconsistent in feel across a board. Most people I know that use those clicky switches buy a bulk order of them and try them out in a tester before soldering them into place. This helps weed out any mushy or 'off' feeling switches.
There seem to be a plethora of other Cherry clones available these days though, although other than Gateron (or some harder to get switches like Zealios) I wouldn't bother with them personally. The reason being that many of the budget switches available are of a somewhat lower quality which is noticeable. This can pertain to anything from inconsistent actuation points or spring weights, to quality issues like switches failing, wobbling, or squeaking over time.
Jul 1, 2016
Always wonder if someone can make a synchronized animation on how the switch activates vs. how the movement shows on the "force graph".
May 28, 2016
I will say whether it's red, blue,clear,green, brown, and black switches will again depends on the preference on the individual rather than some switches are "made for gaming" or "preferred for gaming" and "good for gaming", please stop putting labels among switches.
And btw if anyone interested in translucent set of key caps, please do vote on my polls.
May 28, 2016
Funny as i just think about getting a mechanical keyboard - i can actually use ... I bought a Das Keyboard in black - totally black - and i blacked out tryig it in WoW for some time quite some time ago. The learning phase with the clean keys was too harsh for me so i need something with letters on it feeling good, too.
What about other keys btw? Cherry is not the full truth...
Logitechs Romer G (its Omron OEMs, right?) arent that bad and some others matter, too.
May 27, 2016
Great article!
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