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 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.
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 ForceLinear:
Red = 45 g
Black = 60 g
Blue = 50 g
White = 55 g
Green = 80 g
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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