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Mechanical Keyboard Switches Explained and Compared

Manufacturer: Multiple

Finding Your Clique

One of the difficulties with purchasing a mechanical keyboard is that they are quite expensive and vary greatly in subtle, but important ways. First and foremost, we have the different types of keyswitches. These are the components that are responsible for making each button behave, and thus varying them will lead to variations in how those buttons react and feel.

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Until recently, the Cherry MX line of switches were the basis of just about every major gaming mechanical keyboard, although we will discuss recent competitors later on. Its manufacturer, Cherry Corp / ZF Electronics, maintained a strict color code to denote the physical properties of each switch. These attributes range from the stiffness of the spring to the bumps and clicks felt (or heard) as the key travels toward its bottom and returns back up again.

  Linear Tactile Clicky
45 cN Cherry MX Red
Cherry MX Brown
Razer Orange
Omron/Logitech Romer-G
 
50 cN    
Cherry MX Blue
Cherry MX White (old B)
Razer Green
55 cN   Cherry MX Clear  
60 cN Cherry MX Black    
80 cN Cherry MX Linear Grey (SB) Cherry MX Tactile Grey (SB)
Cherry MX Green (SB)
Cherry MX White (old A)
Cherry MX White (2007+)
90 cN     IBM Model M (not mechanical)
105 cN     Cherry MX Click Grey (SB)
150+ cN Cherry MX Super Black    

(SB) Denotes switches with stronger springs that are primarily for, or only for, Spacebars. The Click Grey is intended for spacebars on Cherry MX White, Green, and Blue keyboards. The MX Green is intended for spacebars on Cherry MX Blue keyboards (but a few rare keyboards use these for regular keys). The MX Linear Grey is intended for spacebars on Cherry MX Black keyboards.

The four main Cherry MX switches are: Blue, Brown, Black, and Red. Other switches are available, such as the Cherry MX Green, Clear, three types of Grey, and so forth. You can separate (I believe) all of these switches into three categories: Linear, Tactile, and Clicky. From there, the only difference is the force curve, usually from the strength of the spring but also possibly from the slider features (you'll see what I mean in the diagrams below).

Read on to see a theoretical comparison of various mechanical keyswitches.

Linear Mechanical Switches

Here we have the Cherry MX Red and Cherry MX Black switches. They are basically identical, except for spring resistance (which is hard -- but not impossible -- to show in an animation). The switch does not give you any feedback that a press has occurred (unless you keep going and hit the bottom of the housing – which is known as “bottoming out”). On the other hand, that also means that the button will feel smooth the entire way down.

Cherry MX Black

These switches are supposedly better for gaming because there is nothing to get in the way of repeated presses on the same button. For instance, they would make sense under the buttons of an arcade cabinet. The lack of click also means that MX Black switches tend to be fairly quiet; the Reds should be the same way, except that the light spring makes them easy to bottom out. In my usage, people have told me that the MX Red is loud, and some even say that it is the loudest.

Cherry MX Red

Summary for Cherry MX Black: Firm, smooth, and relatively quiet. Intended more for gaming than typing (ignoring non-keyboard usage). 2.03mm pretravel distance.

Example: SteelSeries 7G Gaming Keyboard (Amazon - $150)

Summary for Cherry MX Red: Light, smooth, and loud if you tend to bottom out. 2.03mm pretravel distance.

Example: ROCCAT RYOS MK Pro Mechanical Gaming Keyboard (Amazon - $170)

Tactile Mechanical Switches

The Cherry MX Brown switches, on the other hand, require that the switch filament opposes motion for a brief moment. There is a bump that the connector needs to pass by in order to complete the circuit. This feels like a tactile bump that occurs just before the key activates. This is relatively quiet, which is why this switch is often selected for “silent” mechanical keyboards. They are generally considered a good compromise between gaming and typing, although it always comes down to personal taste anyway. This is probably the closest switch to a typical, membrane-dome based keyboard's feel. The Cherry MX Clear switches are similar, except that they have a stronger spring and a more pronounced bump.

Cherry MX Brown

Summary for Cherry MX Brown: Light, a bit of a bump, and fairly quiet. Intended as compromise between gaming and typing. 2.03mm pretravel distance.

Example: Corsair Vengeance K70 Black Cherry MX Brown (Amazon - $130)

Summary for Cherry MX Clear: Moderate, a larger bump, and fairly quiet. Intended as compromise between gaming and typing. 2.03mm pretravel distance. Uncommon.

Example: CODE 104-Key Illuminated Mechanical Keyboard (Amazon $155)

Clicky Mechanical Switches

The Cherry MX Blue switches are slightly different. The slider is actually in two pieces, a plunger stem that is pressed by the user, and a floating piece that touches the filament. Pressing down on the plunger pushes the floating piece down until the filament is free to close the circuit, at which point the floating piece snaps downward with a click (when the plunger rises, it pulls the piece above the filament and resets this action). This is a bit noisy, deliberately. The thought is that people can learn to hear the click and train themselves to not “bottom-out” the key. Pushing down further serves no actual purpose. Cherry MX Green switches are similar, except with a stronger spring. Most commonly, MX Green switches are used for the spacebars of Cherry MX Blue keyboards, but you can find full keyboards made with them, too. Cherry MX Greens supposedly feel a lot like IBM Model M Buckling Spring keyboards.

As an aside: IBM (or Lexmark, or Unicomp) Model M keyboards are not mechanical keyboards, although they share the same advantages. They are actually capacitive, buckling-spring keyboards. Rather than a mechanical switch the closes, they contain slightly bent springs which, when pushed, buckle and snap against the wall of their container. They are considered by many to be one of the best keyboard technologies available, but they are not actually mechanical.

Cherry MX Blue

Summary for Cherry MX Blue: Light, a bit of a bump, and a click. Intended for typing. 2.3mm pretravel distance.

Example: Tt eSPORTS Poseidon Z Blue Switch Illuminated (Amazon - $80)

Summary for Cherry MX Green: Moderate, a bit of a bump, and a click. Intended for typing. 2.3mm pretravel distance. Uncommon.

Example: CMStorm QuickFire Stealth (Amazon - $85)

Summary for Model M Buckling Spring: Great, heavy, clicky, but not actually mechanical.

Still Produced by Unicomp ($79 and up)

New Competitors

From here, we get various derivatives, mostly modeled around Cherry MX Brown or Cherry MX Blue. Razer is one such manufacturer, who works with an OEM to supply custom keyswitches for their keyboards. They have two models: Green and Orange. The Razer Green switch is roughly equivalent to the Cherry MX Blue, except that it has a slightly higher actuation point and shorter reset distance, which is supposed to reduce inherent lag of your finger accelerating and decelerating when you move it. The Razer Orange switch is almost identical to the Cherry MX Brown, with an ever-so-slight decrease in the actuation and reset distances. Both of these keys are compatible with Cherry MX keycaps, if you ever wanted to replace them.

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Summary for Razer Green: Light, a bit of a bump, and a click. 1.9mm pretravel distance. Developed by Razer with an undisclosed OEM.

Example: BlackWidow Ultimate 2014 (Amazon - $100)

Summary for Razer Orange: Light, a bit of a bump, and fairly quiet. 1.9mm pretravel distance. Developed by Razer with an undisclosed OEM.

Example: BlackWidow Ultimate Stealth 2014(Amazon - $137)

The Romer G is a collaboration between Logitech and Omron, which makes many of the mechanical switches for their mice. They are designed to be very similar to the Cherry MX Brown keyswitches, except that they have a much higher actuation point. As stated previously, this is to reduce the latency of your finger physically moving the key, because your flesh is a physical entity with momentum that needs acceleration.

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Summary for Omron/Logitech Romer-G: Light, a bit of a bump, and fairly quiet. 1.5mm pretravel distance. Developed by Logitech with Omron.

Currently only available on the Logitech G910 Orion Spark (MSRP $180)

I believe the only feature that I am missing is lighting. You can find a backlight keyboard for almost any of the previously mentioned switches. Lately, some manufacturers are trying out customizable RGB backlighting for each key, which the user can control via software. You can currently find keyboards with RGB lighting in the following switches: Cherry MX Red, Cherry MX Blue, Cherry MX Brown, Cherry MX Black, Razer Green, Razer Blue, and the Logitech Romer-G.

While features and specifications are nice, most of it comes down to personal feel. If possible, try out a handful of mechanical keyboard display models, with different switches, before purchasing.


December 15, 2014 | 02:10 AM - Posted by NamelessTed

Cherry MX Clear all the way! Obviously different people prefer different keyboards but I am so happy I was able to get a CODE keyboard when I did.

December 15, 2014 | 02:43 AM - Posted by Anonymous (not verified)

what does cN mean in the table ?

December 15, 2014 | 04:00 AM - Posted by Scott Michaud

cN means centinewton. It is equivalent to about 0.035 ounces.

A centinewton is also (approximately) the force of gravity on one gram of mass on Earth.

December 15, 2014 | 04:16 AM - Posted by Anonymous (not verified)

I'll translate to english real quick:

it means how hard it is to press the key. Low number means easy to press, higher number means hard to press.

December 15, 2014 | 02:38 PM - Posted by Scott Michaud

Yup. It's a measure of resistance force.

August 3, 2016 | 10:47 AM - Posted by Anonymous (not verified)

Let me translate to English real quick:
It means how hard the key pushes back

October 24, 2017 | 02:28 PM - Posted by asdfasdfasdfasdfasdf (not verified)

Let me translate to English real quick:

Do you even lift?

December 15, 2014 | 09:29 AM - Posted by Anonymous (not verified)

"IBM Model M (not mechanical)"

I'd argue this. They are only 'not mechanical' if you arbitrarily limit the definition of 'mechanical' to 'the mechanism that Cherry MX and MX-derived switches use'. Their action is composed of multiple interacting moving elements, so there is definitely a mechanism there.

There are also some other mechanical (logical description rather than marketing) keyswitch designs available. Topre are probably the most popular of these for new-build keyboards, but there are also older Omron switches, Alps, IBM Beam/Spring, etc that turn up in older keyboards.

Finally, the 'Razer' switches are really Kailh Cherry MX clones with different coloured plastic stems.

December 15, 2014 | 02:50 PM - Posted by Scott Michaud

It's a fair argument. Mechanical typically refers to keyboards with two filaments that are mechanically pressed together, rather than detecting a voltage drop/raise across an insulator (etc.). Of course, then you could argue that membrane is sort-of mechanical.

December 16, 2014 | 09:57 AM - Posted by Anonymous (not verified)

The buckling-spring switches used in the Model M used the spring buckle to actuate a rocker arm, that bridged a pair of contacts. It was the Model F (predecessor to the Model M) that used a capacitive setup.

July 26, 2018 | 11:44 PM - Posted by Ryjox (not verified)

Comment on the Razer switches: they may well be physical clones of Cherry MX, but the greens I've used side by side with various clicky and non-clicky Cherry keyboards indicates a very noticeable difference in feel. If you compare the travel numbers in the article above you'll get an idea why, though also the click on the Razer green is quite a bit less intrusive as the Cherry Blue. I don't work for Razer nor do they pay me, in fact, a recent new Razer keyboard I bought brand new was defective out of the box and I had to send it back, so I am not very pleased about that. But I can't' deny the feel and sound is my absolute favorite, and I even have an IBM Model M in addition to all the various Cherry colors.

December 15, 2014 | 10:38 AM - Posted by collie

Very interesting read, I want to get a proper mechanical keyboard, I haven't used one since I had a DIN port on my mother board, but I know full well that I would need to get a divorce lawyer with it.

December 17, 2014 | 07:33 AM - Posted by MarkT (not verified)

Been using Reds since they came out, I love training my fingers to float over keys like jabs to the face :-P

Took a long time to get use to the light touch of reds, especially when doing a lot of typing, you get better at not making mistakes because its easy with reds.

December 17, 2014 | 10:44 PM - Posted by Jack_Pearson (not verified)

This is a heck of a terrific article.

December 18, 2014 | 04:13 PM - Posted by Scott Michaud

Thanks!

December 21, 2014 | 01:58 AM - Posted by Anonymous (not verified)

I didn't know they sold these, but apparently you can buy samplers for cherry mx keys to try them all out before deciding on your favorite type:

4 keys:
http://www.amazon.com/Max-Keyboard-Keycap-Cherry-Sampler/dp/B00E71W4O8/

8 keys:
http://www.amazon.com/Max-Keyboard-Keycap-Cherry-Sampler/dp/B00N6DXTW4/

Could make for good stocking stuffers.

February 21, 2015 | 02:00 AM - Posted by GenomeZeta (not verified)

Easily one of the best articles on PCPer in 2014!

July 14, 2015 | 05:46 PM - Posted by ROFL (not verified)

Yes, Buckling Spring are mechanical, ignorant.

Tell the same bullshit in geekhack or reddit.

August 1, 2015 | 08:47 PM - Posted by Scott Michaud

I included them in the mechanical keyboard switch article because they definitely should not be overlooked if purchasing a mechanical keyboard. Their actual mechanism is best described as "capacitive" or "membrane", though.

March 27, 2016 | 05:13 AM - Posted by LightspeeD

I used membrane switches all my life...until my first Skylake build came up. Then needed a KeyBoard, so chose the Corsair Gaming K70. At first wanted the MX Red switches. At the shop, the guy gave me this box to try out the differenced. Red, Blue, Brown & Clear. So after a few minutes, i came away with the Blue K70.
My point is u gotta try em all before u buy, don't just take someone's words for it. The Red switches felt too mushy to me, no noticeable click to let u know the key-press has been registered. The Blues to me was perfect, with a nice clicky sound that's not too loud :)

August 30, 2016 | 03:28 PM - Posted by Anonymous (not verified)

I'm aware that the Cherry MX blue O-Rings reduce the travel distance by 0.4mm.

Are there any O-rings available that can reduce the travel distance further?

I hear that Razer has their own O-rings. Does anyone know about the specs of Razer's O-rings? I wanna know how much the razer green O-rings reduce distance by but can't find the info /:

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