Mechanical Keyboard Switches Explained and Compared
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.
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.
|45 cN||Cherry MX Red||
Cherry MX Brown
Cherry MX Blue
Cherry MX White (old B)
|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).
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.
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.
Summary for Cherry MX Black: Firm, smooth, and relatively quiet. Intended more for gaming than typing (ignoring non-keyboard usage). 2.03mm pretravel distance.
Summary for Cherry MX Red: Light, smooth, and loud if you tend to bottom out. 2.03mm pretravel distance.
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.
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.
Summary for Cherry MX Clear: Moderate, a larger bump, and fairly quiet. Intended as compromise between gaming and typing. 2.03mm pretravel distance. Uncommon.
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.
Summary for Cherry MX Blue: Light, a bit of a bump, and a click. Intended for typing. 2.3mm pretravel distance.
Summary for Cherry MX Green: Moderate, a bit of a bump, and a click. Intended for typing. 2.3mm pretravel distance. Uncommon.
Summary for Model M Buckling Spring: Great, heavy, clicky, but not actually mechanical.
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.
Summary for Razer Green: Light, a bit of a bump, and a click. 1.9mm pretravel distance. Developed by Razer with an undisclosed OEM.
Summary for Razer Orange: Light, a bit of a bump, and fairly quiet. 1.9mm pretravel distance. Developed by Razer with an undisclosed OEM.
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.
Summary for Omron/Logitech Romer-G: Light, a bit of a bump, and fairly quiet. 1.5mm pretravel distance. Developed by Logitech with Omron.
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.