Switches: The enthusiast guide
What the big brands don't tell you.
So, what are switches anyways?
To put it simply, they're just buttons.
They're similar to any general buttons such as ones on elevators, your car stereo, or even the power button on your phone. The only difference is that they're tuned to be used in a keyboard.
The three main types
If you come from buying mechanical keyboards sold by large brands, you may recognize this:
- Linear: They simply glide down until they hit the bottom. The actual key input is sent somewhere in the middle along the press (known as the actuation point).
- Tactile: There is a noticeable bump or finger-felt feedback along the press before they hit the bottom. A tactile feedback, as per its name.
- Clicky: A physical clicker makes an audible sound before the switch hits the bottom.
If you've read around before, a few colors may come to mind: red, brown, blue, black. However...
Feel the rainbow
The reality is that the main colors of switches offered by Cherry aren't anywhere close to the only ones.
In fact, they're often the least preferred switches of all.
Since the Cherry MX switch was originally produced starting in 1984 and their patents have expired, various brands produce compatible switches. Often, they are superior to authentic Cherry switches in the following ways:
- Linear - Non-Cherry brand switches are often smoother, and are offered in more variants of weights.
- Tactile - Non-Cherry brands often have significantly more tactile switches with a far more enjoyable feedback.
- Clicky - Non-Cherry brands often have a cleaner, crisper click.
The only way to know which exact switch is for you is to try them all.
Fortunately, I've compiled a flowchart so you can home in on your possible favorites quickly. More on that later.
One concern newcomers to the hobby often have is "off-brand" switches being more fragile than the authentic Cherry ones.
To put it simply, it is not of any concern.
Cherry switches and its clones are usually rated for 50 million keystrokes. That's how many times you need to press a single switch before it has a chance of breaking.
For reference, if you pressed a single key 3 times per second without eating, sleeping, or resting, you would need to need to do so for 192 days straight before the switch might break. You would break first.
Some people in this hobby harvest vintage switches from decades ago to reuse in their new keyboards. They still run fine after years of abuse.
Best of all, they're cheap and easy to swap if they ever do give out.
Beyond the shelf
In addition to the hundreds of switches you can purchase, you can disassemble these switches and tune them to your exact preferences.
Some common modifications are:
- Lubing: Applying specific oils and greases to parts of the switch. Makes things significantly smoother and often improves typing sound.
- Spring swap: Buying aftermarket springs and swapping them into various switches. Useful for tuning the switch to your exact typing weight preferences, down to the single digit of grams.
- Parts swap: Most MX-style switches are built of similar parts. This allows for swapping parts between different switches to get an unique feeling switch that doesn't exist anywhere else.
This makes the possibilities unlimited regarding switch choice. Experiment and tune to your exact needs, and you will end up with a keyboard like no other.
Tracking down the right switch
Ready to start the hunt?
I've prepared a quick flowchart that may give you a rough idea of what to try out.
If descriptions aren't enough, it is highly recommended to drop by a keyboard meetup. They happen very often in various parts of the world; you can have hands-on experience with a variety of switches this way.