How to choose keyboard switches?
In this comprehensive guide I'll explain you how to choose keyswitches, what to look for, what are the pitfalls and how to find your ultimate mechanical keyboard switch.
We will cover topics like:
- How many switches are there?
- What are the basic keyswitch types?
- Basic switch structure
- What's the history of switches?
- What's the best switch? (wink-wink)
- What are some good linears/tactiles/clickies?
- What are frankenswitches?
- What are some common switch mods?
...and a lot more!
If you're just starting out with mechanical keyboards, this guide is for you.
Let's dive right in! (Total read time is 20-30 minutes, but you can cut some corners.)
Keyswitch choice is a major factor of the typing experience. Hotswap keyboards make switch replacement very easy, but you can of course desolder/solder switches on non-hotswap boards too. However, the abundance of different models may confuse you at the beginning. (I have to confess, I'm still somewhat lost when it comes to some switch types.)
This guide is mainly for beginners with typical questions like: "What switch should I buy?" To make this write-up easy to follow I try to explain all the terms used, so bear with me if you are a more seasoned enthusiast.
How many switch models exist?
Beginners are often confused by the intimidating number of switches. Indeed, there are way too many switches to explain or even follow all the new models, and this is not an exaggeration.
Revered switch collector ThereminGoat has 1000+ different switches (and counting). Even if we exclude vintage switches and test runs he acquired, we end up with a large enough number of switches to easily overwhelm you.
The good news: you don't need to try all the switches. Knowing the basic types and some general concepts will help you to find the best keyswitch for you, your workflow and typing habits – hopefully without spending a fortune.
Also, for many people, finding the righ switch is a long (if not lifelong) journey, so there's no need to hurry or worry if your first choice turns out not what you expected.
Keyswitch compatibility (MX, Alps, low profile)
It's safe to say that as someone new to mechanical keyboards you want MX compatible switches. What are these?
Not all switches are compatible with every PCB, hotswap socket or keycap set. So the first thing to do is to make sure you buy switches compatible with your keyboard/keycaps.
Most of the keyswitches (but not all!) available today are MX-compatible.
MX is a quite old design by the Cherry company and we can consider these the most common switches today.
These MX-compatible switches are easy to recognize as they have a little cross or plus sign shaped stem. (The stem is the moving part in the middle of the switch, often with a distinctive color.)
The overwhelming majority of switches (and keycaps) you can buy online belong to this group. However, doublecheck the MX-compatibility before purchasing anything, because you can come across some common incompatible switches too:
Low profile switches like the Kailh Choc (V1) or scissors switches, which have a differently shaped stem and pin arrangement, so they require a different type of caps (and hotswaps sockets).
Romer-G/Gamma Zulu (Das Keyboard) switches by Omron.
And there are some well-known and sought-after vintage keyswitch types: e.g. Alps (discontinued). And there is Topre with its funbase. They have a completely different stem and/or mechanics and are not compatible with MX-style caps or contemporary hotswap sockets. (Except of course vintage MX switches, e.g. Cherry MX Blacks, another sought-after vintage one.)
The point is: as a beginner you better follow the flow. You can enjoy more obscure perversities later.
What are the basic types of keyswitches?
You don't have to know all the switches to figure out which one you need.
As a first step, all you have to know is which one of the basic types you need or prefer: clickies, tactiles or linears – general switch types with characteristic stem colors since the '80s.
(While the stem color may widely vary nowadays, the original colors are often used as reference or synonym for the switch type.)
Linears (originally reds and blacks) are mostly used by gamers or people aiming for a typing experience on the more silent end of the spectrum (streamers, office workers or people in Zoom calls and online meetings all the time). If you live or work with others and don't want to annoy your family/coworkers/listeners with your loud typing, linear switches are probably your best choice. However, linears don't provide tactile or auditory feedback: you can't feel or hear if the keypress registered and this may be annoying, especially for touch typers. To make sure the keypress is registered, you may have to bottom out (press the key all the way down, hitting the housing of the switch) and eventually end up with a quite loud typing depending on your typing style.
Tactiles (originally browns) have a little bump on the stem you can feel when you press them (or not, as you will see soon). When you overcome this tactile bump you got the feedback of the keypress registering. This may be particularly important for touch typers. MX Browns, the original and best-known example of tactiles, are probably the most hated meme-switches nowadays, which is fun if you take a look back and read some posts on geekhack from a few years ago. Basically, critiques of brown switches say they have almost no tactility and feel like scratchy linears. This does not mean there are no good tactiles or that Browns are not good for certain people or for certain use cases. (Stop switch racism!)
Clickies (originally blues) are also tactile but produce an extra audible clicky sound. Some find this click pleasing, others annoying. It's strange that people adore the noisy beam spring and buckling spring vintage boards (e.g. IBM Model M), some even convert them to be able to use them as a daily driver, and others hate clickies for the same/similar reason. I personally use Kailh Box Whites and I love them. It may come down to the fact that I touch type, have my own room/office (don't annoy anyone with my typing sounds) and the very crisp tactility of the whites is just what I prefer. All in all, clickies seem to be a luxury nowadays. Embrace them if you can.
Just to recap:
- Linears/reds are generally for gamers and for those who are not allowed to make too much noise.
- Clickies/blues are good for touch typers.
- Tactiles/Browns are a compromise.
Think about what do you use your keyboard for and choose the appropriate group.
Ready? Now that you know which of the three basic types is for you, you can start to discover switches in that group. Many new switches are overhyped and overpriced though or only recolors of the same switch. So beware!
At this point you might be interested in why do we have so many switch models and why did their number exploded recently? (If not, just skip the history part by clicking here.)
What is the story behind keyswitches and switch types?
Let me explain this very shortly (I'll give you some links pointing to more elaborated resources for further details).
In the early days, up until the mid '80s, there were no standards regarding keyboards, nor generic third-party keyboard manufacturers. The keyboard was part of the computer or terminal it came with and was manufactured by the same company (IBM, DEC, etc.).
Typical switches of the era were foam-and-foil, beam spring and buckling spring switches. These share a common characteristic: they are very high switches with long travel distance and thus the keyboards of the time were relatively high compared to contemporary ones.
As the first regulator, the German institute of standards (DIN) realized the importance of standardization and keyboard ergonomics (e.g. lower profile) and set up a committee (a panel of manufacturers and users) to come up with new ideas for keyboard design in 1984(?) (source). (The ISO 9241-4 came only in 1998.)
The new target height of 3 cm, defined by this panel, (measured at the middle/home row) couldn't be achieved with most old keyswitches. Cherry had been working on a "low profile" switch and so the MX switch (first marketed in 1985) became the solution. Practically, it was the low profile switch of the time.
The Cherry MX became the standard keyswitch and the company was a monopol player due to its patents (U.S. Patent 4,467,160) until the spread of cheap rubberdome keyboards. Although the era of mechanical keyboars was temporarily over, Cherry as a manufacturer of industrial switches in general remained a big player.
After two decades, the patents expired in 2003-2014, allowing other (mostly Chinese) manufacturers to enter the scene: Gateron, Kailh, Outemu. This, beside simple copies, resulted in more innovation and in the plethora of new switches we are talking about in this guide.
So that's one reason behind the explosion in the number of available switches. But what exact switch do you need? Let's continue our journey!
What is the best .. switch? (...for you at least)
By now you've probably came up with the general switch type (linear, tactile, clicky) you need. This part should be easy because it's more of a practical consideration rather than preference.
But choosing the exact switch model is totally personal preference and I can help you only with some suggestions and tips I think you should factor in when deciding.
The most important factors I would consider are: availability, experience (feel and sound) and price.
(Other factors like material or color appear indirectly in the main factors above or are less important. Material may influence the sound, but honestly, color is totally indifferent except maybe for per-key LEDs. Which is considered a gimmick in itself by most non-gamers/adults anyways.)
Availability is key. It just doesn't make sense to wait months or years for a limited run or group buy. Or regularly checking if the switch you are looking for is back in stock. To save your sanity, aim for something available. (Availability may depend on your location too since shipping prices, tariffs and taxes make oversees orders often too expensive.)
Feel. OK, this is pure personal preference. Some people like it more heavy or more scratchy. Some may like a bump or actuation right at the top while others lower. I'm not going to judge you. This is the discovery part. You have to try some switches to come up with your ultimate choice.
Price. We can't ignore this either. There are great switches for $0.50 or even below $0.30. Would you buy something slightly "better" or more fancy for $1-2 per switch? It's your choice and it may depend on your budget and preferred form factor. (A $1 switch would put you back by $40 for a 40% layout but by $100+ to build a fullsize keyboard!)
Weight may require additional explanation.
Spring weight is an important parameter of (especially linear) switches. Manufacturers and vendors indicate weight on data sheets or product pages expressed in cN (centi-Newton), g or gf (gram-force). All these values are similar, almost identic.
Despite weight being a common parameter, it's only a good estimation for the feel of linears. Why? Firstly, weight may refer to different things: to the actuation or the bottom out force/weight. However, for users of tactile and clicky switches there's another famous point: the tactile point. Overcoming the tactile bump or click bar requires usually the most force with tactiles and clickies, which renders the actuation force quite useless.
Force curves are there to help, they may tell stories for the trained eye (check the curves made by HaaTa and Pylon), but the best you can do is to try some real switches.
How to try switches?
You have various options to try switches without buying a full set for your keyboard. These are:
- switch testers
Switch testers are a small collection of different switches, usually put in an acrylic holder. Purchasing one may orient you, but keep in mind that pressing a single key is often not representative enough to judge the overall typing experience.
10-switch packs (as a sample) put in a plate may be more useful. They are available from many vendors and may be more representative.
A mechanical keyboard meetup is a great opportunity not just to meet like-minded people but also to try and compare many switches. (Unfortunately, Covid made this temporarily impossible.)
Additionally, you can ask friends, coworkers, etc. to try their keyboards. (Given that they are into mechanical keyboards of course.)
Brick and mortar stores usually won't have many switches on stock, but you can probably try some basic switch types. Even the general store I do my weekly shopping at has mechanical keyboards on display with generic reds and blues.
What are some trending switches?
- Gateron Yellow
- Gateron Ink Black
- Durock POM, Marshmallows, Durock L2, JWK Lavenders, Tangerines, Banana Splits, Everglide V3 Aqua Kings, Cobalt, NK Creams
- Durock Sunflower T1 (an upgrade to the regular T1's)
- Jazzew Boba U4T
- Glorious Pandas (and other members of the pandaverse)
- Durock T1, Durock Koala
- Hako Royal Trues
- C3 Kiwi
- Transparent ones: Durock T1, Everglide Oreo, Gateron Ink Kangaroo
- Kailh Box White/Pink/Jade
I heard of frankenswitches. What are those?
If factory switches wouldn't be enough for you, you can put together parts scavenged from different switches.
Many switch parts can be combined and the result is called a frankenswitch.
The most famous frankenswitch is probably the Holy Panda: a Halo True or Halo Clear stem put into an Invyr housing, "discovered" by Quakemz.
What are some switch mods?
You can finetune switches further by modding them:
- Spring replacement - to play with weights.
- Lubing - to eliminate scratchiness (in particular with linears).
- Filming - to eliminate housing wobble.
Most mods aren't hard to execute, but may be very time-consuming. You may also require a switch opener to do these mods, as well as some extra tools for lubing, which is tedious btw. I've warned you!
That's what I wanted to share with you to initiate you into the art and science of switches.
As a nivice keyboard enthusiast you may have been confused by the sheer number of keyswitches available. After reading this write-up you are hopefully more confident now. Even if you couldn't absorb all the info, you can always check back.
Just to recap: know thyself, observe your typing habits, figure out what do you use your keyboard for, identify the general switch group you need (liner, tactile, clicky), then start to discover that group by trying some switches.
Thanks for reading and good luck!
(Although sound is only one from the many factors, you may check my keyboard sound database too.)