While membrane keyboards are more common thanks to their low cost, more and more gamers and programmers are shifting to mechanical keyboards instead. The best mechanical keyboards might be more expensive, but fans love the tactile feedback enough that it’s worth the cost.
These keyboards work using physical switches, which feel and sound different than normal membrane keyboards. But not all mechanical keyboards use the same type of switches, which means that any two keyboards can feel completely different to type with. Likewise, many mechanical keyboards allow you to swap out the switches they come with for other types, so you can always buy a different kind of switch later on to install.
Here’s a simple rundown on the three main types of mechanical keyboard switches, and how each one works.
How each mechanical keyboard switch works
Mechanical keyboards get their name from the mechanical switches under every key. Unlike a squishy rubber membrane keyboard, these spring-loaded switches have a more precise feel when pressed.
Every switch is built with a few key components. The easily removable keycap snaps onto the switch stem. The stem’s shape and height determines how far and fast you can press it, and what it feels like to hit the “actuation point” — the point where it actually sends an input to your computer. The stem is supported by a spring, which pops it back up when you let go. Some key switches, as we’ll detail, have extras that make them special.
There are three types of mechanical switches, and each one has its own specific uses.
Linear switches are the simplest of the three types. The stem travels up and down in one smooth motion, without much resistance. If you apply the same amount of force, every linear key will travel the same speed from top to bottom.
Linear switches are best for gamers and pair well with the best gaming PC setups. They let you press keys quickly without any struggle, which is great for games like League of Legends where even fractions of a second can mean life or death.
You can buy switches from loads of different brands, but the most famous is Cherry. The Cherry MX Red switch is one of the most popular linear switches on the market, to the point that other brands make their own red-colored switches linear just to match it, and some gamers use “red switches” as a shorthand for “linear.”
Tactile switches are the next level up. These switches have a “bump” that you’ll feel halfway through pressing any key, which adds resistance and sound. The bump signals that the key input went through, or in other words, that you actually pressed it.
People who have to type a lot — like writers and programmers — tend to prefer tactile switch keyboards. Since every successful keypress comes with a bump that you can feel, it’s easy to tell if you didn’t press any of them hard enough. This makes typing more precise.
The Cherry MX Brown is the most popular tactile switch.
Clicky switches are essentially the same as tactile switches, but they make a louder “click” noise when pressed. Clicky keyboards are the loudest around, and typing quickly on one of these can make your office sound like a bag of popcorn in a microwave.
Mechanical keyboard fans say that clicky switches are best for beginners who need help learning how to type without looking at the keyboard. Some typists, experts included, just love the clicking sounds. Just keep in mind that they can be distracting to people around you, especially in small offices.
The Cherry MX Blue is perhaps the best-known clicky switch.