One of the first things that most keyboard enthusiasts can look into are mechanical switches.
What are Mechanical Switches?
Mechanical Switches or “switches” are mechanisms seen after you pull the keycap off a single key on a keyboard.
Switches include a plastic housing (upper and bottom), a stem, and a spring. The housing of a switch holds all the components within it together and allows the switch to be mounted onto the Printed Circuit Board (PCB) of your keyboard. The stem is the part of the switch that holds the keycap. The shape of the stem can vary greatly, and this can have a significant impact on the feel of the switch. As for the spring, it’s a coiled thin wire that wraps around the bottom portion of the stem and brings the key back into its original position.
The importance of a switch is that it registers the action as you press a key or make a keystroke (it can be a letter, symbol, command, etc.). When you press a key, the resistance increases as the spring compresses, and there may be some feedback (like a sound or feeling) when you initiate the actuation point of the switch. The actuation point is the point when the keystroke is registered onto the computer. In a clicky switch, this often occurs in tandem with a tactile sensation, and an audible click through various mechanical mechanisms. In a tactile switch, actuation often occurs as part of the tactile event caused by the “bump” on the stem structure (often it's immediately after the bump). In a linear switch, there’s no distinct event that signals actuation, but actuation will continue to occur around midway through the keystroke similar to other switches. When you complete the keystroke and the stem makes contact with the bottom housing, this is called “bottom-out”. Bottom-out can create a variety of sounds depending on factors such as housing material, stem material, stem length, stem dimensions, stem structure, bottom housing structure, etc. We’ll have to discuss sound in more detail in a separate blog as it’s quite a complex topic!
Switches also have different operating forces, which is the amount of pressure you need to apply to press them. It’s often expressed as actuation force, or bottom-out force. The actuation force is the amount of force needed for the switch to actuate or register the keystroke. Bottom-out force is the amount of force needed for the switch to be fully depressed. This can affect how comfortable you are typing on them especially during long typing sessions.
Along with the operating forces, there is the pre-travel distance and total travel- distance. Pre-travel distance is how far down you need to press a key before it registers, while total travel distance is how far the key can go down before it bottoms out. Pre-travel is also often used to describe the distance before the tactile event in a tactile switch. You may also hear post-travel when discussing tactile switches. This is the amount of travel after the tactile event before you reach bottom-out. There are so many ways that you can experience the feedback of switches and it may be due to the switch being tactile, clicky, or even linear. Let’s go into more detail about the types of switches.
What are the types of switches available?
The 3 main switches that enthusiasts can use to customize their keyboards are clicky, tactile, and linear. BUT there are also silent switches!
What are Clicky Switches?
Figure 2: Gateron Blue Stem Featuring a Click Jacket Mechanism
Clicky switches as their name suggests provide auditory feedback! It’s usually a loud clicking sound when you make a keystroke in addition to a tactile bump as you press down. The click you hear is typically created using a variety of mechanisms. Some of the most popular are Kailh’s click bar mechanism, and Cherry/Gateron’s click jacket as seen above.
What are Tactile Switches?
Figure 3: Strawberry Milk Tactile Switch Stem
Tactile switches are known for the tactile event caused by the bump on the stem. The bump is generally in the middle of the stem and can be felt as the stem and metal contact hit. There’s no audible sound at actuation like clicky switches. Instead, you will only experience tactile feedback indicating the key was actuated. These switches are quieter than clicky switches. However, they’re usually louder than linear switches as the force necessary to get over the bump often results in a more impactful bottom-out.
What are Linear Switches?
Figure 4: MM Linear Switch Stem
Linear switches are quieter than tactile and clicky. When you press a linear switch, it’s smooth throughout the entire keystroke. You’ll only feel the resistance of the spring. This is because there’s no tactile bump, and no clicking mechanisms. Despite this, actuation will still occur about midway through the keystroke.
What are Silent Switches?
Silent switches can be linear or tactile. They typically feature dampeners at various areas on the stem to reduce noise throughout the keystroke. They’re great if you’d like to enjoy a mechanical keyboard without disrupting the co-workers around you!
That might’ve been a lot to learn all at once, but this small mechanism called a switch can make all the difference for you in your mechanical keyboard journey. If you’re not sure what to choose, that’s okay! The great thing about switches is that you can change and modify them whenever you want. What you can always start with is researching what your personal preferences are for keyboard parts. We’re here for you, and if you’re thinking about trying out different types of switches, we have many options to choose from here.
Don’t be afraid to shoot us a message if you’re having trouble deciding as well! You can always reach us at firstname.lastname@example.org!