Disclosure: Content linked in this article may be affiliate links. All that means is that I may earn a few pennies if you use the link and make a purchase – it helps me keep this site up 🙂 This post is not sponsored directly by these companies and only contains products that we genuinely love and recommend for any keyboard enthusiast. So thanks in advance if you choose to click!
My first impression of switches being a thing: “What’s the point? Who cares what’s under the keycap? As long as my keyboard looks cool. You don’t even get to see the switches!” I was wrong.
Having switches that suit you best is absolutely essential for your perfect typing experience. As with all components of a custom mechanical keyboard, what you build and what you consider to be the best all comes down to your personal preference. If keycaps determined the “look” of your custom mechanical keyboard, the switches will determine the “feel” and “sound”. Clicky, thoccy, light, heavy, scratchy, smooth; These are all ways to describe how a mechanical keyboard types. What you choose to install on your custom mechanical keyboard can be determined by the type of feel you are looking for.
Gaming, Typing, or Both?
The type of mechanical switches you install on your keyboard will typically be determined by what you intend on using your keyboard for. Eventually, you may develop your own preference for switch types or a specific switch and have it installed on all of your mechanical keyboards. I had my own obsession with Novelkey.xyz’s Limited Edition Novelia Switches (Shown below).
The most common distinction between switches is whether they are linear or tactile. Tactile switches may have a slight or heavy “bump” on the way down, letting the user know that the key has been activated. Linear switches do not have this bump and can be pressed straight down. The Tactile switch does not have to go all the way down for the key to register. When it comes to identifying which switch is suited for the job, mechanical keyboard enthusiasts loosely agree that linear switches are suited for gaming and tactile switches are better for typing.
When describing a switch, hobbyists usually use the following lingo:
- Travel (n.): the distance it takes for the press of a key to register.
- “Dang Keebro, the travel on that switch is way too long. I feel like I have to press each key for days to get it down.”
- Actuation (n.): like Travel, actuation also determines at what point a key registers but in terms of force. It is typically described in grams (g) or grams of force (gf) and is the amount of force required for the key to register.
- “Yeah totally, Keebro. Not only is the travel long but with an actuation of 1000g, I feel like I need to stand on each key to press it down.”
- Bottom Out (n.): typically described in grams (g) or grams of force (gf), the bottom out is the amount of force required to press the key all the way down.
- also (v.), to bottom out means to press a key all the way down.
- “It’s all worth it though, Keebro, because once it we get it to bottom out, you get to hear the beautiful ‘clack’.”
Though there is that distinction (linear for gaming, tactile for typing), it all comes down to personal preference. For example, I personally enjoy typing on linear switches that have a moderately heavy actuation (usually between 60~65g). I currently have Gateron Yellow Inks installed on the mechanical keyboard I use at work. Here’s the What’s on my desk? post where I go over my full setup.
You’ll notice from the description that this is a linear switch. While I promise you I am not gaming at work, this is clearly different from the linear for gaming, tactile for typing school of thought. But that’s the whole point: it is all about your own preference. Following that recommendation is a just good place to start. Whether you start with a “gaming” switch or not, you will eventually get to try different switches and find out what works best for you and what you enjoy typing on.
So did I actually go out shopping for switches thinking about what travel, actuation, and bottom out I want? No way. Eventually those numbers just become reference points for you once you have a better idea of what you enjoy. I recommend getting a switch tester to try a few just to see how much the performance of a switch can actually vary.
A good way to get a good idea of how different switches feel is to purchase a switch tester. Pictured above is the Kono Switch Tester which features the following switches:
- Hako True – “Clean and Smooth Tactile”
- 3.6 mm travel | 60g Actuation | 94g Bottom Out
- Hako Clear – “Slightly Firmer Tactile”
- 3.6 mm travel | 55g Actuation | 79g Bottom Out
- Hako Violet – “Light and Airy Tactile”
- 3.6 mm travel | 28g Actuation | 50g Bottom Out
- Kaihua Speed Copper – “Faster Tactile”
- 3.6 mm travel | 30g Actuation | 65g Bottom Out
- Box Reds – “Reduced Wobble Linear”
- 3.6 mm travel | 36g Actuation | 55g Bottom Out
- Novelkeys Box Pale Blue – “Sharp, Heavy, and Clicky”
- 3.7 mm travel | 42g Actuation | 65g Bottom Out
- Novelkeys Royal Purple – “Super Tactile with Smooth Bumps”
- 3.6 mm travel | 29g Actuation | 55g Bottom Out
- Cherry MX RGB Brown – “Standard Quiet Workhorse”
- 4.0 mm travel | 37g Actuation | 55g Bottom Out
- Cherry MX RGB Blue – “Loud and Smooth Clicky”
- 4 mm travel | 55g Actuation | 60g Bottom Out
Note that although you may not even end up using the switches in a tester, it is incredibly beneficial to own just to get a good feeling of what you prefer to type on. You can then match up the specifications and stats to other switches that may catch your eye and decide if it’s right for you based on your preferences.
There are other much larger switch testers out there with many more choices but I have found that having too many is unnecessary to get an understanding of the differences. If you want a cost effective way to quickly identify a “ballpark” specification you like, you can get the Kono.Store switch tester here.
Notable Switch Brands
Cherry MX Switches
The most common and popular mechanical keyboard switches are Cherry MX brand switches. You can often find these sold together with retail mechanical keyboards and they are so well known that knock-off’s use Cherry MX colors to describe their own switches. The most common Cherry MX Switches are:
- Cherry MX Brown Switches tend to be the go-to for a first mechanical keyboard, as it is a good “in-between”. Cherry MX Browns are tactile, quiet, and require a medium amount of force to bottom out.
- Cherry MX Red Switches are a popular switch choice for gamers, these switches are linear and light. These were included on my very first gaming Corsair and although they typed well, I personally found them to be a little bit too light. I often rest my fingers on the keys while idle and found that I would accidentally hold the keys down.
- Cherry MX Blue Switches are perfect if you enjoy bothering your coworkers and being loud and obnoxious. Don’t get them… Well, while I am not personally a fan, blue switches are quite popular for those that type more than they game. Blue switches have a very loud and noticeable click with each keystroke.
This brand is perhaps the most prominent in the custom mechanical keyboard community. It is accepted that Gateron switches are both cheaper and feel better to type on than Cherry MX switches. They are also much easier to find. Novelkeys has the full line up and descriptions here.
- ZealPC: These are manufactured by Gateron but designed and customized to be sold by ZealPC. The iconic Zealios and their fancy cousins can be found on ZealPC’s store where you can find the famous Zealios 78g that some argue are the best tactile switches for gaming. Zeal switches are simply a pleasure to type on and in my opinion are the best of the best out of the box. Zeal also sells Green Tea KitKats so if you were ever wondering what those were all about, please check them out!
Kailh (a.k.a. Kaihua)
This brand also collaborates with some of the hobby’s top players like Novelkeys and Input Club (Kono.Store) to produce some impressive switches. Kailh switches are broken down in to three categories: Pro switches that imitate Cherry MX, Speed switches that have a shorter travel time (“for gaming”), and Box switches that add some extra durability and have their own specifications.
- The Input Club’s Hako switches: Readily available on Kono.Store, The Input Club’s custom Kailh box switches are also popular in the custom mechanical keyboard hobby. These switches are sold with Kono Store’s flagship keyboards like the Kira and Whitefox and can also be purchased individually.
And… That’s a wrap for this article. Please stay tuned, and thank you for checking out the blog! This should be enough information to help you make an educated decision in choosing your next batch of switches. Of course if you are wanting more, please subscribe to our email list and stay tuned for more switch related posts! I will be writing up some more content on switches for those of you that want to go deeper.
Photos taken directly from Novelkeys and Kono.Store with permission.
Last update on 2023-06-04 / Affiliate links / Images from Amazon Product Advertising API