When you type on a mechanical keyboard, every key has its own switch. If you take off the plastic tops (commonly called keycaps) you’ll see the switches installed on the keyboard’s circuit board (or PCB). When a switch is pushed down, it registers the input and sends the signal to your computer. You can see what the mechanism looks like below: the green part is what connects to the keycap, the spring reacts to your pressure, and the thin pins poking out make contact with the PCB.
There are two main methods of installing switches onto a PCB. The most standard is soldering, either done by the manufacturer or the customer. This requires a soldering gun to meld the switch’s pins (located below the switch’s main housing) to the PCB for proper contact. Soldering is a time-consuming process, and even more time-consuming to undo. This is why the other method, hot-swapping, is more attractive for consumers. Hot swapping means the keyboard’s PCB has sockets installed for each key that allows you to plop switches in and out with relative ease.
More and more boards are releasing with hot-swapping as an option, so if you’re interested in trying out different switch types it’s the way to go (especially if you’re new to all this). Soldering, on the other hand, is more permanent and advanced—it’s recommended for people who already know what they want.
To compare switches, you have to know what to look for on the store page. There are many websites, switch types, and brands to go through, but here are the most important things.
- Type: There are three main categories of mechanical switches: linear, tactile, and clicky. To start, you can think of linear switches as the most basic switch (in a good way). These switches have no extra fluff, just a smooth switch with little resistance. On the other hand, tactile switches purposefully create a tactile bump when pushed down to provide more feedback to the user. And clicky switches are the same as tactile switches but make a pronounced “click” noise while being pushed down. There are sub-types as well, but these are the main ones you need to know.
- Actuation Force: This is a spec you’ll find listed for most mechanical switches and represents how much force is required to push down the switch. It’s different for every switch, but for reference, the popular Cherry MX Blue and Brown switches each have actuation forces of 50g and 45g, respectively.
- Design: Most switches have the same basic design: plastic casing with three or five pins on the bottom and a small plastic cross-section poking out the top that gets pushed down while typing. There can be slight differences, but most switches are going to look like the diagram we included in the first section. Something worth noting is how many pins the switch you’re interested in has, as many keyboards can only accept three-pin switches. If you do have a five-pin switch, you can cut off the extra ones and it will still work, but it takes a while.
Now, let’s look at the best switches on the market, and the ones you should consider as your first options.
- ✓ Smooth switch
- ✓ Fast response times
- ✗ Low tactility
Linear switches are enjoyed by many for their smooth feel, but another benefit is for competitive video game players. The lack of tactility means response times from linear switches are quicker, and no switch shows that off better than the Kailh Speed Silver. With “Speed” in its name, it’s no surprise that this is one of the most responsive mechanical switches on the market, with a smooth mechanism that feels great to the touch.
Don’t worry, though, just because it’s good for gamers doesn’t mean it’s not fantastic for typing as well. The Speed Silver switch balances both use cases excellently, making it the ideal switch for those who want something smooth no matter what they’re using it for.
Kailh Speed Silver
A smooth switch that’s great for typing and gaming.
- ✓ Tactile but still mostly smooth
- ✓ Great clicks
- ✗ Not great for working around others
Box switches may look different from traditional ones but functionally are largely the same. They have some minor benefits like reducing keycap wobble, but that’s only something you’ll notice if you have a lot of experience with mechanical keyboards. The main reason we chose the Box Whites is the clicking mechanism they use. Unlike traditional clicky switches, Box Whites have a click bar that produces a click each time the switch moves up or down. It sounds better than typical clicky switches, and the Box Whites feel great to type on in general.
Kailh Box White
This clicky switch sounds as great as it feels.
- ✓ Satisfying tactility
- ✓ Two variants to choose from
- ✗ Will need modification if you prefer smoother switches
The tactile switch scene is very competitive, and there have many great switches produced by loads of different manufacturers. But if you’re looking for something readily available and reasonably affordable that still feels great, the Drop Halos are it. This switch gives a great level of feedback while still feeling smooth where it counts. It easily outpaces the more common tactile switches you may be used to and is a major hit in the enthusiast mechanical keyboard community.
Also, there are two versions of this switch: the Halo Clears and Halo Trues. They’re largely the same but feel slightly different from each other; the Clears feel more like traditional tactile switches, while the Trues offer something more unique if you’re bored with normal switches.
A high-end tactile switch available for a reasonable price.
- ✓ Fast response times
- ✓ Lots of different variants
- ✗ Won't be compatible with everything a normal switch would be
Optical switches are a bit different from the rest. They’re designed with lower response times in mind, and as such are physically shorter, use different internal mechanisms, and aren’t as compatible with a lot of keyboard accessories. Gateron’s optical switches buck some of that though with a more familiar design and they’re even available in a variety of switch types including tactile and clicky.
However, seeing that optical switches are made with response times in mind, you’d be best off going with a linear variant, and the Black and Yellow switches are easily the best of the lot. Gateron’s normal Black and Yellow linear switches are praised for feeling great out of the box while still being affordable, and it’s no different here. If you’re interested in optical switches, those two are your best bets, but all of Gateron’s optical switches are great.
Gateron Optical Switches
A variety of quality optical switches made with low response times in mind.
The switch you receive in the mail is hardly the end of the story. There’s a lot that can be done to a switch after the fact that can customize its feel to perfectly align with your tastes. It can cost a lot to purchase the equipment you’ll need, and it’s very time-consuming, but if you want the perfect switch for you modding is the way to go.
The most popular switch modification is lubricant. You can find loads of different lube types on mechanical keyboard-focused websites like NovelKeys and MechanicalKeyboards.com, but they all serve the same basic function. Lube smooths out the switch so there’s less resistance—it’s especially effective on linear switches. Similar mods include tape and film mods, which both help make the keyboard sound and feel nicer. Tape mods are exactly that—tape placed on the keyboard’s PCB to reduce noise. Film mods go inside the switch and help reduce wobbling while typing.
But the real nitty-gritty of switch modding is replacing parts of the actual switch itself. There are mods largely focused on visuals, but there are also mods for the inner mechanism. Most commonly, it’s replacing the switch’s spring which can have a massive effect on how the switch feels.
There’s always more that can be done, and if you want to use any of these mods we’ve mentioned you’ll already be scouring the internet for guides and retailers, but these are the most popular and effective ones. The mechanical keyboards subreddit wiki is a great resource for learning more and is a good place to start if you’re brand new to switch modding.