While much of the mechanical vs membrane keyboard debate comes down to personal preference, most people find that mechanical keyboards provide a better typing and gaming experience.
If you’ve decided you want a mechanical keyboard, you must decide which mechanical switches you want your keyboard to have.
If you’re sticking to the classics, you’ll be deciding between Cherry MX Red, Blue, and Brown switches. But there are many more switches than these on the market today.
If you’re not limiting yourself to Cherry MX Reds, Blues, or Browns, and you’re considering a wide range of mechanical switches, you’ll likely want a way to narrow down your options. Deciding between linear and tactile switches is a great way to start.
What are Keyboard Switches?
Most people find that mechanical keyboard switches offer a better keyboard experience than the rubber domes found on most common keyboards.
Rubber dome or ‘membrane’ keyboard keys work by pushing a rubber membrane down to connect to another membrane, which registers a keypress. These keys tend to feel squishy because of this rubber membrane mechanism.
Mechanical keyboards use switches instead of membranes. When a key is pressed, a plastic stem pushes a spring down, and at some point, the stem travels far enough that two metal strips connect, which registers the keypress. These keys tend to feel less squishy than membrane ones because of this mechanism.
There are many different types of mechanical switch, but most (with few exceptions) work in this manner. The differences between keyboard switches concern how much force is needed to push them down, whether they’re designed to make you feel a bump with each keypress, and so on.
Which Mechanical Switch Brand is Best?
The most popular and longstanding switch manufacturer is Cherry, and their ‘MX’ switches have been the go-to for mechanical keyboard gamers for many years. However, there are an increasing number of quality switch manufacturers out there.
Probably the two most popular switch manufacturers apart from Cherry are Gateron and Kailh. Gateron switches are high-quality, just like Cherry switches, so you can rest assured that you’re not opting for something second-rate if you go for them instead of Cherry MX switches.
Gateron switches tend to be smoother than Cherry switches out of the box—Cherry switches often have to be ‘broken in’ or lubed before stem friction is reduced and they reach the smoothness of Gaterons. Some prefer the slight friction of Cherry switches, however.
Kailh switches tend to be a little heavier than their Cherry and Gateron counterparts, requiring more force for actuation and bottom-out. They apparently used to have quality problems, but over recent years quality has improved. Their box switches in particular are said to be very good quality, while their Cherry MX ‘clones’ might be less reliable. Their standard switches are often cheaper than alternatives, making them great for budget mechanical keyboards.
Apart from these three brands, other manufacturers also produce their own switches. Many keyboard companies make their own switches for their own keyboards, and the quality of these varies from brand to brand and switch to switch.
For example, Varmilo keyboards often come with their own switches—Daisy EC, Ivy EC, Rose EC, and Sakura EC. To reduce switch friction, these switches are electrocapacitive, meaning the metal contacts inside actually contact each other, rather a keypress registers once the two contacts are within a certain proximity.
What are Linear Switches?
Linear switches are ones that don’t have a bump that you can feel part-way through the keypress. They press down smoothly, and the keystroke registers before the key ‘bottoms out’ (hits the base of the keyboard).
Linear switches come in many different varieties and from many different manufacturers. They can have different actuation forces (the force required for the keypress to register) and can feel different from one another. Some, like the Cherry MX Silent Red switch, are even ‘silent’, meaning they don’t ‘clack’ when they bottom out.
Linear Switches Spec Comparison
|Cherry MX Red||Cherry MX Speed Silver||Cherry MX Black||Gateron Red||Gateron Yellow||Kailh Red||Kailh Black|
There are more linear switches than these, but these are probably the most common and popular ones.
Reds and Silvers are usually some of the lightest switches, and Silvers have shorter travel than Reds, thus the ‘Speed’ designator. Black switches are usually the heaviest.
What are Tactile Switches?
Tactile switches are ones that have a bump that you can feel part-way through the keypress, when the keystroke actuates (registers).
They’re called ‘tactile’ because you can feel when the keypress registers, meaning you often don’t need to bottom the key out to know for certain that it’s registered—you can move on to the next keypress as soon as you feel the bump.
Tactile switches aren’t ‘clicky’ switches, though, because the bump is only tactile and not audible. Clicky switches like Cherry MX Blues have the same tactile bump, but this bump is audible, meaning you get an audible click from the switch bump and an audible clack when the key bottoms out.
Just like linear and clicky switches, tactile switches come in different varieties and from different manufacturers. They can vary in actuation force and feel.
Tactile Switches Spec Comparison
|Cherry MX Brown||Cherry MX Clear||Gateron Brown||Kailh Brown||Kailh Speed Copper|
There are more tactile switches than these, but these are probably the most popular.
Brown switches are considered the standard tactile mechanical switch, operating as a default ‘middle of the road’ for actuation force and key travel. Alternatives are usually distinguished simply by being quicker or slower.
Linear vs Tactile Switches for Gaming
Although switch choice is a matter of personal preference, linear switches are often preferred over tactile ones for gaming.
Linear switches like Reds, Blacks, and Silvers offer a smooth and consistent keystroke experience, which many gamers think allows for quicker and more comfortable switching between the same keys (such as WASD) repeatedly. Feeling a bump every time you press the W key is seen to slow down or frustrate gameplay.
But while a tactile bump may not feel as comfortable for many as a linear keypress does while gaming, what often has more of an impact is the switch’s actuation force and distance, or ‘speed’. If a tactile switch requires low actuation force and a linear switch requires high actuation force, gaming on the former will probably feel more responsive and cause less finger strain.
This is why most gamers opt to use linear switches that also require low actuation force, like Cherry MX Red switches. These switches are speedy and smooth, allowing for a comfortable gaming experience.
Do note that this depends on which kinds of game you play, though. Many RTS gamers—e.g., StarCraft 2 gamers—prefer tactile or clicky switches, because they don’t hold down the same keys for long periods, and instead press many different keys briefly.
In such games where many keys are pressed just once in quick succession, the tactile bump is a sure sign of a registered keypress. Pressing keys in such games is often more akin to typing than FPS gaming, and tactile switches are often considered better for typing.
Linear vs Tactile Switches for Typing
Tactile or clicky switches are often preferred over linear ones for typing.
Tactile switches like Browns and Clears offer a keystroke experience that’s ideal for typing because the tactile bump partway down through the keypress gives an easy sign that the key has registered.
If you’re FPS gaming, you likely don’t need to know that your key’s been registered instantly, because you likely aren’t tapping and letting go of that key as fast as possible.
But when you’re typing, a tactile switch allows you to move on to the next key as soon as you feel that bump. You don’t even have to bottom out the key before moving on, you can move on as soon as the keypress registers. This lets you increase typing speed.
This is also of benefit in some games. RTS gamers often benefit from moving on to the next key as soon as it registers, so tactile ones are better for these kinds of games, too.
Summary: Are Linear or Tactile Switches Right for You?
Once you’ve decided to buy a mechanical keyboard, the next decision to make is which type of switch you want.
If you don’t want a loud, clicky switch, you’ll be opting for either a linear or tactile switch. Tactile switches have a bump that you can feel partway through each keypress when it registers; linear switches lack this bump.
The standard linear switch—whether from Cherry, Gateron, or Kailh—is the Red switch, which requires a relatively light actuation force. But there are other options if you prefer a heavier or lighter keypress.
The standard tactile switch—whether from Cherry, Gateron, or Kailh—is the Brown switch, which requires a moderate actuation force. Again, there are other options if you prefer something heavier or lighter.
While it ultimately comes down to personal preference, most people prefer linear mechanical switches like Cherry MX Reds for gaming. These switches allow for a smooth keystroke as they don’t have a tactile bump that might slow down quick reactions.
For typing, most people prefer tactile switches like Cherry MX Browns. These switches are good for being able to quickly move on to the next key once you’ve felt the bump that shows the key’s been registered. For this reason, they’re also good for RTS games and other games that require typing-like speed.
If you play shooter games and games that don’t require many quick keypresses in succession, you’ll likely prefer linear switches.
But if you play games that require many quick keypresses, or if you do a lot of typing, you’ll likely prefer tactile ones.
There are no hard rules, however—some typists prefer linear switches, and some FPS gamers prefer tactile ones. If possible, try out some different switches before you buy. If you can’t access keyboards with different switches, you can buy a key switch tester online that has one of each type of key switch placed on a single board.