Choosing a mechanical keyboard switch

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Published on 17 March 2022 by Andrew Owen (4 minutes)

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One of the things I do is design keyboard layouts and legend designs. My most popular design to date is the Commander X16 professional keyboard. I’ve also created a number of one-off designs for myself and friends. I get them made by WASDkeyboards.com. If you’re going for a one-off keyboard, it’s probably going to be mechanical, and that means expensive. So I often get asked for recommendations on which switch to order when purchasing a keyboard. As ever more options become available, it can seem even harder to choose. However, it’s really quite easy to work out which is the right switch for you.

Typist or gamer?

  • If you mostly use your keyboard for typing, pick a clicky tactile switch.
  • If you mostly use your keyboard for gaming, pick a linear switch.
  • If you use your keyboard about equally for typing and gaming, pick a non-clicky tactile switch.

Light touch or bottom out?

  • If you’re a touch typist or a gamer, pick a switch with a low actuation force.
  • If you bottom out (your typing is noisy even on cheap keyboards), pick a switch with a high actuation force.

Private room or open plan?

  • If you use your keyboard where other people can’t hear it, don’t bother with sound dampening o-rings.
  • If other people will have to listen to your keyboard for extended periods of time, don’t choose a clicky tactile switch. If you tend to bottom out, you can use 0.2mm o-rings to deaden the sound.
Switch Type Feedback Force Cost Notes
MX Black Linear None 60 cN
MX Blue Tactile Click 60 cN
MX Brown Tactile Bump 55 cN +$5
MX Clear Tactile Bump 65 cN +$15
MX Green Tactile Click 80 cN +$25
MX Red Linear None 45 cN +$10
MX Silent Red Linear None 45 cN +$15 Quiet
MX Speed Silver Linear None 45 cN +$15 Short travel
Zealio Purple Tactile Bump 65 cN +$45

Recommendations

If you’re looking for a budget entry into mechanical keyboards, I’d recommend a Magicforce with Gateron brown switches. Get some o-rings and a cheap set of PBT double shot key-caps, and you’ll have a great typing experience without annoying your colleagues or family too much.

For those new to mechanical key switch keyboards, I’d make the following switch recommendations based on cost and primary use:

  • Mostly gaming: MX Black (the oldest Cherry switch, as used in the Mega ST)
  • Mostly typing: MX Blue (the most commonly cloned switch)
  • Mixed use: MX Brown (choose instead of MX Blue when noise is a consideration)

If money is no object, I’d recommend:

  • Mostly gaming: MX Speed Silver (non-clicky, linear, low actuation force and short travel)
  • Mostly typing: MX Green (a clicky switch with a similar actuation force to IBM buckling spring)
  • Mixed use: Zealio Purple (the most typing feel in a non-clicky switch with medium actuation force)

If quietness is your main concern (use o-rings and PBT key caps), I’d recommend:

  • Mostly gaming: MX Silent Red (linear, and quietest overall)
  • Mostly typing: MX Clear (quietest tactile switch)
  • Mixed use: MX Brown (slightly louder than MX Clear but with a lower actuation force)

Cherry MX Black
Cherry MX Blue
Cherry MX Brown
Cherry MX Clear
Cherry MX Green
Cherry MX Red
Cherry MX Silent Red
Cherry MX Speed Silver
Zealio Purple

Afterthoughts

Recently I thought I had discovered the origin of the inverted-T cursor cluster from an article on Nerd Corner. It was introduced on the LK201 keyboard used by the DEC VT220 computer terminal, which also marked the first appearance of the compose key. But David “8-bit Guy” Murray tracked down an earlier use on the Applied Digital Data Systems Consul 880 video terminal.

My “daily driver” is a white LED backlit 68-key Qisan Magicforce with Gateron brown switches and after-market PBT key caps and o-rings. They also have a variant with Outemu blue switches but browns are quieter and of the MX clone switches I’ve tried, I prefer Gateron to Outemu. Some vendors sell the keyboard with factory PBT key caps, but at about twice the price. I got a cheap set of gray double-shot PBT key caps from China. I went with gray because other than black, it discolors the least over time. I originally assembled the keyboard to avoid irritating my co-workers, back when I was still expecting to return to full time office-based work. Now I’m fully remote, I’ve found it’s also good for streaming when I need to type.