Guide to Keyboard Key Switch Mechanisms

By Xah Lee. Date: . Last updated: .

This page is a guide of computer keyboard key switch mechanisms.

Rubber Dome Switch

Most keyboard's key switch mechanism is rubber dome switch. Basically all laptop keyboards, and Microsoft Keyboards, Logitech Keyboards.

Rubber dome switch is cheap to make, but is not as good as other mechanisms that use spring. Rubber dome's tactile feedback is not precise, is wobbly, and wears out. Usually what made it worse is the cheap key housing that goes with it. (ever had squeaky keys that make ugly noises and sometimes stuck midway due to friction?)

keyboard construction
Laptop keyboard construction. image source
keyboard rubber dome
Rubber dome switch. image source

Scissor Switch

laptop keyboard scissor-switch mechanism laptop keyboard scissor-switch mechanism 2-2
Scissor switch on laptop. The middle is your rubber dome. image source
keyboard scissor switch mechanism
keyboard scissor switch mechanism. image source

Scissor-switch is found in laptop computers, starting around ~2002. It is still rubber dome, but is enhanced by a scissor-like mechanism above the rubber membrance.

Buckling-spring Switch

This is most famous as used by IBM Model M keyboard, and loved by many programers.

model M keyboard
IBM Model M Keyboard, year ~1990

[see IBM Model M keyboard]

keyboard buckling spring
buckling spring mechanism.
IBM Model M keyboard buckling spring sound

You press the key, the spring compresses, then at some point, it can't take it anymore, CLICK, it buckles, crumpling and gave up all resistance!

you can buy Buckling-spring keyboard from Unicomp Keyboard

Buckling-spring switch is the most loud.

[see Mechanical Keyboard Noise Comparison]

Cherry MX Switches

Cherry MX keyswitch
Cherry MX key switch, disassembled.

Cherry Corporation of Germany makes mechanical switches called Cherry MX. It is the most popular mechanical switch. There are several different models of Cherry MX, with different properties of feel. These models are color coded. They are:

Linear Action: Red, Black

animation cherry mx red
Cherry MX Red. Smooth linear action. Popular in gaming keyboards.

MX Red requires the least pressure to activate the key. It's really nice. Typing on it is effortless.

Cherry MX Black is same as Red, except more force is required. I don't like MX Black at all.

Tactile Action: Brown, Blue

The Brown and Blue types have a tactile bump. When you press down, after certain point, there's a bump feel, then after that the pressure is reduced. This lets you know when a key has been registered.

Note, however, the bump point is not exactly when key is registered. There are not many key switches that this actually happen.

The Brown and Blue types are often preferred by typists.

animation cherry mx brown
Cherry MX Brown Switch mechanism. Tactile but no audible click. Most popular.
animation cherry mx blue
Cherry MX Blue Switch mechanism. Tactile with audible click.

The difference between Brown and Blue are:

cherry mx switch contact 45337
animation showing Cherry MX switch's electric contact mechanism

There are many other Cherry MX switch models, but less common.

Cherry MXbrownbluegreenredblack
Key FeelTactile BumpTactile ClickTactile ClickSmooth (Linear)Smooth (Linear)
ResistanceMedium-LowLowFirmVery LowFirm
Cherry MX keyswitch force travel diagram
Cherry MX key switches force travel diagram. [image source http://deskthority.net/wiki/File:CherryMXForceTravel.png ]
Max Keyboard Premium PCB mount Cherry MX Switch, O-Ring and Keycap Sampler Kit
cherry mx switch tester 08767 s
Key Switch Tester

Note, switch tester is helpful in choosing a switch, but pressing 1 key on a switch tester is different from typing on many keys. You need to actually type on the keyboard with a particular switch to be sure if you really like it.

Cherry MX Compatible Switches

Several companies make Cherry compatible switches. (the patent expired)

All these Cherry MX compatible are not EXACTLY the same as those from Cherry the company.

Some say it's better, some say worse, some say they can't feel any difference.

But in the market, those by Cherry MX tends to be more expensive. Partly due to brand name recognization, partly due to shortage.

I actually recommend those Chinese clones, if you actually have to decide.

Gateron

Gateron switch is Cherry MX compatible made by Gateron (惠州佳达隆电子科技有限公司). company site: http://www.gateron.com/

Kailh

Kailh Switch is a Cherry MX compatible switch, made by Kaihua Electronics Co., Ltd.”. (凯华).

see Kailh Switch Keyboards

Outemu

Outemu switch is Cherry MX compatible made by Gaote Corp. 东莞市高特电子有限公司. Home page http://www.cngaote.com/

Box Switch, Zealio Switch

Some Chinese companies are creating their own, new, switches.

Common consensus is that they are better than the originally Cherry MX.

Logitech GX Blue Clicky

This is came out in 2018. It's actually just a clone of the Cherry MX Blue, made by Kaihua, with little variation. The stem is Cherry MX compatible, so you can buy many of the artistic keycaps out there. [see Artistic Keycap Gallery]

Romer-G Key Switch

As of 2018-09, there are 2 variants.

Characteristics:

Romer G key switch 41681
Romer-G key switch, from Logitech.
Romer G key switch 06133
Romer-G key switch
Romer-G key switch keycaps 59a11
Romer-G key switch keycaps
Logitech G413 Carbon keyboard review (Romer-G) by Chyrosran22

Romer-G key switch is used by Logitech, e.g.

Infra-Red Optical Key Switch

This is new tech, came out around 2016.

light strike optical switch 4bcc8
light strike optical switch 4bcc8
Tosoro's optical switch tech
infra red optical switch 27658
infra red optical switch

Optical switch is great because it does not need metal contact. Meaning, no wear, last longer, and easier to be water resistant.

Optical switch are actually not more expensive then Cherry MX compatible ones.

[see Optical Key Switch Keyboard]

Topre Switch (Electrostatic Capacitive Switch)

Another type of expensive switch is by capacitance. In particular, one made by Topre Corporation, of Japan.

hhkb topre switch 36984
Topre switch mechanism.
Topre key switch
Topre key switch. US patent 4584444

The Topre switch's feel came from its rubber dome, not the spring.

Topre switch rubber dome in action

Topre key switch is most famously used in Happy Hacking Keyboard.

I don't like topre switch. It has a hit-bottom finger-shock problem. Topre switch, got this rubber dome, you have to hit with certain force, and because it is rubber dome, the dome collapses at some point and sucks you down, thus hit bottom and creates a finger impact shock feel. I don't have this problem with any Cherry MX switches, nor with IBM buckling spring switch, nor romer-g.

[see List of Keyboards with Topre Switch]

White Alps Strongman Switch

Don't know how this switch works, but i have used one for a couple of years. It's excellent. See: Keyboard: Matias Mini Tactile Pro. This keyboard has strong presence in Mac community.

Matias mechanical key switch
Matias mechanical key switch

The Matias mechanical key switch is used by Keyboardio model 1. See Keyboardio Review

Hall Effect Switch

XMIT Hall Effect Switch Keyboard

Key Noise Comparison

Mechanical Keyboard Noise Comparison

Does Mechanical Keys Matter?

Mechanical Keyboard and Repetitive Strain Injury

Which Switch is Best?

In general opinion, the ranking is ROUGHLY like this:

  1. IBM Buckling Spring or Topre. (each has strong fans, but not everyone likes them.)
  2. Hall Effect or Optical
  3. Box Switch or Zealio. Considered improvement of Cherry MX design.
  4. Cherry MX or Clone

Note, it's impossible to rank them, as different people have different preferences.

My own preference is ROUGHLY this:

  1. Optical or Hall Effect. Best Tech.
  2. Box Switch or Zealio.
  3. Cherry MX red or blue or clone. 45g force is perfect. Some red clones need 50g force.
  4. IBM Buckling Spring. (i cannot tolerate the loudness)
  5. Topre (hate it)
  6. Cherry MX black (hate it)

References

Key Switch Topic

  1. Guide to Keyboard Key Switch Mechanisms
  2. Mechanical Keyboard Noise Comparison
  3. What's NKRO, N-key Rollover?
  4. List of Keyboards with Topre Switch
  5. XMIT Hall Effect Switch Keyboard
  6. Kailh Switch Keyboards
  7. Mechanical Keyboard and Repetitive Strain Injury
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