One of the trickiest parts of getting into mechanical keyboards is deciding on switches. Even before choosing a specific switch, you’ll have to pick between clicky, linear, and tactile switches. That can get confusing if you’re new, but don’t get too discouraged! Let’s dive in and discuss clicky vs. linear vs. tactile switches to help you make a more informed decision.
Each switch type feels different and has its strengths and weaknesses. There’s no objectively better switch type, and what works for one person might not work for another. That said, each switch type has general characteristics that make it more or less suited for a particular application.
|Keystroke||Smooth and consistent||Slight to noticeable bump in the middle||Noticeable tactile bump in the middle|
|Best For||Gaming||Gaming/Typing (depending on weight)||Typing|
Clicky vs. Linear vs. Tactile Switches: The Rundown
Before we get into the nitty-gritty, let’s explain some uncommon terminology that we’ll see in the graphs.
- The Operating position (or actuation point) is the point in the switch’s travel where the keyboard recognizes the key press.
- The Tactile position is where you feel the “bump” in the switch’s travel. This may or may not have anything to do with the operating position.
- The Reset position is the point where the key deactivates upon release.
The graphs below chart the forces you’ll feel as you press a switch. The vertical axis shows the actuation force (in centinewtons, cN) you need to press the switch, while the horizontal axis indicates the switch travel distance in millimeters from start to finish (or bottom-out). The red line refers to the switch press, while the black line shows the switch release.
Now that that’s out of the way, it’s time to dig into mechanical keyboard switches.
Linear switches offer smooth travel from start to finish, without any clicking or tactile feedback. They offer a quick and unobtrusive typing experience that won’t get in the way of your inputs. Let’s look at the force graph to illustrate linear switch behavior better. This force graph is from Cherry’s MX Red switch.
As you can see, there’s almost nothing to report regarding the typing experience. The force increases linearly from start to finish without any bumps or humps. The switch does “jump” very slightly on release, but it’s imperceptible in daily use.
Cherry sells two main linear switches, the MX Red and MX Black. The MX Red is a lightweight linear switch, while the MX Black is heavier and requires more force when typing. Most clone manufacturers such as Gateron follow this color scheme too. So Gateron Reds are linear, as are Kailh Reds.
Certain manufacturers, like Gateron, have extra linear switches in their stable that don’t have a Cherry counterpart. Gateron Yellows, for example, are somewhere in between Cherry MX Reds and Blacks.
There are also “speed” linear switches, like Cherry’s MX Speed Silver. These behave similarly but have a shorter total travel distance (3.4 mm vs. the standard 4.0 mm). Manufacturers claim that this shortened travel distance reduces input latency when gaming, although I can’t tell the difference.
Overall, linear switches are smooth, relatively quiet, and uneventful. Whether this is a good thing will depend on what you’re after. Some may find them boring to type on, and the lack of feedback can make them feel imprecise. However, they’re great for gaming as there’s no clicking or tactile feedback that may slow down your key presses.
Interested in learning more about linears? Check out our roundup of the best linear switches.
Tactile switches take the linear switch and add a bump in the middle of the key travel. This is the main difference between tactile and linear switches, and offers tactile feedback when typing or gaming. Many (myself included) find them more enjoyable to type on than linears while retaining their relatively silent operation.
Tactile switches like the Cherry MX Brown are also often recommended as great “all-rounder” switches that work well for typing and gaming. Here’s the force graph from an MX Brown to help illustrate some tactile switch characteristics:
The MX Brown has a subtle but noticeable tactile bump relatively early in the key travel, followed by a slight lessening in the force as you follow through. Don’t worry too much about that visible dip in the force graph; it isn’t too noticeable and seems to help provide a smoother feel to the tactile event.
That said, many enthusiasts find that the standard MX Brown isn’t tactile enough and feels “scratchy” rather than “tactile.” So there have been a ton of variations on the tactile switch archetype, with more differences than you’re likely to find between different linear and clicky switches.
Some, like the Outemu Browns, stick to the general feel of MX Browns, just with extra tactility. In contrast, some enthusiast switches like the ZealPC Zealios V2 have a radically different force curve that immediately presents a huge tactile event when you press the switch.
Regardless of the approach, tactile switches offer a solid, enjoyable typing experience with positive feedback and response. Lighter tactiles such as the MX Brown and Kailh Box Brown are great “work and play” switches, while heavier tactiles like the Zealios will likely work better for typists. If you’d like to learn more, read our guide to the best tactile switches.
Clicky switches are similar to tactiles in that they have a noticeable bump in the middle of the key travel. However, unlike tactiles, this bump is generally sharper and is accompanied by a loud click sound. In most clicky MX-style switches, the clicking noise comes from the white “click jacket” that you can see moving in the animation above.
Many users find that clicky switches offer satisfying feedback and are fun to type on. However, they’re noisy and will annoy officemates, roommates, and anyone listening to you over voice chat. The tactile feedback can also get in the way of gaming.
Let’s look at the force graph to show you what we mean. This is from Cherry’s MX Blue, arguably the most iconic clicky mechanical switch.
As you can see, MX Blue-style clicky switches have a relatively smooth travel interrupted only by a short, sharp tactile bump. This is the click event, which you’ll feel and hear. The switch activates after this click, which might seem counter-intuitive but isn’t an issue for most users.
You’ll also notice that the MX Blue has a relatively sharp return when you release the switch, due to the click jacket. Typists likely won’t find this an issue, but it can prove problematic if a game requires repeated presses of a single key, as it can make repeated key presses feel a bit “sticky.”
Cherry’s MX Blue is arguably the most iconic clicky switch ever made, to the point that most clone manufacturers like Gateron and Outemu stick to the same color for their clicky switch. One key exception is Kailh and their Box switches, such as the Box Jade and Box Navy.
These feel a bit different because they don’t use a click jacket. Instead, they use a metal click bar, which is the horizontal wire you can see in the image below.
Kailh’s clicky Box switches have a much firmer and louder click than MX Blue-style switches. They’re not for everyone, but many enthusiasts find these more satisfying to type on than MX Blues.
Overall, the best clicky switches are great fun to type on and can work for gaming. However, their noise profile makes them unsuitable for office spaces and situations where others live, work, or play nearby.
Which Is Best for You?
As with so many keyboard-related topics, there isn’t a single “best” overall switch type that we can recommend above the others. Not only does each switch have pros and cons, but it also depends on personal preference.
For instance, many users game on linear switches and swear by them. However, I’ve recently moved over to gaming on tactile switches instead. Are they better? No, probably not. But I’ve gotten used to them and now prefer some tactility even when I’m playing first-person shooters.
So it’s really all up to what you like. But that doesn’t help if you’re just starting out. So let’s lay out some general guidelines to point you in the right direction when choosing switches.
Linear switches generally work best for gaming. Their smooth, consistent response makes them “disappear” under your fingers and lets you concentrate fully on the game. They’re relatively quiet, too, so they won’t drown you out when trying to communicate with your teammates.
Tactile switches can work for gaming and typing, depending on how heavy they are. Light to medium-weight tactile switches are great all-purpose options, providing typing feedback without feeling too heavy and slowing you down.
Tactiles are also excellent beginner switches as they offer a middle ground between the three switch types. Many beginner mechanical keyboard users opt for these as they’re a safe bet that’ll work in almost all situations.
Clicky switches are perfect for typing, offering a pleasing combo of tactile and auditory feedback. You can game with them, although they’re not as ideal as tactile or linear switches. Clicky switches’ biggest downside is the noise. The loud click makes them almost unusable in offices and situations where others are within earshot.
Tactile vs. linear vs. clicky is the most critical switch choice you’ll have to make, but it’s far from the only spec you should pay attention to. Let’s go through some other attributes you should consider when deciding on a mechanical switch.
Travel distance, as the name suggests, is how far the switch moves when you press down on it. Most standard MX-style switches have a total travel distance of 4.0 mm, with a pre-travel that’s half that (so, 2.0 mm). Pre-travel indicates how far the switch has to travel before it registers a key press.
Travel distance used to be relatively standard across all MX-style switches and wasn’t worth looking out for. However, that changed with the increasing popularity of short-travel “speed” switches like Razer’s Yellow Switch and Cherry MX Speed Silver.
These mechanical keyboard switches are usually linear and feature shorter travel and pre-travel distances, usually around 3.5 and 1.2 mm, respectively. This reduced travel means they respond faster to your inputs, making them allegedly ideal for gamers trying to minimize input latency.
However, this shorter travel distance makes for a less desirable typing feel. The shorter pre-travel can also make it easier to press keys accidentally, leading to more typos than usual. So they’re definitely not for typists.
Generally, we think standard, non-”speed” switches are the way to go for most people. Stick with switches with standard travel distances if you’re buying a keyboard for work and play. However, what if you’re shopping for a dedicated gaming keyboard? In that case, “speed” switches are worth checking out. Just don’t expect them to make you a better gamer overnight!
One of the main ways manufacturers differentiate their switches is with the weighting or actuation force. This is usually expressed in centinewtons (cN), with higher numbers being “heavier” and harder to press.
Generally, heavy-handed typists tend to go for heavier switches (usually 60 cN or higher). The heavier switches help minimize bottoming out and offer a suitable amount of resistance. Lighter typists will want lighter switches with actuation forces of 50 cN or lower to reduce fatigue and finger strain.
Of course, switch weight also comes down to personal preference, and it’s entirely possible to prefer lighter or heavier switches than is “typical” for your typing style. So it’s worth experimenting and trying different switches to see the kinds of actuation force you prefer.
If you’re trying to get as much use out of your switches as possible, look for ones rated for a large number of actuations. A high actuation rating means the switches should be durable and last longer. Cherry has the most reliable switches on paper, with the latest versions of its mainstream switches rated for 100 million actuations.
Most MX-style switches from manufacturers like Gateron and Kailh don’t tend to last as long as Cherry switches, so they’re not as ideal from a pure longevity standpoint. Gateron rates most of its switches for 50 million actuations, while Kailh switches range between 50 to 80 million, depending on the type.
That said, we wouldn’t recommend choosing switches based on longevity. Weighting, smoothness, and overall typing feel all matter more. However, depending on your priorities, it can be a useful criterion to help you narrow down your choices.
Switch type is arguably the most definitive part of a mechanical keyboard. Finding the right switch is glorious, but having to put up with a switch you don’t like is liable to put you off the hobby entirely. That’s why getting to grips with clicky vs. linear vs. tactile switches is so important.
Remember: linears are best for gaming, clickies are great for typing, while tactiles offer a great middle ground suitable for many users. These aren’t hard and fast rules, but we recommend sticking to these general rules if you’re just starting out with mechanical keyboards. Once you know more, feel free to go off-piste and experiment to find the perfect setup for you.
Excited to get started buying mechanical switches? Check out some of the best places to buy mechanical keyboard switches. All the best!