We think mechanical switches have the upper hand over optical switches for several reasons. There’s more variety; they feel and sound better; and they can offer more bang for your buck at the budget end. Optical switches have quicker response times and better durability, but neither is important enough to overcome the advantages mechanical switches have elsewhere.
If you’ve shopped for a new mechanical keyboard lately, you’ve probably noticed that some keyboards now offer optical switches instead of traditional mechanical ones. What are optical switches? Do they have any advantages over mechanical switches? Which ones do you go for? Well, our comparison of optical vs. mechanical switches should clear most of those questions up. Let’s get started.
Optical vs. Mechanical Switches: How They Work
Optical and mechanical keyboard switches are similar in most ways, only truly differing in how the switches are activated. Let’s quickly run through the shared characteristics of both switches.
Both optical and mechanical switches have a central key stem inside a plastic housing that moves downward when you press the key. Similarly, both switch types have a spring that pushes the stem back up once you release it and determines the weight of the switch.
Here’s an opened MX Brown that shows the central stem and spring assembly. Optical switches will look much the same, and use similar parts.
Now, let’s move on to the key difference: the activation. We’ll start with mechanical switches, as they’re likely what you’re more familiar with.
In the strictest definition, a mechanical keyboard switch relies on physical contact between two conductive materials for activation. Pressing a switch down moves the stem, which either completes the circuit itself (thus activating the key) or allows other parts of the switch to contact each other and complete the circuit.
We know; that sounds a bit complicated. So let’s look at a Cherry MX switch to see how mechanical switches work. Here’s a Cherry MX Red going through its full travel in both directions:
Pay attention to the curved metal leaf on the left. At the start of the switch travel, the stem holds the leaf in tension. As the stem moves down (i.e., when you press it), the leaf spring contacts the metal plate to its right, which activates the switch. Once you release the switch, the stem moves back up and pushes the metal leaf away from the plate, deactivating the switch.
Here’s a disassembled Cherry MX switch showing its mechanical components, namely the metal leaf and plate that contact and complete the circuit. This assembly is commonly known as a gold crosspoint contact and is the defining characteristic of Cherry MX switches.
“What about clicky and tactile switches?” you may ask. Well, they actuate identically to linears but have extra components (such as the MX Blue’s click jacket) or differently-shaped stems. These provide the tactile and auditory feedback that characterizes these switches.
Note that Cherry MX switches aren’t the only mechanical switch out there. Other mechanical switches (such as Alps switches) use different mechanisms to activate the keys. However, all traditional mechanical switches operate on the same principle of physical contact between two conductive surfaces.
Optical switches, on the other hand, don’t rely on any physical contact to activate a switch. Instead, they rely on light, which explains their name.
Unlike mechanical switches, the “contact” mechanism in typical optical switches isn’t actually in the switches themselves. Instead, optical switches rely on infrared transmitters and receivers on the printed circuit board (PCB). All the switch does is interrupt the infrared light beam with a piece of plastic attached to the stem. The keyboard detects when the light beam is interrupted and activates the key.
This is how most of the popular optical switches on the market—such as Gateron’s optical switches and the Skyloong Optical switches we tested in the Skyloong GK75—work. This is also why hot-swap optical keyboards aren’t compatible with mechanical switches, as the IR transmitters and receivers get in the way.
However, there’s one exception to this: Razer. Razer’s Optical switches use in-switch transmitters, not the PCB-mounted sensors most other optical switches use. Razer’s Optical switches also activate when the beam completes, as opposed to when it’s interrupted.
This doesn’t change how the switches work, as Razer’s Opticals still uses a contactless mechanism and infrared light. But it’s a slightly different implementation of the same concept that we felt was worth pointing out.
Now that we’ve explained the key difference between each switch type, it’s time to put the two switches head-to-head to see whether there’s a winner.
Optical vs. Mechanical Switches: Speed and Response Times
On paper, optical switches should have a considerable speed advantage over mechanical switches. All optical switches should have a 5-millisecond advantage over mechanical ones, as they lack the debounce delay needed by mechanical switches. The optical detection mechanism should also respond faster due to its contactless nature.
However, the advantage isn’t necessarily as clear-cut in the real world. To test this, I used an online reaction time test to compare the Skyloong Optical Silver switches against Gateron Blacks. While it’s admittedly an imprecise science, the idea is that my reaction times should remain constant, while the only variable is how quickly the switches actuate.
The Optical Silvers should have the upper hand on paper, as they’re optical and short-travel. But does the testing bear this out? First up, the Gateron Blacks:
My reaction times were quite consistent after the first test, showing that the notion of my reaction times being a controlled variable is at least somewhat valid. Not perfect, but good enough for this non-scientific testing. Next up, the Skyloong Optical Silvers:
My reaction times weren’t entirely as consistent as with the Gateron Blacks, but there’s a measurable reduction in reaction times with the Optical Silver switches. Whether that’s down to the shorter travel or optical activation is uncertain, but I don’t think it’s worth worrying too much about either way. Why not?
Well, a 0.0078-millisecond difference in reaction time (and, presumably, latency) is inconsequential. Even if you’re a hardcore gamer, the difference here is so minuscule that you’re unlikely ever to feel a difference in the real world. Standard optical switches won’t really give you much of an upper hand in-game.
However, Razer is once again an outlier here. Tests have shown that Razer’s optical switches activate 10 to 40 milliseconds faster than a standard mechanical switch, depending on the game. That could be significant enough to give you an advantage in a fast-paced FPS.
Sadly, I don’t have a Razer keyboard on hand to verify this. But it does seem that the Razer Optical switches are worth trying out if you’re after the fastest optical keyboard switches out there.
Winner: Optical Switches
Optical switches have a measurable speed advantage in our testing, so they’re technically the winners here. However, whether the difference is significant enough to warrant switching to optical switches is arguable. We’ll leave that decision up to you.
Optical vs. Mechanical Switches: Typing Feel
Optical switches have come a long way. Gone are the days when opticals were objectively worse to type on than mechanical switches. A modern optical switch can now feel very similar to a mainstream mechanical switch, and many users would likely struggle to tell them apart immediately.
Case in point, the Skyloong Optical Silver switches I tried in our Skyloong GK75 review. They felt like a decent mechanical linear switch throughout my testing, comparable to a good budget-friendly set of linear switches. They weren’t amazing, but perfectly adequate for a $60 keyboard.
In fact, I’d probably take them over stock Cherry MX linears! The Optical Silvers have none of the scratchiness that plagues stock MX Red or MX Blacks, making them a good alternative if you’re new to the hobby and don’t want to deal with switch mods.
However, the few optical switches I’ve tried don’t feel as good as a higher-end mechanical switch. While the Skyloong Optical Silvers (for example) are quite good, I don’t think they’re as good as an enthusiast mechanical switch like the Gateron Oil Kings for overall feel and typing pleasure. The Oil Kings feel more solid to type on while being just as smooth, if not smoother.
Winner: Mechanical Switches (Barely)
Typing feel boils down entirely to personal preference; as such, this reflects my preferences more than any objective strengths or weaknesses. That said, optical and mechanical switches are quite comparable at the low end. Linear opticals are enjoyably smooth, much better than some affordable linear mechanical switches like the Cherry MX Red.
However, the quality of high-end, enthusiast switches definitely shines through once you move up the price ladder. Unfortunately, you’ll be paying a pretty penny for that level of quality; Everglide Aqua Kings, for example, will cost around $0.80 per switch. I think they’re worth it, but not everyone will feel the same.
Optical vs. Mechanical Switches: Sound Profile and Noise
As far as sound profile goes, there’s no objectively better-sounding switch, and it once again comes down to personal preference. Some enthusiasts claim that mechanical switches sound fuller, while opticals sound hollow. I’m not entirely sure I agree with such a blanket statement, but my tests seem to bear this out.
Here are two demos. The first is the Skyloong GK61 with Skyloong Chocolate Rose mechanical switches, and the second is the GK75 Optical with Skyloong Optical Silver switches. I’ve had to use different keyboards as optical and mechanical switches aren’t interchangeable, so you’ll likely hear the audible effects of the case and plate material here too.
GK61 with mechanical switches:
GK75 with optical switches:
To my ears, the GK61 sounds a lot more solid, and I prefer it over the GK75. The latter has some of that “hollowness” that enthusiasts ascribe to optical switches; it’s not bad, but I don’t enjoy it as much as the GK61. However, do note that my GK61 has a dense polycarbonate case, which undoubtedly helps give the switches that more muted, full-bodied sound.
Is it a clear and objective advantage? No, not quite. I know some people who prefer how the GK75 sounds. But my ears prefer the GK61 and its mechanical switches.
One area where some mechanical switches have an objective advantage, however, is noise. Quiet mechanical switches like the Cherry MX Silent Reds use silicone dampers to provide a near-silent typing experience. For example, here are some MX Silent Reds in the same Skyloong GK61 as the test above:
They don’t feel as good as a non-silenced switch, but the noise benefits are palpable. As there aren’t any silent optical switches on the market right now, silent mechanical switches are the best way to go if you want to build a quiet mechanical keyboard.
Winner: Mechanical Switches
Sound quality is subjective, and our comparison is so colored by plate and case material that it’s hard to make an objective case for either switch. Mechanical and optical switches both sound fine, but I (and most enthusiasts, it seems) prefer the sound of mechanical switches.
Mechanical switches also come in silenced forms, unlike optical switches. These quiet mechanical switches have a clear and measurable noise advantage over traditional mechanical and optical switches.
Optical vs. Mechanical Switches: Durability
Optical switches have a clear advantage here, as the contactless design allows modern optical switches to hit the magical 100-million-click lifespan. Even Gateron, whose mechanical switches often have a rated lifetime of “only” 50 million clicks, manages to hit the 100-million mark with its latest KS-22 Optical switches.
In contrast, the only mechanical switches with similar levels of durability are Cherry’s MX switches. Even then, only the MX Red, Speed Silver, Black, and Brown achieve the 100-million-click mark. Cherry’s other switches hover around the 50-million mark. The most reliable Cherry clones, like Kailh’s Box switches, are rated for about 80 million clicks.
Whether this matters in the long run is a whole other issue. Fifty million clicks may not seem like a lot, but it’s still a good ten (or more) years’ worth of use; you’re likely to get bored of your switches (or your entire keyboard) well before that. Switch durability is important, but it’s not as vital as you may think.
Winner: Optical Switches
Fifty million clicks are enough for most users, but that lifespan still can’t hold a candle to optical switches’ extended 100-million-click life. While we don’t think you should base a purchasing decision solely on durability, there’s no denying that optical switches are the better choice if you want a long-lasting switch.
Optical vs. Mechanical Switches: Variety and Price
Mechanical switches win hands-down here. While optical switches also come in tactile, linear, and clicky versions, you’re generally stuck with basic interpretations of the three switch types. You don’t have the sort of variety you get from mechanical switches.
Let’s discuss tactile switches as an example. Gateron makes one tactile optical switch, the KS-22 Brown. Skyloong does slightly better, with Optical Brown and short-travel Optical Green switches available for its optical keyboards. Optical switch manufacturers are few and far between, and they don’t seem to be all that keen on experimenting with many switch varieties just yet.
Gateron’s also the only company selling loose switches, which severely limits your modding options if you buy an optical keyboard.
On the other hand, even the most cursory glance at tactile mechanical switches will make optical switches feel boring and restrictive. There are a ton of tactiles to choose from, whether you’re buying from a mainstream company like Cherry or going the enthusiast route with brands like ZealPC or NovelKeys.
There’s the heavy tactile feedback of the Gazzew Boba U4T or Glorious Panda switches; the lighter, traditional tactile bump of Gateron Browns or Kailh Box Browns; or the unique short-travel tactile Kailh Speed Copper. Dislike one tactile switch? Just try another! You’ll eventually find a switch that works for you. And, of course, this applies to clicky and linear switches too.
Another point in mechanical switches’ favor is simply that mechanical keyboards are much more common. Whether you’re after a sub-$50 budget board or a $200+ DIY keyboard kit, there’ll be plenty of options for you with mechanical switches.
Optical switch keyboards, on the other hand, are relatively uncommon. You’re limited to brands like Keychron, Skyloong, and Razer. Even then, not all of their boards come with optical switches.
Winner: Mechanical Switches
There’s no contest here. The mechanical switch ecosystem is significantly healthier and more vibrant than that of optical switches. Mechanical switches are more varied, with multiple variations on tactile, linear, and clicky styles available.
You also have a huge selection of mechanical keyboards to choose from; the sky’s the limit as far as switch and keyboard combos go, provided you have the budget. In contrast, optical keyboards are comparatively rare and can’t offer as much variety as their mechanical rivals.
|Speed and Response Times
|Noise and Sound Profile
|Variety and Price
Overall, mechanical switches remain the better option for most keyboard hobbyists. They often feel better to type on and are more affordable than optical switches. The mechanical switch ecosystem is also vibrant and well-established, with a ton of switches and keyboards to choose from to create your dream mechanical keyboard.
This isn’t to say that optical switches are bad or irrelevant, though. They’re fine to type on and have undeniable advantages in durability and response times. But we don’t think either of those is significant enough to give them the nod over mechanical switches just yet. But who knows, maybe a few more years of development and tweaks will elevate them to a new level. Watch this space!