If you’re looking to buy a mechanical keyboard, you’ve probably heard that you can pick between three switch types. These three types of mechanical switches are most commonly known as red, brown, and blue switches. But what are the differences between the three? How do they work, and which of the three best suits your needs and preferences?
Find out all about the differences between the three main types of mechanical switches in our red vs blue vs brown mechanical switches guide. Below you’ll also learn how mechanical switches work. We also talk about the differences between mechanical and regular rubber dome keyboards. By the end of this guide, you should know all about the differences between the three main switch types.
What are mechanical keyboard switches, and how do they work?
Keyboard switches reside below the surface. They’re tucked under the keycaps, which we press in order to type. Mechanical keyboard switches are made of five different parts. These parts offer consistency while typing along with a pleasant feel of bottoming out a mechanical switch.
These parts include:
Upper housing that, together with lower housing (5), accommodates the rest of the parts.
Switch stem responsible for pushing and connecting the two metal leaves. The stem gives switches a linear or tactile feel. If the stem legs, which press the metal contact, are flat, we’re talking about linear switches. If they feature a bump in the middle, the switch in question is tactile. If the stem has a bump on its legs and a moving part that clicks when fully pressed, you’re looking at a clicky switch.
The two metal leaves, also known as the metal crosspoint contact. When the two leaves come into contact they complete the circuit, and the keyboard registers a keypress.
The spring gives the switch resistance when pressed. The amount of force needed to register a keystroke is also known as actuation force. Its length, in combination with the size of the stem, determines the actuation distance. Actuation distance is the distance at which the PCB registers a keypress. It also determines the bottom-out length – the length at which the switch bottoms out and cannot be further pressed down.
The bottom part of the housing.
Mechanical switches employ a spring found inside the switch’s housing, which bends as it gets pressed. The spring offers a certain amount of resistance. Different switches use springs of various resistances.
When you press the switch the stem that rests on the spring is slowly pushing the metal crosspoint contact. Once you press the stem hard enough that the two leaves connect, the circuit is complete, and the keyboard registers a keypress.
We call the distance needed for the keypress to register actuation distance. The distance needed to bottom out a switch is total travel distance. Mechanical switches also differ regarding the force needed to actuate the switch and the necessary force to bottom it out. We call the former the actuation force, and the latter is the bottom-out force. We use grams to show the intensity of the force.
Other mechanical switch designs don’t feature mechanical contact between the metal leaves. You have optical switches that are pretty similar to regular ones. The main difference is they actuate when you push down the stem and complete the light beam instead of connecting two metal pieces.
The main advantage of optical switches is higher longevity due to lack of physical contact. You also have Varmilo electrocapacitive mechanical switches. They work as regular mechanical switches but without a physical connection. Both optical and EC mechanical switches also remove the key debounce effect.
Below you can see how the three main types of mechanical switches we’re talking about today work. Their behavior is quite similar and all three have the same parts. The difference is in the stem design.
As you can see above, the three switches – reds, browns, and blues – all have different-looking stems. Linears use a flat stem. Tactiles utilize a stem with a tactile bump. Clicky switches have both a bump on the stem and a moving part of the stem that hits the bottom of the switch when it actuates, providing that signature clicky sound. Before we delve into these three switch types, let’s explain the differences between mechanical and rubber dome or membrane switches.
Mechanical vs rubber dome (membrane) switches
While mechanical keyboards have become massively popular in the recent decade, rubber dome or membrane keyboards still dominate the market. They’re much cheaper to produce and thus the preferred choice of many users. Especially ones who don’t care much about the quality of their keyboard or the whole typing experience.
Instead of the intricate design that includes many different parts, rubber dome keyboards usually feature a rubber sheet covering the whole PCB of the keyboard. Protruding rubber domes dot the sheet. The top of each dome features a firm & round protrusion for mounting keycaps. On the other side of the rubber, you can find a small, thin, round pill-like shape made of carbon.
Once you press the rubber dome strong enough the carbon pill hits the PCB underneath it, completing the circuit. This translates into a key press. Rubber dome keyboards in the past featured quality design known for its consistent tactile feeling and pretty reliable performance. However, since the late 90s, manufacturers have replaced the classic rubber dome designs with membrane models. These membrane keyboards lack the consistent tactile sensation of old-school rubber dome keyboards.
Nowadays, membrane keyboards make up a massive majority of the keyboard market. They’re cheaper to produce. But the focus on low manufacturing costs makes membrane keyboards noticeably less durable than mechanical ones. Further, membrane keyboards feel quite mushy and lack the distinct tactile feeling of old rubber dome and mechanical switches.
Not only that, but on average, membrane switches take more time to register a keystroke. The reason’s because you need to bottom-out the membrane for the keypress to register. On the other hand, mechanical switches don’t have to be fully pressed since their actuation point (point of activation) is shorter than the bottom-out point.
Nowadays, Topre switches offer a combination of rubber dome and mechanical typing experience. And while Topre switches are relatively popular in certain mechanical keyboard circles, most mech keyboard fans prefer regular mechanical switches.
Overall mechanical switches are much more durable. They also offer much more pleasant mechanical feedback when pressed. Also, they come in three flavors (linear, tactile, and clicky) instead of providing just one type of feedback. You also don’t have to bottom-out mechanical switches for the PCB to register a keystroke.
You can also customize and tweak mechanical switches, unlike membrane switches. Finally, mechanical switches come in dozens of flavors. They differ in actuation force, distance, sound, and more. Now, let’s talk about the main topic of this guide, the three main types of mechanical switches.
Red switches, also known as linear switches
Before we start talking about different switch types, note that red, brown, and blue are switch stem colors used by Cherry, the company that first made mechanical switches. Their linear switches have red stems. Cherry tactile switches feature brown stems, and clicky switches include blue stems.
Since Cherry MX were by far the most commonly found mechanical switches for decades, these colors have stuck over time as common names for linear, tactile, and clicky switches. These days, Cherry and other companies produce hundreds of different switches with the same diversity regarding the stem colors used.
The red switches are also known as linear switches. They feature a flat, linear stem that doesn’t feature any tactile feedback when pressed. The only feedback you have is when you bottom out the switch.
You can also feel the friction of moving the stem against the switch housing when you press the switch. The stem movement can feel smooth or scratchy. Everyone highly prefers smooth travel. That smooth feeling of pressing the switch is the main reason why people lube switches.
Should you pick linear mechanical switches?
Red switches offer linear feel when typing. Due to their lack of a tactile bump, many people often regard them as less than ideal for typing and perfect for gaming.
While the latter is true, especially if you pick a linear switch with low actuation force and short actuation distance that’s super easy to press, the former statement is far from reality.
Linear switches can be great for typing, especially if you get ones with a bit higher actuation force and quality stems that don’t feel scratchy when pressed. Linear switches also benefit the most from lubing. They become smooth as butter when pressed, and their sound signature becomes lower pitched and fuller.
Linear mechanical switches are by far the most popular of the three. The whole red vs brown vs blue mechanical switches discussion is unnecessary if you’re a competitive gamer since linears offer by far the best feeling when gaming. You can also get optical linear switches for even faster response.
On the flip side, if you’re a hardcore typist linears may or may not be the right for you. Some people love the buttery smooth feeling of red or linear switches when typing, while others hate the lack of any tactile bump and the light actuation force found on many linear switches.
At the end of the day, the decision’s up to you. We can say that we use a keyboard with linear switches and low to mid actuation force – Gateron Yellows with an actuation force of 50g – and they feel great when typing.
The original Cherry MX Red switches feature a pretty low actuation force of 45 grams. This is super easy to press and another major reason for the popularization of the myth that linears aren’t great for typing. But pick a switch with a bit higher actuation force – Cherry MX black or Gateron Black that both have an actuation force of 60 grams – and the increased resistance makes these linears a joy to type on.
Aside from featuring various actuation and bottom-out forces, different linear switches also feature numerous actuation distances. While the most common actuation distance is about 2-2.2mm you have linears made for gaming with actuation distance as low as 1mm. Next, you have switches going from super loud to extremely silent, depending on your preferences.
You also have linear switches specifically designed to be as quiet as possible. Lubing switches usually also make them feel quieter since you lower their pitch by lubing them. The good news is that you can find the right linear switch for you both in case you prefer louder and quiet switches.
Brown switches, most commonly known as tactile switches
Next, we have tactile or brown switches. The only type of tactile switches back in the day were Chery MX browns. While not as popular as linear switches, brands nowadays offer tactile switches in dozens of different designs.
Their main point of differentiation is a tactile bump found on the stem. This creates a pleasant tactile feedback just before the switch is actuated. The tactile feedback is also there when the switch is bouncing back.
As is the case with linear switches, the main differences between different tactile switches are in the actuation and bottom-out force, actuation and bottom-out distance, and sound signature. Aside from these three variables, different tactile switches offer different levels of tactility.
For instance, many people who like tactile switches the most hate Cherry MX browns because they have a tiny bump on the stem resulting in a shallow tactile feel while typing. This makes Cherry MX Browns feel slightly mushy when typing, more like using extremely scratchy linears than tactile switches.
On the flip side, you have switches such as Gazzew Boba U4T that have a very pronounced tactile bump that feels almost like typing on clicky switches. Without the click, of course. A higher level of tactility makes typing much more pleasant than on Cherry MX brown or Gateron Brown switches, both of which feature rather meek tactile feedback.
When it comes to sound, most tactile switches are louder than linears. On the flip side, you have brilliant switches such as the Gazzew Boba U4 that are both ultra tactile and almost entirely silent. Combine this with a bit higher actuation force – 62g and 68g for Bobba U4s – and you have a switch that’s perfect for typing.
Since they mainly target typists, tactile switches usually have higher actuation and bottom-out force than linear switches. Another reason that makes them better for typing and worse for gaming. Finally, while they can significantly benefit from lubing, you won’t get as great results as you can get with lubing linear switches.
Should you pick tactile mechanical switches?
If you’re a hardcore gamer, who doesn’t care much about typing, you can freely skip tactile switches. The tactile bump can be brilliant when typing but during games, it can feel rather annoying and divert your attention from the action. Also, a higher actuation force on average won’t help you when playing games. Finally, you won’t find tactile switches with ultra-short actuation distance.
If you’re a hardcore typist tactile switches may or may not be suitable for you. Many typists love the tactile feedback while typing, especially when combined with a bit higher actuation force. These two features combined give certain tactile switches a typewriter-like experience without the loud noises.
The thing is, most people hate tactile switches because they only have tried Cherry MX or Gateron Browns, both of which have a shallow and mushy tactile bump. If you’re one of those people, don’t ignore tactile switches. Those with pronounced tactility and higher actuation force – such as the Boba U4T we already mentioned – can be marvelous to type on.
Blue switches, better known as clicky switches
Last but not least, we have Blue switches, also known as clicky switches. As you have probably guessed by now, we call them Blues because Cherry’s original clicky switches have blue stems.
Nowadays clicky switches are the least popular in the world of mechanical keyboards. Mainly because they’re loud as hell, which is their defining characteristic compared to other switches.
Clicky switches have the tactile bump of Brown switches, but they also have a stem made of two pieces. One of those pieces hits the bottom of the housing when the switch actuates, providing loud and clicky feedback on top of the tactile feedback provided by the stem bump.
Together, they make a rather tactile and loud combo loved by some typists and hated by the rest of the community. Since they are the least popular, there aren’t as many clicky switches as they are tactile or, especially, linears. Most mechanical switch brands offer one or a few versions of clicky switches. A far cry from dozens of different linear switch flavors offered by Cherry and Gateron, for instance.
You can, technically, lube clicky switches. However, the general advice is to not lube them in order to keep that original, loud click.
Blue switches may subjectively seem the hardest to press due to being both clicky and tactile. Due to the clicky part of the stem that provides the most strenuous resistance just before the actuation point, the force needed to press a clicky switch feels higher than on other switches.
Should you pick clicky mechanical switches?
If you’re a gamer avoid Blue switches because they have two types of tactile feedback making them very loud and hardest to press subjectively. While, on average, they don’t have a higher actuation force, the resistance of the clicky part just before the switch actuates makes clicky switches the worst option for gaming.
If you like to type, clicky switches feel amazing, as long as you have your headphones on. The thing is, the vast majority of people, us included, can’t stand the loud typing noises of clicky switches.
While they feel great when typing, the noise can be rather annoying, especially for other people around you. If you work in an open office, we advise you to avoid clicky switches unless you want to stop speaking to your co-workers.
If you can’t stand the sound, but like that tactile feel, our advice is to go for heavily tactile switches such as Bobba U4 or U4T. The former are the silent flavor of the two. They feature high tactility but are virtually inaudible. The latter can get loud when typing but are still far away from the annoying noises most clicky switches produce.
If you don’t mind loud sounds and either live alone or with people who can endure the clickiness, feel free to get clicky switches. Just be careful not to pick ones with a too high actuation force.
Some clicky switches, such as Cherry MX White, have a rather lofty actuation force set at 80g. While some people love the extra force needed prolonged typing sessions can put a noticeable and quite unpleasant strain on your fingers.