Optical vs Mechanical Switches: Which to Choose

Mechanical keyboard sitting on a desk.

Mechanical keyboard switches for a long time have been in the mainstream, offering exceptional qualities with their durability, responsiveness, and tactile feedback that entirely elevates your typing experience. 

However, optical switches are now becoming more popular as keyboard manufacturers now design their latest keyboards with optical switches. As a result, this has left many people wondering if optical switches are a better option than mechanical switches. 

To help answer this question, we take a look at the primary differences between optical and mechanical switches. Also included is a proper recommendation as to which switch to choose depending on your preference. 

What is an Optical Switch?

As the name implies, optical switches make use of light induction to prompt switches. The light induction process is triggered when a key is pressed down. After that, the stem (the part that constantly hits the keyboard) obstructs a beam of infrared light. Then, an infrared sensor detects the absence of light, signaling the computer that a key has been squeezed. 

To be precise, optical switches still feature a number of mechanical components. Like the usual mechanical switches, they are equipped with physical moving parts that prompt the entire process. Once the keycap is pushed, the stem within the shaft moves and a spring nudges the switch back to its original position. The primary difference is in how inputs are transmitted and received. 

What is a Mechanical Switch?

Mechanical switches are the primary units of a mechanical keyboard, offering clicky and tactile experiences to users. They work by establishing a connection between a metal piece on the keyboard and one underneath the key. 

Mechanical switches are of three various types; Tactile, Linear, and Clicky. Tactile keys produce a bump at the center of the keystroke while offering a loud sound. Linear keys are silent, need a little amount of force, and offer zero tactile feedback when used. Finally, clicky switches offer a loud click and a bigger bump at the center of the keystroke, offering a satisfying loud sound. 

Optical Switch Manufacturers

Unlike mechanical switches, only a handful of brands manufacture optical switches, and some of them include; 

  • Omron 
  • Peerless 
  • Moog Components 
  • Fiber Optic 

Mechanical Switch Manufacturers

The list is endless when it comes to brands that manufacture mechanical switches. But here are some of the top brands that produce mechanical switches:

  • Kailh
  • Cherry
  • Razer 
  • Logitech
  • Roccat
  • Outemu
  • Gateron

Which is the Best Keyboard Switch?

Speed

The integral force needed to actuate the switches and the travel distance the key needs to actuate the force are a few of the several factors affecting the speed of optical switches.  

Generally, mechanical switches are recognized to have a five-millisecond delay in debouncing. On the other hand, Optical switches are designed devoid of this delay. This implies that optical switches are naturally five milliseconds faster than mechanical switches in response time. However, many still question if this slight increase in response time for optical switches offers better performance during gameplay or when typing.

Consequently, the overall response speed for an optical switch depends primarily on the manufacturer. But, if you need one of the fastest optical switches, we would recommend the Razer Optical Purple switches. They are praised as one of the fastest switches on the market and are even said to be about 30 milliseconds faster than the quickest Cherry MX switches. 

Speed: Winner = Optical switches

Price

On average, mechanical switches are way cheaper than optical switches, largely due to the wide variety of super-budget clone switches available in the market. On the other hand, optical keyboards come in mid-to-high price range and can be quite expensive. So, for instance, you will be spending a significant amount of money if you want to get the Razer Optical Purple switches recommended earlier.

Contrarily, mechanical switches come at highly affordable prices. The cheap ones work nearly as fast as the expensive ones. However, the major properties of cheap mechanical switches are their sound and feel, which are usually not so great. 

In summary, in terms of price, mechanical switches win this round. Although, you will find some high-end mechanical switches that come at a high price on the market. 

Price: Winner = Mechanical switches

Durability

Generally, the manufacturer determines the lifespan of switches whether it is optical or mechanical. For example, most of the latest optical switches produced have a lifespan of about 100 million keystrokes. 

On the contrary, mechanical switches are not produced to have such a lifespan. Only Cherry MX prides itself on producing mechanical switches with a lifespan close to optical switches. Most manufacturers class their switches to have a lifespan of about 50 million keystrokes.

Durability: Winner = Optical switches 

Variety

There are hundreds of various mechanical switches but only a handful of optical switches. Additionally, mechanical switches are also grouped into various niche options like silent, speed, low-profile, etc. However, the primary bases are tactile, linear, and clicky with optical switches, and there are no further options for specialty switches. 

The lack of variety regarding optical switches can be attributed to being manufactured by a few companies. For instance, Cherry MX, one of the top mechanical switches manufacturers, does not produce optical switches. 

Hopefully, when Cherry MX decides to venture into the optical switch market, more varieties of optical switches will be available. Until then, mechanical switches have a wider variety. 

Variety: Winner = Mechanical switches 

Sound and Feel

Frankly, how optical or mechanical keys feel is mostly down to preference, which loudness is an underlying factor. However, considering the wide variety of mechanical key sets available, you’re more likely to find whatever rocks your boat. 

Regarding mechanical switches, there’s the option of choosing between tactile, clicky, and linear keys. This implies that you can choose a switch that will give the feel and sound you’re most comfortable with or, better still, find a middle ground.  

For optical keysets, there are limited options. But, you may be lucky enough to find one that suits your preference, although that will be unlikely for most people. Regardless, things are starting to change as manufacturers offer more optical switches alternatives. 

Sound and Feel: Winner = Mechanical switches

Optical Switch Keyboards

No doubt the varieties and options of optical switch keyboards available in the market are limited. However, optical switch keyboards are gradually flooding the market and becoming more popular with decent budget options. 

There are several decent keyboards of this type to still choose from either for gaming or typing. 

Let’s have a look at some; 

1. Corsair K100

This optical-mechanical keyboard is known for its style, cut-edging performance, customization, and durability. In addition, it offers gamers the needed competitive advantage to compete above and beyond during gameplay. 

Pros

  • Extremely Functional
  • Corsair or Cherry Switches
  • Ultra-Fast 4000hz Polling

Cons 

  • Costly
  • Bloated Software
  • Large Size

2. Keychron K8

This tenkeyless keyboard is designed to help maximize workspace and improve productivity. Equipped with a distinct Mac layout while being compatible with Windows, this keyboard has all function keys and essential multimedia needed. 

Pros 

  • USB-C and Bluetooth 5.1
  • High Mac Compatibility
  • Big Battery

Cons

  • ABS Keycaps
  • Stabilizers Need Work
  • Complaints of Unstable Bluetooth

3. Epomaker SK96s

The Epomaker SK96s is a compact keyboard that takes advantage of every inch to feature four different arrow keys to give an incredible experience. 

Pros 

  • Southpaw Numpad Layouts
  • USB-C and Bluetooth
  • High Mac Compatibility
  • Large Battery

Cons 

  • Slower polling rate on its optical version 
  • Absence of dedicated arrow keys on its southpaw version. 

Mechanical Switch Keyboards

The versatility of mechanical keyboards is one thing to always talk about. These keyboards function incredibly well for both gaming and typing activities. They also come in three primary types: clicky, linear, and tactile. Therefore, you can choose the type that best suits your situation and inclinations. 

Some of the decent mechanical switch keyboards you will find in the market include, 

1. Corsair K70 RGB TKL Champion Series Gaming Keyboard

This is one of the top keyboards in the market. It is modeled for and reviewed by top gaming professionals ascertaining its versatility.  

Pros

  • Detachable USB-C cable
  • Compact design
  • Physical Tournament Mode switch

Cons 

  • 8000Hz isn’t necessary for a keyboard

2. Matias Ergo Pro (2020)

This mechanical keyboard offers better ergonomics. In addition, it offers all the features you would expect from an ergonomic keyboard; the negative tilt, tenting, short reach to mouse, and so on. 

Pros

  • Decent ergonomics
  • Tenting feet and in-built-in reverse tilt 
  • Retractable bridge cable
  • Three USB pass-through ports

Cons 

  • No config software
  • No key backlighting
  • Just 19 programmable keys

3. Drop ENTR Mechanical Keyboard

This keyboard is designed with enthusiast-grade materials offering both expert gamers and beginners superb quality and competitive edge. 

Pros 

  • Excellent build quality
  • Compact design
  • Detachable USB-C cable
  • Gateron Yellow switches

Cons 

  • No configuration software

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)

Is one better for gaming?

Yes! Mechanical switches remain the best for gaming. 

How do optical switches work?

Optical switches work through a light induction process triggered when a key is pressed down. After that, the stem (the part that constantly hits the keyboard) obstructs a beam of infrared light. Then, an infrared sensor detects the absence of light, signaling the computer that a key has been squeezed. 

How do mechanical switches work?

Mechanical switches work by connecting a metal piece on the keyboard and one underneath the key. 

Final Thoughts

Choosing between optical and mechanical switches can be tough as several factors are at play. However, if you want to play it safe, mechanical switches are better. This is because they’ve been around for a while, so their quality has been tested over time. On the other hand, if that extra speed is what you want, optical switches are the better option.

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