Optical vs Mechanical Switches: Which to Choose

Mechanical keyboard sitting on a desk.

For years, mechanical keyboard switches have been the gold standard, revered for their tactile feedback and durability. However, with the advent of technology, optical switches have emerged, rapidly gaining popularity and sparking a debate: Are they superior to their mechanical counterparts?

In this article, we’ll explore the intricacies of both switch types, exploring their primary differences in terms of tactile experience, speed, noise levels, customization potential, and cost. Whether you’re an avid typist, a gamer, or just someone seeking a comfortable typing experience, our aim is to guide you in making an informed decision for your perfect keyboard fit.

What Are Mechanical Switches?

Mechanical switches serve as the heartbeat of a mechanical keyboard, providing users with distinct tactile sensations and audible feedback with every keystroke. Their operation is rooted in a simple yet effective mechanism: when a key is pressed, it establishes a connection between a metal piece on the keyboard and a corresponding piece beneath the key, registering the keystroke.

These switches can be broadly categorized into three types, each offering a unique typing experience:

Tactile Switches

These are characterized by a noticeable bump at the midpoint of the keystroke. This tactile feedback informs the user that the key has been actuated without necessarily pressing it all the way down. Along with the bump, tactile switches also produce a pronounced sound, though not as loud as their clicky counterparts.

Linear Switches

Designed for those who prefer a smoother keystroke, linear switches are devoid of any tactile bump or audible click. They require a consistent force throughout the keypress, making them relatively quiet and ideal for shared or noise-sensitive environments.

Clicky Switches

The most audible of the trio, clicky switches combine tactile feedback with a distinct “click” sound when actuated. The pronounced bump and sound provide a satisfying feedback, especially favored by typists who enjoy auditory confirmation of their keystrokes.

Each type of mechanical switch caters to different preferences, ensuring that there’s a perfect fit for every user, whether they prioritize sound, feel, or a combination of both.

Pros and Cons of Mechanical Switches

Mechanical switches have been a staple in the keyboard industry for years, and for good reason. They offer a unique combination of tactile feedback, durability, and customization. However, like all technologies, they come with their own set of advantages and disadvantages. Let’s delve into the pros and cons of mechanical switches:

Pros

Tactile Feedback

One of the most celebrated features of mechanical switches is the tactile feedback they provide. This allows users to feel a physical response when a key is actuated, enhancing the typing experience.

Durability

Mechanical switches are known for their longevity. They can withstand tens of millions of keystrokes, making them ideal for heavy typists and gamers.

Customizability

The mechanical keyboard community thrives on customization. Users can choose from a variety of switch types (tactile, linear, clicky) and even modify or replace individual switches on some keyboards.

Consistent Keystrokes

Unlike some other switch types, mechanical switches offer consistent force and feedback across long typing sessions, ensuring a uniform experience.

Audible Feedback

For those who appreciate auditory cues, the clicky sound of certain mechanical switches can be satisfying and can even improve typing speed and accuracy for some.

Cons

Noise

Mechanical keyboards, especially those with clicky switches, can be loud. This might not be ideal in shared or quiet environments.

Weight and Size

Mechanical keyboards tend to be heavier and larger than their membrane counterparts, making them less portable.

Cost

High-quality mechanical keyboards can be more expensive than other types, although the investment often pays off in durability and user satisfaction.

Initial Learning Curve

For users transitioning from membrane keyboards, there might be an initial period of adjustment to the different feel and sound of mechanical switches.

Maintenance

Over time, dust and debris can accumulate under the keys, requiring occasional cleaning. Additionally, the mechanical nature means there are more parts that could potentially wear out or break, although this is rare with proper care.

While mechanical switches offer a plethora of benefits, especially for enthusiasts and professionals, they also come with certain drawbacks. The choice ultimately depends on individual preferences, typing habits, and the specific environment in which the keyboard will be used.

What are Optical Switches?

Optical switches represent a cutting-edge advancement in the realm of keyboard technologies. Unlike traditional mechanical switches that rely on physical connections to register a keypress, optical switches utilize light as the primary medium for actuation. The fundamental principle involves an infrared light emitter and a sensor. When a key is pressed, the switch mechanism either blocks or permits the passage of light. If the sensor detects the light, the keystroke is acknowledged.

At the heart of optical switches are still mechanical components. When a key is depressed, a stem moves within a shaft, similar to a standard mechanical switch. However, the key distinction lies in how the input is received and transmitted. Optical switches are designed to overcome some of the challenges faced by traditional mechanical switches, such as performance degradation due to oxidization and wear of metal contact points, and the debounce noise that can introduce a delay in signal transmission.

Pros and Cons of Optical Switches

Optical switches, with their light-based actuation mechanism, have introduced a fresh perspective to the keyboard industry. As with any technology, they come with their own set of advantages and potential drawbacks. Here’s a breakdown of the pros and cons of optical switches:

Pros

Speed

Optical switches can offer faster response times due to the absence of physical contact for actuation, making them especially appealing to gamers.

Durability

Without the friction of metal contacts, optical switches tend to have a longer lifespan, often outlasting traditional mechanical switches.

Consistent Actuation

The light-based mechanism ensures consistent actuation without the issues of debounce noise or oxidization that can affect mechanical switches.

Quieter Operation

Generally, optical switches can be quieter than mechanical switches, especially the clicky variants, making them suitable for noise-sensitive environments.

Innovation Potential

The technology behind optical switches allows for features like analog input, offering a level of control and customization not seen in traditional switches.

Cons

Tactile Feedback

Some users feel that optical switches lack the tactile feedback that mechanical switches provide, making the typing experience feel less “authentic”.

Cost

As a newer technology, optical switches can sometimes be more expensive than their mechanical counterparts.

Availability

Being relatively new, there are fewer models and brands offering keyboards with optical switches compared to the vast array of mechanical keyboards.

Learning Curve

For those accustomed to mechanical switches, transitioning to optical switches might require an adjustment period.

Customization Limitations

While the optical switch market is growing, there might be fewer customization options in terms of aftermarket keycaps and modifications compared to the established mechanical switch community.

Optical switches offer a unique set of benefits that might appeal to a specific audience, especially those prioritizing speed and innovation. However, personal preferences play a significant role, and what works for one individual might not be ideal for another.

Mechanical vs Optical Switches

In the ever-evolving world of keyboards, the debate between mechanical and optical switches has become a focal point for enthusiasts and casual users alike. Both bring their unique attributes to the table, influencing factors such as durability, speed, and the overall typing experience. As we delve deeper into this comparison, we’ll explore key aspects including satisfaction derived from each switch type, the noise they produce, the force required for actuation, potential for modification and customization, and their price and availability in the market. This comprehensive analysis aims to provide clarity, helping you determine which switch aligns best with your preferences and needs.

Durability

Mechanical switches, long-standing keystroke champions, typically offer lifespans ranging from 60 to 100 million keystrokes, depending on the manufacturer. In contrast, optical switches, a newer entrant, utilize a contactless light-based actuation, potentially reducing wear and tear. Brands like Roccat and Razer rate their optical switches for around 100 million keystrokes, matching top-tier mechanical switches. 

While both types promise impressive durability, optical switches might hold a slight advantage due to their non-physical actuation mechanism, though actual longevity varies based on usage and specific models.

Speed

In the realm of keyboard switches, speed is often a paramount concern, especially for gamers seeking that split-second advantage. Mechanical switches, while reliable and well-established, operate through direct contact, where electrical plates touch to register a keystroke. Optical switches, on the other hand, leverage a combination of light and mechanical components. When a key is pressed, light reaches a sensor, registering the keystroke in a contactless manner. This absence of physical contact is believed to offer a slight speed advantage. For instance, Razer’s optical switches have been found to actuate 30 ms faster than standard mechanical switches. 

While this difference might seem minuscule, in competitive gaming scenarios, such milliseconds can be crucial. However, it’s essential to note that not all optical switches offer this speed advantage, as evidenced by the Gateron Optical switch’s performance being on par with its mechanical counterparts. In essence, while optical switches can provide a speed edge in certain situations, the actual performance can vary based on the specific brand and model.

Satisfaction

The tactile experience and satisfaction derived from pressing a keyboard switch are subjective and vary from person to person. Mechanical switches offer a wide range of options, from linear to tactile and clicky, allowing users to find a switch that aligns with their preference for feedback and sound. This versatility often translates to a more satisfying typing experience for many. 

On the other hand, optical switches, while faster in actuation, might not provide the same depth of tactile feedback. However, as optical technology evolves, manufacturers like Razer and Gateron are introducing switches that mimic the characteristics of their mechanical counterparts. 

While mechanical switches currently hold an edge in terms of satisfaction due to their variety and established reputation, optical switches are rapidly bridging the gap, offering users a blend of speed and tactile feedback.

Noisiness

The auditory experience of a keyboard switch plays a significant role in user satisfaction. Mechanical switches offer a diverse range of sound profiles, from the silent variants to the pronounced clicky ones. Optical switches, while technologically advanced, have been described as producing a noisier and somewhat hollow sound with each keystroke. For instance, standard optical switch designs, even with innovations like the Gen 2 Razer Red switch with dampening rings, can still be louder than their mechanical counterparts. 

However, mechanical switches, with their vast array of options, allow users to fine-tune their auditory experience, from the quietest to the most tactile and noisy. In the realm of sound, mechanical switches generally offer a broader spectrum of choices, catering to both those who seek silence and those who revel in auditory feedback.

Actuation Force

The actuation force, or the amount of pressure required to register a keypress, is a crucial factor in determining the feel and responsiveness of a keyboard. Mechanical switches, with their diverse range, offer varying actuation forces depending on the type, be it linear, tactile, or clicky. This variety allows users to select a switch that aligns with their preferred typing force. 

Optical switches, on the other hand, operate using light induction. While their mechanism might suggest a uniform actuation force, manufacturers have begun introducing variations that mimic the tactile and linear characteristics of mechanical switches. For instance, Razer offers both Clicky Optical and Linear Optical switches, each with distinct actuation forces. 

In essence, while mechanical switches have traditionally provided a broader spectrum of actuation forces, optical switches are quickly catching up, offering users a comparable range of choices.

Modification and Customization

The realm of keyboard customization is vast, allowing enthusiasts to tailor their typing experience to their exact preferences. Mechanical switches, with their established presence, offer a plethora of modification opportunities. They can be hot-swapped, lubed, and even replaced with different variants to achieve desired tactile or auditory feedback. 

Optical switches, while technologically advanced, present some limitations in this area. Due to their design, which interrupts a light flow to a sensor, not all optical switches can be hot-swapped. Lubing is possible for both switch types, but mechanical switches often yield better results, enhancing their smoothness and reducing noise. While optical switches are catching up in terms of customization options, mechanical switches currently offer a broader spectrum for modifications, making them a favorite among keyboard enthusiasts.

Price and Availability

Mechanical switches, with their longstanding presence in the market, are available from a plethora of manufacturers, leading to a wide range of pricing options. This abundance means users can easily find a mechanical keyboard that fits their budget, from affordable to high-end. 

Additionally, the versatility of mechanical switches allows for modifications, enhancing their appeal. On the other hand, optical keyboards, while growing in number, are not as abundant as their mechanical counterparts. Top-quality optical keyboards like the Corsair K100, Keychron K8, and Roccat Vulcan TKL Pro have made their mark, but they often come with a mid-to-high price tag. In terms of sheer variety and price points, mechanical switches currently have the upper hand, but the increasing popularity of optical switches may soon bridge this gap.

Mechanical Switch Keyboards

Sale
RisoPhy Mechanical Gaming Keyboard, RGB 104 Keys Ultra-Slim LED Backlit USB Wired Keyboard with Blue Switch, Durable Abs Keycaps/Anti-Ghosting/Spill-Resistant Computer Keyboard for PC Mac Xbox Gamer
  • 【Mechanical Keyboard: Responsive BLue Switches】RisoPhy PC keyboard features clicky keys which offer you higher accuracy and quicker response with an enjoyable click sound when typing.This keyboard is more comfortable to type on since it features deeper key travel,greater feedback,and more space between keys.For those who prefer keyboards with a more tactile and “clicky” feel,our keyboard with BLUE switches is a nice choice.
  • 【Rainbow Backlit Keyboard: illuminate Your Desktop】With 9 different backlights,5 levels of light speed and brightness,this computer keyboard enriches your gaming experience and improves your mood greatly,which is a great addition to your desktop,especially in the dark.Plus,the ultra-durable double injection ABS engineered keycaps provide crystal clear uniform backlight and greatly improve your typing accuracy at night.
  • 【High-end 104 Keys Full-Size Keyboard】The Win lock function frees your worry about mistyping when gaming(Fn+Win).Keycaps are pluggable and easy to clean,saving you much unnecessary trouble.We designed 4 hydrophobic holes for this keyboard,allowing water to flow away quickly to prevent damage to the keyboard.No longer afraid of accidents.(✦Include a keycaps puller for cleaning or other needs.)
Sale
MageGee Portable 60% Mechanical Gaming Keyboard, MK-Box LED Backlit Compact 68 Keys Mini Wired Office Keyboard with Red Switch for Windows Laptop PC Mac – Black/Grey
  • Mini portable 60% compact layout: MK-Box is a 68 keys mechanical keyboard have cute small size, separate arrow keys and all your F-keys you need, can use it for gaming or work while saving space.
  • Mechanical red switch: characterized for being linear and smoother, slight key sound has no paragraph sense with minimal resistance, but fast action without a tactile bump feel which makes it easier to tap the keyboard.
  • Classic charming blue LED backlit: Customize multiple illuminated LED light effects, supports about 15 backlight modes, press Fn + Ins can control it, FN + ←/→ control backlight speed, FN + ↑/↓ control backlight brightness.
Redragon Mechanical Gaming Keyboard, Wired Mechanical Keyboard with 11 Programmable Backlit Modes, Hot-Swappable Red Switch, Anti-Ghosting, Double-Shot PBT Keycaps, Light Up Keyboard for PC Mac
  • Brilliant Color Illumination- With 11 unique backlights, choose the perfect ambiance for any mood. Adjust light speed and brightness among 5 levels for a comfortable environment, day or night. The double injection ABS keycaps ensure clear backlight and precise typing. From late-night tasks to immersive gaming, our mechanical keyboard enhances every experience.
  • Fully Programmable & Highly Configurable- Expand your options with K671 mechancial gaming keyboard to design your own keys, light effects and macro, the macros with different keybindings or shortcuts combine multiple keys function in one key for more efficient work and gaming.
  • Hot-swappable Linear Red Switch- Our K671 gaming keyboard features red switch, which requires less force to press down and the keys feel smoother and easier to use. It’s best for rpgs and mmo, imo games. You will get 4 spare switches and two red keycaps as a gift to diy your own keyboard

Optical Switch Keyboards

SaleBestseller No. 1
Corsair K100 RGB Optical-Mechanical Wired Gaming Keyboard – OPX Switches – PBT Double-Shot Keycaps – Elgato Stream Deck and iCUE Compatible – QWERTY NA Layout – Black
  • The CORSAIR K100 RGB is the pinnacle of CORSAIR keyboards, offering the cutting-edge performance, style, durability, and customization that gamers need to stand above the rest..Keyboard Cable Material: Braided
  • The centerpiece of your gaming setup, the CORSAIR K100 RGB boasts a refined design bolstered by a durable aluminum frame, dynamic per-key RGB backlighting, and a 44-zone three-sided LightEdge.
  • Powered by CORSAIR AXON Hyper-Processing Technology, enabling CORSAIR’s most advanced gaming keyboard experience by delivering up to 4x faster throughput with native 4,000Hz hyper-polling and 4,000Hz key scanning, while simultaneously driving up to 20-layer lighting effects.
SaleBestseller No. 2
Razer Huntsman Mini 60% Gaming Keyboard: Fast Keyboard Switches – Linear Optical Switches – Chroma RGB Lighting – PBT Keycaps – Onboard Memory – Mercury White
  • Faster Than Traditional Mechanical Switches: Razer Linear Optical switch technology uses optical beam-based actuation, registering key presses at the speed of light (15-30% shorter actuation distance than other linear switches at 1.0 mm)
  • Ultimate Personalization & Gaming Immersion with Razer Chroma: Fully syncs with popular games, Razer hardware, Philips Hue, and gear from 30 plus partners; supports 16.8 million colors on individually backlit keys
  • Quality, Aluminum Construction: Covered with a matte, aluminum top frame for increased structural integrity
SaleBestseller No. 3
Corsair K70 PRO RGB Optical-Mechanical Gaming Keyboard – OPX Linear Switches, PBT Double-Shot Keycaps, 8,000Hz Hyper-Polling, Magnetic Soft-Touch Palm Rest – NA Layout, QWERTY – Black
  • The Legend Continues: The K70 PRO retains the iconic elements of the award-winning K70 RGB with a durable aluminum frame, CHERRY MX mechanical keyswitches, and per-key RGB backlighting, while setting a new bar for performance with AXON technology, PBT double-shot keycaps, and a tournament switch.
  • CORSAIR OPX Optical-Mechanical Keyswitches: Hyper-fast input with 1.0mm actuation distance and smooth linear travel, guaranteed for 150 million keystrokes, and register keypresses up to 8x faster than standard mechanical gaming keyboards with CORSAIR AXON.
  • Powered by CORSAIR AXON Hyper-Processing Technology: Enables a new level of K70 performance, processing and transmitting your inputs up to 8x faster than conventional gaming keyboards with 8,000Hz hyper-polling, 4,000Hz key scanning, and up to 20 layers of hardware RGB lighting processing while maintaining speed performance.

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:

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

Optical Switch Manufacturers

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

  • Fiber Optic
  • Moog Components
  • Omron
  • Peerless

Final Thoughts

The keyboard community has long debated the merits of mechanical versus optical switches. Mechanical switches, known for their tactile feedback and audible sound, have been a favorite due to their versatility and established market presence. In contrast, optical switches, with their innovative light-based actuation, promise faster response times and greater durability, carving out their niche among those prioritizing speed. As technology advances, innovations in optical technology are beginning to mimic the tactile characteristics of mechanical switches, suggesting a shifting landscape.

The choice between these switches boils down to personal preference. Both offer unique advantages, with mechanical switches providing a depth of tactile experience and customization options, while optical switches focus on speed and durability. Regardless of preference, there’s a switch tailored to every individual’s typing needs.

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