Anyone who types a lot will tell you mechanical keyboards are the way to go. However, it’s one thing to buy an off-the-shelf mechanical keyboard and another thing being a mechanical keyboard enthusiast.
If you’re also rather particular about the switches in your keyboard, you’ll be aware that now there are more than just mechanical switches on the market. In this article, we compare mechanical and optical switches to determine which works best for you.
How do Mechanical and Optical switches work?
While both switches share the same principle, how they work is quite different.
Mechanical switches, as the name suggests, have a mechanism inside the switches that uses a spring to push the key down to the actuation point and register a keystroke. There’s physical contact between the switch’s stem and the button underneath.
Optical switches also work exactly as you’d expect from the name. Instead of the stem making contact with a button at the bottom, it actually breaks a small ray of light which registers a keystroke.
The different approaches mean there are differences in the performance of the two switches as well.
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Mechanical vs Optical switches
We’re comparing the two switches over the following five parameters.
As optical switches work with light, they’re generally faster than mechanical switches when it comes to registering a keystroke. The reason for this is that for a mechanical switch to register a keystroke, you have to press the switch all the way down to the actuation point, meaning it has to travel its full length.
On the optical side of things, the keystroke is registered as soon as the light beam between the switch stem and the key actuation point is broken. This means that the keystroke has already been registered before you reach the end of the actuation length.
That said, some mechanical switches like the Cherry MX Red might beat optical length thanks to their shorter actuation distance. However, generally optical switches will be faster.
Durability is another straight win for optical switches. As there are fewer moving parts, the average life expectancy of a mechanical switch is around 100 million keystrokes.
That’s not to say that mechanical switches aren’t as durable. Once again, the Cherry MX Red switches are rated for 100 million keystrokes, but generally, clone or cheaper mechanical switches usually are expected to last around 50 million keystrokes, half of what you’d expect any optical switch to do.
The sound of a keyboard switch is a rather important factor for keyboard enthusiasts and a win for the traditional mechanical type switches.
Since optical switches use a ray of light and are kind of hollow on the inside, they’re generally quite noisy and make a hollow sound. Compare to some mechanical switches, the Cherry MX Blue (or its clones for that matter) and the sound produced is much fuller, suppressed and overall better sounding.
Not to mention mechanical switches can be quieter or louder depending on your preferences so there are far more options when it comes to sound.
Pricing, variety and modding options
Optical switches are still rather new compared to mechanical ones, meaning they don’t have as many options for switch type and modding (due to the fewer parts inside, and you can’t exactly mod a ray of light).
When it comes to mechanical switches, not only are they relatively cheap and easier to find, but hundreds if not thousands of different types of switches are built by a number of manufacturers that all have different actuation points, sounds, and actuation forces. This means that with a little bit of research, you’ll be able to find the perfect switch for your use case.
Mechanical switches also have far more modding options. You can swap out springs, stems and even lube the switches with different kinds of lubes to change their sound profile and actuation forces.
One of the most important factors when it comes to deciding a switch is the overall feel you get when you’re typing. If a switch matches everything you want but isn’t comfortable to type onto, there’s no point getting them.
The ‘feel’ of a mechanical switch compared to an optical switch is hard to explain through the internet, whether it’s text or video and is something you’ll have to try out for yourself. That said, mechanical switches have a more consistent and significant feel as compared to their optical counterparts. Optical switches almost seem hollow (they are by design) and lag behind mechanical switches in those terms.
|Optical Switches||Mechanical Switches|
|Actuation time||Quicker||Slower than optical switches|
(depending on switch)
(depending on switch)
|Sound profile||Loud and hollow||Loud, silent or clicky depending on switch|
|Options and availability||Limited availability||Hundreds of different options in the market|
|Modding options||Can’t be modded||Modding options include lubes, springs and stems.|
|Durability||100 million keystrokes||50-100 million keystrokes.|
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Which one should you pick?
The answer is simple and really depends on your preference. We’d recommend trying out both switches if you can and going with the one you like more.
With that in mind, mechanical switches will not let you down in any way. You can comfortably pick them up according to your preference, and you’ll get a keyboard that’ll make typing or gaming a joy. Especially if you’re gaming, mechanical switches are still the way to go.
Optical switches are catching up though and aren’t a bad option. If you aren’t limited by budget or availability and don’t mind the hollow sound and feel of optical switches, they’re also rather reliable, long-lasting switches.
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