The State & the Future of Mechanical Key Switches

What Is the Object We Touch the Most? A Keyboard

Over the past 10 years, mechanical keyboards have become very popular. The reason for this success is very simple: as computers become our primary work and social connection interface people use a keyboard several hours a day and many more than 8h a day. People have realized that typing skills and typing experience affects their productivity. The key to typing nirvana? A great switch in a great keyboard.

How Do Mechanical Keyboards Achieve Higher Productivity and Better User Experience?

As the brain delegates some visual processing function to the eyes, the same happens for the touch processing pathway(1). Fingertips have thousands of nerve endings  to identify texture, shape, size. Our fingers don’t enjoy non-mechanical keyboards such as rubber membrane or low profile laptop keyboards. There are exceptions such as the Lenovo Thinkpad keyboard. By having feedback-less keys, they will need to be pushed all the way down to actuate. It’s an all or nothing kind of operation. You will have to bang keys all the way down to input onto the screen. a rubber membrane keyboard, our delicate fingers don’t get any tactile feedback until they hit bottom. The bottom is often squishy (the rubber membrane). Typing for extended period of time on a low quality keyboard hurts fingers and creates RSI (repeated stress injury). Mechanical keyboards are different: under each key there is a mechanism – a mechanical key switch – that provides progressive tactile feedback from the top of the key all the way down to the bottom of the travel. Most mechanical switches activate in the middle of the travel so users don’t have to push buttons all the way down – providing a lighter feel. Mechanical key switches are the key to great typing experience with no contest.

Which Switch Do I Need?

Switches are basically divided in three buckets: clicky, tactile (less clicky) and linear (not clicky at all). Furthermore users have the choice of how much force (push back) the switch needs to be operated. Keyboard users’ taste changes over time, we have seen entire countries change their buying habits from linear to tactile and vice and versa. Other times we have seen demographic taste changes as well. For example, in recent past, video game players preferred heavier linear switches (e.g.: Cherry MX black). Nowadays they prefer a more tactile or lighter linear experience. All switches feel good, it all boils down to personal preference.

Why Is Switch Quality Important?

There are over 100 switches on a keyboard and if one fails, the whole keyboard is kaput. We need switches that are dust and corrosion resistant and can survive the onslaught of 10 fingers banging the next New York Times best selling novel. Quality is achieved by several factors, from the type of electrical contact (best are cross point and double cross point), the amount of anti-corrosive material (gold or other metal), and quality of the switch assembly.

What Are the Main Types of Switch?

There were numerous switch types and brands but only a few are popular nowadays. The most common type of switch is the MX line from the Cherry company. There are other types, like the buckling spring technology found the in the IBM model M keyboards, the Alp switch found in the first Apple keyboards, and the new switch on the block, the Omron switch found in the latest Logitech gaming keyboards. Omron is a Japanese company based in Kyoto founded in 1933.

Greetech Switches: Switches with High Standards

To date, Das Keyboard is using Cherry MX and Greetech switches. Das Keyboard is obsessed with quality and we pick our suppliers based on their ability to satisfy strict quality standards. For example, we require switch manufacturers to have assembly and testing lines that are automated. We test our components over several months before we commercialize them. Before we picked Greetech as an second supplier for MX switches, we visited many Asian-based factories. We found that the Greetech switches have higher specifications and better testing results in all aspects – than all other  MX or MX compatible switch brands: from life cycle testing to corrosion testing to dust resistance, the Greetech switches finished first. Our conclusion is that Greetech and Cherry companies are two top notch switch makers.

The Future: More Switches Choices, Better Specs.

After enjoying a monopoly for 30 years, desktops will soon share their mechanical switches with laptops. These are laptops with super low profile mechanical keyboards. They are being tested in the labs of big manufacturers in the USA and they will be a available next year. Some companies are trying to make optical switches a viable commercial option but are facing a hard problem to solve: operating power exceeds the standard USB specifications, i.e. it needs an external power supply.

That’s all about switches. Now that you have learned about mechanical switches, it times to use them: try a typing race:



(1) Reference:
Pruszynski, J. A. & Johansson, R. S. (2014). Edge-orientation processing in first-order tactile neurons. Nature Neurosci.