You might have heard of "mechanical switches" for keyboards and found yourself on the confusing end of some technical jargon. What are they? Why would you want them? And what's with all the cherries?

Fear not, for we're hear to explain mechanical keyboards, their special switches. and what this all means — and why you'll want to consider one for your next keyboard purchase.

What is a mechanical switch?

Mechanical Keyboard Switches

First things first: just what is a mechanical switch, anyway? Let's smash through the jargon. Non-mechanical keyboards rely on plastic membranes, which create electrical circuits for input to a PC via rubber switches beneath each key. They're cheap and relatively reliable, but do not provide much in terms of feedback, be it audible or tactile. Odds are that the keyboard that came with your computer — desktop and especially laptop — is a "membrane" keyboard, and you might not realize it, but you're typing on the keyboard equivalent of mushy peas.

Mechanical switches are different — there aren't plastic membranes to flex through here, instead you'll find mechanical springs and other physical components that provide physical and auditory feedback when you press a key. Click. Click. Click. After using a mechanical keyboard for a while and switching back to membrane, you can really tell the difference.

Another advantage of mechanical switches is each switch is its own separate entity, meaning you could press down on all available keys and the PC should be able to register each stroke. The same cannot be said for membrane keyboards, which often have limits on their speed and accuracy (who ever thought you'd be judging a keyboard's accuracy?) in the name of cost savings. This characteristic is call anti-ghosting and can be particularly useful in gaming where you need to press a number of keys in quick succession.

Mechanical Keyboard

There are greater choices available when it comes to keyboards with mechanical switches. You'll be able to find a switch and keyboard combination that suits your requirements. Taking things further, you can even swap our worn-out key caps or install your custom ones, or start swapping in new switches should the desire arise.

Lastly, mechanical keyboards and their pricey, fancy switches are rated to last much, much longer than their membrane counterparts. So while you may be slightly afraid to spend at least $50 on a new keyboard, it's worth noting that even the more affordable options can be tested for anywhere up to 50 million key strokes.

The Cherry MX switch

Razer Blackwidow

The Cherry MX switches were first introduced back in 1983 by the Cherry Corporation, a company best known for its keyboards. These switches were protected under patent for years, but that patent recently expired and keyboard manufacturers have been turning to more affordable Chinese alternatives or building their own custom switches.

Most of the mechanical switches today are very similar to the Cherry MX line and many use similar colors to allow consumers to make more informed decisions should they be used to Cherry MX-sporting peripherals. Here's a quick run-down of Cherry MX switches and the differences between them (cN = centinewton, approximately 1 gram — a measure of how much pressure is required to hit the actuation point):

Cherry MX Black: If you're not a fan of loud click noises and tactile feedback, the Black switches are for you. These switches make the keys easier to tap multiple times. (60cN)

Cherry MX Blue: Popular with typists due to the audible feedback, accompanied by the tactile "bump" when pressing down on a key. (60cN)

Cherry MX Brown: The middleground in the Cherry MX range. Quieter than the Blue switch, but retains soft tactile feedback. (55cN)

Cherry MX Red: Similar to Black switches, these offer less resistance and thus are favored by gamers. (45cN)

There are less common Cherry MX switches out there but the above are the most popular options that will be available in keyboards. If you'd like to try the different Cherry MX switches out and do not have access to different mechanical keyboards, there are tester kits available for order.

Alternatives to the Cherry

Tomoko Mechanical Keyboard

Since the patent protecting Cherry MX switches has expired, the flood gates have opened to alternative switches. Manufacturers like Corsair and Razer are working with other companies to include competitive switches from the likes of Gateron and Kaihua.

It can be difficult to tell the difference between Cherry MX switches and those that are created to replicate said typing experience. Some even view switches from other manufacturers to be better than the originals. As is the case when selecting a mouse or keyboard, it's all about personal preference.

As well as deciding on which type of mechanical switch is best suited to how you type (or game), the different brands of switches offer slight differences in actuation points, force required to activate, and noise. For example, should you be interested in mechanical keyboards but don't like the loud click noise, it may be worth checking out Matias switches, which are billed as quieter and more tactile than Cherry MX.

Shop around, try out tester kits and have a play with mechanical keyboards your friends own to see what options you prefer. There's no right or wrong choice when it comes to PC peripherals since you'll be the one using them. One switch doesn't and cannot please all, and that's why we have choices!

More on mechanical keyboards

Need to learn more about mechanical keyboards? We've got some more resources available to help you better understand some of the solutions available.