Keyboard Switch Types Explained: Membrane, Scissor, Mechanical

The different keyboard switch types are the membrane or rubber dome switch, scissor switch, and mechanical switch. Mechanical switches are subdivided into linear, tactile, and clicky.

Keyboard Switch Terminologies

Various factors affect the keyboard typing experience. These are various terminologies that are used to describe switches:

Actuation force refers to the amount of force in centinewton (cN) required to press the key of the keyboard to register as a keypress. 

Actuation distance refers to the distance the key needs to travel from the keycap to register a keypress.

Total travel distance refers to the distance during keypress before the key reaches the bottom.

Types of Keyboard Switches

Membrane or Rubber Dome Switches

membrane/dome keyboard switches

The membrane switch or rubber dome switch is one of the most commonly used keyboard switches. Standard membrane switches are rated up to 5 million keystrokes.

The main materials used in creating membrane keyboards are the keycaps, rubber dome, silicon membrane layer, and the printed circuit board (PCB) which contains the electrical circuits needed to register a keypress. 

The membrane keyboard works by depressing the rubber dome and reaching the bottom of the keypress to activate the designated key in the PCB. Membrane switches provide resistance due to the properties of the rubber dome but do not provide the tactile feedback that indicates that a keypress has been registered. 

Membrane keyboard switches have a total travel distance of 4mm, also referred to as a “full-travel.” The actuation distance in membrane keyboard switches is similar to its total travel distance because this kind of keyboard switch requires the user to reach the bottom of the keypress in order to register. 

The lack of tactile feedback and the full-travel required with each keypress can lead to overexertion of the fingers and can lead to hand fatigue or even carpal tunnel syndrome. 

Scissor Switches

The scissor switch is a variation of the rubber dome switch and is mostly used in laptop keyboards and other low-profile/slim keyboards. 

This keyboard switch has an actuation distance of around 1mm. It also has a total travel distance of 2mm.  

Scissor switches work by placing plastic stabilizers in a crisscrossed formation to provide resistance and slight tactile feedback during key press. The plastic stabilizers assist in depressing the rubber dome switch beneath, making the keypress easier on the fingers.

Mechanical Switches

mechanical keyboard switch

Mechanical switches use a metal coil spring that returns the switch back to its rest state.

The most popular manufacturer of mechanical keyboard switches is a German company called Cherry. Cherry created the “Cherry MX Switch” in 1983 and in 1984 they patented it. The patent has since expired and it has been reproduced by other companies like Kalih.

Cherry MX Switches as well as other manufacturers use stem color to differentiate them from each other. Some of the most popular types of mechanical switches are blue, red, brown, and black.

The feedback from the keypresses help with sensory validation that the key is pressed and helps with hand-eye coordination when gaming and typing. 

Metal coil springs are more durable than rubber domes and can withstand up to 50 million keypresses.

Mechanical switches also have different total travel distance and actuation distance, unlike membrane switches. Most mechanical switches have around 4mm of total travel distance and only 2mm of actuation distance. This means that mechanical switches do not need to reach the bottom in order to register a keypress. 

Applications of mechanical switches in mechanical keyboards can also vary from soldered to hot-swappable. Soldered mechanical switches are fixed on the mechanical keyboard’s circuit board. Hot-swappable switches can be detached from the circuit board and replaced with other switches. 

Hot-swappable mechanical switches allow the user to replace the switches based on need and preference. It also allows users to replace defective or malfunctioning switches rather than buying a new keyboard.

Linear Mechanical Switches

The linear mechanical switch does not provide a tactile feel or audible click during key press. The main advantage of linear mechanical switches is the faster actuation. 

Fast actuation is essential for typing as well as gaming. This allows for easier spam-ability while still accurately activating the keypress. Each key press requires an actuation force of around 60cN to register. 

FPS gamers often choose linear switches over clicky and tactile switches because keypress is faster and easier. Linear switches do not have to overcome additional hardware like a tactile bump or audible click. It also feels more natural to press and retains the same feel throughout the entire key press.

Tactile Mechanical Switches

Tactile mechanical switches are best known for their tactile bump when reaching the actuation point. This feedback acts as a confirmation of a registered key press. 

This sub-category of mechanical switches also provide a soft click, but not as audible as clicky mechanical switches. It also requires less actuation force of around 55cN, which makes it easier to register a keypress. 

Clicky Mechanical Switches

Clicky mechanical switches have a slight bump and click in the middle of the keypress because of the added hardware. This subcategory has a metal leaves spring that creates a click sound when the keypress is registered. 

A lot of typists prefer the clicky mechanical switches because the audible feedback complements the tactile bump to ensure the activation of each keypress. 

The actuation force for clicky mechanical switches is also 60cN, similar to linear switches. It also has a 2mm actuation distance marked by the audible click as well as a 4mm total travel distance. 

Final Thoughts

Choosing the right keyboard switch requires an assessment of your daily keyboard use.

Membrane keyboards are suitable for casual computer users who do not spend much time typing. Scissor switches can provide added comfort without spending money to pay for a keyboard with mechanical switches.

For gamers and typists, particular those with a peculiar interest in keyboards with an audible click or tactile bump, mechanical switches can be a good investment. The various options available for mechanical switches make it an all-around keyboard switch that can suit different typing needs.

About the author

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Jacob Hebert

Jacob is a big fan of computer peripherals. He enjoys writing about mechanical keyboards (keycaps, switches, stabilizers, etc), audio, as well as computer mice. When he's not writing for APTrio, you can find him browsing r/MechanicalKeyboards.