Getting into mechanical keyboards, but overwhelmed by switch terminology? What IS a tactile switch keyboard?
- A tactile keyboard switch is one that has a small “bump” feel part of the way through the key press. This bump provides “tactile feedback” to your finger, helping you “feel” when the key has actually registered to the computer.
- A linear switch, by contrast, does not have a tactile bump within the switch mechanism, so the key press is smooth until the entire key has been pressed down (called “bottoming out”)
- A clicky switch is a specific type of tactile switch (that has a small bump but with the addition of another mechanism that provides a very small “click” noise. The click doesn’t affect how the switch operates. It’s purely another audio cue that the key has been pressed.
I’ve tried dozens of different switches over the years, so let me dive into how the tactile switch functions, why it matters, etc.
Also, click here to see our 10 best tactile switches for 2023!
Read on ⌨️
What Is a Mechanical Switch?
A keyboard “switch” is the physical mechanism that lies just underneath your keycaps (the top part that your fingers make contact with), and plugs into the PCB (circuit board in your keyboard case).
The switch compresses down when you press a key, then moves back up when you release pressure.
Let’s break down a switch (from top to bottom, kinda):
- Keycaps (not actually part of the switch): The keycaps are the part of the switch that you actually touch. They’re usually made from ABS or PBT plastic, and come in tons of different colors & styles! (and shapes and profiles)
- Switch stem: This is the part of the switch that extends down into the switch and moves up and down when you press the keycap (it’s connected to the underside of the keycap). The stem is generally colored to match the switch color. I.e. green switches usually have green stems. Tactile & clicky switches have a small bump on their stems! Linear switches do not.
- Upper housing: This is the part of the switch that contains the spring and rests on top of the lower housing. It has a hole in the center for the stem to fit into (the upper and bottom housings snap together, and you need a “switch opener” tool to take them apart. Or a flathead screwdriver, but that’s harder).
- Spring: This is what provides the resistance when you press a key down, and also gives it that “bouncing” feeling.
Lower housing: The bottom half of the switch “shell” or “box.”
Whew! Normal” keyboards (mostly “membrane keyboards”) don’t have mechanical switches with all those parts, but rather a thin rubber membrane with fewer moving parts (which is cheaper, but doesn’t feel or sound like mechanical switches)!
Switch Comparison: Linear vs Tactile vs Clicky
All switches fall under 3 broad categories:
- Linear: The simplest type. Pressing them is a straight, smooth path from the top to the bottom. There’s no tactile or auditory feedback when you press them, and they require the least amount of force to actuate.
- Tactile: These switches provide a tiny “bump” when you press them (generally around the actuation point). This “tactile feedback” helps your fingers feel when the key has actually been registered.
- Clicky: These are a sub-type of tactile switches. There’s the tiny bump, but with a small audible “click.” These are generally louder.
And what do the switch colors mean?
Generally speaking, the colors refer to the type of switch (at least the common colors)
|Switch Type||Common Colors||Feel||Noise Level||Used for|
|Linear||Red, Black, Yellow||Smooth, no bump||Soft to medium||Mostly gaming|
|Tactile||Brown, Clear||Has tiny bump||Medium||Gaming, Typing|
|Clicky||Blue, Green||Has tiny bump||Medium to loud||Gaming, Typing|
There are way more colors, but these are the basics.
(And if you see switches like the Akko Rose Reds, you can be reasonably sure those are linear switches. If you encounter Kailh Box Jades, you can probably assume that “jade” is similar enough to blue and green, and therefore it’s probably a clicky switch!)
What is a linear switch (and how does it work?)
- No tactile bump on the stem
- A smoother keypress
- Generally have a softer sound (deeper, more “buttery”)
The stem “legs” on linear switches are smooth. When you press the key down, you won’t actually feel precisely when the stem hits the copper leaves (and actuates the keystroke, I.e. tells the computer you pressed a key).
The first thing you’ll feel using linear switches is the “bottom out,” I.e. when the key is pressed all the way down and makes contact with the PCB (the circuit board inside your keyboard case)
Popular red switches (usually red, yellow, or black)
- Cherry MX Red
- Cherry MX Black
- Gateron Milky Yellow
- Akko Jelly Black
- Akko Vintage White
How Does a Tactile Switch Work?
- A small bump you can feel
- More “clacky” sound and feel (but the difference is slight)
The stems on a tactile switch have a small indentation on the stem legs (the bump!). This is shaped slightly differently depending on the specific switch, but the effect is the same: your fingers can feel when this bump slides past the copper “leaves,” activating the keypress to your computer.
The bump generally happens roughly halfway down the keystroke.
How Do Tactile Switches Feel?
It’s worth noting that this bump is very small, and unless you’re a seasoned mechanical keyboard enthusiast with several keyboards and experience with different switches, you might not even notice the tactile bump at first.
That said, it does make a slight difference in typing speed and accuracy, since your brain can better understand when a key has actually been pressed, and when it hasn’t yet.
This goes double if you’re a soft/light typist. If you’re heavy-handed or press your keystrokes quicker, the tactile feedback is less noticeable.
In some (but not all) tactile switches, the bump can again be felt as you release the switch (and the stem slides back up).
Who Should Use Tactile Switches?
The truth is, anybody can use and enjoy tactile switches, including gamers, typists, and everyday computer users. But based on their sound and feel, many gamers prefer the smoother (and potentially faster) feel of linear switches, while typists could benefit from the tactile feedback to help them type faster and more accurately.
Also, if you need your mechanical keyboard to be on the quiet side, you should consider sticking with linear switches (or even “silent linear” switches like the Cherry MX Silent Reds). Tactile switches tend to be slightly louder and more “clacky.”
(And if that’s the case, you probably won’t want clicky switches, as they’re generally a bit more noisy).
You can see our full guide to quiet mechanical keyboards here.
Our Recommended Tactile Switches:
- Keyboard Switches & Akko CS Series – Akko Custom Series (CS) switches are 3-pin plate mounted custom switches made for DIY enthusiasts to obtain satisfying typing feelings with more affordable...
- Lavender Purple 36gf Tactile Switches – Different from Ocean Blue, Lavender Purple Tactile Switch is produced with a 18mm extension spring that is aimed to create unique and smooth feedbacks...
- Built-in LED Slot – Akko CS switches are equipped with LED slot ready for LED Mod/Assembly, and are SMD compatible (LED underneath the switch).
Here are the tactile switches I personally have experience with and can recommend!
- Akko Lavendar Purple (here’s our full review of the Akko Lavender Purple switches)
- Glorious Panda switches
- Kailh Box Royal (or Hako True)
However, if you’re shopping for a budget keyboard (with switches already installed), you might see the following switches:
- Cherry MX Browns
- Gateron Browns
- Outemu Browns
Those are certainly less fancy and won’t sound or feel quite as premium, but they’re still the best budget switches from the bigger switch companies.
Interested in going to clicky switches? Click here for our recommendations.
Tactile Switch Buying Guide
If you’re shopping for switches (or shopping for keyboards and want to consider what switches are pre-installed), here are the top factors you should consider:
This is measured in grams (I.e. 55g actuation force), and refers to how much force is needed to activate a switch. If you like your keys easier to press in, consider a lighter actuation force (35-45g), else a heavier actuation force provides more resistance and can be smoother (50g+)
How far down is the tactile bump? This is how far down the switch you need to press it before it activates. It’s usually measured in millimeters. A smaller distance means you don’t need to press the switch down as far to feel the bump (and activate the keystroke)
You can mostly ignore this, as most of the switches these days are related for millions and millions of keystrokes over their lifetime!
Some premium switches (such as Kailh Box Royals or Glorious Pandas) can run you as much as $0.60 – $0.70 per switch, while budget switches (such as Gateron Browns) will be much cheaper at roughly $0.20 per switch.
If you have a full-sized 100% keyboard (with a number pad), this can add up to $50-70 to change out all of your switches!
Most switches will have POM stems and polycarbonate housings, but some budget brands (like Tecsee) often have their own proprietary materials (which are usually cheaper and can warp if you’re removing or installing them!)
Tactile Switch F.A.Q.s
What is a tactile switch good for?
Tactile keyboard switches provide a small “bump” feeling when the key actually registered to your computer, which can help to increase typing speed & accuracy. For that reason, tactile switches are often preferred by typists and everyday computer users. However, tactile switches can work for gaming as well (and really just about anybody).
What is the difference between linear and tactile switches?
When you press down on linear switches, the keypress is smooth all the way down to the bottom of the keyboard. However, tactile switches have a different shaped “stem” in the switch that provides a small “bump” your fingers can feel when the switch activates. This is called “tactile feedback,” and the effect is small but noticeable to trained enthusiasts.
Are tactile switches good for gaming?
Because linear switches are often more muted and can actually be a fraction of a second faster than tactile switches, they are usually preferred by gamers. However, tactile switches work just fine for gaming, especially if you enjoy the feel and sound. It all comes down to preference, as the technical advantages that linear switches give to gamers is tiny, if not non-existent.
Are tactile switches better for typing?
Generally, yes. Although you can absolutely type on linear switches, tactile switches are often preferred because you can literally feel when the switch has actually been activated (and registered by your computer). This can improve typing accuracy and speed. And since clicky switches also include this mechanism, they can be great for typing as well.
Conclusion: What is a tactile switch?
A tactile mechanical switch is one that provides tactile feedback to your fingers as you type. This small “bump” lets your fingers know that the key was actually activated.
They’re fantastic if you type on a computer for any length, but can absolutely be fine for gaming as well!
If you’re in the market for some premium tactile switches to swap into your mechanical keyboard, we like the Glorious Pandas for their sound and feel!