Keyboard Switch Styles
The Ars Technica Guide To Keyboards: Mechanical, Membrane, And Coilover Springs

Aurich Lawson

Your keyboard is the thread that connects you to your computer. The way a keyboard feels—from the feel of each key press and reset to the build of the board’s chassis—has a direct impact on your typing experience, affecting accuracy, speed, and fatigue.

Here at Ars Technica, we’ve explored the joys of quality keyboards and the thrills of customization before. But what really makes one type of keyboard feel better than another? People say that membrane keyboards are messy, but why? But what about keyboards with a cult-like following? What makes decades-old IBM keyboards or expensive Topres so special?

In this guide, we’ll look at how some of the most popular keyboard categories work and how their differences affect typing.

Mechanical keyboards

Many people consider mechanical keyboards to be the king of keyboards. Mechanical keyboards are generally very tactile because their keys provide different feedback with each press. Customization options that affect feel, look, and sound mean that mechanical keyboards are also great for users who want to tweak individual parts to get the exact feel they’re looking for.

So why do they feel so good to write? Let’s take a look.

The switch beneath each mechanical keyboard key has more components, moving parts, and movement than a membrane keyboard, making keystrokes more substantial. Depressing the mechanical switch sends its plastic body down, and the spring resists. As the plastic body moves down, it allows the switch’s two metal leaves to make physical contact, closing the circuit and sending a signal to the keyboard’s printed circuit board, or PCB. (Check This article from Kinetic Labs for an overview of the basics of mechanical keyboard PCBs). Depending on the design of the keyboard, the key may descend smoothly (linear keys), with a noticeable bump along the way (tactile keys), or with a thump and click sound (click keys).

When the button is released, the spring provides feedback as the switch resets, during which the plastic slide rises vertically and separates the metal leaves of the switch again.

Mechanical switches usually work this way, but some modern examples modify this formula, such as optical switches (which are activated by whether or not a light beam passes through the handle of the switch). Hall effect switches. In addition, Varmilo produces switches that work like a standard mechanical switch, but instead of working with the touch of metal contact points, the metal points move very close together when the keys are pressed. This changes the electrostatic capacitance of the electric field between the two contacts, resulting in input (these electrostatic capacitive switches work differently from Topres, which we will consider later).

Illustration Of Varmilon'S Standard Mechanical Trigger Switch (Left) Versus One Of Its Electrostatic Capacitive Switches (Right).
To enlarge / Illustration of Varmilon’s standard mechanical trigger switch (left) versus one of its electrostatic capacitive switches (right).

Mechanical keyboards also provide customization options that make it easy to fine-tune the typing experience. Mechanical keyboard customization options include switch type, keyboard sizes, shapes, and material; different types of boxes, gaskets and plate mounting styles; and application of foams, lubricants and stabilizers. Conventional membrane keyboards do not allow this kind of customization.

Some people also find that the feedback and travel of mechanical switches helps physical discomfort often associated with writing. While companies often market the short key travel of scissor keys as a way to type faster, mechanical keys can also help with speed and accuracy due to their different keys and tactility. (We’ll look at scissor-key keyboards in a bit.) In addition, some mechanical keys require little power and/or travel to actuate, which can help speed and the amount of energy used when typing.