If you’re shopping for a mechanical keyboard, you might be familiar with the standard types of mechanical switches available, mostly made by Cherry Corporation. But there are a whole world of niche key switches out there for you to explore. We’ll identify a few different varieties below.
Cherry MX Clones
Cherry is probably the best-known brand of mechanical switches on the market. And when you’re at the head of the pack, other companies will try to imitate your success. This has led to a slew of Cherry MX clones: key switches that imitate the feel of Cherry switches at lower price points. But just because they’re clones doesn’t mean they’re bad.
Switch-makers like Gateron copy the color/switch profile combinations from Cherry. Even so, they make quality that some users actually prefer. Other brands like Outemu do the same, producing super-cheap versions of Cherry switches for entry-priced mechanical keyboards.
Importantly, these switches also imitate the stems of Cherry switches (the colored plastic bit protruding from the top). This means they’re compatible with any aftermarket Cherry MX keycaps you get your hands on. And in the high-end world of custom keycap sets, Cherry stems vastly expand your options.
If you just want to see what makes mechanical keyboards different from membrane or laptop keyboards, these switches can be a great entry point into the world of clacking keys.
Not every Cherry MX clone is derivative. You’ll also find higher-end Cherry clones like the green and orange Kailh switches found in Razer’s keyboards. These have a unique sound and feel of their own, mimicking the stem of Cherry MX switches without copying their entire design. MOD switches follow a similar path with a feel and sound all their own.
Zealios have a special place in the heart of the mechanical keyboard community. They started life as a switch mod, swapping the springs Cherry MX Clears for a stiffer variety. This gives a higher actuation force (62g to 78g) meaning the key needs to be pressed harder. This stiffer feel provides stronger tactile feedback than the stock spring. They’re well-loved by heavy typists, earning the moniker “Zealios for the feelios” on mechanical keyboard enthusiast forums.
ALPS switches might be the least common switch in this post. Once made by Alps Electric in Japan, the switches were popular in the 80s and 90s but are no longer produced by the same company. New ALPS switches are now made by the Canadian company Matias which sells clones of old ALPS switches with compatible stems. When people say ALPS, they’re mostly talking about the switch’s unique rectangular stem design. You’ll find the switches in both models of the Apple Extended Keyboard, as well as the Dell AT-101W.
There were dozens of switch varieties produced and documentation was poor, so your best bet for researching ALPS is to Google the specific keyboard model and stem color. Just be careful removing the keycaps: ALPS switches are notorious for breaking. Try jiggling the keycap left and right rather than up and down.
Topre switches are an odd hybrid. Made by the Japanese Topre Corporation, they combine features of mechanical and rubber dome switches to create a unique feel and sound. They’re famous for the deep “thock” tone they produce, and most of the resistance comes from the rubber dome instead of the spring, which is very lightweight. Considering the similarity the switches share with cheap membrane keyboards, Topre switches are sometimes derided by mechanical keyboard purists.
From an engineering perspective, Topre switches are mechanically more reliable than standard mechanical switches. As a result, they’re found in applications that cannot tolerate failure, like military hardware. You’ll also find them on Realforce and Happy Hacking Keyboards (HHKB).
If you were using computer keyboards in the eighties and nineties, you might be familiar with the famous IBM Model M. This keyboard used a different switch design from other keyboards called a buckling spring. Today, the keyboards are sought by typists seeking an extremely audible click and distinct friction.
The design is based around a buckled spring tucked under the keycap. As the key is depressed, the spring buckles to the side, pressing the sensor on the bottom and producing the Model M’s famous clack. You can find used Model M keyboards today for less than $100, but it’s very rare to see new keyboards that use buckling springs.
There are a wide world of mechanical switches out there for the daring adventurers with deep pockets and a lot of patience.
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