Mechanical keyboard switches have been the mainstay for a while now, offering the speed, durability, and responsiveness that gamers need. However, as optical switches become more popular, we have to ask ourselves: which is better for gaming?
This article will tell you how optical and mechanical switches differ, and which keyboard switch we think is best for gaming.
How do mechanical and optical switches work?
Mechanical switches work by making contact between a piece of metal on the bottom of the key and one on the keyboard. This completes the circuit and sends a signal to the PC that the button has been pressed.
There are three main types of mechanical switches: linear, tactile, and click. Linear keys are quieter, require less force, and don’t give tactile feedback when pressed. Tactile keys are louder and create a bump in the middle of the keystroke. On the flip side, clicky keys create a bigger bump and a loud “click” in the middle of the keystroke, making them loud but satisfying.
In contrast, optical switches use a process called light induction. When you press the key down, the stem (the part that normally hits the keyboard) blocks a beam of infrared light. An infrared sensor then detects the lack of light and signals the computer that the button has been pressed.
Mechanically, both switches are quite similar. For example, when you press the keycap, it pushes the stem down, then a spring pushes the cap back into place. Optical switches can also have properties similar to mechanical switches in that they are more linear, tactile, or clicky.
So what’s better for games?
Optical vs. mechanical switches
There are some important aspects of mechanical switches that you need to consider when deciding which one is better for gaming. These include:
- Durability: How many keystrokes before the keys cancel?
- Speed: How fast can you press the button?
- Satisfaction: How comfortable is pressing the buttons?
- Noise: How loud are the keys?
The average lifespan of mechanical or optical keys depends heavily on the manufacturer. That being said, most of the optical switches currently on the market have a lifespan of around 100 million keystrokes.
In contrast, only Cherry MX claims approximately this life expectancy for its mechanical switches. Most mechanical keyboard manufacturers classify their keys with about 50 to 60 million keystrokes – half that of optical switches.
Remember, however, that 50 million keystrokes is roughly 10 to 15 years of intense gaming or typing and will likely be long enough for most people.
The speed of switches depends on several factors including the force required to operate and the distance the key must travel to operate.
Mechanical switches also have a debounce delay of around five milliseconds. Optical switches, on the other hand, do not suffer from this delay at all. This means that optical switches generally have a 5 ms faster response time. However, it is not yet fully understood whether this small increase in speed actually leads to better performance when gaming.
Otherwise, the reaction speed of optical switches seems to depend heavily on the manufacturer. The breadwinners seem to be the Razer Optical Purple Switches. These are touted as some of the fastest keys on the market and are around 30 ms faster than the fastest Cherry MX keys.
Feeling and noise
How mechanical or optical keys feel is largely a matter of taste; this also applies to the volume. But with more options available, the more likely you’ll find a mechanical button set that suits your preferences.
With mechanical switches, you can choose between linear, tactile and click buttons. This means you can choose buttons that are satisfactory, quiet, fast, or any middle ground.
Optical keyboards just don’t have that many options. You might be lucky enough to enjoy the standard keys on an optical keyboard, but that won’t be the case for many.
This is starting to change, however, and many manufacturers are offering at least a few alternatives.
the Razer hunter Series offers the Razer Optical Reds (a linear option) and the Razer Optical Purples (a click alternative). Gateron also has several options including Gateron Optical Black, Blue, Brown, and Red, each with similar properties to their mechanical counterparts.
Price and availability
Since there are dozens of manufacturers and types of mechanical keys, you will likely find something you like pretty easily. You can also easily change most mechanical key sets to make them louder, quieter, faster, or longer.
Unfortunately, there just aren’t that many options when it comes to optical keyboards, although it has increased a bit in recent years. Optical keyboards have also seen less standardization, which means modifications and custom key sets are far less available.
Finally, mechanical switches offer many budget options, while a good set of optical buttons generally only comes with a medium to high price keyboard (like the Razer Huntsman). Mechanical switches definitely win in terms of price.
Optical switches are generally quicker to operate than mechanical switches.
Optical switches have a longer lifespan, although some brands of mechanical switches match this.
Mechanical switches can be more satisfactory.
Mechanical switches are quieter, especially linear buttons.
Mechanical switches come in a wider variety of brands and types and are easy to modify.
So what’s best for gaming: optical or mechanical switches?
Mechanical switches remain the placeholders for gamers. There are far more options with mechanical keyboards than optical ones, and given that optical switches are still relatively new to the market, this makes sense. The result is that many people don’t want to switch to an optical keyboard just yet.
However, we can see a change in the years to come as more options become available. For example, the Razer Huntsman series offers the adaptability, speed, and durability that gamers have come to expect from an optical keyboard.
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