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Key Points

  • Sometimes readily available PCs and Laptops do not meet the requirement for gaming and customizing your own seems like the best option.
  • Keyboard is a component that is responsible for a smooth gaming experience as well.
  • While buying the keyboard, we have listed the features you should keep in mind for the best gaming experience.

If you’re planning to build a PC for gaming or work, there are a lot of components to consider. CPU, GPU, cooling, storage, memory, and the list go on and on. One component you might not have in mind is what keyboard you want. I mean it is just a keyboard, right? Actually, not so much. Computer keyboards come in all shapes, sizes, and colors, and picking the right keyboard can benefit you in a lot of different ways. One of the key concerns when selecting the keyboard of your dreams are switches.

Keyboard switches are the thing that actually initiates a keystroke. The keycaps that show letters, numbers, and icons are merely plastic pieces that fit on top of these all-important switches. There are many variants of switches but they can basically be condensed down to optical and mechanical switches like Gateron. Let’s deep dive into their specs, similarities and differences, and must-know facts between these two types of switches.

Optical vs Mechanical Switches: Side by Side

SpecOpticalMechanical
SpeedLightning FastSlower than Optical
ReturnHollow FeelSmooth, Tactile Feel
SoundQuietSatisfying
DurabilityLong-LastingWears Down Easily
CustomizationFew Customization OptionsEasily Modified

Optical vs Mechanical: What’s the Difference?

gamer keyboard switches
Placed under keycaps on a mechanical keyboard, mechanical switches allow for faster and accurate typing.

©Muhamad Aliyin/Shutterstock.com

The differences between optical and mechanical switches can be subtle. They’re both designed with a polycarbonate top and nylon casing. They are also capable of having RBG backlighting as opposed to under glow. This means that LED lights can be installed right into the switch itself so that they shine through the keycaps. You are likely to find this type of lighting on most brand-name keyboards.

That is basically where the similarities end. The best way to understand the differences in the keys is to understand how each of them works. This will inform each of the other categories you should be looking at when making a buying decision.

Design

Because optical switches have removed much of the mechanics, they don’t have the same tactile feeling as true mechanical switches. They have smoother travel and more forceful return as well as more satisfying sound. Optical switches are mostly empty inside and some claim this gives them a hollow or cheap feel when pressing. Personally, there is something special about the click-clack of a mechanical keyboard. It reminds me of the old days of chatting with friends on MSN messenger right before I fired up Lego Island or Star Wars Jedi Knight: Fallen Order II…man I’m old.

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01/27/2023 12:01 am GMT

Speed

It takes a lot less time for a sensor to read light than for two metal plates to come together, so clearly, optical switches are going to be faster. But how much faster? Well, a lot actually, according to switchandclick.com when tested the Razer Purple optical switch reacted in .2304 seconds. A full 30ms faster than the mechanical and other optical switches. So, for gaming, optical switches are going to give you a definite advantage.

Mechanical switches have to deal with debounce noise. After each click, the metal plates retain a little resonance which can interrupt the signal if pressed again too quickly. Optical switch manufacturers are quick to point this out when discussing the failings of mechanical switches.

Actuation Force

Actuation Force is also a factor that determines the speed of keystrokes. This is normally measured in grams and tells you who much physical force you will need to apply to get make a keystroke. Lighter values are common in optical gaming keyboards as twitchy shooters require quick reaction time. Heavier keys might cause the player to miss a keystroke.

That said, heavier actuation force does have a place. If you are a video editor or other type of creative, you probably want to safeguard against hitting the wrong keys and messing up your workflow. All major switch manufacturers have lots of options when it comes to actuation force and speed.

Mods

It is possible to modify both switches, but there are differences in what you can do. Most optical switches are built to interrupt a light flow to a sensor. Because of this, it is not possible to hot-swap different types of switches. Not all optical switches have this problem and the ones that are interchangeable will probably be marketed that way.

Lubing switches is also a popular practice in switch communities. You can lube both mechanical and optical switches, but mechanical switches seem to have better results. Optical switches are already very fast and there are not many components offering resistance. This is hard to test and so comes down to personal preference. It is worth mentioning that some users who have lubed their optical switches complain of a gummy feeling on the keys.

All in all, mechanical switches have more opportunities for mods.

How do Switches work?

Mechanical switches work through contact with electrical plates built into the switch. When you press a key, the stem presses down and pushes these plates into place. This creates a closed loop and sends the signal to your machine achieving your keystroke. Then the spring around the stem returns the key backing to the reset point.

Optical switches, on the other hand, don’t use these metal plates. They still have a stem that presses down when you hit a keystroke but instead of plates, it interrupts a tiny laser. This laser is always beaming into a sensor and when that beam is interrupted the signal sends to your machine and the keystroke is achieved.  

As you might imagine this does make optical switches quite a bit faster. Proponents of optical switches also claim there is less wear and tear on optical keyboards because they don’t have metal plates that wear down over time. To be clear though, optical switches do have mechanical parts. They have pins (although fewer of them) and a spring that returns the key. So, you might still see switches called optical-mechanical switches, those count as optical switches!

Optical vs Mechanical 5 Must-Know Facts

So, there’s a lot more to key switches than you might have expected. Let’s take a sec to run through what we know.

  • Optical switches are almost always faster than Mechanical switches
  • Optical switches are better for gaming
  • Mechanical switches feel better and are more satisfying to use
  • The actuation force value measures how much resistance a key switch will have
  • Mechanical switches have more opportunities for modification

Optical vs Mechanical Switches: Which One Is Better?

All switches are technically mechanical switches. Optical switches still have mechanical parts and the construction of these two types are largely the same. The key differences boil down to use cases. Of course, each has its pros and cons.

It is simple really, if you want a keyboard strictly for gaming, get one with optical switches. They are faster and you still have a lot of options when it comes to actuation speed. For everyday use, most people are better off with mechanical switches. You are going to get a more tactile feel and a more comfortable experience. But it really does come down to personal preference. The best thing to do is test them out, find what you like, and get typing!

Next Up…

Optical vs Mechanical Switches: Full Comparison FAQs (Frequently Asked Questions) 

Are optical and mechanical switches the same?

Yes and no. Optical switches are technically mechanical switches too. They have mechanical components like the stem, shaft, and pins. The difference is in how optical switches send keystroke signals to your machine. The stem presses down and interrupts light beaming to a sensor which initiates the keystroke. This makes optical switches much faster than mechanical switches.

Which are better for gaming, optical or mechanical switches?

Optical, hands down. They are faster making them a much better choice for gamers looking for an edge in twitchy multiplayer games.

How much faster are optical switches?

Quiet a bit. The tests that I found show that the Razer Purple optical switch was 30ms faster than mechanical switches with the same actuation force. This may not seem like much but it can make a big difference in gaming.

Do you need to lube optical switches?

You can lube optical switches, but you don’t need to. Mainly, lubing switches is to get better speed and gaming performance. Optical switches don’t have the mechanical parts of mechanical switches so there is very little resistance. Lube doesn’t really give any meaningful improvements to speed in my experience.

Are optical switches smoother?

It comes down to personal preference but in my opinion, no. Mechanical switches have a more tactile, satisfying feel which adds to the comfort of use. Most people think optical switches feel hollow or cheap. I don’t really agree that optical switches feel cheap but they just don’t have the same feel as mechanical switches.

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  • PCMag Available here: https://www.pcmag.com/encyclopedia/term/optical-switch
  • PCMag Available here: https://www.pcmag.com/how-to/guide-to-mechanical-key-switches-which-kind-is-right-for-you
  • Tom's Hardware Available here: https://www.tomshardware.com/news/what-are-optical-keyboard-switches,32352.html
  • Switch and Click Available here: https://switchandclick.com/optical-vs-mechanical-keyboards-which-is-better/#:~:text=With%20a%20mechanical%20switch%2C%20the,less%20wear%2Dand%2Dtear.
  • Glorious Gaming Available here: https://www.gloriousgaming.com/blogs/guides-resources/what-is-actuation-force