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Optical vs Mechanical Switches: Which is Better for Gaming and Typing?

When investing in a new keyboard, one of the most important decisions is which type of switch to choose. The two primary options are optical and mechanical keyboard switches. But what exactly is the difference, and which is better suited for your needs? This comprehensive guide compares optical and mechanical key switches to help identify the ideal option.

Keyboard Switch Basics

Before diving into comparisons, let‘s first define some key terms related to keyboard switches:

  • Actuation Point: The point during the key press where a signal is sent to register the keystroke. Measured in millimeters of travel.

  • Actuation Force: The amount of downward force required for a key press to register a signal. Measured in centinewtons or grams.

  • Travel Distance: The total distance a key travels from top to bottom during a full press.

How Optical and Mechanical Switches Work

Now, how do optical and mechanical switches actually function?

Optical keyboard switches utilize an infrared light beam inside the switch housing. This beam shines from an LED emitter to a sensor. When you press a key, the internal switch components break that light beam, allowing the keyboard circuitry to register the keystroke[^1]. Optical switches have very few moving parts internally.

Mechanical switches on the other hand rely on two plastic pieces inside the housing – a stem and slider. Pressing a key forces these two parts to connect, which closes a circuit to register input. The internal spring then provides resistance to return the key to its original upright position[^2].

[^1]: "Optical switch," RK Royal Kludge, 2023
[^2]: "Mechanical Keyboard Switches," Cherry Americas, 2023

So in summary, optical switches leverage breaking a light beam while mechanical switches use physical contact between internal moving pieces.

Optical Switches Register Keystrokes Faster

One major advantage optical switches provide is faster keystroke signaling, often 25-30 milliseconds quicker than mechanical switches with similar actuation specs[^3].

[^3]: Will Bright, "Optical switches for gaming: how they work and why you want them," Tech Radar, June 6, 2022

For example, the Razer Huntsman optical gaming keyboard using Razer Purple optical switches clocks actuation at just 0.2304 seconds. That‘s a full 30ms faster than tested mechanical keyboards with comparable 45g actuation force[^4].

[^4]: "Razer optical switch," Razer USA Ltd., Accessed February 2023

Why such speed? Optical switches contain fewer moving internal components. Rather than waiting for mechanical pieces to connect, breaking the light beam more rapidly triggers keystroke registration. This lightning fast performance gives optical switches an advantage for competitive esports and fast-paced gaming requiring quick reflexes.

Mechanical Switches Allow More Customization

However mechanical keyboards provide more modification flexibility sought by enthusiasts. For example:

  • Lubricants like Krytox grease can reduce friction and sound in mechanical switches when applied properly.

  • It‘s simpler to hot swap mechanical switches to change feel characteristics.

  • A wider array of fancy custom keycaps exists supporting various mechanical switch types.

So those desiring a highly personalized typing experience typically gravitate toward mechanical switch boards. Optical switches don‘t yet support extensive mods seen in mechanical keyboards.

Tactile Feel and Auditory Experience

In terms of sensory experience while gaming or typing, optical and mechanical switches further diverge:

Table 1. Feel and Sound Comparison

Characteristic Optical Mechanical
Feel Smoother, some describe as "hollow" More tactile, stems/sliders provide perceptible feedback
Sound Comparatively quiet, less metallic clicking noise Crisp, louder auditory click with each keystroke
Noise Level 40-50 decibels[^5] 50-70+ decibels depending on switch type[^6]
[^5]: RK Royal Kludge, Official Test Data, March 2021
[^6]: Eddie Andersson, "Are Blue Switches REALLY That Loud?" Keychatter, January 16, 2023

Due to fewer pieces colliding internally, optical switches generally offer a smooth, quick keystroke motion. However fans of tactile feedback often describe them as feeling "hollow" or insubstantial compared to mechanical alternatives.

On the other hand, mechanical switches provide more noticeable physical resistance through the travel distance – you can truly feel their internal sliders and stems actuate. This adds reassuring tactile sensations, but slower signaling.

Regarding audio profile, optical switches emit less metallic-sounding click noise on each key press. Their decibel levels rank quieter overall than most mechanical switches as well. Tactile enthusiasts find mechanical noise satisfying however.

Ideal Uses: Gaming vs. Typing

Given these comparisons, which switch type works best for specific usage scenarios?

  • For competitive gaming and esports, optical reigns supreme. Minimal input lag lets players react quicker, achieving game-winning frags first. Top pros depend on rapid optical boards from SteelSeries, Razer, and others.

  • Extensive typing and data entry feels better with mechanical‘s tactile feedback. Touch typists bound to keyboards daily last longer fatigue-wise on this comfier key feel.

While not as mod-friendly yet, optical provides the responsiveness demanded by serious gamers. On the flip side, mechanical pleases those desiring a premium typing console with more customization capacity long-term.

Individual Switch Considerations

Note that even within the same basic switch category, models differ across brands or types:

Table 2. Popular Optical Switch Specifications

Switch Actuation Point Force Travel Distance Durability[^dur]
Razer Purple 1.5mm 45 grams 3.5mm total 70 million
SteelSeries QS1 1.8mm 45 grams 3.8mm 100 million
Gateron Optical 1.5mm 50 grams 3.2mm 100 million
[^dur]: Manufacturer testing under normal conditions

Closely compare specifications like actuation force and distance which influence overall responsiveness and accuracy when choosing a specific switch model. Lower activation requirements generally improve gaming speeds. Seek out professional product reviews as well.

Optical hot swappability remains limited – most optical gaming keyboards utilize proprietary switch designs preventing easy replacement[^7]. So you likely can‘t swap Razer opticals out with other brands‘ optical switches. Select carefully upfront if hot swap capability matters.

[^7]: Jacob Roach, "A guide to optical keyboard switches," Laptop Mag, January 18, 2023

Whereas the majority of mechanical keyboards utilize switches adhering to the cross-compatible Cherry MX standard, opening vast customization avenues. Just ensure your desired keyboard supports switch removal before purchasing.

Mechanical Switch Customization and Modding

Speaking more on modifications, while optical switches don‘t yet support many user upgrades, mechanical keyboards provide ample room for customization. Desired mods include:

Lubricants like Krytox 205g0 applied internally reduce mechanical switch friction and sound. When professionally lubricated, mechanical keyboards feel amazingly smooth and responsive. The process requires carefully disassembling switch housings however.

O-rings placed around mechanical switch stems shorten travel distance while maintaining standard actuation points. These cheap, easy mods improve gaming speed slightly via shorter required key movement.

Switch films stick between mechanical switch housings to reduce wobble during keystrokes. Along with stabilizer mods, films enhance the premium feel of high-performance mechanical keyboards.

Custom keycap sets snazz up mechanical keyboards aesthetically while optimizing individual key legends/textures for gaming or typing. Optical keyboards largely rely on proprietary fittings restricting keycap options today. The mech community offers endless artistic and ergonomic keycap sets to showcase keyboard builds.

Are Hot Swappable Optical Keyboards Available?

Hot swappability allows easily removing installed switches to put in new ones without any soldering needed. This lets mechanical keyboard owners freely customize switch types down the road – linear, tactile, clicky, etc.

Truly hot swappable optical keyboards remain rare. The innate design of most optical switches uses specific infrared transmitters/sensors preventing basic compatibility across brands[^8].

[^8]: Jacob Roach, "A guide to optical keyboard switches," Laptop Mag, January 18, 2023

However, a few hot swap optical models like the Epomaker GK96S show it‘s possible. But replacing opticals currently lacks the widespread support for experimentation that mechanical keyboards offer.

Manufacturers like Razer even discourage owners from attempting to open optical switches due to sensitivity, recommending replacement of the entire keyboard if issues arise. So customization fans find more long-term flexibility in mechanical switch alternatives today.

Durability Comparison

Another key purchasing factor – how long until switches start failing with regular use? Optical switches often promote durability benefits over mechanical alternatives.

For example, the SteelSeries QS1 optical switch withstands over 100 million clicks during testing[^9]. And Razer rates their optical Purple switch at 70 million clicks[^10] before potential failure as well. Impressive longevity resulting from internal simplicity.

[^9]: SteelSeries, "QS1 Switch," Accessed February 2023
[^10]: Razer USA Ltd., "Razer optical switch specifications"

Standard desktop use likely won‘t approach such extreme limits. Nonetheless optical switches endure reliably based on technical testing. Of course enthusiast mechanical keyboards also achieve high longevity using premium components and careful handling during mods.

But comparably, mass market mechanical keyboards aimed at office use may only support 30-50 million clicks[^11] on average key switches before issues arise. At some point physical contact degrades internals through sheer use alone.

[^11]: Antonio Villas-Boas, "Mechanical keyboard switches and how they differ from laptop keyboards," CNET, December 11, 2022

So optical switches appear to hold up better over decades of sustained gaming or daily workflow thanks to a simpler, less stressful design. Just note optical boards don‘t yet match the 5+ year lifespans passionate "mech heads" obtain from their customized masterpieces.

Additional Pros and Cons Summary

Table 3. Optical and Mechanical – Pros and Cons

Advantages Disadvantages
Optical Lightning fast actuation – better for gaming Lack of customization options
May feel "smoother" Must be gentle cleaning to avoid internal damage
Hardware tested up to 100 million clicks Proprietary switch types can‘t be swapped
Mechanical Tactile, satisfying keypress feel appreciated when typing for long periods Slightly slower actuating – not ideal for gaming
Myriad customization routes – lubricants, o-rings, films, artistic keycap sets, etc. Internal metal contact pieces slowly degrade overtime
Hot swappable if PCB + plate supports it

Recommended Optical and Mechanical Models

Given the pros, cons and comparisons covered in this guide, here are some specific keyboard recommendations depending on your priorities:

Optical for Gaming

  • Razer Huntsman V2 Analog – Touted as "world‘s fastest gaming keyboard" using Razer‘s second-gen optical switches tuned for esports[^11]
[^11]: Razer USA Ltd., "Razer Huntsman V2 Analog," Accessed February 2023

  • SteelSeries Apex Pro – Its adjustable actuation gives serious gamers a customized optical board[^12]
[^12]: SteelSeries, "Apex Pro Gaming Keyboard," Accessed February 2023

Mechanical for All-Purpose Use

  • Keychron Q6 – Clean aesthetic hot swap board supporting both optical or mechanical switches via switch plates[^13]
[^13]: Keychron, "Keychron Q6 Keyboard," Accessed February 2023

  • Glorious Modular Mechanical Gaming Keyboard – Fully customizable compact mech featuring swapable bezels and key clusters[^14]
[^14]: Glorious PC Gaming Race, "GMMK Keyboard," Accessed February 2023

The keyboards above earn high recommendations among enthusiasts, but look into other brands too. Extensively test switches firsthand when possible to determine your own preferences.

At the end of the day optical switches provide unrivaled speed for gaming thanks to straightforward infrared signaling, while mechanical gratifies typists with decades of key feel refinement and personalization behind the tech. Both will serve you well if matched appropriately to usage needs.