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Which switch?
Let's now look at what differentiates our four specimens—the type of Cherry MX key switch used. Note the response graphs embedded in each picture. We grabbed those from Cherry's website. They show how each type of switch responds to pressure and how much pressure is required to reach the actuation point and bottom out. The "cN" in the Y axis stands for centinewton, with one centinewton being equal to 1.02 grams-force. (A gram-force is the amount of force exerted by one gram in Earth gravity.)

We've also recorded audio samples for each keyboard. If you have Flash installed, you can listen to the samples by clicking the play button at the bottom left of each image below.

Cherry MX blue switches most closely resemble the famous buckling spring switches of the venerable IBM Model M. While they operate very differently, they offer fundamentally similar feedback, generating both an audible click and a tactile bump upon actuation. The advantage is that you know the exact actuation point, regardless of what happens on screen, so you can calibrate the amount of pressure applied accordingly. Instead of bottoming out with each keystroke, you can teach yourself to press down only as far as needed to reach the actuation point. You might wind up typing faster with less fatigue.

That's the theory, at least.

In practice, the Rosewill RK-9000 with blue switches feels crisp—almost too crisp—and really makes a racket. Instead of the musical, typewriter-like clatter of the Model M, the blue switches pelt you with shrill, high-pitched clicks. They're very difficult to tune out, and they can get tiresome after a while. There's an odd sort of grittiness to the tactile bump, as well, which makes it feel... sticky, somehow. The sensation didn't bother me at lower typing speeds, but it got on my nerves when I ramped up over 110 words per minute or so.

In games, the blue switches feel a little awkward. As you can see in the graph above, the actuation and release bumps aren't at the same spot in the curve. Sometimes, when you mean to repeat a keystroke rapidly, your finger might get stuck in the twilight zone between the two for a fraction of a second, and you might miss your shot—whether it's steering a fast-moving vehicle or firing off a spell at an enemy. The noisy clicks can mar the immersion factor of some games, as well.

The Cherry MX brown switches also have a tactile bump, but it's a more subtle one that requires less pressure to reach and isn't accompanied by a sharp, shrill click. All you hear is an extremely faint, almost inaudible ka-chunk as you pass the actuation point. Also, the actuation and release bumps are at almost the same spot, so there's practically no dead zone between them.

The softer bump and the effective lack of audible feedback makes the browns feel a little more uncertain, perhaps imprecise, than the blues. You can feel for the actuation point without much trouble, but it's easy to miss if you type too hard or too fast. The result, at least for me, is a sort of mild bounciness that, while not entirely unpleasant, can take some getting used to.

Nevertheless, the browns feel very satisfying to type on. They still make some noise—a faint clatter that's loudest when you bottom out—but that noise is actually pleasing to the ear. There's something oddly satisfying about it. Gratifying, even. I still noticed some slight grittiness around the tactile bump when typing very fast (over 120 WPM), though.

The browns work well for gaming. Since there's no twilight zone between the two bumps, the switches feel more predictable. Also, because the bumps are softer, actuation requires less pressure overall. That means quickly repeating keystrokes takes less work. Finally, there's no noisy clicking to distract you.

The Cherry MX blacks are universally touted as gaming switches. They have an entirely linear response curve without clicks or bumps, and they require more pressure to actuate than the blues or browns. The appeal, or so I've heard, is that there's nothing to slow you down on the way to the actuation point (or on the way back), which improves responsiveness and aids rapid keystroke repetition.

My take? These are the worst of the bunch. The linear response makes it difficult to tell exactly where the actuation point is, which leaves you no choice but to bottom out—and since the springs are even tougher than on the blues, that quickly gets uncomfortable. Fail to bottom out, and you'll unknowingly miss the actuation threshold every once in a while, resulting in a growing collection of missing characters throughout your work. Also, paradoxically, the black switches make it easier to repeat characters by accident.

You'd think these purported gaming switches would excel in games. However, the total lack of precision proves punitive in titles like Trackmania 2, where minute, hair-trigger movements are paramount. There's just no way to toe the actuation line as with the browns. The linear response proves to be less of a handicap in first-person shooters, but there's still not much of an upside. Even if rapid keystroke repetition is easier—and I'm not entirely convinced that it is—that benefit comes at the cost of pretty much everything else. I just don't see the appeal.

We don't have a response graph for Cherry's MX red switches, but it's easy to picture one in your head. These switches have a linear response, just like the blacks, only with softer springs. Bottoming out takes only 60 g of pressure, down from 80 g with the blacks, and actuation takes 45 g, not 60 g. In that respect, the reds resemble the browns, sans the bumps in the curve.

The reds still compel you to bottom out in order to guarantee actuation, but the process involves much less effort than with the blacks. In fact, because there's nothing in the way to slow you down, these may be better than the browns at very high typing speeds (when you're likely to bottom out regardless). I managed to type slightly faster on them than on the browns. That said, the imprecision of the blacks is still present in the reds to some degree, and it still encourages typos. At lower typing speeds, it starts to feel like your fingers are digging into a block of jello. Not the nicest feeling.

If you're choosing a linear switch to speed up keystroke repetition in games, then the reds are clearly the way to go. The lower actuation force makes repetition faster and easier than with the blacks, and there are still no bumps or clicks in the way.

Personally, though, I'm more partial to the browns for gaming. They're almost as easy to mash repeatedly, and the bump in the response curve adds much-needed precision.