Linears: The red-headed stepchild switch type? by Quakemz
Since my introduction into this community, I’ve learned several things: Keyboards can be incredibly expensive, there are very nice and helpful people around and, linear switches are almost a forgotten genre…
Browsing r/mechanicalkeyboards and talking with a lot of the regulars around the community will show you one very interesting thing - tactile switches reign supreme. Not just slightly, either, but by a landslide. Taking a quick look at this recent community census, it’s quite obvious the majority of the community is all about dat bump! Of course, there is nothing wrong with that. However, there isn’t very much love for our bump-less option, linears, which can offer a very different experience, if you let it.
It all comes down to the term “feedback”. The majority of clackers tend to prefer the feel of “something” while they type. Some form of extra feeling that they’ve actuated the key during the press. Big bumps have been a hot topic, when it comes to switches. People want bigger bumps, so many switches have arisen, due to this. Zealio switches, a wildly popular tactile switch in the community, came about in such a way. Users wanted a large bump during the press, while being smooth and beautiful. It was originally intended to be a replacement for “Ergo-Clears”, a modified Cherry MX Clear, using a lighter spring and often lubed. This modification was made because there were no real alternatives on the market for a smooth and noticeably tactile switch that was just the weight you wanted it.
Zealios have been incredibly popular in the community due to the fact that it, on some level, replaces the more dated Ergo-Clear, and is more available, while requiring less effort, since they’re smooth out of the box, with multiple weights to choose from. Because of switches like this in the enthusiast community, and how popular MX Browns and MX Blues are outside of the community, linear switches have taken a serious back seat. Sure, Cherry MX Reds are arguably popular with non-enthusiasts, because they’re marketed in such a way to attract gamers, but without additional information and experience, those people are not truly linear lovers.
So what makes a true linear lover? Experience, and nothing more. Almost every enthusiast goes through the same trials, it seems. You start by using tactiles, then you decide you like the bump and don’t care to try anything else. Or, you try linears, and realize you want something “more”, so you give tactiles a try and never look back. I’m 100% guilty of this, too. Cherry MX Blacks and Cherry MX Reds were my first switch types, and they had me wanting something “more”. I swapped to MX Browns, which had me curious to try more tactiles, then I found MX Clears. After that, Zealios were launched and it felt like a miracle. During this time, I was neglecting linear switches entirely. My thought was “I didn’t like MX reds, so no need to try more linears!”
Let me just say, I’m incredibly happy I did try more. Over the last couple of years, linears went from being my least favorite genre to my favorite, and here is why: there is so much going on that you don’t even notice, at first. In fact, I’d argue that linears are actually more complex than a tactile, in terms of how you can perceive them during typing.
If I were to equate switches to people, tactile switches would be a normal person, while linears would be a person that has lost one of their senses. When a person loses one of their senses, it’s said that the other senses grow stronger. This is what I’ve observed with linear switches. There is more to the feeling of a keyboard than just the switches, themselves. The caps, plate, and even case can play a role in how switches feel and sound.
When you use linears, you’re more free to experience what else the board has to offer. It becomes less about how about big or good the tactility or click is, and more about everything else going on; How smooth is the switch? How does it feel and sound against this particular plate material, or in this particular housing? How do I feel about the properties of the spring this switch uses? There are so many more questions that start to swirl around in your head besides how the tactility is.The bump objectively takes away from a lot of the other properties, so the removal of the bump amplifies how everything else acts.
Smoothness is a big selling point in switches. The smoother a switch feels, the more it is liked. Without a bump, you can truly feel how smooth a switch is or isn’t. Is there a “sandy” feeling during the press, or is it like butter? Can you correct that with lube? So many questions to ask yourself when using linears.
Does the spring feel the way you want it? Spring weight/force is always an important piece of the puzzle. However, what a lot of people don’t realize is that the force it takes to bottom out is only part of the equation. For example: two 68g springs can feel very different in how they achieve that 68g bottom out force. One might actuate very early with a lighter touch, while another might actuate much closer to the bottom, where the weight it more apparent. This is often referred to as “ramping up” and can change wildly between different springs, even of the same weight. This becomes a lot more apparent with linear switches, because the spring automatically becomes the primary focus of “resistance”.
If you’re familiar with me, you know sound plays a huge part in the experience of my keyboards. Feel is obviously more important, but a keyboard that feels good and sounds like garbage will only sooth me for so long....I need a great sound, too, or at the very least, variety. Like I mentioned earlier, switches are only a part of the way a finished keyboard can sound. If you think of the same switch as a control in an experiement, the rest of the parts would be the variables. Even using the same switches, the plate, caps, and case can make drastic changes in the finished feel and sound. Because they lack a bump, linear switches have nothing impeding their way during the press, thus they can freely smack against the plate or PCB, generating specific sounds.
For example: A high profile, thicker metal case will result in a deeper overall resonance when clacking away, while thinner low profile cases let sound leak out all over and don’t have a focused point for the resonance. Aluminum plates will result in more of a muted tap, because of the softer metal, while stainless steel plates will be more of a pronounced thwack. Acrylic will offer a very different “pop” style of sound, altogether. PBT keycaps will also sound a bit bassier, due to the increased density over their ABS plastic brethren, which tend to sound a bit “clackier”.
As you can see (and hopefully hear!), linears can offer a lot more than what it seems on the surface. They’re not just a tactile switch missing a bump. They’re an entirely different beast that can reveal feelings and sounds that you haven’t been able to experience, due to just thinking about and feeling tactility. Sure, linear switches might require some modification and experience to really appreciate, but don’t give up. There is so much it can offer, if you let it. Find your switch, find your spring, find your lube. There are so many combinations to try, and with all of these new (and some of them quite good) linear switches on the market, it’s as good a time as ever to jump into the world of linears!