A good mechanical keyboard can make an immense difference to your keyboard use, whether it's for coding, writing or gaming. Here's what you need to know.
Aren't All Keyboards "Mechanical"?
As the pedant flies, yes; every physical keyboard you use relies on one type of mechanism or another, so they could all be called "mechanical" keyboards, with the only non-mechanical keyboard options being purely software keyboards such as Swype or Swiftkey.
However, when you read about people enthused with their mechanical keyboard, they're referencing a specific style of keyboard construction. Cheaper keyboards, and any keyboard on a laptop use what's called a "membrane" keyboard that relies on electrical circuits underneath a single membrane, controlling every keystroke. Mechanical keyboards are something of a throwback to the style of keyboards found on the original IBM PCs (and plenty of other computer types prior to that), with individual mechanical switches underneath each key.
Why Are Mechanical Keyboards "Better"?
This is something of a subjective question, because individual tastes vary and some find the particulars of a mechanical keyboard annoying in the extreme.
Broadly speaking, however, mechanical keyboards have a few key advantages.
- They're more durable: Because each key has its own switch, and they're a fully mechanical moving part, they're built to be significantly more durable than a membrane keyboard. If you've ever had a laptop keyboard where the space bar or enter key needed belting in order to respond, you've hit the problem with membranes that mechanical keyboards jump nicely
- They're more reliable: This isn't just a question of durability, either. Mechanical keyboards need travel distance for each key, and that travel distance is precisely the same for every key on a mechanical keyboard.
- Choice of switch type: This is one of those personal taste matters, with different switch types giving different levels of response, both tactile and audible. If you're a fan of old school typewriter noises, or want to intimidate your gaming foes with the sheer noise of your typing, there's a mechanical keyboard for you, but equally quieter and easier to press switch types are available
- They can help with RSI: If you've got issues with flat membrane keyboards, there's some debate about whether or not the more indepth motion of a mechanical keyboard can help. Everyone's situation with regards to injuries can vary, but some specific mechanical keyboards are built with disabilities in mind and may be worth considering.
What's All This About Switches?
The switches underneath each key are, if you'll pardon the pun, the key to making a mechanical keyboard what it is. There's no one stock "standard" for mechanical keyboards, but most mechanical keyboards use Cherry's MX switches. Our guide to choosing the best mechanical keyboard goes into full detail regarding the differences between each switch type.
Aren't Mechanical Keyboards Just For Gamers?
Image: Kevin Pham A lot of the focus on mechanical keyboard marketing relates to their use by gamers, because there's a definite edge in having a familiar and very robust keyboard for competitive gaming purposes. But that doesn't mean that they're the sole province of gamers; if you're a heavy typist who wants a heavy duty keyboard that you can map your muscle memory to use, the advantages of a mechanical keyboard — durability, accuracy — apply just as equally. You can, however, probably skip the keyboards with inbuilt neon lights if you're not gaming.
What Are The Downsides?
There are three key factors that may be a deal breaker for you when it comes to mechanical keyboards.
Firstly, there's the cost. If you want a "cheap" keyboard, a membrane-based keyboard will always be cheaper than a mechanical keyboard, because they're substantially cheaper to produce. It's pretty easy to spend north of $200 (or more) on a good mechanical keyboard, but you've got to weigh that against the life expectancy of the keyboard itself. There are still plenty of IBM PC keyboards kicking around with adherents who will never willingly swap them out.
Speaking of weight, most mechanical keyboards are hefty little critters compared to membrane keyboards. If you do need to move your keyboard a lot, you'll have to make a little more space for it, and adjust for the added heft.
The final issue is the one of noise. Many adherents of mechanical keyboards love the heavy click sound that most mechanical keyboards make, but that's not the same thing as one hundred per cent acceptance. Depending on where you work with your mechanical keyboard, others in an office may find the sound of you machine-gunning your keyboard just a little irksome.
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