Lifehacker 101: Mechanical Keyboards

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.

Lifehacker 101 is a regular feature covering fundamental techniques that Lifehacker constantly refers to, explaining them step-by-step. Hey, we were all newbies once, right?


Comments

    I had a Corsair K95, and apart from hating how light the Cherry MX Red switches were, the LEDs all started dying as well. It's been in the MSY "repair" facility for several months, and I may never see it again. #bewarecorsair

      After my last issue with a Motherboard - I'm never going back to MSY.

      Just remember you have rights - one of those includes a repair/replacement in a reasonable time. If it's over 30 days it immediately becomes unreasonable. At which point you can exercise your right to full replacement or refund.

      Last time I had to exercise my right to a refund - but it had to go through a Fair Trading complaint followed by a threat to ask the tribunal to refund me fore not only the cost of the motherboard but for the administration costs for me chasing MSY for 2 months.

      MSY are the lowly scum of Computer shops. They are cheap but have the worst customer service. They have already been in trouble previously with the ACCC over refunds/warranties

      Avoid them like the plague

        I've had the same issues with U-Mart in QLD. MSY actually provides me better service and been able to return MoBo's and HDD's without issue, but that isn't saying much.

    I have a daskeyboard Professional Silent, and I love it so much I've bought two (one for work, one for home). For me the Cherry MX Brown switches are perfect.

    This seems like a good opportunity to ask - any recommendations for a mechanical keyboard? The choices are a bit overwhelming, even looking at the link in the article has 5 different places to look at, all with 20+ keyboard each.
    I'd mostly use it for typing, with some gaming as well (I prefer a controller, even if that is sacrilege to some). $150-200.

      I'd really depends on what switch type you want, but a few good quality brands are Ducky, Filco and CODE, I'd also recommend getting a switch tester if you arent sure what you want, it'll be around $20, but could save you spending over $100 on a keyboard you don't like. I've got a ducky zero shine with browns(they are a little too light for me), an infinity board with greens, and an ergodox with clears. The clears feel great to type on, but i love the click of the greens, the browns are great for gaming as they still offer tactile feedback. But again, its all up to personal choice.

      I have a corsair K70, two Daskeyboards, and a Blackwidow.

      I anticipate that all four keyboards will be fully functional decades after I'm worm-food.

      The K70 is great for LAN parties.
      The Daskeyboards are great for work.

      The Blackwidow is a little clunky for either purpose, so I let my minions use it.

      Cherry browns are for high-speed typing, but are a little noisy.
      Cherry reds are for gaming or if you need to be stealthy.

      I recommend the Daskeyboard if you're paying, and the K70 if someone else is paying for you ;)

      Note: Mechanical keyboards which don't use Cherry keys are pretenders.

      And, for those wondering why you'd go mechanical... It's for happy fingers. The feeling of blasting out an email on a mechanical keyboard is simply faster and more enjoyable.

      I agree that there is a huge amount of choice out there for mechanical keyboards. I think the most important part of selecting a mechanical keyboard is deciding which switch type suits you.
      I bought a Cherry MX Red keyboard to begin with because that's what everyone seemed to have. However, I'm a bit heavy handed and found those switches didn't need enough force to be pushed, so I sold that and bought one with Blue switches. For me, its just the right amount of pressure and noise.
      The best thing to do would be find a shop where you can try a few different types of switches out...try typing something and see which one feels more natural.
      The actually layout of the keyboard is secondary in my opinion. You'll hate even the best keyboard if it has the wrong switches. So focus on the switch type, then pick your favourite layout.
      Although it's only my opinion, I think Corsair offer some of the best keyboards. The K70 is a common favourite and is available in a range of different switch types.

      Once you pick what kind of switch you want, mechanical keyboards are almost identical between brands with some minor variation like tenkeyless designs, backlighting, etc.

      Thanks for the suggestions, @synthesise @bringerofmuffins @james_m & @strand0410.
      I can see the benefit of the key tester, but I'm not sure that pressing one key would tell me if it would be good to type on. I might see what my friends have, and try typing on their keyboards. Sounds like I should be looking at the K70s and Daskeyboards.

      Thanks again guys.

      Last edited 27/07/15 4:38 pm

        Key testers are more for noise than anything. Yes, switches feel different between colours, e.g. some bottom out, some don't, they all have different actuating points, etc. Thing is, whatever you choose, you'll probably adapt to and swear by until you try something new. If you jam a switch on a tester and it pisses you or the people you live with, then pick a quieter switch.

        A comment I wish I'd made up front.:
        The various ways of putting letters and numbers on keys have widely varying longevity.
        A little research into that is worthwhile when choosing a keyboard.

    I have the Logitech G910 Orion Spark, and I couldnt be happier, I like being able to control the color of each key independently, and I much prefer the lights going through the key, and not around the keys as well like a lot of other mechanical keyboard.

    I also like the contour of the keys. It's probably the most comfortable keyboard I've used

    Just a shame that I am stuck using a cheap membrane keyboard at work

    I'm typing this on my "Aviator" keyboard that I bought from Datamancer and I love it. It looks and sounds gorgeous.

    datamancer-dot-com for those who are curious...

    The level of customisation people want reminds me of - gun triggers.
    The amount of travel, and the amount of weight required to fire, are incredibly personal.

    As for mechanical switches in general - the fun comes when you want to design something "custom" for an Arduino, Raspberry Pi, or whatever. That's when you want to modify the spacing between keys, or have your own custom graphics [think: camera controls, calculator, etc.] and you quickly find how limited the range really is.

    I have a Unicomp keyboard which uses the same buckling spring design as the old IBM Model M keyboards. In fact, Unicomp purchased all the tooling and designs for their keyboards from Lexmark, who in turn acquired it from IBM when they divested their consumer PC manufacturing interests in the US.

    Made in Kentucky, USA, they offer a unique typing experience and I definitely prefer them to the Cherry-based mechanical keyboards, It is the fastest, most comfortable keyboard I have ever typed on.

    Cherry MX Brown user here. Got one at work (Leopold brand), basic keyboard.
    At home I have a Rosewill backlit.
    Both have rubber o-rings beneath the keys to quieten them a bit (well worth the effort!). Both were around the $120 mark.

    Now, typing on the crappy old Dell keyboards at work is a pain. If you're a touch typist, definitely recommend MX Brown switches. My work keyboard is quieter than the loud Dell ones at work, especially with key bashers. Touch typing is very quiet (can't achieve that with the membrane style flat keyboards).

    Last edited 29/07/15 12:02 pm

    pfft. you and your mechanical keyboards.
    Dell KB522 FTW. that's where it's at.

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