Mechanical keyboards — keyboards with full, individual switches under every key — have exploded in popularity recently, although the technology inside is as old as the keyboard itself. There's really no substitute for that solid, clicking sensation under your fingers as you type, and the satisfying sound each key makes when you press it. However, choosing the best mechanical keyboard can be tricky, since there are dozens of models sporting different switch types, and more popping up every day. Here's how to tell them all apart and pick the right one for you.
A Brief History Of Mechanical Keyboards
There was a time when almost every computer keyboard used individual, mechanical switches under every key. Those keyboards were expensive to manufacture, however, and advances in plastic moulding technology made it possible to manufacture keyboards with a single "monoblock" switch instead of individual switches for each key. Combined with cheap, easily "printable" membrane sheets that shortened the keypress distance and used an electrical circuit to detect key presses instead of individual sensors, keyboard design shifted away from mechanical components and towards cheap membranes and scissor switches. This is what is used for most keyboards commercially available today. For more reading, this Wikipedia article has a great rundown of the history of computer keyboards.
After membrane keyboards started to ship with every new PC, something changed. While people appreciated the slim form-factor and low key-press depth of smaller keyboards, many people longed for the satisfying click and detectable button-press under their fingers they remembered from older keyboards. In response, several companies began producing mechanical switch keyboards — keyboards that were more affordable to produce but similar in feel to the "buckling spring" keyboards of the past. Initially aimed at enthusiasts who wanted that feel, they grew in popularity among gamers (who wanted precise control over when a key was pressed and when it wasn't, and enjoyed the sensitivity of a mechanical switch) and programmers and developers (who found the click for each individual keystroke cut down on typos and other errors).
Why You Should Consider A Mechanical Keyboard
There are several reasons to consider a mechanical keyboard:
- Mechanical keyboards can minimise typos. Depending on the type of switches your keyboard has (we'll dive into that later), you'll never wonder whether or not you've actually tapped a key. Once you become familiar with the way the tactile "bump" feels with typing-friendly mechanical keyboards, you'll find yourself morecertain of the keys you've pressed and not double-typing to make sure you've actually pressed a button. The sound of a mechanical keyboard can reinforce the tactile feedback as well.
- You want a keyboard that will stand the test of time (and use). One of the biggest benefits of mechanical keyboards is that they're durable and designed to stand up against heavy use. Depending on the model you buy, the keys are rated for dozens of millions of keypresses, which is way better than the standard duty expectation of a membrane keyboard. If you're the type of person who wants a good keyboard to stick with you for the long haul, or you notice you're hard on your existing membrane keyboards, a mechanical could change the way you work. Plus, since the switches are mechanical, the keys pop off and go back on easily — that means a lost key or bent scissor switch doesn't mean a keyboard in the trash can. Cleaning and maintenance are a snap.
- Mechanical keyboards are more satisfying to use. This is subjective, but many people who use a mechanical model on a daily basis will tell you that it's just a more satisfying typing experience. The audible key-clicks and the sure knowledge every time you press down on a key that it's registered properly is a feeling you really have to experience to appreciate. There's even debate over whether using a mechanical keyboard (or at least some mechanical keyboards specifically) can alleviate the pain of RSI (Repetitive Strain Injury) in some users.
- You have a strong sense of nostalgia. If you're old enough to remember the IBM Model M keyboard, or more recently the Apple Extended Keyboard, you can probably recall how they felt to use. Modern mechanical keyboards can bring that sensation back, depending on the switches you buy. We'll get to that in a moment.
These aren't the only reasons, but they're some of the best ones. Not everyone is going to love a mechanical keyboard. Some people will find them too heavy, too clunky, too loud, or just outright annoying compared to slimmer, quieter scissor switches or membrane keyboards. They're often a bit more expensive than traditional keyboards as well. However, if you've never tested one, find an electronics store and give one a try.
Get To Know Your Switches
If you're interested in mechanical keyboards, you'll need to learn the lingo before you run out and buy a keyboard, or it may not give you the typing experience you're looking for. Most mechanical keyboards on the market today use Cherry MX switches. The video above, from Techquickie, does a good job at of breaking down the different types of key switches. Here's a basic overview, including some popular keyboard models that include each type:
Cherry MX Black
Cherry MX Black switches are characterised by their smooth, linear press from top to bottom. They don't have a tactile "bump" which indicates a key press has been registered before the key reaches the bottom of the switch. The switches register their press at the bottom, making the "release" point (where the key starts to come back up) and the "actuation point" (where a press is registered) the same place. This smooth, solid up-and-down press style is generally preferred by gamers, and MX Black switches are often incorporated into mechanical keyboards aimed at that market. The design makes double-tapping keys easy, and there's absolutely no confusion about whether you pressed a key or didn't, or whether your click registered. However, using MX Black switches means you have to traverse the entire switch for a key press to register, which can be tiresome for regular typing, especially compared to other switches.
Notable Keyboards: You can find Cherry MX Black switches in the Steelseries 7G gaming keyboard, and in Steelseries' other mechanical gaming models. You'll also find MX Black switches in the ThermalTake Meka G Unit and the Meka G1 mechanical gaming keyboards. Older Ducky keyboard models were known to feature them as well, although they've been largely eliminated in favour of different switches on those models now.
Cherry MX Red
Cherry MX Red switches are also linear, top-to-bottom switches, like the MX Blacks, but they require far less actuation force to press the button all the way down to the bottom of the switch. As a result, the keys feel smoother and easier to use, and less tiring than the MX Blacks. A number of gaming keyboards also incorporate MX Reds, and they're especially popular with gaming keyboards designed to pull double-duty for work and play.
Notable Keyboards: Cherry MX Reds are widely available, and you can find them in the Corsair Vengence K60 gaming keyboard, the Max Nighthawk X9 backlit keyboard, and some older Ducky keyboard models. You can also find them in the "quiet" version of the Das Model S Professional keyboard.
Cherry MX Brown
Cherry MX Brown switches represent a hybrid between gaming and daily typing. They feature a soft, tactile bump near the middle of the key, which means you don't have to press the key all the way down to register a keypress. The result is that you'll spend less time pressing all the way down on the keys just to type, and you'll eventually type faster and with less effort. Some gamers prefer keyboards with actuation points in the middle of the switch because it makes double-tapping much easier (although you have to know precisely where the bump is to take advantage of it, and not knowing can lead to mis-taps). Since the bump is in the middle of the switch, you can "hover" over it, depressing the key just enough to not get to the actuation point, but far enough that even a slight twitch will register a keypress.
Notable Keyboards: Cherry MX Browns are some of the most popular on the market right now. You'll find them in the "Tactile-Soft" versions of the popular Das Model S Ulimtate and DAS Model S Professional keyboards. You'll also find MX Brown switches in Logitech's new entry to the mechanical keyboard market, the G710+ Mechanical Gaming Keyboard. The Razer BlackWidow Stealth Edition also uses Cherry MX Brown switches.
Cherry MX Blue
Cherry MX Blue switches are a typist's dream. Extremely popular for day-to-day typing, the MX Blues offer that audible, tactile "click" when the actuation point is hit. They're not great for twitch-typing or double-tapping because the release point for the switch is above the actuation point.
Cherry MX Green
Cherry MX Green switches are a tougher version of the MX Blues, which require a bit more force to press down and are designed to simulate even older, sturdier mechanical keyboards. These switches just hit the market last year, and feature both a tactile bump and an audible click at the actuation point, and you'll hear them both when you hit it. Unlike the Blues, the release and actuation points are in the same place.
Notable Keyboards: None just yet. You'll find some ThermalTake, Rosewill and Cooler Master models that feature MX Green switches, but they're only just starting to really come to market. Variations on the popular CM Storm Trigger keyboard and the Rosewill RK-9000 series keyboards are already in production, and some have made their way to lucky reviewers.
Cherry MX Clear
The Cherry MX Clear is a tough switch to find these days. They have a high actuation force, meaning you have to press the keys a bit harder than the other switch types to register a key press. They're stiffer and more solid than MX Brown switches, but built much like them. Some heavy typists like the MX Clears (when they can find them) because they offer a lot of tactile feedback when pressed.
Notable Keyboards: None. Cherry's own proprietary keyboards may still have some models with MX Clears in them, but you won't find them in most commonly available, well-recognised models and brands at this point. That doesn't mean they're not out there if you don't look hard enough, just that there are no notable models that include them right now.
For more detail on mechanical switch types and which ones are available in which types of keyboards, check out this guide from the fine folks on Das Keyboard, and this extremely helpful thread at Overclock.net. Both posts also go into detail about some other mechanical switch types you may encounter, such ALPS and Topre switches, which aren't as common but are still available if you're interested (for example, the extremely popular Happy Hacking Keyboard uses Topre switches). You may also head over to Geekhack.org, where the switch GIFs above originally came from. There's a huge, extremely knowledgable enthusiast community over there.
How To Choose The Right Mechanical Keyboard For You
Take into consideration how you plan to use the device — in this case whether it's for regular typing duty or for PC gaming — and how much you're willing to spend. For example, if you're on a budget, the Rosewill RK-9000 series are mechanical models with various switch types, so you can choose the switches you want in the keyboard before you buy it. Rosewill's models are typically under $100, so you're not breaking the bank on a mechanical keyboard.
If you have more to spend, you can move up to some of the named models we mentioned above, such as the Ducky Keyboards, the Das Keyboard, or the Razer Blackwidow. You can spend way more money if you're looking for precision typing. Filco's Majestouch keyboards, for example, are precision keyboards that last forever and are well-crafted, but you'll pay to find them and get them shipped to you.
The Noise Issue
Finally, we have to address the elephant in the room: Yes, mechanical keyboards are louder than their membrane and scissor switch counterparts. However, depending on the switches you get and the way you type, they don't have to be annoyingly loud. Depending on the switch type you get, a mechanical keyboard can be just as quiet as a scissor-switch keyboard, or even quieter once you learn to type without bottoming out on every keypress. Nonetheless, by and large, you'll definitely make more noise with a mechanical keyboard than with a standard keyboard.
As I was testing keyboards for this article, people I spoke to on Google Hangouts and Skype would remark about hearing the sound of my typing through the microphone with some mechanical models, but not others. For example, people definitely commented when I tested the Razer BlackWidow Ultimate, but not so much when I was hammering away at the standard Das Model S Professional, even though they both use the same switches. The sound of clicking away on a mechanical keyboard may be something you grow to love — but if you're planning on buying yours for a shared office or a cubicle farm, you may want to think about the type of switches you get. This is importa not just from a usability standpoint, but from a sound standpoint as well, to ensure you don't irritate everyone sitting around you. Some people do find the constant "clack-clack" of mechanical keys distracting, and aren't afraid to tell you so.
I've been researching this article for months, and as someone who didn't particularly mind membrane keys and actually liked scissor keys, I found myself growing to love mechanical keyboards pretty quickly, especially for gaming. I didn't see much of the error reduction that some people claim mechanical keyboards offer, but there's definitely something satisfying about hammering out a quick email or really getting that old-school click under each key you press while gaming — there's no ambiguity that you pressed that key. We won't tell you to replace all the keyboards for all of the computers you use with mechanical models, but if you do have a PC where you do some PC gaming or even heavy typing or working, and the idea of a mechanical, more robust, solid keyboard appeals to you, there are much worse ways to spend your money on computer peripherals than a keyboard upgrade.