How To Choose The Best Mechanical Keyboard

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How To Choose The Best Mechanical Keyboard


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


individual, mechanical switches under every keythis Wikipedia article

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


  • 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


Cherry MX switchesTechquickie

Cherry MX Black


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.
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Cherry MX Red


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.
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Cherry MX Brown


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.
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Cherry MX Blue


Notable Keyboards: The Razer BlackWidow Ultimate uses MX Blue switches, as do the standard “clicky” versions of the Das Model S Professional and the Das Model S Ultimate keyboards.
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Cherry MX Green


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.
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Cherry MX Clear


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.
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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


Rosewill RK-9000 series

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


Yes, mechanical keyboards are louder than their membrane and scissor switch counterparts

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.

Pictures: Geoff Hill, Blake Patterson, Blake Patterson, Robert Freiberger, mirAcles (vrforums). Switch GIFs from GeekHack.org


This story has been updated since its original publication.

Comments

  • I already use a genuine 1994 IBM Model M. Apart from potentially softer key press sounds, are there any reasons I should ‘update’ to something more modern?

    • Unless you’re planning on using it for games, or it breaks, not really. The new keyboards are great, and often feature must more robust anti-ghosting, as well as features like media keys, backlighting, macro keys, etc. But as far as typing experience goes, unless you find the Model M fatiguing or otherwise not for you, it’s still a fantastic keyboard (I type this from a Blackwidow Ultimate 2013 edition)

  • I think the biggest problem with all these keyboards is there’s no-where to try them out. For something that is all about tactile feedback, buying before trying seems like a rather odd way to do it.

    • That was the biggest issue that I had as well. Luckily, I knew a guy that ran an online store selling mechanical keyboards and he loaned me a few keyboards to try out. It took about a week before I settled on the one with Cherry MX Blue switches and I’ve been using it ever since. I’d have never bought a mechanical keyboard without trying it out first.

      Such a shame that most brands aren’t readily available here. If Officeworks had a handful of Ducky keyboards sitting out to try, it’d make this a lot easier for people.

      • I’d suggest grabbing one of the cheaper keyboards with a mid-range switch such as the MX Cherry Blues or Reds. Once you’re happy with whether or not you like to “not bottom out” the keys, and the great feedback it provides, then you can feel more comfortable ponying up for more expensive keyboards / different switches (after some research of course), using your current keyboard as a reference.

    • Totally agree, even when looking at youtube clips of reviews its still hard to know what decision to make unless you can go and try them. Would love to find somewhere to try them out first because some of the top quality mechanical keyboards are pricey and I want to make the right decision first time around.

    • I was under the impressions Razer makes their own custom switches, Green and Orange. At least the 2016 and up models of mechanical Razer keyboards (and game pads) use their own custom switches, not Cherry’s.

  • One really important point you glossed over is;

    Every key on the keyboard has the same switch, meaning it takes exactly the same amount of force to reach the actuation distance (where the key activates), and that distance is the same on every single key. This will stay true for the life of the keyboard.

    This is in contrast to scissor and membrane keys where each key can require different pressure and actuation distance depending on use of that key (how many times have you seen people who have to smack the space bar or Enter to get it to work!?).

  • For me it’s all about preference. I don’t like using mechanical keyboards because of the extra distance the keys generally have to be pushed, and the excessive clunking sound. I don’t like touch screen because of the lack of feedback. Scissor keys on the other hand are juuuuust right.

    • Yeah, I can understand that. I used to HATE deep-key membrane keyboards (pretty much standard with every desktop setup) because of the long travel and bleh feeling, much preferred the scissor switches on my Thinkpad. But now that I’ve got this Cherry MX Blue setup, I can’t honestly say I enjoy tying on laptop keyboards. The Thinkpad boards still feel okay, but the current trend of ultra-shallow chicklet-style keyboards are just afwul to type on – I’d say I lose at least 20-30 WPM if I type on one of those.

  • I agree that I’d love to give these a go but would be wary of buying without trying. Wanting one mainly for typing, I’m thinking the Cherry MX Brown seems like a safe middle option?

    • Depends. The MX Browns are good, but I prefer the heavy clicking sound of the Blues. If you want something a bit more quiet, then yeah, the Browns are the way to go.

  • Any thoughts on if the heavy clicking is in any way distracting (especially when writing creatively)? Or does it form a nice white noise-ish effect?

    • I write a lot, and no, I don’t find the clicking noise distracting at all. Barely notice it. (I use the Tactile Pro by Matias) However, I’ve never felt I could buy one for use in my (open plan) office, as I’m fairly confident it would be distracting to other people.

      One caveat: when I’m transcribing audio interviews, I do need to use closed back headphones (rather than speakers or open headphones) to allow me to focus on the conversation and not be bothered by the clicking. But that’s the only scenario where the clicking is an issue.

  • Like others.. I don’t mind spending good $$$ on a good keyboard (and mouse) After all, here in 2013 it’s still the main interface with the computing experience – why save $50-100 and get a $20 keyboard that sucks when for $150-200++ you can get something great.

    I like scissor-switch keyboards but have always been too “afraid” to commit to a clunky-clunk mechanical board. Great to see there are now more options available than was case even just 5 years ago.

    Are all the best mechanical keyboards wired ? Or are there any really good wireless ones out there ? I really do prefer wireless keyboards for my desktop computers.

    • I have a KBTalking Pro with blue cherry keys. Can connect to up to 10 bluetooth devices, is wireless or USB. I usually use it wired to my laptop, but can hit Fn-1 to connect to my nexus 7, Fn-2 to connect to my smartphone, Fn-3 to connect to my wife’s iPad. Keyboard layouts are configurable (PC, Android or Mac/iOS). I’m surprised no one has mentioned it here yet. It is like the logitech that was advertised on Monday, only solid – and came out a year ago.

  • Just to note, blacks and reds dont register their press at the end of the traversal, but at the midpoint, as per the diagram. Only have to move them 2mm of the 4mm traversal.

    • As far as I know, all Cherry MX switches register at 2mm. The main differences between the switches is sound, tactile feedback and actuation force.

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