Mechanical Keyboards – What are you buying and why?
By happenstance my keyboard failed and I was left to search for a replacement. In my search I came across mechanical keyboards, now you may be wondering “What’s the difference between a normal keyboard and a mechanical keyboard?”, explaining the intricacies between them would take quite a long time. Short of it is this, majority of keyboards on the market (including “high-end gaming” keyboards) use the “Dome-Switch System” or “Membrane System” which is the same technology used in your standard remote controls. They’re designed to be cheap to make therefore maximizing profits for the manufacturer, this isn’t to say that they’re completely rubbish, they are still more than adequate for the task required of them but they will eventually fail and worst of all they will slowly degrade over time so typing on a brand new Dome-Switch/Membrane keyboard will feel different to the exact same keyboard after a couple years of use. Mechanical keyboards do not have this issue, mechanical keyboards that were manufactured a decade ago will feel the same today as they did then (as long as you’ve kept it clean and not spilled your coffee into it everyday) and the majority of mechanical keyboards are usually rated for approximately 20-50 million actions per key (this will of course vary depending on the switch) whereas the majority of Dome-Switch and Membrane keyboards are usually only rated for approximately 1-5 million actions per key.
This brings me onto the next point, cost. Mechanical keyboards are quite expensive, you will be looking at spending upwards of $120-$200 for a decent mechanical keyboard BUT when you take into account the life expectancy for it compared to the cheaper Dome-Switch/Membrane counterparts, the actual cost is not all that much different and in some cases can leave you ahead. You will get 5-10 times the lifetime out of a mechanical keyboard and during its entire lifetime it will still retain the same feel and typing action as the day you bought it. I know I personally would prefer to spend $120-$200 on a single keyboard as opposed to purchasing half a dozen $30-$80 keyboards (which if you want a decent keyboard for typing is what you’d be looking at paying). The main issue is finding the right mechanical keyboard for you as there are a few different types and I don’t mean different manufacturers (although yes this may be something for you to consider), I mean the mechanical switches themselves come in different flavors the most popular of which are manufactured by the Cherry Corporation. I could go into detail about other manufacturers and types of mechanical switches but for simplicities sake I’ll stick with the Cherry switches.
There are 5 Cherry MX switches each one referred to and differentiated by their color. Black, brown, blue, clear and red. Without going into detail for the moment, I’ll say they all differ slightly from each other. From how much force is required for key actuation, whether or not they have a tactile feel and how loud they are.
All of the above change the way each keyboard feels when typing on them. So why choose a mechanical keyboard and what one do you choose?
Well to start things off when typing on a regular Dome-Switch/Membrane keyboard you are required to “bottom out” the key you press, i.e. you press the key all the way to the bottom of the keyboard so that it registers your key press, this can create a lot of strain on your fingers. The equivalent would be lightly tapping a wall with your fist, it wouldn’t hurt at first but over a couple thousand repetitions (as is the case when you type thousands upon thousands of letters) you’re likely to feel it. Mechanical switches bypass this by having the key register before you bottom out the key which would be the same as half pressing keys on your current keyboard (that is if you own a non-cherry switch mechanical keyboard). This bypasses the strain on your fingers and also requires less energy since you don’t have to press the key as far.
As for which switch to choose, if you happen to type a lot (i.e. programmer/writer/blogger) then you will likely be looking at keyboards utilizing the MX Blue switches which have a tactile bump as soon as you have activated the key (activation point is halfway so you’ll feel the bump as you half press the key) and again when you release the key which gives you a very responsive feel while typing. If you’re a gamer then you’ll likely be looking at the MX Black switches, these switches lose the tactile bump when pressing the key because when gaming you’re likely to be bottoming out the keys anyway, the main reason for a gamer to choose a mechanical keyboard would be for the consistent quality and feel when pressing keys and the expected lifetime, from what I can see there wouldn’t be much other benefit for them. If you want something a little more balanced (i.e. you’re a gamer but like to type on forums and chat) then the MX Brown and/or White switches are probably most suited to you, they both have the tactile bump which happens as you activate the key (not as pronounced as the MX Blues) but not when you release it, this has lead to keyboard manufacturers labelling their MX Brown/White switch keyboards as “Silent” which is misleading, they still click quite audibly just not as loud and not when you release the key. Still these are the middle ground and what the majority of people should be looking at purchasing if looking for a first mechanical keyboard and are unsure of what they want. The difference between the Brown and White switches is the actuation force amount, the MX Browns are similar to the rest of its mechanical switch brethren whereas the MX Whites require a similar amount of force as you would use with a Dome-switch keyboard. Finally the MX Reds, these are apparently mostly obsolete switches and usually will only turn up in Limited Edition models (such as the Filco Majestouch Linear R). This switch falls more on the gaming side of the spectrum and is similar to the MX Black switch but requires much less force, so if you have chubby/stubby fingers or are poor at typing and tend to accidentally press buttons you were not meaning to press I would recommend not getting a keyboard that utilizes this type of switch as you’ll only find it frustrating to type on.
So those are the basics of Cherry-Switch mechanical keyboards. I hope at some point you give them a try because if you type a lot, they can give you a much more pleasant typing experience than you’d expect and give you less strain than most current keyboards on the market.