Mechanical keyboards are all the rage these days. Hardcore gamers and long-haul coders alike are flocking away from traditional membrane-based keyboards in favor of their more clicky-clacky competition. If you still haven’t hopped on the bandwagon, here’s everything you need to know.
How Keyboards Work
To understand what makes mechanical keyboards great, you must first understand how keyboards work. At its most basic, any keyboard (mechanical or otherwise) works pretty much as you would expect it to: you hit a key, that keystroke is registered by the electronics in your board, and sends it to your PC, where it turns into text. What separates the different styles of keyboards, though, is how those strikes are actually communicated to your board.
Most standard boards use what’s known as a “membrane” system, where a thin film of dome-shaped rubber or silicone separates the key from the top of the keyboard’s electrical circuits. When you press a key, the membrane depresses, allowing the two contacts to meet and the keystroke to register with the computer. As such, the key only has two positions: up or down. You can’t really press a key down halfway.
In mechanical keyboards, however, there is no membrane. Instead, each strike is handled by an actual mechanical switch that slides up and down. Each individual key is its own self-contained system, complete with the key, a metal actuator, and a spring that depresses on a stroke and returns the key back to its un-pressed state after a successful strike. The keyboard registers a keypress when the key is halfway down–not when it bottoms out completely.
Why Mechanical Keyboards Are Great
In a word: flexibility.
Membrane-based boards pretty much offer one of two choices in how the keys respond: rubber or silicone (which doesn’t make all that much of a difference when typing). Mechanical keyboards, on the other hand, come in many different types of switches. Some are harder to press, some have more tactile feedback, and so on. With so many choices, you can personally choose your board based on your usage and typing style.
As technology continues its inexorable march forward, we find ourselves spending more time sat down at our keyboards than ever before. Mechanical keyboards give users the option to acutely target exactly what they need from a board, and buy accordingly. If you’re a hard typer (like myself) and bottom out immediately on every strike, there are switches that are made to accommodate that. If you type light and quick and don’t find yourself making too many typos over the workday or during a gaming session, there are switches for that, too.
Those switches also allow for more keystrokes at once than many traditional dome keyboards, which is great for gamers. This functionality is described as “rollover” and high-end keyboards will be advertised as having “n-rollover” where “n” is the maximum number of keys that can be simultaneously pressed. Never again will you have to deal with a key not registering because you were pressing down too many keys at once.
Lastly, since mechanical keyboards use more durable switches, they tend to last significantly longer under any typing conditions. The average rating for a membrane key is about 10 million keystrokes before it finally starts to give way, while mechanical keys are rated at an average of 50 millions strokes. This means that a mechanical keyboard could potentially last five times as long. You would need to type out the entire collected works of Shakespeare 2,663 times just to break 50 million keystrokes on the “E” key.
Of course, all that comes at a price. Mechanical keyboards are always going to be slightly more expensive on average due to the parts required to manufacture them. They generally range anywhere from $50-$200, depending on the features and design. So a $20 membrane keyboard may be better if you’re on a serious budget, but $50 for a keyboard that lasts five times as long is a good deal–especially since you have so many choices.
That said, membrane-style keyboards do have one big benefit over their mechanical counterparts. Because of the way the mechanical switches are constructed, you won’t find them in slim designs like Apple’s chiclet keyboard, or Logitech’s slim K740. For anyone who has shorter fingers or finds themselves struggling with hand fatigue on standard keys, flat keys can provide a more relaxing alternative that make for less travel distance between the top of each key whenever you need to reset on a new word. Plus, they’re a bit easier to transport, if you’re moving them around a lot.
The Different Types of Mechanical Switches
Since there are so many different types of mechanical switches, it helps to know the basics before you go out shopping for a keyboard. The most common switches include Cherry MX Blue, MX Brown, MX Clear, MX Red, and MX Black. Cherry (now Cherry US) has been the king of keyboard switches since the early 1960’s, and if you grew up typing on old clunky IBM keyboards, you’re probably already familiarized with various products the company has put out over the years. (There are other companies that make their own switches, but we’ll get into later).
There are two main differences between switches. The first is what’s called the “actuation force” (measured in “cN”), which determines how much pressure you need to put on the key for it to move. In theory, the less actuation force necessary, the faster you can type. The more force necessary, however, the more difficult it might be to get a keystroke to register, which can translate to increased overall accuracy.
MX Blue: 60cN, MX Brown: 55cN, MX Clear: 65cN
The benefit of a more resistant actuator is that it can prevent typos when your finger slips and you accidentally graze the wrong key. This is also a potential boon for gamers who need the most precision possible when blasting baddies out of the sky. This can also increase strain for longer typing sessions, though, which means that if you mainly use your keyboard for coding or data entry, you might want to stick to lighter switches instead.
The second differentiator is the amount of audible or tactile feedback you’ll get from the keyboard, which indicates when a key has “registered”. Audible feedback works just as you’d imagine: the key has a small piece of metal that “clicks” when the key has completed the full travel distance necessary to register a strike. Similarly, tactile feedback works off a small “bump”, one that pushes back on the key. That way, you can “feel” when a keystroke has gone through.
MX Red: 45cN, MX Black: 60cN
Different styles of switches will offer different combinations of this feedback. Cherry MX Blues come with a tactile bump and a loud clicking noise, while Browns and Clears offer a bump with less noise. Reds and Blacks, which are generally designed for gaming, have no tactile bump, which makes them great for quick keypresses and double-tapping. MX Browns fall more in the middle, offering a small bump. And while it could be said that one switch is “better” than another for a particular application, in the end which switch is right for you will ultimately come down to personal preference. The best way to know what’s going to be right for you is to get down to your local electronics store and try a few different options out for yourself to see what flows best.
Cherry MX switches aren’t the only options out there, though they are the most popular across the largest number of boards. Both Logitech and Razer manufacture their own proprietary switches in their products, all of which still align with the same technical balance between actuation force, audible feedback, and tactile bumps. So keep that in mind as you shop as well.
The best thing about mechanical keyboards is that unlike their membrane-based competition, there are several different types of keys that cater to every kind of typist, gamer, or programmer out there. If you require as much feedback as possible and like a loud keyboard that tells everyone in a ten-mile radius that you’re getting your work done at 85 words-per-minute, go ahead and pick up a board equipped with MX Blue switches. If you want to keep decibel levels a bit stealthier however, there are plenty of keyboards out there with MX Brown switches instead.
No matter which style you eventually choose, it’s hard not to see the many benefits and levels of personal customization that mechanical keyboards can offer for every member of your office or household.