When we talk about mechanical keyboards, we need to remember that a mechanical keyboard isn’t a brand new piece of technology; in fact, mechanical keyboards were manufactured and widely distributed and used five decades ago – which equates to half of a century. They were very popular in the 1970s and 1980s era, especially with popular IBM computers, such as the IBM Personal Computer Model 5150, which were released during the early and primitive decades of computing technology. Unfortunately, mechanical keyboards soon lost their fame to a cheaper and more economical type of keyboard which took both the stage and the spotlight away in the early 1990s. They didn’t stand a chance against the competition and there was a huge cutback in the production of mechanical keyboards during the takeover.
Fast forward a few decades and thanks to the persevering efforts of a company called Cherry, the mechanical keyboard market has been revived with modern technology and flair. Corsair, Das, Fujitsu, Logitech, Asus and many other tech companies have all taken part in the production of mechanical keyboards for many purposes from professional typing to hardcore gaming. And to add delicious icing to the top of the mouth-watering cake, they are surprisingly disappearing off the shelves. So what’s all the buzz about mechanical keyboards? I will take you on a tour through the world of mechanical keyboards and bestow some tech-divine wisdom for when you’re ready to purchase your own mechanical keyboard.
Mechanical Keyboards vs Membrane Keyboards
Before we take a closer look at mechanical keyboards, let us first of all examine the cheaper and more economical keyboards which have replaced mechanical keyboards for almost three decades: let me introduce you to Membrane Keyboards.
Membrane keyboards are keyboards which make use of layers of thin membranes, instead of mechanical parts, for the recognition of key presses. Going deeper into the mechanics, membrane keyboards consist of two membranes, a top membrane and a bottom membrane separated by a thin space. The bottom membrane consists of conductive traces running along its surface below each key while the top membrane has a conductive material along its bottom surface. When a key is pressed, it pushes the top membrane upon the bottom membrane, causing the conductive material along the bottom surface of the top membrane to connect the nodes on the bottom membrane. The circuit under the key becomes closed and the keyboard recognizes that the key was pressed; upon release, the top membrane moves back into position and the circuit becomes open once again.
Today’s computer keyboards are using hybrid versions of membrane keyboards to provide users with a close as possible mechanical keyboard experience. One of such hybrids is the Dome-shaped Membranes which are popular with most desktop computer keyboards and feature a small dome-shaped rubber mount over the top membrane. The Logitech G213 Gaming Keyboard is a popular Membrane Keyboard using Dome-shaped Membranes. Another hybrid is the Scissors Switch used popularly in the keyboards of portable laptop computers.
Now traversing on the other side of the fence, Mechanical Keyboards involve the use of mechanical parts in order to recognize a key press. The mechanical parts come in the form of small switches placed under each key on the keyboard and each switch contains two conductive materials, a plastic head called a “stem” and a spring at the bottom of the stem for retraction back to normal position. Pressing a key forces the plastic stem within the switch downwards, which causes the conductive materials to contact and close the circuit so that the key press is registered.
Now that we understand both types of keyboards, let’s explore their advantages. Membrane keyboards were in such high demand because they were more affordable and cheaper to manufacture than mechanical keyboards, relatively quieter and much lighter in weight which made them more portable. On the flipside, the beauty of mechanical keyboards is the fact that you don’t have to press any key all the way down in order for it to be registered as a key press, which is an enormous advantage over membrane keyboards. In addition, they have a longer lifespan, they do not have parts like rubber that wears away easily, they are easier to clean and they provide easy and robust customization of keys. Selecting a mechanical keyboard provides you with many benefits, however, you will be making an investment by purchasing a more expensive and heavier device, so let me help you get through the purchase of your electronic device.
Form Factor (Keyboard Size)
The first property to investigate when purchasing a mechanical keyboard is form factor, which determines both the size of the keyboard and the number and layout of the keys. Since the explosion of mechanical keyboards about a decade ago, the number of keyboard form factors on the market also exploded as manufacturers attempt to cater to the different preferences of all computer users. So let’s take a look at the main form factors of mechanical keyboards on the market from largest to smallest and examine their distinctions.
First off is the Full Size Keyboard or the 100% Keyboard, which is basically the standard size keyboard that we are all familiar with. The Full Size keyboard has the 104 keys (USA) layout including the alphanumeric keys, control keys, function keys, navigation keys and the numeric keypad all spaced out in the standard keyboard layout. This is the standard form factor of keyboards used for both productivity and gaming by people who want a traditional keyboard to practically get things done without compromising size or keys. If you want the standard keyboard size and layout, then the Full Size keyboard is the best form factor for you to purchase along the lines of the Filco Majestouch 2 Mechanical Keyboard.
If you want a mechanical keyboard with all the keys of the standard keyboard but a less compact layout, then the Cherry G80-1800 Compact Keyboard is a great alternative. This Cherry keyboard is an example of a 1800 Compact Keyboard form factor. The 1800 Compact Keyboard form factor consists of all 104 keys of the standard keyboard brought closer together with some of the navigation keys bundled with the numeric keypad and the directional keys meshed between the keypad and the alphanumeric keys.
Both form factors mentioned above have all the 104 keys of the standard keyboard, however, the remaining form factors below will eliminate certain keys in order to create a more compact keyboard layout to save desk space. As the experts have mentioned, a smaller keyboard layout reduces the distance your hands need to move between your keyboard and your mouse. The TKL or the TenKeyLess Keyboard is the most popular form factor of compact keyboards with the Fujitsu Realforce R2 RGB keyboard as a popular example of such a keyboard. The TKL Keyboard is basically a standard keyboard without the numeric keypad for computer users who can do without the keypad without compromising productivity and experience. These keyboards have become a popular choice because you don’t need to learn a new layout as it is basically the same as a standard keyboard, they save desk space and their compact design makes them portable.
The form factors of mechanical keyboards smaller than the TKL Keyboards are represented as percentages rather than names.
The 75% Keyboard form factor is a more compact version of the TKL Keyboard with all spaces between the keys removed; the layout of this form factor is similar to the keyboard layout on many laptop computers. Similar to the Keychron K2 Wireless Keyboard, 75% Keyboards have the alphanumeric keys, the function keys and the directional keys, but few control and navigation keys have been removed.
We can go smaller to the 65% Keyboard form factor which removes the function keys and a few more control and navigation keys, but keeping the directional keys; and then the 60% Keyboards which is basically a keyboard possessing only the alphanumeric keys. The Ducky One 2 SF RGB Keyboard is top-quality example of a 65% Keyboard form factor.
I will only make mention of the 40% Keyboard form factor which is an alphanumeric keyboard without the numeric row of keys.
Any keyboard with a form factor smaller than the 75% Keyboard is not recommended for the average computer user, but for those who prefer a compact and portable input device to complete the most basic keyboard functionalities by removing all other keys which are considered distractions and unnecessary. I would greatly recommend keyboards of the 75% Keyboard form factor and higher, unless of course, you have a desire for the lower form factors.
Types of Switches
Now that we’ve gotten the form factor out of the way, we can now focus on the second property to investigate when purchasing mechanical keyboards; the type of Switch used. Remember that under each key of a mechanical keyboard is a switch that recognizes when its corresponding key is pressed. There are many different kinds of switches on the market, with Cherry MX switches holding the reign as the most popular, yet they can all be classified under three different categories: Clicky switches, Linear switches and Tactile switches. Let us take a look at each type of switch while using the Cherry MX Switches as examples.
Tactile switches provide tactile feedback when the key hits the actuation point. Remember that the switches under the keys don’t have to be entirely pressed in for it to be registered as a key press; the actuation point is the depth at which the stem of the switch must be pressed for it to be registered as a key press, which is about 2mm for Cherry MX switches. The feedback is in the form of a small bump that is felt when the key reaches the actuation point which alerts you that the key press was registered. Over time, the tactile feedback will eventually prevent you from fully pressing the keys, allowing for faster and more accurate key presses. As a result, tactile switches are recommended for fast-paced action gamers and very fast typists who want to achieve the highest possible typing speeds. The Cherry MX Brown is a popular tactile switch used in the Das Keyboard 4 Professional keyboard for a low-noise, full-sized keyboard experience with tactile feedback.
Next on the list are Clicky switches. Clicky switches produce a click sound when the key reaches the actuation point. Unlike tactile switches which provide feedback felt by the user, Clicky switches provide feedback in the form of a sound. Similarly, the audible feedback also prevents you from fully pressing the keys over time for quicker key presses; they are highly recommended for professional typists who find the clicking sound satisfying and helpful in their line of work. Alternatively, clicky switches can sometimes become annoying to the average person when exposed to the clicking sound for an extended period of time – so use with caution. The Cherry MX Blue Clicky switches are available for use with⁰ the HyperX Alloy FPS Pro Gaming Keyboard.
Finally, linear switches are the least common types of switches as they neither provide a tactile nor audible feedback when the actuation point is reached – no feedback whatsoever. Persons using keyboards with linear switches never seem to recognize that the key was pressed until they have fully pressed the key or there is a visual or audible feedback from the computer. Lack of feedback is the ultimate reason for the unpopularity of linear switches and they are not recommended for gamers who play fast-paced action games or productive typists. In fact, I would not recommend linear switches as tactile or audible feedback is important if you want to improve your overall response on the keyboard. The Cherry MX Black and Cherry MX Red are two examples of linear switches with the Red requiring a little less force to push the keys downwards to the actuation point.
There are other manufactures of switches that use a similar color coding as the Cherry MX switches while some manufacturers have created their own color schemes.
Almost to the end of the guide, we are going to be examining some features which are primarily based on your personal preferences. Of course, I will give my continued recommendations.
Some mechanical keyboards feature a backlight for illumination of the device as an aesthetics style or for effective use of the keyboard in dark or low lit rooms. Backlighting for some keyboards utilizes a single color (such as the Razer Pro Type Keyboard with features white backlight), a few colors or the full slate of RGB colors showing as many as 16.8 million colors for an extra $50 on the bill. For gamers who want a colourful style for their gaming rigs, I would recommend that you purchase a keyboard that synchronizes with your motherboard’s RGB lighting effect for an environment that speaks out. Backlighting is always a yes in my book for continued gaming and productivity during the night.
The wrist rest is an attachment to the keyboard which provides an area to comfortably place your wrist while using the electronic device. Most top-of-the-line keyboards like the SteelSeries Apex 7 TKL Keyboard features an attached wrist rest for comfortable use. I highly recommend purchasing a keyboard with a wrist rest as it will heavily reduce the occurrence of wrist pain felt after long hours of keyboard use. Keyboards with the wrist rest attachment only cost a few extra dollars, but they are definitely worth it.
Most mechanical keyboards feature a wire emerging from the device which connects directly to the computer or other electronics via a USB port; such keyboards are called wired keyboards. Other keyboards feature a USB port on the device, usually a Micro-USB or USB-C port, which you connect to the computer using a standard USB cable. The wired keyboard is a much better buy since the wire is usually of top-quality and USB ports occasional malfunctions.
Some devices offer other USB ports which function as a USB pass-through for connecting other devices, such as the mouse, to the keyboard rather than directly to the computer. This is a beneficial feature to desire in a keyboard, but not a necessity, except if you’re a hardcore gamer who requires as many USB ports as possible.
Additionally, wireless keyboards experience something called “response lag” which most people will find annoying. Response lag is a small delay in which your computer will receive whenever you press something on your keyboard. To avoid this completely, go with a wired keyboard. However, big companies such as Logitech’s Lightspeed and Razer’s Hyperspeed have more or less ameliorated this lag issue when using their premium products.
In my opinion, the word “wireless” grants keyboards a cool name with a bit of flair. Wireless keyboard uses Bluetooth wireless technology to connect to computers, smart TVs and other devices. They are advantageous in providing a greater usable distance between the keyboard and the connected device while eliminating the cord. Wireless keyboards provide another means of connection, but why the hassle to connect wirelessly when a simple USB plug in does the trick? And don’t forget about the occasional changing or recharging of batteries. I would always endorse wired keyboards over wireless keyboards since you don’t have to worry about battery life or spend extra money on keyboards with internal rechargeable batteries.
Now that we’re at the end of this guide, I hope that you have been enlightened and ready to purchase a mechanical keyboard. Not to be biased, but I would like to recommend an extremely great, top-quality keyboard which you can consider if you want the most out of mechanical keyboards; the Corsair K95 RGB Platinum Keyboard. This full-sized keyboard made by Corsair comes with either a selection of Cherry MX Brown switches for tactile feedback or the linear Cherry MX Silent switches for low-noise productivity. It features RGB backlighting able to show colors from a palette of 16.8 million colors, an detachable wrist rest, dedicated media controls to control volume and playback, a USB pass-through and 6 programmable macro keys on the left hand side of the device. The K9 Platinum is a must-have gaming keyboard for under $200.
Looking for a smaller keyboard?… the Keychron K2 keyboard (mentioned earlier) is a decent 75% form factor keyboard with a high-quality build. To get the ball rolling, the K2 is compatible with both Windows and Mac operating systems, which is a major advantage over many other keyboards. Mac users will surely find this keyboard appealing since it has a multimedia key layout for Mac computers. Additionally, this keyboard is also wireless and easily connects and switches between three different devices via Bluetooth. The Keychron K2 is a great, overall compact keyboard for everyday use.
If you’re into wireless keyboards, the Logitech G915 Lightspeed RGB Keyboard is one of the best wireless mechanical keyboards on the market. This full-sized, slim keyboard has an amazing battery life and you have a choice between Logitech’s Romel-GL Clicky, Linear or Tactile switches. It features full RGB lighting, dedicated macro keys and dedicated media controls. The attractive feature of the Logitech G915 is its battery, which can give you more than 30 hours of use on a single charge with RGB lighting on, which is extremely great for a wireless keyboard. Along with excellent wireless connectivity, the Logitech G915 is the perfect choice for a wireless keyboard.
Don’t have the budget to spend on a high-end mechanical keyboard?… purchase the SteelSeries Apex 5 Hybrid Mechanical keyboard, a full-sized mechanical keyboard for an affordable price of under $100. It consists of hybrid switches which are similar to both clicky and tactile switches with RGB lighting under each key. You will be able to set macros, reprogram keys, use the built-in OLED screen and place your wrist comfortably on its detachable wrist rest; all these features on a keyboard for under $100 – a bargain you shouldn’t pass up.
If not interested in any of the choices given, feel free to explore all the available mechanical keyboards on the market and find one that matches with your needs and preferences.