Mechanical keyboard — 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 minimize 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 more certain 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). The biggest benefits of mechanical keyboards is that they’re durable and designed to stand up to 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. Many people who use a mechanical model on a daily basis will tell you “It’s just a more satisfying”. 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.
This is my favorite…