Mechanical keyboards are mysterious and confusing, until I bought my own. You may ask, "Why would I want one?". In this article we will go through all the basic and a bit beyond, to help you understand and choose a good mechanical keyboard.
Like playing games?Mechanical keyboards are not only for gamers. It is a popular choice for gamers and generally anyone who types a lot. I am a programmer and a gamer, I type more than I write and switching to a good keyboard made a big difference.
The most noticeable change is you type faster with less mistakes. It feels better and the keyboard is also extremely durable.
Membrane vs. Mechanical KeyboardsMost keyboards are membrane keyboards, in which the keys sit on a silicone membrane. When you press a key you squeeze on the silicone and it springs back up as you lift your finger.
Mechanical keyboards have individual spring switches under each key which clicks into place when you press it. Our fingertips are sensitive enough to use this click to confirm if a key has been pressed. Such haptic feedback is very subtle and muted on membrane keyboards making it easier to miss a key without noticing. Therefore every stroke made on a mechanical keyboard feels more confident and errors are easily detected even if you are not looking at the screen.
What is on the market?Mechanical keyboards are not something you would find in an ordinary computer store. Mechanical keyboards can easily cost over a US$100 and there are two key components, the key caps and key switches.
|Top : Key Caps|
Middle : Switches
Bottom : optional sound dampener
Key SwitchesAlmost all mechanical keyboards use key switches made by Cherry MX. The following table shows four of the most popular switches, each slightly different. A bumpy switch will let you feel the key clicks into place. Some users prefer a "linear travel" where the pressure remains constant, and they would prefer Red/Black switches. The higher the actuation force, the harder you will need to press on the keys. Even the difference is only 5g or 10g, you can really feel the difference so its best to try them out.
How do you choose the right switch for you is a highly personal matter. It is the best to find a store and try them out in person.
Some switches have actuation and release points at the exact same spot, this is designed to make it faster for double tapping. Blue switches for example, have the release point higher than the actuation point. It is not something that bothers me since I don't double tap a lot in the games that I play and the distinct tactile feeling of the blue switch feels best to me.
If you press say 10 keys at once, the keyboard's signal will "jam" and some keys will not register. This is the case for most membrane keyboards. A keyboard with a feature called N-Key Rollover do not have this problem. Note that not all mechanical keyboards have this feature so make sure you check if you absolutely need it. A good example is when playing music games where you often have to press 4-5 keys down at once. However, most games simply are not played in such fashion and N-Key rollover will not make a difference.
While almost all brands use Cherry MX switches, Cherry actually has released their own mechanical keyboards. The Cherry keyboards are cheaper and I have seen them in store for under US$70. However it seems that they only come with low key caps. As that is not what I like I ended up choosing a Filco.
Keyboard Layout and Special KeysChoosing the keyboard layout is definitely the #1 priority for me. I need a full size keyboard with number pad (also known as 10 keys), I use arrows key a lot when coding so they cannot be cramped up with keys like Delete, Page Up and Page Down. I also use my function keys (F1-F12). Most keyboards arrange them in groups of four but the spacing varies. I like the 'F1' as close to '2' as possible otherwise reaching F4 and beyond will be a stretch. You also want to look at the size of special keys (shift, caps lock, enter, alt etc) as it may be vastly different to what you are used to.
Other featuresMedia keys (play/pause, volume up/down) are not as important but are nice to have. Some keyboard has built-in USB and audio ports, but for my desktop setup I will not need those.
LED back-lit key caps are really cool. They are more expensive but on some model you can control the brightness, turn each key's LED on and off, or even the colour of the LED individually. You can light up the keys that are hard to reach, or put them in a different colour so they stand out. It's amazing how you can customize it.
Key Caps and customization
The shape of the caps does matter as not all keys have the same shape. On my Filco for example, the three rows of alphabets are shaped differently to give a nice ergonomic curve. So if I switch 'Q' with 'A' or 'S' with 'X', it will be awkward and they will not be in-line with the adjacent keys. Same for key caps with no labels, you would think that you can attach them anywhere since they have no labels anyway, however the fact that they are all slightly different in shape means that you will have to put them in specific location.
PerformanceFrom time to time I do a few typing speed tests and I went from about 88 WPM to 97 WPM switching to my mechanical keyboards from a membrane keyboard. This is just for fun and when I am programming I cannot think faster than I type so a high WMP is like driving a Ferrari in a traffic jam, it simply will not make me write code faster. Speed aside, it is actually so much better to type on a mechanical keyboard. It feels very precise and reliable. Just after one day of using my mechanical keyboard, I tried to type on my old membrane keyboard and it felt like the keys were very slow, spongy and unresponsive. The sound does not bother me much but if you have really stressed co-workers, adding a clicky mechanical keyboard may just raise his blood pressure a little bit further.
Where to buy, understand moreMost of the brands have an official website and you can easily order online, however definitely go try them out and see how each switch feels. I am from Hong Kong and there is a shop I can recommend, they have a lot of brands to choose from and they have most keyboards on display so you can try them out. [ Shop xxx , 2/F, Wan Chai Computer Centre]
Buying second hand mechanical keyboards
Mechanical keyboards are durable, so durable that it will easily last for decades. In fact, one of the most highly praised, almost legendary, mechanical keyboard is the IBM Model M from the 1990s. It uses a buckling spring design for the switches instead. Used IBM Model M can be found on eBay for a really good price. It almost never breaks and people would grab them even if it was made over 20 years ago. When was the last time you see a piece of computing hardware lasts over 10 years? With some luck you can get one from ebay for as little as US$20, just clean it up and it will simply be the best keyboard you will ever use.
About meI have played many FPS and I also play Starcraft II. I am currently on Gold in SEA server, add me on battle net and maybe we can play some games together :)
|My Filco with blue switch :)|
A cool typing speed test web app :
My best was 97 WPM on my Filco. I find typing speed test a cool way to sharpen my mind. Sometimes when I get stuck on a programming problem or a bug, I do a couple of typing speed tests just to clear my mind. After that I can usually think more clearly and have a better focus. Give it a try but don't get too addicted. Happy typing!
Find out moreA good website with lots of info and nice web app to help you choose
Wikipedia - IBM Model M
They have a really sweet online store that offers individually customized key caps. Choose from different colours, symbols, font, font sizes and logos. They also let you upload your own design.
A neat video showcase of a lot of the most popular mechanical keyboards
Another nice short video from the same guy
Two rather technical but in-depth articles covering more switch types explaining the constructions of the switches: