What is a mechanical keyboard and should you get one?
What goes into a mechanical keyboard? Are they better than conventional keyboards? Why should you get one, and which keyboard to choose?
So you have stumbled upon a cool looking keyboard online, and have no idea what it is other than someone wrote that it's a mechanical keyboard. However, what is a mechanical keyboard and how does it differ from the one on your laptop or desktop computer? Mechanical keyboards were here before their contemporary counterparts and their mechanics haven’t changed all that much. Various keyboards might differ in specifics, however, the underlying principles have remained. As you press a key, the circuit is completed and the chip on the keyboard sends a signal to the computer, which interprets the specific signal as a command or a character depending on its settings. So what is the reasoning behind spending a lot of money on one?
A tiny bit of keyboard history first
The keyboards we know today are a product of the 19th and 20th centuries. Keyboards available with the early computers were made in a time when most people used typewriters or similar devices for their typing and communication needs. At the time computers were quite slow and niche products, most users still haven’t seen the need to purchase one. Keyboards were sold alongside or integrated into the computers with a very small choice on the market. Therefore the keyboard you got with the computer was the one you were pretty much stuck with, especially when the computer and keyboards were integrated into a single device. As the development of computers progressed so did keyboards. First computer keyboards were quite complicated to manufacture and required new and innovative tooling. In addition, keyboards were expected to last longer than the contemporary, and much more disposable counterparts. This increased the cost of a keyboard even more.
Over the years the layouts and technologies got standardized and therefore going from one type of keyboard to another became a painless process for the most part. At the same time standardization and higher market penetration brought the pricing to a much more manageable level.
Some of the most notable names in the history of keyboards are IBM and Cherry. IBM, a pioneer of commercial and personal computers, needed to equip their machines with input devices. Therefore they designed a couple of models, most notably the Model M and Model F, both using the buckling spring switch technology. As their popularity grew, their keyboards became the de facto standard or benchmark. Many keyboard enthusiasts use an IBM keyboard to this day. And a few companies tried to relaunch the notorious Model M keyboard by IBM with various levels of success. Currently, the company Unicomp is manufacturing and selling licensed Model M inspired keyboards.
Later on, the company now known as Cherry started making custom terminals for businesses among other things. In the process they developed a product that forever affected the keyboard community. The Cherry MX keyboard switch. The switches became available in the 1980s, mostly being integrated into Cherry products, and gradually expanded both in the number of switch options, as well as, in the number of products with the switches integrated by third parties. Many keyboard manufacturers use the Cherry MX in their products since they were praised for their feel, precision, and durability (number of actuations/key presses) until this day.
As time went on, two things happened which again changed the market. Manufacturers of PCs and PC peripherals wanted to offer a cheaper product for the masses and developed what we know as rubber dome keyboards on the desktop side. At the same time, portable computers needed a switch type with a much smaller footprint and therefore companies started integrating a scissor-switch in their products. While users got keyboards that are extremely cheap, low-profile, and available everywhere, they had to get accustomed to a product with an inferior typing feel, durability, and ergonomics. Making mechanical keyboards a mostly obscure technology reserved for business use, enthuisiasts, and later on gamers. As time went on, the MX switch patent of the aforementioned Cherry expired, which started a landslide of new companies developing “clone” switches. Most of these switches became inter-compatible, creating a standard among keyboard manufacturers in the process.
In case you would like to go deeper into the history of keyboards, we recommend visiting deskthority.net/wiki/ and many wikipedia articles about the history of personal computers.
So are mechanical keyboards just better?
Well, it depends. Some mechanical keyboards are really great tools for the task, while others might be utter trash. Mechanical keyboards can be great for the amount of tactility and feedback they can provide to the user. Keypresses require a fairly precise and deep motion and therefore it trains the user to focus more on the typing at first. The keys are of standardized sizes and positions, which enables users to improve both the precision and speed of typing. Under ideal circumstances, users should be able to type without the need to look at the keyboard (touch-typing) at fairly high speed. Nevertheless, even if you do not learn how to touch-type you are able to enjoy the benefits. Keyboards can be fairly stimulating as each keypress is followed by sound and vibration caused by both the switch and the contact with the board’s plate or circuits. While each keyboard might feel different there is something for everyone.
When it comes to the process of picking your first mechanical keyboard it really depends on your preference, white it is probably recommended to start with something cheaper and more accessible in order to understand what you like and see what you might be interested in trying next. Then there is the manufacturer, how much care and time they put into the development of the product, and what kind of price and audience they want to target. Unfortunately, it is hard for me to recommend a random cheap mechanical keyboard with a ton of RGB LEDs, while it might be an upgrade from your basic membrane keyboard you got with your computer, the final experience might just be substandard. The switches might be low quality, the keycaps might crack easily, or the body of the board could start to fall apart as you rage quit after a lost game of ___ (insert the name of a rage-inducing game). On the flipside, recently quite a few manufacturers and keyboard designers are bringing new, enthusiast-grade options to much lower price points. Therefore, enthusiast grade keyboards are becoming much more accessible.
Which mechanical keyboard should I get?
There are a few fairly cheap Chinese keyboards/keyboard brands that have been rising in popularity and offer a good balance between features and quality. You might have seen keyboards or brands such as Keychron, Poker, GK61, AKKO, and others. While all of these boards have their quirks, they provide you with a good experience and cost usually less than $100. With newer versions supporting enthusiast features such as hot-swap switch sockets, macro-programming, etc.
Then there are larger companies that focus mostly on the gamers in their marketing and feature sets. Companies such as Ducky, Drevo, Corsair, HyperX, Cooler Master, Logitech, and many more produce quite feature-packed keyboards. Many of these boards have more LEDs than an average Christmas tree, the ability to program lighting effects, even sync them to your gaming PC and other peripherals. However, they tend to compromise on the quality of materials and build. The pricing for these goes from around $30 to $250 depending on the brand and product line. While some of their products might be quite great, you can easily find so-called bad apples. Therefore be careful if you are in the market for a “gaming” keyboard, and make sure to do your research beforehand.
Some of the hard-core mechanical keyboard enthusiasts condemn these products and mark them as inferior to a custom solution. Nevertheless, whether you prefer these keyboards to full custom boards is completely up to the customer. Many would prefer going to the store and picking up a complete product, rather than waiting for a group-buy, or in-stock drop, and then wait for a few months just to get the exact desired configuration. Others will rather take their time and carefully pick the right components for their needs. The market of customs is quite literally filled with options. There are differences in the feel, sound, features, as well as, looks of the components.
Besides, custom mechanical keyboards may hold both sentimental and monetary value, as many of the components are made to order with a limited number of units on the market. Once you miss out on a group-buy, it might be extremely hard to get a hold of a specific product. These items often end up being sold online (secondary market) for two to three times the original price depending on the popularity among the community members.
I am starting to see your point, but what exactly makes a mechanical keyboard a custom?
While there are probably many possible answers out there, I would rather stay fairly politically correct and say that most keyboards that have some sort of third party and enthusiast-grade parts or have been customized to a person's linking would count as a custom keyboard. These might be things such as lubing and modding your stabilizers, changing the switches, even replacing new keycaps. Custom keyboards might have as much or as little work done to them as you want to. While some might disagree, in the end, it is very much about the user of the keyboard to see whether they need or want a certain feature. Nevertheless, the nearly endless choice in the world of customs gives us the power to focus on the tiniest details. Let’s just say you are not a fan of the looks, you can change the keycaps or paint the case. You might dislike how a board sounds, then mod the stabilizers, replace switches, or fill the case with some type of foam to get rid of a hollow sound.
Nevertheless, the holy grail of customs is the ability to make your own keyboard. For this, you need to have a very particular set of skills or know people who have them and willingness to help you realize your dreams. Or you know, just google stuff. Keyboard enthusiasts who decide to design their own keyboards mostly make them just for their own needs, with just a single keyboard being the end product, plus maybe a few prototypes. Other designers start with an idea for a keyboard and systematically work on creating a product for others to purchase and enjoy. Many of these keyboards come in limited runs, sometimes of just 30 units or less. There is probably no need to mention this, but these limited-run keyboards also tend to get crazy expensive and usually only appreciate in value on the aftermarket if you ever get to see one there. Most custom keyboard designers pour their heart and soul into their products to finetune every aspect of their board. From the aesthetics to features currently in demand, some even look at the sound aspects of the board and choose the material accordingly. The best part of this is that each designer is a little different and they might make distinct decisions in the design process. Therefore the customers have many options with much likelihood of finding the one. Although, it's never just one, trust me on that.
What goes into a mechanical keyboard?
As previously mentioned, keyboards and especially mechanical keyboards are quite simple devices in both their design, as well as, the number of parts needed for one. There are just four integral parts that you need to call something a keyboard in a traditional sense. Those are a case, PCB (circuits), switches, and keycaps. Then there are a few extra parts, which might, or might not be necessary for your keyboard such as stabilizers, a plate, LEDs, USB daughterboard, weights, dampeners, etc. The list is pretty much endless. Let’s go through the most common parts to see what they do, and why they are needed.
Probably the first and largest part of a keyboard is its case. Mostly made out of plastic or metal, however, people have made some cases out of wood or resin, among other materials. It is what gives the keyboard structure and shape, as well as, protection from outside elements. Sure you can take other parts out of its case and the keyboard could somehow still work, but your experience would greatly suffer. Keyboard cases also contribute the most to build quality. While some cheap plastic cases tend to leave a lot of space inside and therefore contribute to the generally unimpressive and hollow sound this might not be the case for others. Pun intended. As the cases change shape, size, and materials the sound and ruggedness change as well. However, even if you get a cheaper case, both the looks and sound can be improved upon by making changes to the build or modding it. Cases may consist of multiple parts, however, most cheap keyboards just use a single tray-shaped case to encompass all of the components.
The PCB is what makes a keyboard function and connects to a computer. From a technological standpoint, it is usually a fairly simple piece of electronics as keyboards need traces in a matrix grid, a few small components to direct the current, and a microcontroller interpreting and sending signals. The PCB is what sets the layout of the keyboard, however, some boards allow for numerous layouts of changes to where the switches/keys go. This increases the sophistication of the board and therefore might not be available on most consumer-grade keyboards. Usually, PCBs and cases are not interchangeable, as there might be differences in size or mounting style. The mounting style commands how a keyboard holds together. While this guide will not go much further into the various styles of mounting your keyboard here is a great infographic for you to make it at least a bit more understandable. Nevertheless, there are many aftermarket PCBs and cases in the so-called 60% keyboard layout (regular keyboard layout without Numpad, function keys, arrows, and navigation cluster). These utilize mostly tray mounting style, which means there are standardized positions for small poles in the bottom of the case, and these match the poles in the PCB or plate. Screws are commonly used to hold the parts together. Another common mounting style is top-mount, or gasket-mount in more advanced enthusiast keyboards.
The article mentioned mechanical keyboard switches before and while there are various types or families of switches, the most common ones are Cherry MX or MX clones. These switches are mostly intercompatible and consist of 5 parts; top and bottom housings, spring, contact leaf, and stem. The housing being quite self-explanatory, they hold the switch together and protect the internal components. They are approximately 15 mm by 15 mm in size as the switches need to keep the same dimensions to fit various keyboards. The housing shapes and materials influence the sound signature of a switch, as well as, its smoothness. Therefore it might be interesting to have a look at various switches before you decide to purchase one. The contact leaf is a small piece of conductive metal material that gets bent as you press the switch and flexes, thus completing a circuit. As you press the switch you are pushing the stem of the switch downwards which results in bending the contact leaf with its legs. These legs might have different shapes, which influences the tactile feedback when typing.
We categorize switches into three basic categories: Linear, Tactile, and Clicky. Linear switches offer the least amount of resistance on the way down as the legs are straight and the force needed to bring the stem down grows linearly. Tactile switches come with a multitude of stem leg shapes, which directly influences the feel of typing as the switch travels down. The shape of the stem legs might offer more resistance at a certain point than others, therefore creating a “bump” sensation. Last, but not least, there are clicky switches which utilize additional mechanics to create an audible click as you press a switch. This might come in the form of a multi-leveled stem or a clickbar. Clicky switches are quite favored by the beginner mechanical keyboard users as their sound is very distinct, and the typing comes with audible cues. Therefore you are more confident as you type. However, clicky switches come with an unfortunate side effect of losing friends, significant others, or even the possibility of being excommunicated from the shared office.
Last but not least, there are keycaps. Mostly colored pieces of plastic that can make or break the keyboard’s visuals, however, just like all the other parts, keycaps too can influence the sound and feel of the board. Keycaps are usually sold in sets for either full keyboard (also known as 100% or 104 keys), smaller subsets (60% or 80%/TKL keyboards), or sometimes even larger kits that try to cover more than a single layout. Most keycaps sold via enthusiast group-buys have a base kit that covers layouts for 60%, HHKB, both EU and International layouts, TKL or full keyboard, and maybe a few more. However, it is always necessary to check whether the keyset is compatible with your keyboard as each base kit might differ slightly. At the same time, there are many keycap profiles, each of which tries to improve the ergonomics of the keyboard as some rows vary in height and angle or sculpt. Have a look at this infographic to see the difference between a few popular keycap profiles.
Most keyboards also have a plate that goes on top of the PCB. The plate supports the switches in place and makes the typing experience a bit more rigid and uniform. Plates come in various materials and each differs in sound and stiffness.
In case you use a regular keyboard layout such as a 100%, TKL, or a 60-65%, your keyboard will most likely use a few sets of stabilizers on keys (keycaps) that are 2 or more units (⪭2u) in size, such as Space, Shift, backspace, or Enter key. Since each key uses only one switch a longer key might not function properly or slip if pressed just on one side. Stabilizers hold these keys on each side, with the switch being in a central position.
There are many other parts that you might or might not have in a keyboard, however, most of them cannot be covered in just a single article. Therefore, we will pick this up at a later point in one of our upcoming articles.
As you might have noticed, mechanical keyboards are a rabbit hole, an extremely deep one, in which you can take many different paths. This article pretty much only scratched the surface. Next time we will take a look at various layouts and features you might look for in a custom mechanical keyboard.
Thank you for reading up until the end, in case you have any questions about mechanical keyboards or related matters feel free to contact us via email, Instagram, or our Discord Server.