What is a Mechanical Keyboard? Guide to Buying a Mechanical Keyboard

mechanicalkeyboard

Your keyboard is the part of your computer with which you have the most contact. But despite all the time many people spend with their keyboards, very few consider the variety of choices available.

So, what options are there for your keyboard, and how do you know when you’ve found the right keyboard for you? And what are these “mechanical” keyboards you keep hearing about?

Read on to get an intro to mechanical keyboards, or just watch this video:

For the most part, mechanical keyboards look exactly like any other keyboard. All keyboards have the same general layout of keys. When you press the W key on any keyboard, you can be reasonably sure that it will generate an W on the screen.

Beneath the keys, however, mechanical keyboards are quite different.

First, let’s discuss common keyboards. The keyboard you’re used to is probably a rubber dome keyboard, also known as a rubber membrane keyboard.

Underneath the keys lies a rubber mat with a set of switches. The rubber feels a bit mushy, and it wears down and deteriorates over time. This is the most common type of keyboard in use, and it is also the cheapest

Keyboard_Construction_Layer

The rubber membrane beneath a common keyboard.

 

By comparison, mechanical keyboards use individual mechanical switches underneath each key. Instead of being mushy like the rubber dome,  you get consistent, solid feedback with each key press. For many people, mechanical keyboards feel much better to type on, and that may help increase your typing speed and accuracy.

Mechanical keyboards come with a variety of switches, depending on your preference. Some switches provide tactile feedback by having a ‘click’ sensation. Some switches provide auditory feedback by making a distinct clicking sound along with the click sensation. Others do not have any sort of tactile or auditory click.

The most popular type of switch is the Cherry MX switch, which comes in a variety of colors that signify the type of click the keys will provide.

The most popular Cherry switch colors are Brown, Blue, Red, and Black.

Depending on the color of switch, your keyboard may have an audible click, a tactile click, both, or neither.

Cherry Blue switches have both an audible click and a tactile click. They’re one of the most popular switches for typing.

Mx_blue_illustration

Cherry Blue switch

Cherry Brown switches don’t have an audible click, but they do have a tactile click sensation.

Mx_brown_illustration

Cherry Brown switch

 

 

Cherry Red and Black switches don’t have a an audible click, nor a click sensation. However, red switches are lighter than black switches, requiring less pressure to push down.

 

Cherry Red switch

Cherry Red switch

Another switch type is the Alps switch, which are somewhat similar mechanism to Cherry:

Alps_white

Alps switch

There are also buckling spring switches, which use a spring that deforms under pressure, and have a loud click:

Bucklingspring

Buckling spring switch

In high-end, expensive keyboards, you may also find topre switches, which are considered pseudo-mechanical, because they contain mechanical switches and a rubber dome. Topre switches are said to have the best of both worlds. They don’t have an audible click, but they do have tactile feedback and smooth key travel, with a slight bump sensation at the beginning of the key press.

Topre switch

Topre switch

So, by now you might be asking yourself, “How do I find the right keyboard for me?”

The answer is that there is no perfect keyboard to suit everyone. The type of keyboard you want depends entirely on what type of feel and feedback you want from your key presses, and that depends entirely on your preferences.

If you are happy with your rubber dome keyboard, that’s just fine. But we encourage PC enthusiasts to at least investigate mechanical keyboards and see if they find a switch they like even better.

 

The best way to know what switch would be right for you is to try them out. If possible, we recommend going to an electronics store and trying out a variety of switches in person before making a selection.

Another alternative is to buy a switch tester, such as the WASD 6-key Cherry MX switch tester:

WASD 6-Key switch tester

WASD 6-Key switch tester

This will let you test out each type of switch, and it even includes two types of switch-dampening O-rings.

Now, let’s answer some frequently asked questions about keyboards:

Q: What do you recommend for gaming?

Generally speaking, any keyboard will work for gaming, so it mainly comes down to personal preference. That said, many gamers prefer Cherry Red switches or another soft switch. If you use a lot of macro key inputs while gaming, we might also recommend finding a keyboard with extra programmable keys.

Q: What do you recommend for typing?

Cherry Blue keyboard are very popular amongst people who type a lot. If you have a high budget, topre keyboards are very 

Q: Are backlit keyboards better?

Backlit keyboards are useful if you plan to use the PC in the dark. They also look cool.

Q: What about wireless keyboards?

Wireless keyboards may be slightly more convenient, but they may also have input lag, and replacing the batteries is a hassle.

Q: Are USB keyboards better or worse than keyboards with a PS/2 connection?

Generally speaking, there isn’t a noticeable difference.

Any more questions? Ask us in the comments!

There’s plenty more to learn about keyboards, if you really want to dig into the topic, but hopefully we’ve given you a window into the wonderful world of keyboards. If you want to do some additional research, check out our Keyboards Page.

  • Vadise

    The answer to the second question is cut off in the middle of a sentence. The post is a pretty good introduction overall though!

    • Matthew Zehner

      Thanks for the information!