Mechanical Keyboards 102

by Taliesin Coward

In Mechancial Keyboardsd 101 we had an introduction to mechanical keyboards – their pros, cons and what to expect. Continuing on, this article takes a closer look at the heart of the mechanical keyboard, the components that make all the difference: the switches.

For mechanical keyboards, while there are a growing number of different switches becoming available from numerous manufacturers (such as Kailh, Razer’s Green and Orange switches, and Logitech’s Romer G switch) the following focusses on Cherry MX switches, as these are the most readily available, and the standard by which most other switches are judged.

Also, I’m happy to say that over the years I’ve personally used most of the flavours in which these switches are available, and can give some insight into how they actually feel.

Cherry MX Blue

First up, we have the Blue switches. These are the typist’s switches, and nothing else comes close to the overall sensory experience and sheer satisfaction of use. These keys have a smooth, light travel up to the activation point, at which two things happen: firstly the force required to activate the key briefly increases, creating a tactile bump which lets you know when you’ve activated the switch; secondly, it emits an audible click. In short, this both sounds and feels like you imagine a keyboard should feel. This feedback makes typing not only easier, but actually quite fun. These were the keys which featured in the first mechanical keyboard I purchased (a Razer Blackwidow). The only real downside I can think of is that if other people are in the same room with you, there is a very real chance that the incessant clicking will drive them insane.

Cherry MX Brown

This neatly leads us on to the next type of switch: Cherry MX Brown. These are the Blue’s silent cousin. Slightly lighter on the touch (requiring less force to actuate), still with a tactile ‘bump’ to let you know you’ve activated the key, but without the clicking mechanism (they still make a ‘keyboard’ sound, just without the obvious ‘snicking’ noise the Blues make). These have been my switches of choice for a few years now across several brands of keyboards (Asus, Alienware and Corsair). For those who like the tacticle feedback but want a heavier touch, Cherry MX Greys are the switch of choice.

Cherry MX Red

These are the sportscar version of the Cherry lineup: an ultra light touch coupled with minimal travel and reset distance. With no audible feedback these run super quiet, and without the resistance needed for tactile feedback, the only real limiting factor for how quickly you can press the keys is you.

This has been a favourite of pro gamers who rely upon their twitch skills. However, having used a keyboard kitted out with Red switches, I can say that whilst they were a dream to play with, their sensitivity and how easy it was double tap did cause accuracy problems when it came to typing – so if your activity is split between gaming and writing, perhaps Blue or Brown switches are the way to go. Alternatively, if you like the linear, non-tacticle feel of the Cherry MX Reds but want a heavier touch, try the (hard to find) Cherry MX Black switches.

Cherry MX Silver

If Red switches are the sportscar, the supercar award goes to the Cherry MX Silver, or speed switches. These have even less travel distance than their Red counterparts before activating, which means I could probably have typed this entire article by carefully breathing over the keyboard. I’m yet to get my hands on these, but rest assured, I’ll let you know what they’re like when I do.

Other Considerations

Before you go out and buy a keyboard, there are still a few other things to consider. First and foremost is rollover. This refers to how many keys can be simultaneously pressed and still register. The top keyboards have ‘n-key rollover’ and can register all keys being pressed simultaneously (perhaps overkill, but a low rollover can make games with complex controls and combos very frustrating).

Next, how are the key caps finished? Are the letters printed on the surface, molded depressed and filled so the paint is not easily abraided, etched with a laser, or done in translucent plastic so the backlighting shows through (we’ll get to that in a moment). You don’t want to pay top dollar for a new keyboard only to find the letters fading or rubbing off. I once had a keyboard (the one with the Cherry MX Reds) which I had to return because, after a mere week of use, the letters were noticeably starting to fade (a fault the company subsequently corrected).

The last thing to consider is backlighting. This is a personal preference - some people find it horribly distracting, whilst others rather enjoy the effect. The most impressive of these are undoubtedly those with RGB backlighting, which often comes with programmable software so you can customise your lighting display. ■

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