Mechanical Keyboards 101

by Taliesin Coward

Ah, the humble keyboard. At least, that’s what they were once upon a time. I remember when the choice of keyboard was limited to that clunky beast my Dad used in the office, or the newer, shinier (and ever so tacky) ‘multimedia’ keyboard designed for those for whom reaching those extra few inches to twiddle the volume dial on their speakers was seemingly a stretch too far. Today, however, that is not the case. One cannot go into a store or click on the ‘keyboard’ tab of an online retailer’s website without almost drowning under a mass of options. Fortunately, in contrast to the old adage, when it comes to choice of keyboard, more really is more.

But where to begin? Your entry point to this smorgasbord depends largely on answering one question: to be mechanical, or not to be? For those wondering just what the difference is, read on.

Old faithful

The bog-standard keyboard we’ve come to know and love (or loath) is the rubber dome membrane keyboard. Cheap to manufacture, these often consist of two membranes with circuit board tracers which, when pushed together (in this instance by a polyurethane dome hiding beneath the keys on the keyboard), complete a circuit and register a keystroke. This explains the unpleasant, squishy, spongy feel most of these keyboards have. Also, for a press to register, the key has to ‘bottom out’ – be completely depressed – in order for contact to be made, generally meaning more effort needs to be made on the part of the user.

Some people may prefer the mushy feel of such keyboards. If you’re one of these people, congratulations! You’ve reached the end of the article and life is much simpler! Simply take $20 to the nearest store and ask for a keyboard. For the others, however, things are about to get a lot more complicated (but fun, I assure you).

Mechanical switches

So just what is the difference between a mechanical and a standard rubber dome keyboard? Well, a mechanical switch is exactly what it says. Each key is an individual, physical switch, complete with rod and spring. The added complexity, however, has some trade-offs.

Firstly, and least importantly, a mechanical keyboard will weigh substantially more – two to three times that of a non-mechanical keyboard. Also, due to how these switches work, you can occasionally end up with what is termed ‘chatter’, where a single switch repeatedly triggers a keystroke. This is often transient, and physically pressing the key often solves it, though I have had one where the chatter was so bad it warranted a full replacement. Mechanical keyboards also cost substantially more, so expect to pay anywhere between five to more than ten times the price of a rubber-dome keyboard.

That said, the benefits well and truly outweigh the negatives. For starters, mechanical switches last a lot longer, with Cherry MX switches rated to last 50 million keystrokes before any change in performance is noticeable. Compare this to rubber-domes where the usual lifespan is a mere 1-10 million keystrokes before they simply stop working or become so stiff that a sledgehammer is needed to operate them.

Secondly, mechanical keys do not need to be fully depressed to register a keystroke. This means you need far less effort when typing, so that you can type quicker, faster and more accurately for longer. But most importantly, they feel astoundingly different. (For an overview of the difference between some common types of keys, see part 2 of this article next edition.)

Most mechanical keyboards are aimed squarely at the serious gamer. ‘But what if I’m not a serious gamer?’ I hear you ask. To you I reply, a mechanical keyboard is invaluable for anyone who does a lot of typing.

When it came to setting up my computer, I invested in three things. These were partly for my own comfort, but also to compensate for turning my gaming-rig into a glorified word-processor. They were 1) a good chair 2) a good monitor, and 3) a mechanical keyboard. Considering that by the end of my 100,000 word thesis to merely hold a pen and write brought on instant cramp, I am certain that the mechanical keyboard and the subsequent ease with which I could type was the only reason why I didn’t develop RSI. And if the gamer aesthetic really doesn’t work for you, there are companies, like Cherry or das keyboard, which also have in more sedate, serious looking keyboards.

So whether you’re a devoted gamer, or type each day, check out a mechanical keyboard. Trust me, you won’t regret it. ■

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