I’ve now written three reviews of mechanical keyboards. There was my first (and the one I’m typing on right now), a CM Storm QuickFire Rapid, a Rosewill 9000V2, and, most recently, a Vortex Race 3. Each keyboard was different. One without a number pad, one with a number pad, and one that pushed all the keys into a compact package. Each one had a different switch type, a different sound and feel. But all of them had one thing in common: I loved them all. Typing on any one of these keyboards is wonderful. Sure, my Rosewill 9000v2 was a bit too large for my desk at work, that’s why I replaced it with the compact Vortex Race 3. My CM Storm is way too loud for the office, even when I don’t bottom out the keys, so it stays here at home, with me. The Race 3 has its flaws, but it’s still my favorite keyboard. Regardless, they’re all great for their own reasons, in their own ways.
Mechanical keyboards cost a bit more than standard keyboards, and they’re often wired, instead of wireless. Still, they’re the best keyboards you can get your hands on. For only a slightly higher price (you can find half decent mechanical keyboards for under $50), you can get a keyboard you’re going to love, and one that’s going to last you a long time. Let me tell you how.
The Mechanical Difference
So what makes a mechanical keyboard different from any other keyboard? It’s all in the switch, the thing that actually registers whether or not a key has been pressed down. So, there are a few different types of switches, but the main difference between mechanical keyboards and other keyboards is the activation point and the method of pushing the key back up. On a membrane keyboard, that is, your average desktop keyboard, as well as scissor switches like those on PC laptops or Apple’s butterfly/dome mechanism on their laptops and keyboards, the activation point is all they way at the bottom. You have to push the key all they way down to activate it. Laptop keyboards don’t move much, and it can feel like tapping your fingers on a desk. Membrane keyboards are mushy, not responsive, and push down so easily that typos are commonplace. But mechanical keyboards are different. They’re responsive. They activate 1.2-2.0mm into the keypress, meaning you can almost float over the keys. You can type faster, you don’t have to slam your fingers into the base of the keyboard, and your keys are registered more quickly. That’s why mechanical keyboards are so popular with gamers. Mechanical keys are spring loaded, they provide resistance without wearing out your fingers, and they always have a crisp feel. Plus, they don’t rely on a rubber membrane like every other type of switch, which wears down, breaks, and ruins your keyboard. Mechanical keyboards are easier to repair, don’t completely break if a key cap comes off (in fact, that’s part of the fun of them!), and will last far longer than any other keyboard type.
What Do Switches Look Like?
The non mechanical, mushy switches:
I know, yuck, right? Cheap mushy rubber? Let’s look at some nicer switches then.
The mechanical key switches:
As you can see, all the mechanical switches activate before bottoming out, and each one has different benefits. The Cherry MX Reds, for example, are light. Perfect for gamers because they activate with little force, allowing gamers to react before their opponents. They’re also easier to hold down, so in games when you’d be running forward a lot, holding down ‘W’ constantly, they produce less fatigue. The Cherry MX Black switches are just a “heavier” version of the Reds. Browns, Blues, Clears, and Greens are popular for their tactile feel, you can feel when the switch is activate. This helps keep you from bottoming out, produces a nice click sound in the Blues and Greens, and can prevent repetitive stress injuries, if you’re typing a lot, you’ll want something tactile like these. As for the buckling spring, these are extremely easy to repair switches, but most of them are still working just fine. They’re durable, heavy, but the loudest type. They’re why offices in the 80’s were a cacophony of clacks. They’re a retro favorite.
Can’t tell what kind of switch you’ll like? Try a tester! You can order inexpensive testers from Amazon, where you can try out a few different key switch types. If one of the above doesn’t immediately stand out to you, I recommend getting a tester. I did before buying the Vortex Race 3 with Cherry MX Clears, to make sure I’d like the Clear switch. You can also check out YouTube for “Cherry MX _____ Switch” and you’ll surely find plenty of typing videos, so you can hear what it’s like to type on a keyboard that has those switches. Blues, for example, don’t sound too loud on a tester, but when you’re actually typing, you realize they’re pretty loud.
You’d consider something a good investment if, after the initial purchase, it continued to serve you well for many years. Membrane and scissor switch (or butterfly) style keyboards like those in regular keyboards and laptops don’t last very long. But, if the old IBM keyboards are any indication (and they are), mechanical switches are far more everlasting. Membrane wears out over time, it breaks. If it’s on a laptop, that can be difficult—even impossible—to fix. A membrane keyboard will find its way to the trash. Lose a single key from a scissor switch keyboard (as I have), and you have to replace the whole thing. But metal, springs, and tough plastic make up mechanical keyboards, and the key caps are completely replaceable. A mechanical keyboard can last a lifetime. Buying one is an investment in a tool that you’ll be able to use until humans don’t need keyboards to interact with computers anymore.
Every mechanical switch type has a different feel, but each one was tailored to feel good to type on. Consider that. Membrane keyboards were made to be cheap, mechanical switches were made to feel good and last a long time. They’re made to feel great, and, perhaps to no one’s surprise, they do. It’s a dream to type on them, to eventually get to the point that you’re not bottoming keys out anymore, instead you’re just gliding over the keyboard gracefully. There’s a reason writers like Terry Pratchet insisted on using them. There’s a reason programmers who write hundreds or even thousands of lines of code in a day insist on using them. They feel good. It’s hard to think about, but once you use one, once you realize what you were missing out on before, you can’t go back. Going back to a membrane keyboard from a mechanical one would be like trading in your Tesla Model S for a Toyota Prius, your Mustang for a golf cart. A mechanical keyboard makes typing something you look forward to doing, not just something you do to put letters on the screen.
Repetitive stress injury (RSI) is something all too common in offices. We’re doing too much of the same thing, banging our fingers against a keyboard, clicking a mouse, over time, those small actions build up. You can get an ergonomic keyboard, even get them with an ortholinear layout, that is, straight lines for each finger on the home row, instead of staggered, as keys are in a standard layout. And you can get all these with a mechanical keyboard as well. In fact, there are some very creative mechanical keyboards that are better than any other ergonomic keyboard you can find. They can be configurable, customizable, and basically molded to your hand. Best of all, because they use mechanical switches, you won’t have to bottom out with each key stroke. That keeps your fingers from having that abrupt stop, which can build up as pain in your fingers over time. If you find yourself typing a lot, if your fingers feel tight or sore, if your wrists bother you, you should consider getting a mechanical keyboard, it’ll help soothe that pain quickly. It was only once I was using a mechanical keyboard and a gaming mouse, instead of an Apple keyboard and trackpad, that I was able to ditch my wrist brace.
The keyboards at the top of this post didn’t look that way out of the box. The CM Storm had plain black keys with what’s called an “OEM” profile, which has keycaps that are taller in the back. I installed some nice DSA keycaps, those are keycaps with an even sizing and a retro look. I also installed the more colorful keycaps on my Vortex Race 3. I have 100 translucent keycaps as well, which I hope to use with an LED board some day. They were tough to find in the DSA profile that I’ve come to love, so I nabbed them up before I have the board. But, eventually, it’ll be a beautiful rainbow of LED lights on translucent keycaps without lettering. I’m looking forward to it, I’ve always loved the look of translucent keys, perhaps it’s nostalgia for the keyboard that came with the first iMac. But that’s the thing, I can remake that look. I can customize my CM Storm which had some pretty lousy keycaps, to something fresh, new, something that’s both modern and retro. I can put blank keycaps on the keys I’ve remapped to do other things, like my “Display Screen Saver” button. I can even order custom keycaps, hand made ones that’ll give my keyboard unique flare. Not long ago, I backed a Kickstarter project for CNC milled aluminum keycaps. I can’t wait to put them on my boards. It’s so much fun to have something I can customize. My keyboard at work stands out, because it’s mine.
Why They’re Catching On
Basically put, word is spreading, and using a mechanical keyboard quickly makes a person a convert. Once you use one of these wonderful keys, feel the clicky nature of a Blue or the solid bump of a Clear, you’ll be hooked. On top of that, quick activation, like Cherry’s MX Speeds, which can activate in just 1.2mm, are popular on the gaming circuit, for giving players a much needed advantage in games that often come down to who can react—and who’s machine can process that reaction—more quickly. Word spreads fast in the techie community, always has, and word of mechanical keyboards is spreading like wildfire. Even non-techies are starting to catch on to these fun, beautiful, and pleasant keyboards that’ll make you think differently about your standard peripheral. Next time you’re thinking about buying a new keyboard, think about getting one that will outlast your computer, and make using your computer just a little bit nicer, get a mechanical keyboard.