Not too fond of the newer keyboards and prefer a more retro look and feel? Jump on the mechanical keyboard bandwagon. They were once considered old-school technology, but now they're gaining popularity due to how well they work. Before you buy a mechanical keyboard, learn its benefits over a normal (membrane) keyboard, what to look for in terms of features, and what all the lingo means.
Also Helpful: Once you learn about these keyboards, you can build your own mechanical keyboard.
What is a Mechanical Keyboard?
What makes a mechanical keyboard so special? Some might tell you it's the satisfying click when you type, but it's actually the spring-activated switch under each key. This is vastly different than the scissor and rubber membrane switches under most laptop and desktop keyboards that come with your computer.
With other types of keyboards, you have to press the key all the way down for the switch under the button to register your keystroke. This means typing harder, which not only slows down your typing but can also result in more mistakes.
Mechanical keyboards register your keystroke even if you press the key halfway down. As you can imagine, this means less pressure on your fingers and hands, leading to faster typing and responses. For writers and gamers, speed is always welcome.
Another unique feature is how easy it is to customize these keyboards. You can customize the keycaps, body frames, switch type (more later), and even the cable itself (many are wired). Unleash your creativity with custom color keycaps and create a unique work or game station for your personality.
Before buying one, there are several important factors to consider to find the perfect keyboard.
Selecting Size and Layout
While some mechanical keyboards come in weird sizes and layouts, most come in standard dimensions, and even there you have multiple options.
- Full Size: These include all the keys, including the number pad. They're wider, and some users don't like how far it forces the mouse to the side. However, get a full-size keyboard if you use the number pad often.
- Tenkeyless: Welcome to your full-size keyboard sans number pad. That's all that's missing. Of course, this gives you a slightly more compact keyboard without giving up most of your keys.
- Compact: These usually come in a range of 60% to 75%, which refers to the number of keys missing and the overall size compared to a full-size keyboard. With 60% compact, you'll have to do without function keys, the number pad, and arrow keys. If you need arrow and navigation keys, opt for 65% or 68%. The best compact option is the 75%, which squishes keys closer together, giving you everything except a number pad.
While even more compact models are available, they're pretty useless as they don't even have a row of numbers. If you're looking for a compact keyboard for travel, it's best to rely on a folding Bluetooth keyboard instead.
Usually, the weird-shaped mechanical keyboards are either ergonomic or gaming keyboards. Sometimes, these have a split in the middle or come in two separate pieces to adjust to your preferred working/gaming style.
Tip: If you spend a lot of time typing, an ergonomic mechanical keyboard may provide better comfort and relieve tension in your hands and wrists.
Every key in a mechanical keyboard has a spring switch under it. The great news is you get the choose the type of switch. The switch affects how a key feels when you press it and even the sound it makes.
Mechanical keyboards have three main switch types to choose from:
- Clicky: You'll feel a slight bump or click when pressing a key and hear a clicking sound. It's a two-part switch designed to be noisy. These are often called blue, white, or green switches, with the green being slightly stiffer than the blue.
- Tactile: Get the physical sensation of a clicky switch without the noise. They're not quite as popular as other switches, but it's a great middle ground. These usually come in clear and brown, with clear being the stiffest option.
- Linear: This is the most basic switch type. The key goes up and down without any physical or audible click. If you want the comfort of a mechanical keyboard, this is the one for you. These are sometimes called black, yellow, or red, with black being stiffer.
There are also optical and gaming switches, which come in all three varieties above. However, they're designed differently to have faster response times.
Something else to know is there are numerous variations of these switch types. Some require more or less force to activate, and some are louder or quieter. You can also get standard and silent tactile and linear switches.
If you want to test out switches before buying a keyboard, buy a switch key tester. These are color-coded to let you feel and hear the differences. Try the Max Keyboard Cherry MX Switch Tester or Griarrac Cherry MX Switch Tester. It's cheaper to do this than keep buying keyboards with switches you don't like.
Good to Know: As long as the frame supports it, you can swap out your mechanical keyboard switches and try other options.
Despite popular belief, mechanical keyboards don't have to be noisy. Tactile and linear switches are relatively quiet. Of course, you can still hear your fingers hitting the keys, but that's true with any keyboard.
For instance, I have a Logitech mechanical keyboard with tactile switches that hardly makes a sound. I've had clicky switches before and wasn't a fan because it made it hard to hear my background music.
The lesson is that you get to choose your noise level. Choose the right switch to meet your desired noise level. For the quietest option, opt for silent linear and tactile switches. For mostly quiet, stick with standard linear switches. Tactile switches are only slightly louder. If you want a noisy keyboard, clicky switches are your best friend.
Also Helpful: If you specifically want a quiet keyboard, we recommend these top silent mechanical keyboards.
Just like with other types of keyboards, mechanical keyboards also come in ergonomic varieties. Just the way the keys press down is more ergonomic. However, your hands and wrists should have a few more ergonomic features, such as:
- Split: Either has a split between left and right-hand keys (partial split), or it's two separate keyboards (full split).
- Built-in Wrist Pad: Includes a wrist pad at the base of the keyboard.
- Adjustable Height: This lets you adjust the height using built-in risers.
- Raised: These are a form of split where the center raises slightly to fit with the natural form of your hand.
Tip: If you're concerned about wrist issues with keyboard use, you can try a low-profile mechanical keyboard instead.
One of your easiest decisions to make is to go wired or wireless. Initially, mechanical keyboards were mainly wired. Now, you'll find a growing selection of wireless mechanical keyboard options.
Wired keyboards have a more stable and faster connection. But, you're tied down to the cord. This can limit your setup and make taking your keyboard on the go difficult.
With wireless keyboards, there's no pesky cord to worry about. But you'll have to deal with a least a little latency. If you're not gaming, that's probably not a big issue. For gamers, wired keyboards are preferable.
Another thing to think about is compatibility. Mechanical keyboards come in both Windows and Mac varieties. You don't have to settle. Some work with both or let you program the keys accordingly.
Many mechanical keyboards offer a variety of additional features. These aren't critical to keyboard use but are a nice bonus.
Some optional features include:
- RGB Lighting: It just looks cool. If you really want the lights to stand out, look for clear keycaps.
- Keyboard Software: While not necessary to use the keyboard, the software lets you reprogram keys and control your lighting if your keyboard offers that.
- Hot Swapping Switches: Traditionally, switches are soldered onto the keyboard, making it extremely difficult to replace them if they wear out. Hot swapping makes replacing a broken switch easier or just trading out for different types of switches.
- Keycaps: Customize your keyboard to your heart's content with keycaps. These plastic pieces go over the switches, aka what your fingers hit when you type. PBT plastic is far more durable and resistant to fading, but ABS is cheaper though lettering fades easier. Opt for double shooting, a two-layer plastic with printing on the inside for keys that never fade.
Frequently Asked Questions
What's the best mechanical keyboard to buy?
Keychron and Razer mechanical keyboards are some of the best around. However, no mechanical keyboard is better than the rest since many keyboard features are up to user preference.
Why do mechanical keyboards cost more?
If you've been shopping around, you've likely noticed these aren't as cheap as other keyboards. These are made to be more durable and last longer. A single mechanical keyboard will probably outlast several non-mechanical keyboards for busy typists or gamers. Consider the cost of an investment that'll pay for itself over time.
Why doesn't the wireless keyboard battery last?
Wireless mechanical keyboards are convenient, but you're tied to a battery. If it stops, so do you. Older models had terrible battery life, but newer models in the last few years can last months or years on a set of batteries. Some are even rechargeable, meaning no buying extra batteries.
If you want an RGB-lighted wireless keyboard, expect your battery to drain quickly. The lights will significantly reduce your battery life. This and latency are why gamers prefer a wired setup.
Image credit: Unsplash
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