Why Go Mechanical?
If you’re a computer user “of a certain age,” you know that there was a time when room-filling clicking was as synonymous with typing as words appearing… uh, on a sheet of paper. But the typewriters on which generations of office workers and aspiring novelists learned to type weren’t the only places you’d find mechanical keyboards. Even throughout the 1980s, they were as common a part of computer setups as floppy disk drives—because the people who were creating and using them knew what typing could, and should, be.
Sadly, with the explosion of the home PC market in the 1990s and into the early 2000s, these sturdy fixtures fell by the wayside as manufacturers looked for cheaper mass-market solutions to getting tens of millions of more people on their machines and online. Typing, that most common of computing activities, became something you and your fingers had to endure.
Luckily, things have swung back around over the last decade, and mechanical keyboards are once again viable, even popular, alternatives to the cheap keyboards that used to be ubiquitous. If you want to buy one, whether because you care about how you type or because you want something that’s better designed to withstand the rigors of everyday use to which many users subject their keyboards, here’s what you need to know in order to make the right choice.
First and foremost, the thing that defines a mechanical keyboard is the key switch it uses. Most budget keyboards today use dome-switch technology, which registers a keypress when you type and push down a silicone dome and connect two circuit board traces. Though this style is easy and inexpensive to manufacture, it requires a relatively large amount of force, which can result in a heavy and mushy feel to the user and a lack of either tactile or auditory feedback when you type. Plus, after a fairly short time (five million keystrokes, give or take), the domes can collapse and either work less well or stop working altogether, so you’ll probably have to replace the keyboard at least once or twice over the life of the computer you use it with.
Mechanical switches, by contrast, avoid the silicone altogether. Pressing down on the key activates a real, physical switch that registers what you type. Because the parts used are much more substantial than those in dome-switch keyboards, mechanical keyboards typically have a much longer life span (many boast ratings of 50 million keystrokes or more per switch, and may well outlast the first computer—or two—you use them with), and create a more direct relationship between the person who’s typing and what appears on the screen. Because of the hardware involved, mechanical keyboards tend to be thicker, heavier, and more expensive than their dome-switch counterparts, making them more of an investment, if one that’s likely to pay off if the quality of typing really matters to you.
When shopping for a keyboard, pay attention to the kind of switch it uses, whether it offers auditory feedback (in other words, it makes a click you can hear) or tactile feedback (a “bump” you can feel), and the amount of pressure the switches require to activate (the actuation force), will greatly affect its functionality.
Cherry MX Switches
The best known and most frequently encountered mechanical key switches come from a company called Cherry. These Cherry MX switches come in a range of styles that offer different operation and feedback to better match with your own personal preference and the work or play you plan to do most on them (though all have an actuation point of 2mm). This rundown of the most common Cherry switches will help you better match what you need with the keyboard you buy. Keep in mind that although these details may differ somewhat in switches of a similar style made by companies other than Cherry, almost every manufacturer maintains the same basic color scheme to help keep confusion down.
Cherry MX Blue: A close approximation of the old-school buckling spring switch (see below) but with a new-style mechanism, Cherry MX Blue switches are both tactile and clicky, so you can feel as well as hear the completion of a keystroke. These are ideal for serious typists (many of whom insist the switches deliver a turbocharging bounce you can’t get anywhere else), but not best for gaming applications, as they have a rather high actuation force (of 50 centi-Newtons, or cN) than you might prefer in a fast-twitch gun battle. Another potential downside: Some people find the keys’ audible click quite loud and annoying, which may cause problems in close quarters, whether at the office or at home.
Cherry MX Black: With the highest actuation force of the standard Cherry varieties (60cN), the Cherry MX Black switch can come across as stiff and thus wholly unsuitable to the kind of nimble key work most speed and touch typists depend on. But this makes Black an excellent switch for cases where precision is paramount: entering mission-critical data, say, or gaming, as you will seldom have to worry about accidentally striking a key twice. Cherry MX Black switches are also neither tactile nor clicky.
Cherry MX Red: Similar to Black, Cherry MX Red switches lack both tactile and auditory feedback. But they have a lower actuation force (45cN), so they can be hit more quickly and more often, giving you the edge in any title demanding ultra-quick input. These same qualities, however, keep them from being a good choice if typing is your primary activity, as they make it a lot easier to register more keystrokes than you intend.
Cherry MX Brown: If you spend about as much time scribing emails and Word documents as you do mowing down charging enemies in first-person shooters, the Cherry MX Brown switch may be for you. Its 45cN actuation force is identical to what you get from the Red switch and, like it, the switch isn’t clicky, but it gives you the same typing-boosting tactile bump you get from Blue.
Other Cherry MX switches: Though the above switches are the kinds you’re most likely to find in a keyboard you purchase today, Cherry’s rainbow does extend a bit further. Clear switches are tactile like Brown, but possess a higher actuation force; Green switches can be considered stiff Blues, both tactile and clicky; and White switches are quieter Greens. Several other types have specialized uses (such as on space bars), but will rarely be identified as such on any package or marketing material.
A number of companies make switches that either mimic or try to improve on the Cherry MX functionality. Some gaming keyboard switches, for example, have shorter actuation points to launch you into the action faster, and Razer recently developed a hybrid “Mecha-Membrane” variety that uses mechanical means to activate a silicone dome switch. (So far, we’ve only seen this in the company’s Ornata Chroma, though it’s likely to show up in other models in the future.) None of these has become as popular or widespread as the Cherry MX switches, though, so for the most part they’re not worth discussing in depth. If you come across a keyboard brand using an unfamiliar switch type, try to determine both its actuation force (explained above) and its actuation point (when what you type is registered). Compare these values with those of the Cherry switches, and you should get an idea of what you’re in for.
One of the most unusual switches you can find is, in fact, a quintessential mechanical example. The buckling spring switch was used in the now-legendary IBM Model M keyboards that made such an impact in the 1980s—and some of which are still in use today!—and can still be found in keyboards from the company that acquired the manufacturing rights to it, Unicomp. (The company’s Ultra Classic definitely lives up to its name.) Buckling spring keyboards use a genuine spring to activate the switch; when it buckles in the middle as you press it, it causes tactile and aural feedback (the latter from the spring hitting the wall). Keyboards using this style of switch are rare these days, but they’re prized for their unparalleled typing capability and psychological satisfaction: With no other type of mechanical keyboard do you hear the switch actuate at the same instant it actually does.
Their switches aside, mechanical keyboards are otherwise just like other kinds, and can sport the same sorts of features. You may want backlighting, whether of one color or an entire spectrum you can program at your whim. Multimedia controls, whether they’re activated by pushing separate buttons or using a Function key to access a secondary ability on one of the standard keys, can make it easy to adjust volume or move backward and forward in your track list while playing music. Dedicated macro controls can be a real boon in games, saving you the trouble of having to type out long strings of commands every time you want to perform a common action.
In any case, whatever you want from a keyboard, you can find a mechanical keyboard capable of making it a reality—with more heft, longevity, and style than you may have thought possible. Mechanical keyboards are back and here to stay, and likely to only get better as more consumers realize the benefits they offer to laser-focused typists, hard-core gamers, and everyone in between.
If you’re not wedded to mechanical key switches, check out our overall roundup of the best general-purpose keyboards we’ve tested, as well as the best gaming keyboards. And if you’re in the market for a pointing device to go with your keyboard, check out our looks at the best computer mice and the best gaming mice.