Mechanical keyboards have lots of benefits over the alternatives, but what exactly are they?
If you work in an office, play PC video games, or have taken a stroll through an electronics store, then there’s a good chance that you’ve at least seen or heard of a mechanical keyboard. With a satisfying extra level of clickiness and ergonomic keys, mechanical keyboards stand out from the crowd. But what is it that separates mechanical keyboards from other options, and what purpose do they serve in the first place? Here’s everything you need to know about mechanical keyboards and their benefits.
Check out The Ultimate Guide to Mechanical Keyboards for even more expert advice and information.
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A mechanical keyboard is a keyboard with mechanical switches, which give each key the raised look they’re so well known for. It’s the core of what distinguishes mechanical keyboards from traditional membrane keyboards, which tend to be a bit smaller vertically. It’s not just about aesthetics though, as mechanical keyboards are meant to improve performance for just about anyone who regularly uses a computer. Mechanical keyboards are also durable compared to other options, so you’ll typically get a longer life out of them than you will with other options.
Let’s dig a little deeper into what mechanical keyboards are and how they compare to the alternatives. The other common option on the market is what’s known as a rubber dome, or membrane, keyboard. The rubber domes on membrane keyboards aren’t as tactile as mechanical switches, so they give less feedback than mechanical keyboards do. When a membrane keyboard user presses a key, the rubber dome is compressed, making a connection with the keyboard’s wires and resulting in your keystroke being recognized.
Conversely, mechanical keyboards feature a stem that connects to a keycap. The stems have springs in them that register a keystroke by making a connection with a circuit whenever they contract. By using the spring system, mechanical keyboards eliminate the mushy feel that membrane keyboards are known for. The mechanical switch also makes each press more accurate and responsive.
Everyone! Yes, mechanical keyboards are most common among professional typists, gamers, and programmers, but there’s no reason that everyone can’t enjoy what a mechanical keyboard brings to the table. Mechanical keyboards are one of the most diversely priced pieces of equipment in the consumer tech industry, so you’ll be able to find options anywhere from $20 all the way to $200 and beyond. And while some may find that extreme for a keyboard, there are compelling reasons to invest in a high-end option depending on how you plan to use it.
If you’ve never considered a mechanical keyboard before, it’s best to get hands-on with one to determine whether or not you like it. Most retail stores that carry keyboards will have them on display for you to feel, which will give you an idea of what you like and dislike. Give multiple mechanical keyboards a try, too, as there are different switches across models that have different feels. If you exist in any form of niche that uses a computer regularly, there’s more than likely a mechanical keyboard out there that offers specific features for your exact needs.
Did You Know? The HHKB layout repositions the control key to make it easier to execute more time-saving commands without leaving the home row. Click here to learn more.
So, you’ve made the journey to your local office supply store and found a few suitable mechanical keyboards, but you may be surprised to learn that each option feels slightly different than the others, whereas membrane keyboards feel more or less the same. This is because there’s a broad range of mechanical keyboard types that offer a diverse range of switches, each option being of different quality and feel. Even those that are just getting familiar with mechanical keyboards will notice a tangible difference when going hands-on. You may also find clicky switches, which many people find fun. Here’s a quick breakdown of the differences:
Linear switches will feel smooth as they’re pressed down and are a bit more responsive, meaning your inputs will be recognized faster. It’s less clear that you’ve made a keystroke when you’re using a linear switch, but the responsiveness is good for gamers, who will typically hold down the WASD keys to move around in-game. Cherry MX Red switches are a common linear switch.
As the name suggests, tactile switches are more about the feel, giving clear feedback when a keystroke has been made. That makes tactile switches more suitable for typists than linear switches are, but it is a matter of personal preference. Tactile switches feature a bump at their actuation point that linear switches don’t have, which is responsible for their titular feel. Cherry MX Brown switches and HHKB’s Topre switches are two such tactile switches.
Finally, clicky switches are similar to tactile switches, though they also incorporate some audio feedback that makes them a bit louder. Clicky switches can be fun to use, as the sound they make is somewhat reminiscent of classic keyboards found with computers like 1984’s Apple Macintosh. Do note, however, that they can come across as a bit obnoxious if you’re on a call with an open microphone.
Other Switch Types
Keep in mind that there are also optical switches that exist in their own unique category. Optical switches are different from mechanical switches in that they use light to determine their actuation point rather than a mechanical connection. They are typically more responsive than mechanical keyboards, but they also carry a premium price tag.
Hybrid mechanical membrane keyboards are another option, though it’s one of the smaller subcategories of keyboards. They’ll usually offer the same rubber dome connections that membrane keyboards feature, but they’re made to feel more tactile and responsive. If you like the feel of a mechanical keyboard but are put off by the large, raised look of the keys, then a hybrid keyboard is a good option as it will normally have a stronger resemblance to a low-profile membrane keyboard.
Keyboards have existed in some form since Henry Mill patented the first typewriter in 1714. Of course, things have changed quite a bit since then. While it may seem like little can be done to improve the standard 104 alpha-numeric key design that the world knows so well, consumer level mechanical keyboards have been home to near-constant innovation and improvement since the 1980s. Today, mechanical keyboards are seeing improved switches that are more responsive, quieter, and durable than older options.
Beyond the switches themselves, certain mechanical keyboards have started to introduce features built around their specific niche. For instance, a mechanical keyboard tailored around video editors may feature dedicated media scrollers that make it easier to navigate a timeline in applications like Adobe Premier.
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It can feel a bit overwhelming narrowing down to the best possible fit, but as long as you keep in mind your specific needs you’ll almost certainly find a mechanical keyboard that suits you. Just keep tabs on what your primary use for it will be, how loud or quiet you’d like it to be, and how much feedback you want with each keystroke. Those metrics will help you whittle down options until you find your ideal match.
If you’re in the market for something new to type with, then the high-end keyboards from HHKB are a great option. With ergonomic designs, best in class Topre switches, and easy bluetooth device switching, the HHKB line up is great for typists at every level. Plus, their form factor makes them an ideal traveling companion for professionals on the go.