GUIDE TO MECHANICAL KEYBOARDS
Are you looking for a new keyboard, ready to upgrade or want something more suited to gaming? Well, gamers, writers or just picky typists the answer may be in mechanical keyboards.
We’re going to take a look at the differences between mechanical and membrane keyboards, why mechanical is a benefit to gamers and what to look out for when it comes to shopping for a mechanical keyboard.
Keyboards, the basics.
Ok let’s get right back to basics here, if you are an expert feel free to skip, if not you might learn a little. Here’s a short and brief description of the workings of a mechanical keyboard;
On your keyboard, the device that translates your key press into an input your PC recognises is called a switch. These switches work by completing an electrical circuit when you press the key.
Mechanical keyboards have an advantage over their rivals due to the quality, resistance and adaptability of these switches.
Most keyboards, like the ones you get bundled with desktop computers, or likely at work, use what’s known as a dome or membrane switch (these terms are sometimes interchangeable but do differ slightly, but we’re not going into it today). Each of your keys sits on top of a rubber dome or rubber membrane which depresses when you hit a key to type.
This format of keyboard became popular in the late-90s with the rise of cheap(er) home computing. Dome switches are lightweight and cheap to produce, but after that, have very few benefits. In fact, the thin rubber membrane or dome used in these switches degrades quickly, giving the keyboard a frustrating spongy touch when depressed after too much use.
What is a Mechanical Keyboard?
A mechanical keyboard uses a metal component to provide mechanical resistance on the switch, unlike a dome or membrane keyboard which usually use rubber or plastic. You will normally find this resistance to be a spring, but other methods are sometimes used too. This is what gives the mechanical keyboard some of its firmer, and adaptable, resistance.
Mechanical key switches give far stronger feedback as you type, users will feel this in the form of a soft bump, an audible click, and a smooth bottom out to the keyboard’s base.
These keyboards feel far more satisfying than a rubber dome/membrane keyboard, can be more precise and crucially last for a very long time.
Pre 2000s almost every computer keyboard used individual, mechanical switches under every key. However those keyboards were expensive to manufacture, so as technology advanced, the cheaper monoblock dome keyboards came into play.
Mechanical Keyboard history : Cherry, Kailh and the rest…
If you know anything about mechanical keyboards, you probably know about Cherry MX switches. If not, here’s another very brief intro.
Cherry Corporation, a division of ZF Electronics, patented their popular MX switch in 1983. MX switches quickly grew to become the de-facto standard key switch used in mechanical keyboards.
However, this is where it gets a bit complex, as gaming keyboards became more popular manufacturers began to move away from the Cherry MX monopoly. After Cherry’s exclusive patent ran out, other manufacturers including Kaihua, who manufacture Kailh switches, and a few more, moved in to begin creating competitive keyboards with a similar colour range (note, manufacturer ‘styles’ do differ a little, so test out the format you like)
Common mechanical switches
Ok so back to the Cherry MX range briefly, their most common four switches are MX Red, Black, Blue, and Brown, these are usually the switches people start out using due to their distinct style. Kailh and Razer have a similar range, with a few colour variations (addition of orange and yellow)…
..These can be further split out into ‘Linear’ and ‘Tactile’
Linear switches have the simplest operation, moving straight up and down without any additional feedback or loud clicking. Conversely Tactile switches provide feedback as the key depresses, this can be anything from a noticeable bump which lets you know that your key press has been registered or a click noise.
The point of all this is to give the user the option to choose how they like to use their keyboard. This is particularly important in gaming where different scenarios require different keystrokes.
You may not want a firm key with a click if you are constantly bashing keys (Kailh Mechanical RED). Conversely for something like an RTS or typing, the sound of a key click may help you concentrate (Cherry MX BLUE).
For more details on the types of Cherry MX switches check out this guide as goes it far into more depth than I can here, and has a nice animation.
For the rest of you, if you’re still confused and are still looking to buy a keyboard, go out and test some of the different styles. It’s really the best way to find what suits you, especially with the wide array of different formats. It really is down to comfort, cost and for gamers- style of play.
To note, When choosing a mechanical keyboard you‘ll likely be given a name like Element Gaming Beryllium Mechanical RED , this means your keyboard has the newer Kailh Mechanical RED switch format compared to something like Corsair Gaming STRAFE Cherry MX Brown, which is of course Cherry MX Brown.
Advantages of Mechanical Keyboards
Ok so we’ve run through the basics of mechanical keyboards, but what are the actual advantages?
Precision and Speed – Many mechanical keyboards tend to be easier to use in terms of speed and exertion. Most mechanical switches only need to be pressed halfway before registering a keystroke This is known as the actuation point (as an example, if it normally takes other types of keyboards 4mm to actuate, it only takes mechanical keyboard keys about 2 mm to actuate), a lower actuation points means less work for your fingers and crucially a quicker response time.
Versatility: As mentioned above, mechanical keyboards come in a number of different flavours depending on your typing style. From a sharp satisfying click to a heavy weighted key, mechanical keyboards can be utilised to help with unorthodox typing style and of course gamers.
Aesthetics: Manufacturers love designing sharp looking keyboards, and frankly the mechanical versions always look the best. With their isolated keys and quirky design mechanical keyboards always look great.
Build Quality: Gamers spend a lot of time hammering their keyboard, so your keys needs to stand up to all that work. Mechanical keyboards are designed with hard work in mind, unlike membrane keyboards, their mechanical counterparts can take far more wear and tear due to the design and materials used in the switches.