Keyboards are of two kinds: (1) the cheapo, no-name slabs that are bundled by the millions with PCs, and (2) the ones that are actually worth using--and in most cases, that's a mechanical keyboard. Stalwart friend to gamers and power typists alike, the mechanical keyboard's physical operation and durability make it the gold standard for computer use. It's not the only option out there--good alternatives abound for wireless, ergonomic, and other purposes--but if nothing else, ditching that freebie is something everyone should do. Read on to learn more about why a mechanical keyboard should be in your future.
Why mechanicals are worth the money
Most run-of-the-mill keyboards are rubber-domed, a simple and inexpensive design where the key hits a raised bump and squishes it down (you'll feel the slight squishiness when you type) to register a keystroke. Here's the problem: rubber-domed keyboards require a complete depress, or "bottoming out," to register. That extra effort over an entire workday can lead to hand fatigue, or worse.
Even though mechanical keyboards tend to cost a bit more, their build quality is worth it. Rather than lay down some cheap membrane layers and rubber-domed keys, these bad boys sport heavy-duty switches and functional parts. This makes them durable, and it also gives them tactile feedback that detects a keystroke before the key bottoms out. That means that with a little practice, your fingers are doing only half the work, sparing them a world of hurt.
Mechanical keyboards also multitask better. Gamers out there will understand the frustrations of holding down multiple keys (for example, sprinting forward while reloading) and hitting one last key for the ultimate grenade kill, then nothing. Did you screw up and miss the key? Not likely. Key ghosting happens when three keys are held down and a fourth keystroke doesn't register, due to hardware or software limitations on matrix keyboards (keyboards that use multiple keys on the same circuit). Mechanical keyboards handle this issue with Key Rollover, which provides more consecutive keystrokes than the rubber-domed keyboards allow--usually six with a USB connection, and infinite over the older PS/2 connection.
Which switch is right for you?
The type of switch your mechanical keyboard uses matters, too. Switches differ by how they close a circuit and register a keystroke, how the keystroke feels, and the "click" volume level. Picking a favorite is a matter of preference, and every enthusiast has an opinion (go, team Brown!).
Tactile switches have a noticeable actuation point (the point where the keystroke is registered), such as a slight resistance or bump, and you hear a "click" when the key is pressed. Linear switches have a much smoother keystroke without a noticeable actuation point or audible feedback.
Cherry switches (manufactured by ZF Electronics, formerly Cherry Corporation) are the most common type. Every type is denoted by a color and varies in actuation force (how much pressure is required to actuate) and in audibility levels.
Cherry MX Black (Linear switch)
Cherry MX Black was introduced in 1984 and is one of the oldest Cherry switches. It requires a higher-than-average actuation force at 60 grams, so a little more "oomph" is required for it to register. The key travels 4 millimeters to the bottom; however, actuation is registered at 2 millimeters. Because the keys use a linear switch, they have no noticeable "click" unless you bottom out.
Black switches aren't ideal for typing due to the lack of feedback and higher actuation force. However, the higher actuation prevents accidental keystrokes, making black switches very popular for gamers with accuracy issues. The stronger spring also pops the key back quickly, which is great for games that require double-tapping, such as hitting W twice to sprint.
Cherry MX Red (Linear switch)
MX Red was introduced in 2008 to focus on the PC gaming crowd. Like Cherry MX Black, this linear switch has no tactile feedback and is relatively silent, though it requires much less force to actuate at 45 grams. It also travels 4 millimeters to the bottom, but actuates at 2 millimeters.
The lower actuation force makes rapid keystrokes much easier than MX Black switches, but mistyping is also a more common issue. Certain games require quicker actuation, such as first-person shooters, while others, such as real-time strategy games, require accuracy. It's up to the gamer to decide which works best. Cherry MX Red switches are generally more expensive due to higher demand.
Cherry MX Brown (Tactile)
Cherry MX Brown is the quietest of the tactile bunch and requires very little actuation force (45 grams). Like the other Cherry switches, it actuates at 2 millimeters, but it can travel as far as 4 millimeters to the bottom.
Unlike linear switches, browns have a soft bump to indicate actuation, but very little "click." This middle-of-the-road approach makes Browns viable for both typists and gamers: their quiet nature is perfect for typing in an office setting; for gaming, their close reset and actuation points allow quick double-taps.
Cherry MX Clear (Tactile)
Cherry MX Clear switches are considered the "stiffer browns." Their actuation force is 55 grams, with a peak force (force to press the key all the way down) of 65 grams.
They're often compared to the feel and sound of a rubber-domed keyboard, with a more tactile feel and higher actuation force. Though some enjoy the stiffer resistance, they're not as popular as other types and are generally difficult to find on today's keyboards.
Cherry MX Blue (Tactile)
Click-lovers and typists will find their fingers drawn to Cherry MX Blue switches. They have a relatively high actuation point at 50 grams and offer some serious tactile feedback, with loud, high-pitched clicks and a steep bump. But gamers may get frustrated with the inability to quickly double-tap. Because the reset point (the point where you are able to hit another key) is above the actuation point, the key must be released more before it can register a repeat keystroke.
Buckling Spring (Tactile)
Buckling spring takes mechanical switches back to simplicity. It works by buckling a spring (hence, the name) which activates the hammer that hits a membrane sheet to create an electrical contact. The tactile feedback and loud, distinct "click-clacking" comes straight from the spring buckling, so it is the most precise indication of when the key actuates. A stroke takes about 65 to 70 grams of force.
This switch is used in the most well-known mechanical keyboard to date, the IBM Model M. Even at 30 years old, many remain in good condition, ready for the next great American novel to be written--if the loud clacking doesn't drive you insane first.
Topre switches are so new that they're still tough to find. They act as a hybrid between mechanical and membrane: A rubber dome sits over a spring that creates a capacitive circuit when pressed.
The actuation force depends on the model but can vary between 30 and 60 grams. The key travels the full 4 millimeters to actuate, so bottoming out is required. They are some of the quietest and smoothest switches available, even when compared to linear switches.
Even if you think your freebie keyboard is fine, trying a mechanical could change your mind. Most major keyboard companies produce at least one mechanical model, and gamer enthusiasm has helped bring down prices as well as spawn new products. Slide a mechanical beast under your fingertips. You really can feel the difference.