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Everything about mechanical keyboards

By February 3, 2019 No Comments

You will probably have heard of it or maybe one of your colleagues has one. A layman calls it ‘old-fashioned’, the connoisseur swears by it. Of course I’m talking about mechanical keyboards! Who am I? I am Wesley and I have a Leopold FC660M, Ergodox EZ and IBM Model M myself. Every since I bought these mechanical keyboards I felt there was no going back to rubber domes. I would not want to be without it anymore.

But how do you choose a mechanical keyboard? In general, such a keyboard is not the cheapest and you want to avoid a bad buy. But as soon as you google you’ll quickly find out there’s a lot of switches and flavors to choose from. Hopefully this guide will help you in picking the right keyboard for you!

Ducky Shine 3 mechanical keyboard.
Ducky Shine 3 white edition. Ducky is known for it’s characteristic space bar.

What is a mechanical keyboard?


When talking about mechanical keyboards – it means a keyboard that has a switch of moving parts under the key. A normal keyboard, on the other hand, usually consists of a rubber switch. This is much cheaper to produce. In addition to such a rubber dome switch and mechanical switches, there are also other types of switches, as Apple uses its own ‘butterfly’ switches for its keyboards. I will not go into that now.

Why is a mechanical keyboard better?


First of all, a cheap keyboard is usually not bad. It will certainly get the job done. The superiority of a mechanical keyboard is mainly in the experience. With an average keyboard with rubber dome switches you have to press harder, you get little feedback and the keyboard can feel ‘mushy’ by using rubber. Also, the lifetime of such a keyboard is a lot shorter.

With a mechanical keyboard you do not have these disadvantages. Depending on the switches you choose – which determine the majority of the experience – you have to put in as much power as you want and you get the feedback you want. A much-mentioned disadvantage of a mechanical keyboard: it makes a lot of noise. Now, however, this also depends on the switches you choose, your way of typing and your work environment. A rubber dome keyboard is also not exactly silent. And personally I would rather hear the cozy clicking clack of a mechanical keyboard than the beating of a non-mechanical keyboard.

Vortex Pok3r keyboard
Vortex Pok3r. 60% keyboard (tenkeyless).

Which switches are there?


There are different types of switches. Cherry MX, the most famous manufacturer of switches, has ten different types to choose from. These switches are characterized by a color, red, blue or brown for example. Most manufacturers keep these color codes for the same kind of switches. Other brands that hold these colors are for example Gateron, Kailh, and Greetech.

Razer, best known for gaming accessories, uses, among other things, his own hybrid switches; a cross between mechanical and dome. Logitech uses its own Romer-G switches and other well-known brands are Topre and Matias. The latter two are mostly known to enthusiasts.

Cherry MX Green switches.
Ducky G2 Pro /w Cherry MX Green switches.

Tactile vs Linear

To make it a little easier: a distinction is made between tactile switches and linear switches. You must press a linear switch to the bottom before it registers a press. A tactile switch has a tactile bump halfway, at this point the press is recorded and you can continue typing. You do not need to press the button any further: it is possible.
A third type, which you encounter less, is the clicky switch. It has an audible click, in addition to a tangible bump of a tactile switch. These switches could lead to annoyed colleagues.

A further distinction in switches is made by the amount of force you have to use to press a key. This is called actuation force. The actuation force is measured in centiNewtons (cN) but 1 cN is equal to 1 gram, these sizes are used interchangeably. An average rubber dome keyboard has an actuation of between 55g and 60g. With mechanical switches, you usually have a choice of 45g to 80g.
The third point of distinction is the actuation point. This is the point from where the switch registers the press. On average this is 2mm, with a total distance to bottom out of 4mm. The lower the actuation point, the faster the key registers the attack and you can go to the next key.

With these three characteristics, you can decide which switch is right for you.

Which switch should I choose?

My daily driver is a Leopold FC660M with Cherry MX Brown switches. The Cherry MX Brown is a popular tactile switch. The actuation force is with 45g light and the actuation point average is 2mm. I fell for this keyboard mainly because of the great looks and size making it convenient to take it wherever I go. I already knew the Cherry MX Brown switches and I liked typing. The choice was made quickly.

Leopold FC660M
Here you can see my Leopold FC660M in action with inverted spacebar.

There are also special switches. Like the silent series from Cherry. These are available in Red and Black and are silent (er) variants of these colors. Then there is the Cherry MX Speed Silver, ideal for games. This linear switch has a low actuation force and actuation point. My advice would be to omit these special switches in your choice, that makes it unnecessarily complicated in my eyes.

Switch testers

The best way to decide which switch you want is simply to try it out. Although that is less straightforward in practice. Not many computer stores will have mechanical keyboards that you can try out. Most stores do have some gaming keyboards from Logitech and Razer, but also Corsair and Kingston, who use Cherry MX switches.

Some stores have so-called testers in the physical stores. These are small plates with a number of color switches next to each other, so you can try out how it feels.

These switches can also be ordered at most online stores, for example with Candykeys.

Cooler Master Switch tester.
Cooler Master Cherry MX switch tester.

Or do you have colleagues or people around you who have a mechanical keyboard? Ask if you can try it out.

Try to think in advance what you like: do you like it if you have to press the button lighter or heavier before the attack is registered? Do you want to feel feedback or do you want the test to register only when you reach the bottom? This will make your choice easier.

But be warned: mechanical keyboards are addictive. Once you have one, you probably do not want anything else, just like me.

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