We now spend a majority of our time in front of a computer screen writing documents, sending emails and perhaps, programming. As more of our lives are spent interacting with computers, the more we should give attention to the tools we use – starting with the keyboard.
Not everyone will benefit from a mechanical keyboard. They are significantly more expensive, and with the amount of choices available currently in the market, you may not find the suitable switch for your needs. But, once you get over those barriers, it’s difficult going back to a lesser keyboard.
What makes a keyboard “mechanical”?
Most keyboards on the market have moving parts which by definition makes them a “mechanical keyboard”; it’s hard to define the term as almost no one can agree to a single definition. The most commonly agreed definition is – If the switch actuates before bottoming out; the keyboard is mechanical. It’s not a perfect definition, but it’s mostly correct.
Kailh Box Pink force travel diagram. Click the image for more info.
Types of Mechanical Keyboards
There are plenty of mechanical keyboards on the market with some as cheap as £30 and some costing well over £300. Some models are designed with “gaming” in mind whilst some are for ergonomic typing. These models may have features like RGB lighting, Bluetooth connectivity, additional USB ports, cable gutters and hot swappable switches!
Layouts and Form Factors
Mechanical Keyboards also come in various sizes and layouts. The three most common sizes are Full-size, Tenkeyless (TKL) and 60%. Other uncommon sizes include 75% and 40%. Bear in mind that these sizes also apply to non-mechanical keyboards.
The full-size keyboard layout is the size most people are familiar with. This layout provides you with most of the essential keys including the numpad. Though, full-size keyboards are not designed to be portable and some may find them too long, especially in smaller spaces.
A Corsair K70 RGB – A popular full-size keyboard marketed for gaming.
The TKL layout is essentially a full-size layout, but without the Numpad. This is a space-saving layout which reduces the width between 8-10 cm in comparison to a full-size layout. This makes them more portable, but it’s still quite a long layout to be the ideal choice for portability. This layout is mainly targeted towards PC gamers, as most games don’t typically make use of the Numpad.
A KBParadise TKL – A lesser known TKL keyboard.
The 60% layout removes the Numpad, the Nav Cluster and the F-keys. Although, almost all 60% layouts use “layers” to access the F-keys and the nav cluster, usually pressing the FN key and the corresponding key for the intended action. Depending on the person, it may take from a couple of hours to a few weeks to get fully accustomed to this layout. (I typed this entire article on a 60% keyboard and I’m still not used to it, even after a week of use). Despite its somewhat heavy downsides, this is the most suitable for portability out of the three layouts.
A GK61 – A relatively cheap hot swappable 60% keyboard with a removable USB Type-C cable.
Advantages of Mechanical Keyboards
Durability and Longevity
Rubber dome keyboards generally only last between 5-10 million operation cycles which is considered short as there are switches that can last up to billions of key presses, most notably – Hall effect switches. Though, most switches are built to last and can withstand an estimated 40-60 million operation cycles. Mechanical keyboards are also generally better built with higher-end plastics and metal instead of cheap plastic and rubber materials you find in many rubber dome keyboards. Some even feature a removable and replaceable cable in the case yours happen to fray down the line.
Increased Typing Feedback
There are plenty of switches to choose from and everyone has their own preference for typing. Typically, rubber dome keyboards give a very mushy feedback which slowly deteriorate over time due to a short lifespan. The feel of mechanical switches differ from switch to switch, and it’s really up to you to decide which feels right for you. Though many, have reported that switching to a mechanical keyboard not only increased typing feedback, but it also improved their typing speed, myself included.
Changing the look of your mech is easy with the correct keycaps. Most modern mechanical switch use a cross stem (+) making them compatible with most keycap sets on the market. A hot swappable keyboard allows you to change the switches on the fly allowing for further experimentation. More customizability options also include lubing the switches to change their feel and using custom cables to improve the overall look of the keyboard.
A GK61 with Gateron Black switches and custom keycaps installed.
Disadvantages of Mechanical Keyboards
A big downside cost. Cheap mechs can be had between £30 – 50, but those tend to be less durable than compared to other options. Generally, the more expensive, the better the quality. My recommendation is to try a keyboard for at least a week to see if you like it or not; most stores have a 30-day return window which you can take advantage of.
Unless you purchase a silent switch, mechanical keyboards are louder than rubber dome keyboards. Some people use o-rings to dampen the downstroke, thus reducing noise. Be aware that doing this mod will not only reduce the noise, but it will also reduce the key travel and make the key feel softer when bottomed out.
Cherry MX Silent Red switches with o-rings installed. These are silent switches and therefore don’t need o-rings, but I put some on for demonstration purposes. Usually though, the o-rings are supposed to go on the bottom of the keycaps.
If you’re willing to look past the downsides and you happen to be a long-term investor in your equipment who happens to spend more than 8 hours a day typing, then buying a mechanical keyboard is worth it. Their build quality, reliability and price to performance are the three big factors to consider if you’re not looking into customizability.