You Should Use A Mechanical Keyboard

Created by nathan on Feb. 24, 2014, 12:17 p.m. Last post by tianchx 1 year, 3 months ago.

Do you have a computer? Do you have fingers? Do you type or game on that computer using your fingers on a keyboard? You should get a mechanical keyboard.

Cherry MX Black switch CREDIT: OCN

The vast majority of mechanical keyboards on the market today (aside from Model M-alikes) use Cherry MX switches. These switches are referred to by color, e.g. Cherry MX Reds. Each color has slightly different action, and this guide at Overclock.net is the canonical reference for such things.

In my experience, the type of mechanical keyswitches matters less than the fact of mechanical switches--compared to the dome-membrane of cheap desktop keyboards, or scissor switches of most laptop keyboards, they last longer and feel better to type on, and you can press more keys at once. Plus (depending on the type of switch) they're actually easier to use. The only hitch is the cost: you're looking at around $60 minimum for a mechanical keyboard, like one from Monoprice.

Photo credit: Flickr user ydolon via Creative Commons.

The difference between typing on a mechanical keyboard and using a standard dome membrane keyboard is like the difference between running on a track in running shoes and running barefoot on sand. And no, I don't want to hear about your minimalist running shoes or your Vibram FiveFingers. But silly metaphors aren't the real reason to buy a mechanical keyboard. Here are the real reasons.

They're durable! Because each key uses a separate mechanical switch, rather than a single rubber sheet with a bunch of contacts on it or a bunch of little flimsy scissor switches, a mechanical keyboard will last a lot longer than a cheapo keyboard. There are plenty of original IBM Model M keyboards with PS/2 connectors that are in their third decade of service. Plus, on the off-chance that you actually wear down a keycap, you can replace it.

They're clicky! You can always tell when someone is typing on a mechanical keyboard. While only some of the switch types have actual "clicks" or "bumps" that indicate when a key is activated, most mechanical keys make a clicking or tapping sound when they bottom out, which goes a long way toward making you feel like you're getting actual work done, and can be reminiscent (for older folk) of the noise of a typewriter, or an old computer keyboard. It sounds like you're accomplishing something. I'm not saying this is completely missing on newer keyboards, but some immersive writing applications even add in typing noises to replicate the sound of typewriter keys. You don't need to do that if you have a mechanical keyboard.

Photo credit: Flickr user ydolon via Creative Commons.

They're more precise! Since there's a several-millimeter valley between each key cap, and the caps are curved, it's easier to hit the key you're looking for (and not the one you aren't). Also, because they have longer travel distances, it's a lot easier to tell when you've activated a key or not. If you want to know for sure, you can get one of the clicky or bumpy key types and get actual tactile and audio feedback for each activation--useful if you often hit a key without bottoming out.

You can do more things at once! You can press more keys at once on a mechanical keyboard than you can on a rubber-dome keyboard. A PS/2-connected mechanical keyboard can have true n-key rollover, while those connected via USB can only register ten keys at once: six alphanumeric keys, plus four modifiers--which is fine, because most people have ten fingers at best.

Most non-mechanical, USB-connected keyboards have limited key rollover, especially for keys near each other.

This is not really important for typists, but it becomes very important for gamers.

Most non-mechanical, USB-connected keyboards (which includes laptop keyboards, since they're usually on an internal USB connection) have limited key rollover, especially for keys near each other--often, pressing two or more keys in a cluster will cause other keys in that neighborhood to stop responding until those keys are lifted.

Microsoft's Applied Sciences explains: “Most keyboards are made of a stack of plastic sheets printed with silver ink in a grid of column and row wires, initially unconnected, underneath the keys. A key press can then be detected as a connection made between a particular pair of column and row wires from the pressure of the key above it.”

Microsoft is referring to membrane keyboards, such as the dome switch membranes used on many desktop keyboards and the scissor-switch mechanisms used in most laptops.

Photo credit: kitguru

This columns-and-rows design isn't a problem if you're pressing two keys--even if they share the same column or row wire, the software can tell which contacts are being made. But if you're pressing three keys that share columns and rows, the keyboard can't always tell which combinations are being used.

These key-presses are indistinguishable. Image: Microsoft Applied Sciences.

Christopher of the blog ControlSpace explains that, for example, on the Microsoft Sidewinder X6 keyboard, you can't press Ctrl, W, and R at the same time. Sorry, crouch-walk reloaders. "Whether you are a gamer, a photoshop user, or power user of other software you may come across certain 3-key combinations/shortcuts that may not work." Granted, many non-mechanical gaming keyboards are now wired so that keys near the WASD cluster have greater rollover than keys elsewhere, to prevent embarrassing jams like that.

How to Test Your Current Keyboard

There are several ways to test your keyboard's rollover capabilities. The first is with a simple text input test on the ControlSpace blog, and there are several standalone programs linked there as well. But he also links to Microsoft's anti-ghosting test, which you can take below. Try pressing common gaming combinations, especially around the WASD keys. You may be surprised at how many combinations just plain don't work.

Which brings us back to mechanical keyboards. Each switch is its own circuit, so you can press as many keys as the connection itself can handle. On a PS/2 connection, that's all of them. On USB, that's the aforementioned six alphanumerics and four modifiers at once. As ControlSpace points out, the only real disadvantage of PS/2 is that it doesn't hotplug, so you'll need to restart your computer if you add or remove a PS/2 keyboard. And your motherboard may not have a PS/2 port. If not, a USB mechanical keyboard is still better than a non-mechanical keyboard.

Mechanical keyboards aren't perfect for every scenario. That lovely clicking noise as you type may end up annoying your coworkers, if you work in an office where people take frequent phone calls. When I worked at Maximum PC, Mike Brown briefly used a Das Keyboard with Cherry MX Blue keys. Sitting next to someone typing quickly on Cherry Blues is like sitting next to a concrete stairwell into which someone has just upended a box of Ping-Pong balls.

Which is to say, it's amazing.

So What Keyboard Should I Get?

Great question! It depends what kind of key switch action you like. There are a lot more mechanical keyboard options than there were a few years ago, and it largely depends on your aesthetics and the kind of switch you prefer. Overclock.net has a long, long list of recommended keyboards sorted by switch type, and this buying guide from /r/mechanicalkeyboards is good too.

Switch Tester, Image credit: Cooler Master

If you don't know what kind of switch type you like, you can buy a switch tester from Cooler Master for about $12. It comes with six different switches: Cherry MX Blue, Red, Green, Brown, Black, and Clear, and also a $15 coupon for a Cooler Master mechanical keyboard. It doesn't have Alps, Topre, or buckling-spring keycaps (the other, less common mechanical keyboard switches), but no tester I've found does.

I personally use a SteelSeries 7G that I've had for four or five years. It uses Cherry MX Black keycaps, which I prefer--I like a non-clicky switch with a decent required activation force; I don't want to accidentally press a key when my hand is resting on the homerow. I've had that happen with Cherry MX Red switches before. I find the Cherry MX Blacks to be a good choice for both gaming and typing.

Regardless of the switch type used, I'd go for any mechanical keyboard recommended by the guides above over any dome-membrane or scissor switch keyboard. It's just a superior experience in every way.

Readers: What's your mechanical keyboard of choice? What switches do you use? Any tips and tricks you've picked up over the years?

  • I use a SteelSeries 6Gv2 with Cherry Red switches, easily the best keyboard I've ever owned. Only issue with it is that there's no wrist rest and I've found my wrists aching after long typing sessions - need to get one of those keyboard pads. My girlfriend has commented on how superior my keyboard is whenever she uses my computer even briefly; even without an audible click, the responsiveness and general feeling of accuracy is tangible.

  • Great article; I love mechanical switch keyboards. Substitute 'mechanical switch keyboard' in the videos with Adam whenever he talks about the importance of quality tools and that's me.

    The switch tester is a brilliant idea. I might buy one, even though I already have two mechanical keyboards and don't need another.

    Current keyboard: Leopold FC200RT/AB "Tenkeyless" with Cherry Browns.

  • I heart my Unicomp Ultra Classic (linked in the article under "Model M-alikes"), but nobody else who has to be in the room when I'm rockin' it at 100 wpm does. :)

  • I really think an honourable mention should be made to the optimus maximus, they, as far as i can tell, came up with the idea of a screen keyboard, individual led screens that are customisable, it never really took off, people thought it was too mechanical and not quite right, but for me I would LOVE to have that style of keyboard.

  • I just got a CM Storm Quickfire XT Full Size with Red switches for my home rig and love it. Now it makes the crap membrane keyboard at my office feel so horrid. I really want to get a cheap mechanical keyboard like the $60 monoprice one for my office as well but I'm worried the MX blue switches will drive my coworkers nuts.

  • Das Ultimate with blues and CM Storm TKL with blues at home. Rosewill with browns and Filco TKL with reds at work. All with o-rings (something that should probably gain mention in the article). O-rings help to dampen in impact of bottoming out a mechanical key, significantly quieting down the keyboard. It's also worth noting that keycap thickness and pcb quality/mounting play a large part in the feel of the keyboard. For instance my Das feels far superior to my CM Storm, even though they both have the same Cherry blue switches. The Das is my favorite of the bunch, but the Rosewill on sale is hard to beat. I'm personally not a fan of blacks, as the springs are just too heavy for my taste. If you are new I would probably push you in the direction of browns due to the lack of clicking which can be annoying for coworkers, spouses, your gaming buddies, etc. They still have a nice tactile bump to them, although not as much as the blues. In my mind the tactile bump is part of the win of a mechanical keyboard (which is why I'm not partial to reds/blacks).

  • Aargh no! I hate keyboards that make too much noise! I don't like it and somebody trying to watch television, listen music or get some sleep who's near you won't either.

  • Compaq something or other

  • Noppoo Choc Mini with blue switches. Damn I love that keyboard.

    Tenkeyless so there's less distance between the keys and mouse making it faster to switch. Also more ergonomic to keep the arms closer than with a numpad in between stretching everything out.

    Not for people inputting a lot of numbers obviously but I'm pretty quick at typing IP addresses with the regular number row.

  • I personally prefer slim keyboards that make as little noise as possible and keys that have minimal travel distance.

    My current keyboard: http://www.newegg.com/Product/Product.aspx?Item=N82E16823191007

    SIIG JK-US0412-S1

  • i have a filco majestouch with brown switches.

    i fought myself for a good while before handing over the $$$ (more like €€€) for it, but haven’t looked back. the feeling how every key moves precisely downward and nowhere else, and how you can feel exactly when the key press registers is a joy. the filco also has a pleasant weight to it and zero extras.

    the only upgrade i still want is a custom set of keycaps (from www.wasdkeyboards.com) that doesn’t use futura oblique. what kind of person puts futura’s beautiful caps on a keyboard and makes them oblique?

    also: hi gang! glad to have finally signed up here after lurking for so long. :)

  • I don't get it. I've never tried a mechanical kb, but having a hard time seeing how that would be soooo much better. A regular keyboard is perfectly fine, how much of a difference could "OMG longer key travel and clicking!" make..?

  • @obidamnkenobi: Try it and you'll discover the joys! Don't knock it until you've tried it, head to your local store and demo one.

  • @obidamnkenobi: My father owns a Harley-Davidson motorcycle and about a hundred T-shirts that say things like IF I HAVE TO EXPLAIN, YOU WOULDN'T UNDERSTAND on them. The mechanical keyboard experience is similar. :)

  • @obidamnkenobi: it is indeed hard to explain. mostly, its the feeling of effortlessness and precision.

    have you ever had a volume slider on a cheap shelf stereo? the kind that’s made from that cheap, not-quite-hard-enough plastic, with manufacturing tolerances lousy enough that there is only a somewhat wobbly fit, and where you can slightly move the plastic piece around without influencing the potentiometer underneath? compare that to the same piece, but all parts machined from metal to a precision fit, no wobble, no inaccuracies, just a very "clean" movement back and forth that translated directly to volume change.

    it’s a bit like that. it’s a luxury because the cheaper one does the job well enough for most cases. the thought is that spending a lot of time with our hands on the keyboard when we are on the computer makes it a luxury worth having.

  • most mechanical keys make a clicking or tapping sound when they bottom out

    Which is unbearable in an open plan office. Please don't use one if you have co-workers in close proximity.

  • I spent 80 bucks on a nice mechanical keyboard because, as a computer gamer, i would wear out keyboards often and i really hoped the mechanical keyboard would be good and last a good long time. After 6 months it would only work when it wanted too and at 8 months it was just broken.

    Furious, i went to Best Buy and bought the cheapest keyboard they had at $14.99. It's lasted me for 2 and a half years at this point with no issues and no complaints.

    At this point, I plan on never spending more than $20 on a keyboard ever again!

  • @tomcrisp: In fairness, many things are unbearable in open-plan offices.

  • I think I'll stick with the nearly silent and faster keyboards on my Macs. As I don't give a fig about gaming, and can do 90+ wpm with 95+% accuracy on those boards, yet barely 70% of that speed on mechanicals with longer keystrokes, I'll pass on the "vinyl LPs sound better" nostalgia.

    I mean-- PS/2? Really? What's next, parallel port printing and bernoulli drives?

  • I have had expensive keyboards, but the problem is I live in a house with people who tend to throw drinks over them. So they tend to not last that long. I just stick with the cheap logitech k120 now, and to be honest I like that one more than most other, more expensive, keyboards I've had.

  • I love typing on Mechanical keyboards but over they years I have had to give them up due to a variety of reasons

    1) Vibration: They make whatever surface I'm working on vibrate like crazy and shake my monitors around. Even my rock solid Dell Ultrasharp monitor.

    2) Noise: Even the 'quite' Das Ultimate is much to loud especially in an office environment.

    3) No Ergonomics: This is the biggest one for me. Yes the Stealseries has a wrist guard but it's not enough. I need something the basically puts my wrists flat with the keyboard.

    So to solve this I pretty much use an apple keyboard with everything. I know it sounds real dumb (for Windows machines) but it works for me. I have also discovered that the new Logitech Wireless All-in-One Keyboard TK820 and the washable K310 are also fantastic keyboards/

  • I realize it's not the hippest brand, but I've had the Logitech G710+ mechanical keyboard for awhile now, and I love it. Best keyboard I've used in years. It's also clicky, but not thaaaat clicky...

  • Ironically enough, having just cleaned a keyboard today I'm okay with using cheap keyboards. For as dirty as keyboards can get, in particular as someone who eats at their desk often, I can't bring myself to do that kind of ill on a nice expensive keyboard.

    Also I've been using my cheap Logitech keyboard for years and years. In fact, out of everything except my speakers, my keyboard is the only thing that isn't a replacement. My long time monitor broke before my keyboard did and if anything this article made me realize how long this old bag has been with me. Witness to horrible things only it has seen.

  • I use a 90's Apple Extended II that I bought off Evilbay for $20. I thoroughly cleaned it and then built and installed a project to handle ADB -> USB conversion plus 2 extra USB ports in place of the right-side ADB socket. These ExtII keyboards are really good, and quite a lot quieter than their cousins, the IBM Model M, which one of my ex colleagues owned. The bi***es in his office were literally throwing things at him, for working... of all things.

    I take part in Nanowrimo almost every year and last year I wrote a novel on this instead of the usual logitech membrane stuff I have lying around, or my wife's MBP, and it was a thoroughly better experience.

  • I used to use blue switches but got sick of the noise.

    Now I use a Filco with red switches and it is ideal for me. Nice and quiet while allowing me to type with a light touch.

  • IBM Model M!

    Just kidding. I use Razer Blackwidow keyboards on both my gaming PC and my Mac Pro. Granted, they're probably not the best mechanical keyboards out there, but I did get them on discount and I've been happy with them. The feels!

  • Like any good tech head I own multiple mechanical keyboards in my search to find the right one for me.

    My everyday use though is a Filco Majestouch 2 Ninja TKL with red switches.

  • I was so reluctant to buy a mechanical keyboard for so long. My cousin was fortunate enough to work for IBM during the 90s and he grew fond of the Model M keyboards. He eventually sprung $250+ (AU) dollars to import a DAS keyboard from Germany. I had a quick play and it did feel good, but I didn't play with it long enough to fall in love with it. So I kept on giving him crap about dropping so much money for a keyboard.

    Last year during a furious frenzy or key mashing while playing Tomb Raider, my trust MS kit combo keyboard of 10 years shot me in the face with a stray key. So I decided to replace it with a clicky Razer Ultimate, BEST PURCHASE EVER! I have now replace my office and workshop keyboards with mechanical keyboards (all with Cherry Blues). And yes I did say sorry to my cousin for giving him crap.

    I recommend them to anyone and everyone who types full stop. I just bought a Ducky Shine III for my sister for her home PC (as she used to use Model Ms at her bank job), and she loves it as well.

  • I picked up a Corsair K90, and I love it. It is also great for cleaning since the keys aren't sunk into the board at all. I'd highly recommend it. They also have the K65, and K70, which seem to be very similar but minus the programmable keys, or the K95 (which as far as I can tell is just the K90 in black instead of silver).


  • I really didn't think much of Mechanical Keyboards when I first started looking into them. Long story short I own 2 DasKeyboards, one with Cherry MX Blues and another with Cherry MX Reds. One specifically for work and another for home use. I can't use the dome keyboards anymore, using them just makes me feel, well icky.