Why Modern Keyboards Can't Match Mechanical Models

By Matthew Braga

Today's keyboards are unlike those of old. They're small, they're cheaper, and some argue, inferior.

You know what I miss these days? It's not the rhythmic whirr of a dot-matrix printer, or the screech of a 14.4Kbs modem, but the sound of a mechanical keyboard. That hard, clacking noise of an actuating key, letter after letter, is like music to any serious typist, and while that may sound poetic, it seems I'm not alone. 

Today's keyboards are unlike those of old. They're small, they're cheaper, and some argue, inferior. Yet, they account for the large majority of the keyboard market, found in laptops, cellphones and everything in between. That doesn't sit well with everyone, however, especially users who grew up with those hard, mechanical keys. 

clickiness," you could call it. Hearing a keyboard's click was reassurance that a letter had registered correctly, and an auditory queue to continue typing. Older keyboards, either spring-based or mechanical, would produce this sound with ease, something that modern day models lack. Today, when a key is depressed, a letter is still produced, but the satisfying tactility is all but gone. 

 An example of how a spring-based keyboard functions.

The problem is, none of that exists today. Due to cost and size, keyboards are no longer built with springs or mechanical switches, and manufacturers are producing rubber membrane or scissor-based systems instead. While smaller, cheaper, and easier to replace, they come at the cost of clickiness, and a tactile experience that's hardly the same.

A scissor-switch keyboard. 
mechanical-based approach, modern laptops employ two small plastic pieces that move in a scissor-like motion when pressed. These pieces require very little space, are cheap to produce, and perfect for portable devices — but they come with some disadvantages of their own that even modern user may find frustrating.

For example, every time you press a key, there's a certain force that must be applied and distance that key must travel before a result is produced. On an old, spring-based keyboard, that requires a reasonable amount of force and distance. However, because of the way scissor-switch keys are designed, both of those requirements are greatly reduced. One barely needs to depress a laptop keyboard for a letter to work, and little force is needed either. As a result, tactile feedback is almost completely absent when compared to the tension and force required to operate a spring-based model.

 The Das Keyboard — mechanical awesomeness with USB control.  
Das Keyboard, for example, produces a USB-powered mechanical model that's received rave reviews from typing purists and tech reviewers, providing a similar experience to the tactile keys of old. Other companies, like Cherry, still produce a huge number of mechanical models for home and industrial use.  

However you type is largely up to you. Those who have used IBM Model M's and Apple Extended Keyboards may not enjoy the scissor-switch models of today, while others may find a Macbook's chiclet keys fit for their use. The real question is, what sort of keyboard do you prefer? 

 Images via Flickr user asrusch, Wikipedia, Overclock.net and Das Keyboard.