Finding Your Perfect Mechanical Keyboard

5 minute read

If you spend any significant portion of your time in front of a computer, there’s a good chance you’re typing over 10,000 characters in a single day. Take a look at your keyboard; do you love it? Does it delight you with every keystroke? If not, then you need a mechanical keyboard. Sorry laptop users, this really isn’t for you - unless you also use yours docked at a desk, then by all means read on.

The love of mechanical keyboards began with the IBM Model M keyboard in the mid 1980’s. In the time since then nearly every facet of the personal computer has change and improved, but still today the best keyboards are closely related to this original. Users have held onto these revered peripherals for years, and an active market exists for buying and selling them and their components. In recent years, mechanical keyboards have experienced a renaissance and many different models are now springing up. Mechanical keyboards are such a thing there’s even a whole sub-reddit dedicated to them. https://www.reddit.com/r/MechanicalKeyboards/

A typical keyboard these days is about $15. A high-end mechanical keyboard tops out at about $150. That’s really not a lot to ask for something you use tens of thousands of times a day, that will likely last for 10 or more years (if you don’t completely destroy it with food and drink spills). Beyond being durable, they have a much more satisfying feel to each keypress. And if you’re into gaming, these keyboards can support as many simultaneous key presses as you can possibly do.

But before you go off looking at different models or buying the first one that looks good, take a few minutes and familiarize yourself with the different switch types.

How To Choose Switches

What differentiates mechanical keyboards from the common alternative is their switches. It’s really all about the switches. Choosing the right switch is the most important decision you will make about your keyboard. So much so that you should choose your preferred switch type first, then find the right keyboard that uses it.

The market leader in switches is a line called Cherry MX. They are used in nearly every good mechanical keyboard today. Cherry MX has a wide variety of different switches, with different characteristics. To simplify this, I’ve created a table of the most popular types. Read on to understand what the different attributes mean.

Spring /    
Key Response Lighter Spring Heavier Spring
Linear Red Black
Tactile Brown Clear
Clicky Blue Green

Key Response

When pressing a mechanical key-switch, there is a point at which the switch engages, much like a clutch pedal in a standard transmission car. Up to the engagement point the key has not been triggered, and past the point nothing else happens if you continue to press down. There are three types of switches that each have different responses at this engagement point.

Linear

A linear response means the key goes straight down and back up. There is no difference in pressure or force required at the point of activation. These are the Cherry MX Reds and Blacks - and are most used by gamers. Gamers love these switches because they can be pressed and re-pressed extremely fast. I’ll explain the difference between Reds & Blacks later in the Actuation Force section

Tactile

Tactile keys have a noticeable response at the point of activation in terms of pressure, but not an audible one (no click). Your fingers will know exactly when you’ve hit the engagement point. These are Cherry MX Browns and Clears. Clears are my personal favorite and also quite rare amongst mechanical keyboards, but available if you know where to look.

Clicky

These are the most iconic switches - those which click at the point of activation, and are most like the original Model M keys. Inside these switches is a separate piece of plastic that impacts the bottom of the switch at the point of activation. These are the Cherry MX Blues and Greens. Some people find these clicky keys less favorable for gaming, as they are more difficult to press repeatedly in rapid succession.

Actuation Force

Each of these switches has a spring inside and there are different strength springs available that require varying amounts of actuation force. Reds, Browns, and Blues have lighter springs, and Blacks, Clears, and Greens have heavier springs. Heavier springs means the keys rebound faster but require more force to depress. Many competent touch typists (myself included) prefer the heavier strength springs. Don’t worry that the heavier springs might be too heavy - none of these are truly difficult to press, or will tire your hands out like a very old mechanical typewriter.

Sound

This one is easy - the keys that have the clicky response to activation are by far the loudest (Cherry MX Blue and Green). The rest have very similar sound characteristics, with the lighter spring models models (Cherry MX Red and Brown) being ever so slightly quieter, as they cause less sound on the rebound, returning to their normal position. Note - all mechanical keys make some sound on full depression and rebound, there’s really no “silent” mechanical switch. Rubber O-rings can be applied to any type of switch and will dampen the sound of bottoming-out when the keys are fully depressed. O-rings may also be appreciated by your office-mates if you don’t have a private place to do your clackity-clacking.

This video shows the difference between various switch sounds, with and without o-rings.

Go Buy One

Now that you understand the different switches, you’ve probably narrowed down on one or two types that you think will fit you the best. Check out models that have your desired switch types. My personal favorite is WASD Keyboards, especially their “Code” line. WASD also has a sampler pack you can buy with different switch types to try out before investing in a full keyboard.

This article was typed on a glorious WASD Code Keyboard with Cherry MX Clear switches and no o-rings. It was further edited on a soulless Macbook Air chiclet disgrace.

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