What is a mechanical keyboard, anyway?
Most people think of mechanical keyboards as “clicky” keyboards like this:
Clicky keyboards are a good entry point to the larger world of mechanical keyboards, because most clicky keyboards are, in fact, mechanical keyboards. But not all mechanical keyboards are clicky keyboards. Some mechanical keyboards have a tactile typing sensation but no audible click. Some have smooth keys with no ‘bump’ at all. And there are dozens of variations on each type of switch — whatever typing sensation and sound you prefer, you can find a mechanical keyboard that fits your taste.
- Have an individual switch under each key: This, rather than clickiness, is the #1 defining characteristic of mechanical keyboards. Unlike mass-produced keyboards that contain squishy rubber domes over a membrane contact sheet, mechanical keyboards have individual metal & plastic keyswitches, usually containing a spring, that determine the characteristics of a keypress. The switches determine how tactile or smooth a keypress is, how clicky or silent a keypress is, and how much force is required. While a keyboard’s materials and engineering also affect its overall feel, it’s fair to say that a mechanical keyboard is defined by its switches.
- Are often clicky: Many–but not all–mechanical keyboards are loud and clicky. Some are smooth and silent. It all depends on the type of switch. Your own choice of switch comes down to personal preference and what you plan to use the keyboard for. Are you primarily a typist? A gamer?
The benefits of using a mechanical keyboard include:
- Faster and more precise input: If you use your keyboard mostly for typing, you will likely want to select a clicky or tactile mechanical keyboard. Physiologically, clickiness and tactility promote typing rhythm, speed, and accuracy. Precision switches permit a lighter touch than squishy rubber domes, speeding you up even more and reducing the chances of repetitive stress injury. Similarly, if you use your keyboard for gaming, you will benefit from the faster, more precise input offered by gaming-centric (often linear) switches.
- Longevity: The switches on a mechanical keyboard are much more durable than the rubber-dome-over-membrane construction found in mass-produced keyboards. At minimum, they can withstand tens of millions of keystrokes. If one key starts to act up, you can just replace that switch–you don’t have to junk the whole keyboard.
- Appearance and Customizability: Most mass-produced keyboards look like what they are: unremarkable hunks of plastic. In contrast, mechanical keyboards tend to be more aesthetically pleasing–more like something you’d actually want to put on your desk. Plus, you can easily customize your mechanical keyboard’s appearance by purchasing aftermarket keycaps sets and other accessories.
- Desk Space and Ergonomics: Mechanical keyboards come in a variety of form factors, including smaller sizes such as tenkeyless and 60%. These slim designs are easier to center relative to your body and occupy much less space on your desk. They also allow you to bring your mouse closer to your body, which many people find beneficial for shoulder and other joint health.
- Zen: Simply put, mechanical keyboards feel good and are fun to use. Many people even find that they promote relaxation. For me, having a mechanical keyboard turns typing from a mundane, unremarkable task to a pleasurable activity I enjoy. Mechanical keyboards make computer work more fun.
Of course, strictly speaking, the term “mechanical keyboard” is wrong–after all, any keyboard that has moving parts is technically a mechanical device. (Here is a rare example of a non-mechanical keyboard.) “Mechanical keyboard” is actually short for “mechanical switch keyboard,” but that’s too long, so we drop the “switch” part.
How do mechanicals compare to mass-produced keyboards?
There are two issues at play — the typing mechanism and the overall build quality.
With regard to the typing mechanism, mechanical keyboards are categorically different than the cheap keyboards included with most computers, or the keyboards you see for sale at Best Buy. Open up a typical keyboard and you won’t find mechanical switches. Instead, you’ll find a sheet of doughy rubber bubbles (or scissor switches) atop a thin membrane. Without any tactile or aural feedback to signify a successful keypress, rubber dome keyboards are far less satisfying to type on than mechanicals.
However, the typing mechanism is not the only determinant of keyboard quality and experience. The overall construction of a keyboard also affects the user experience. A weak frame, loose tolerances, or cheap plastic can negatively affect the typing experience whether a keyboard is a rubber dome or mechanical.
The distinction I want to make is this: rubber dome is not synonymous with poor quality. Rubber dome keyboards can be well-built, and in fact, many 1980s/1990s models were very high quality. I’d still take a good mechanical over most of them, but they aren’t half-bad to type on. Today’s rubber domes tend to be produced as cheaply as possible, which makes them extra bad.
Why is this distinction important? Because just as rubber dome is not necessarily synonymous with poor quality, mechanical is not necessarily synonymous with good quality. On average, mechanical keyboards do tend to have better build quality since their raison d’être is a better typing experience — but this isn’t always the case. A keyboard with mechanical switches but terrible construction can be an even worse experience than a rubber dome!
The takeaways are: 1) There are varying levels of quality even among mechanical keyboards, and 2) if you bash rubber domes (a popular topic of discussion online), at least be clear about what aspect you’re bashing — the domes themselves, or overall poor build quality.
Scissor switch keyboards are the other common type of keyboard in production today, and are used in thin keyboards and laptops. Think of laptops like the MacBook that have chiclet keys — those are scissor switch boards.
Underneath the keys of scissor switch keyboards are thin rubber domes stabilized by flat “X”-shaped, hinged mechanisms. So, scissor switches are fundamentally the same as rubber domes–there’s just an extra mechanism to hold the keycaps in place and regulate their travel.
Although some people like scissor switch keyboards, I and most other members of the mechanical keyboard community do not like them. Due to their short key travel, they tend to be very unremarkable, boring, and uncomfortable to type on. They’re great for thin design applications, but do not make much sense for extended typing or gaming.
So there you have it–the definition of mechanical keyboards and what sets them apart from mass-produced keyboards. Now, let me get philosophical and explain why you should switch to a mechanical keyboard RIGHT NOW. 🙂