What is a “mechanical” keyboard and what is different about it that sets it apart from the $10 keyboard that you’ve been using? How are different mechanical keyboards different? Should you buy one? Great questions, with somewhat tricky answers.
What makes a keyboard “mechanical”?
Most keyboards you encounter nowadays are rubber-dome or membrane keyboards. The membrane is underneath each key, so when you press the key down, the membrane depresses and makes contact with another membrane on the base of the keyboard. When these membranes contact, the keyboard gets a signal that a key has been pressed and sends that information to the computer.
Now, the difference between that and a mechanical keyboard, is that instead of a membrane being depressed, a key on a mechanical keyboard depresses a physical switch, and when that switch is pressed, a signal gets sent to the computer.
The main difference between these types of keyboards, as you can tell, is the physical switch being depressed vs. the membranes contacting each other that tells the computer when a key has been pressed.
For the most part, nearly all rubber-dome keyboards feel the same, and give little tactile feedback, that is, you don’t know how exactly how hard you have to press a key for it to register on your computer. For mechanical keyboards, there are different mechanical key switches that all feel different, and give different levels of tactile feedback. When you feel the tactile feedback on a mechanical keyboard, you know you’ve registered a keypress on the computer.
Cherry MX mechanical switches:
Nearly all mechanical keyboards use switches made by Cherry, and they are typically denoted by the color of the switch. The most common switches are Blue, Green, Brown, Clear, Black, and Red. Switches have different levels of force, measured in grams (g), needed to depress the key, as well as different levels of tactile feedback that they give. Some switches give strong tactile and audible feedback for keypresses, while others give almost none unless the key is pressed all the way in.
If you’re an oldschool computer user, MX Blue switches may remind you of the clicky keyboards from the 1980’s. The blue switch has both strong tactile feedback and a loud “click” when you activate the key, making it a quite popular choice for typists, however, the loud clickiness makes it somewhat of a nuisance in workplaces with shared spaces. It has an actuation force of 50g, making it somewhat of a stiff switch.
Green switches are very similar to Blue switches, but have a much higher actuation force, sitting at 70g. This makes them much stiffer than blue switches. Greens still have the loud click and tactile feedback similar to blues.
The MX Brown switches have a softer tactile feedback than MX Blue switches, and no loud click. With the tactile feedback and no loud click, they are often considered a middleground between the Blue switches and the Black switches, and provide a option for both typing and gaming. Brown switches have an actuation force of 45g, making them one of the lighter switches.
MX Clear switches are similar to Brown switches, with a stronger actuation force (65g) and a slightly stronger tactile click. Again, these are a good middle ground switches for both gaming and typing, and are a good choice if you like a stiffer key.
A big difference between tactile switches mentioned above and linear switches such as the Black and Red switches is that with linear switches, there is no tactile feedback until the key is pressed all the way down (called “bottoming out”). For all other switches so far, you have tactile feedback telling you when your keypress is registered on the computer. With Black and Red switches however, the keypress can register without any tactile feedback.
Black switches have a high actuation force of 60g, making stray keypresses less likely. Black switches are commonly used by gamers who need accurate keypresses.
MX Red switches are very similar to Black switches, but with a lower actuation force, sitting at 45g. These switches are smooth all the way with no tactile bump or click, other than when it bottoms out. These switches are commonly used by gamers who need fast, rapid keypresses.
Should you switch to a mechanical keyboard?
Mechanical keyboards are quality products that last longer than normal membrane or rubber-dome keyboards, and the build quality is reflected in the price. Many keyboards will run you upwards of $100, but for most people, that price is well justified. So, should you get one? The answer to that question really depends on your personal preference and personal experience. Reading about all these different switches really means nothing until you try typing on a mechanical keyboard. There is a huge difference between looking at moving pictures about what the switches do and actually feeling what it’s like to type or game on one. The bottom line is, go somewhere you can try out different keyboards with different switches, and see which one you like. Everybody’s preferences are different when it comes to typing, and certain keyboards may fit yours better than others.