Mechanical Keyboards 101 - An Introduction To The Hobby
Let’s tackle the first and most obvious question here: “What’s the deal with these mechanical keyboards, and why in the hell would you pay $100+ for one?!” This simple question is unsurprisingly difficult to answer in many ways. Here's one reason and a thousand words worth:
Hate the way this one looks? I guarantee you I can find one you'll adore somewhere!
Mechanical keyboards are more than just a fancy tech accessory or noisy-disco-show to display on your desk. Mechanical keyboards are a full blown hobby with a huge cult following, years of history containing community DIY projects and group buys, dedicated forums (and silly forum drama), niche’s within the niche (like artisan keycaps), and more recently big brand names investing, collaborating, and directly interacting with the enthusiast community.
Personally, I’ve been heavily involved in the mechanical keyboard community for many years. I run KeyChatter.com - a website dedicated entirely to mechanical keyboards, have created and sold more than a few custom products and keysets through Massdrop and community vendors, have amassed a collection of 200+ keyboards (see a few here https://deskthority.net/photos-f62/lsb-s-collection-t13590.html), hosted big community meetups, and have done work on countless collaborations, most recently the C70 custom keyboard by GMK. This hobby has definitely been a long, strange journey for me so far, but one that I hope continues for many years to come!
In the coming weeks I’ll be going over every bit of the keyboard hobby with dedicated articles on everything from keyboard anatomy to interviews with company leaders that work in the industry.
What Makes A Mechanical Keyboard Different
Before getting into anything too technical, let me clarify that for the sake of this article I will only be going over the two most common types of keyboards used today. Mechanical Switch, and Membrane keyboards, which are often referred to as "rubber domes."
Everyone has their own opinion about why mechanical keyboards are better than common membrane keyboards. To me there is only one definitive answer. On a mechanical keyboard the key registers (actuates) midway into the keypress, not at the very bottom like on a membrane keyboard. This small detail makes typing on a mechanical keyboard far more accurate and comfortable, especially when typing for long durations. People can argue over what feels better all day long, but I've never heard a good argument for membrane keyboards being better in terms of how they actuate.
At first, this may seem like a small difference, but in reality it makes all the difference in the world. With a rubber dome you naturally type harder to ensure the keystroke registers, often hitting a key much harder than is required when typing at speed. On a mechanical keyboard it is possible to type lighter and faster due to the higher actuation point.
The way mechanical keyboards feel compared to membrane keyboards is still the obvious and glaring difference between membrane and mechanical keyboards. You can get tactile switches, clicky tactile switches, linear switches, and even clicky linear switches now! The springs used in most mechanical switches make them feel very crisp compared to the cheap, mushy rubber used in many membrane keyboards. Modifications can provide near limitless options in regards to how a mechanical keyboard feels.
(For my full 101 article on switches see: https://www.massdrop.com/talk/8455/mechanical-keyboard-switches-101-mx-style-switches)
Switches are the heart and soul of a mechanical keyboard. Switches are the individual mechanisms beneath the keycaps that determine what kind of feel (and sound) a keyboard will have. For many people, the real draw of mechanical keyboards is the feeling provided by these mechanical switches.
Switches are commonly referred to by color. You'll see people saying things like "I have a Poker with Reds," or "I put Ergo-Clears in my OTD." With switches, color is much more than just an aesthetic choice, it’s a quick way to know exactly how a switch will sound and feel once you become familiar with all of the brands and variants available.
Cherry MX switches and clones are by far the most popular mechanical switch on the market (examples in the picture above). MX mounts are also compatible with nearly all custom keycap sets, so if swapping out keycaps is something you're interested in, go for MX varieties.
Alps are the second most popular switch on the market, followed by Topre, though neither are utilized in any common mass produced keyboard you are likely to find in the store. If you have anything other than MX style switches, chances are you are already aware of that and consciously made that decision. In a later article I'll go over all the differences between the mentioned switches and many others (including vintage switches!)
Stabilizers are the mechanisms that keep the larger keys like Space, Shift, Enter, and Backspace in place and, for lack of a better word, stable. These keys still use a single switch like all other keys, but the extra width of the keycap requires extra support to make them sit correctly and feel like all of the other keys.
The sign of a good stabilizer is that it feels the same wherever you press the keycap (for example, far left corner of the spacebar vs center of spacebar), and that the key feels the same as every other key on the keyboard.
There are two major varieties of stabilizers, Cherry (Left) and Costar (Right). Cherry stabs look similar to MX switches, and Costar have exposed stabilizer wires and individual mounts stuck in the keycaps. The general consensus is that Costar often feels a little bit better and more natural, but Cherry is far easier to work with and swap caps on. There isn’t clear winner for the best style stabilizer, with personal preference being the true determining factor here.
The plate is a metal (and sometimes acrylic) sheet that holds the switches in place, and helps reduce strain on the PCB. The plate is part of what determines what physical layout a keyboard can have as well, along with the PCB that must be compatible with the plate. In the example shown, there are huge gaps on the bottom row to provide the user with many options when building the keyboard from scratch and to work with multiple PCBs.
Some keyboards have plates integrated right into the case. HHKB's are a great example of this. It is worth noting that there are some keyboards that don’t utilize a plate, though the vast majority do.
If switches are the heart of a mechanical keyboard, the PCB (printed circuit board) is the brain. The PCB will determine what physical layout the keyboard is capable of having as well as if the keyboard will be programmable or not. The PCB will also determine what kind of cable you will use to connect your keyboard to the computer. Additionally, features like RGB SMD lighting may also be installed, which simultaneously raises the cool-factor and price of the PCB.
Compare the Input Club Infinity PCB (Above) to the XD60/64 PCB (Below). You'll notice the XD60/64 has way more places to accommodate switches, meaning it is more flexible when it comes to selecting a layout.
Having a PCB with more options isn't always necessary though, as it isn't like you are going to rebuild it with different layouts over and over. If you have a very specific layout in mind that you want, just make sure that the PCB you want to use supports the layout!
Keycaps are a BIG deal for a lot of enthusiasts. Community designed keycap sets often sell 3,000 units or more and can cost over $200+ just for the caps alone. When looking at keycaps there are a few major aspects to look for:
- Mount type - You want to make sure the keycap mount is the same as the switches you plan to use them with. MX is the most popular mount, by an overwhelming margin over anything else. Alps and Topre would be the next most popular mounts, though both would hold under 10% of the market combined.
- Profile - The keycap profile is how the cap physically looks and feels. There are quite a few profiles, as you can see in this image:
Finally, there is the actual material the keycap is made out of to take into consideration. People will often speak like there is a clear best material, and this is simply not the case. The most common plastics used for keycaps are ABS, PBT, and POM (though significantly less than the first two). ABS is very dense and commonly used in a lot custom sets (all Signature Plastics SA and GMK sets). Because ABS is so dense it doesn’t warp very easily. ABS will “shine” overtime as the oils from your skin react with it.
PBT is another very common material used for keycaps. It is less dense than ABS and can warp much more easily, but also has the benefit of being extremely resistant to shine. It also doesn’t fade in sunlight.
The differences in these materials and how they are best utilized can be seen very easily in vintage keyboards. Look at this old Apple M0116 for example:
At one point, the keys were all the same color. All of the keys except the space bar are Dye Sub PBT. Notice how they are dirty, but not faded. You could easily clean these up and have them looking like new in no time. The space bar (and case) are ABS, and have faded over time. The reason why the spacebar isn’t PBT like the rest of the caps is because of how difficult it is to make PBT caps that large that won’t warp (which is also why the case is not PBT).
Keyboard Layouts and Sizes
With mechanical keyboards you have a huge variety of keyboard sizes, and are able to really find a size that suits you best. Common sizes include fullsize (TK, tenkeyless (TKL), and in the last five years 60% keyboards. Variants of all of these sizes exist, along with everything in between. There are even some boards as small as 30% (Gherkin) and as large as 150ish% (Hyper7)! This article shows many of the more common layouts available today (https://www.massdrop.com/talk/947/keyboard-layouts-explained-in-detail-many-pics)
Do you feel overwhelmed yet? I hope not! Over the next few weeks I will be doing extended articles on every aspect of mechanical keyboards that I just scratched the surface of above. The purpose of this article was just to let you get your toes wet and start understanding all of the different aspects of keyboards that you’ll see being discussed around here constantly.
If you want to learn more on your own in the meantime, I would highly recommend checking out some dedicated keyboard forums like Deskthority.net and Geekhack.org! There is also a thriving Reddit community worth looking at.
Finally, I am here to be a resource for you! Don’t hesitate to reach out to me here in the comments below or from KeyChatter.com’s contact page. There are no stupid questions and I’m always available to help answer anything I can! If you enjoyed this article or have ideas for future articles please let me know!
- Sculpted profiles, like Cherry and Alps, are different heights for each row of the keyboard. Uniform profiles, like DSA, utilize the same height for every key.
- Legend type is another important aspect of keycaps to pay attention to. I will go into far more detail on this is my keycap specific article. For now here is a quick summary of the different types of legends:
- Double shot keycaps are the nicest variety as they utilize a separate mold for the legend as the rest of the cap. This means the legend will never wear off.
- Dye Submilated keycaps are can be thought of as “tattoo” legends. Dye is embedded into the keycap and will not wear off due to how deep the dye is embedded in the cap.
- Pad Printed keycaps use two part epoxy ink. They often look like little stickers on the keycaps if you look very closely. Pad printed legends will fade and wear out quickly.
- Laser Etched keycaps are painted and then a laser etches the legend into the cap, removing the paint. These are the most common variety of caps you will find on keyboards where switch LED’s shine through the caps and illuminate the legends. Think gaming keyboards.