Mechanical Key Switch Keyboards Demystified

I'm sure you've all heard the old saying, "You get what you pay for" many times throughout your lives. Whether talking about plumbing or electronics, that saying has seemingly rung true for ages. But for whatever reason, it isn't always taken to heart, especially by PC users. Let me give you an example.

Years ago, in what seems like another lifetime, I used to manage an electronics store for a large national chain (that's surprisingly still around!). On more than one occasion, while selling a $1500 to $2000 computer system to a customer, he or she would choose not to buy a quality $49 surge protector designed specifically for PC use, despite my strong recommendation, and would instead opt for a cheap $5 model. I would try to explain to these customers, in plain English, that the more expensive option had a much quicker response time and could absorb a larger surge--which is important for sensitive electronic devices--but more often than not, they left with the cheaper option. I just didn't get it. We were talking about a minimal additional investment, that could have meant the difference between the life and death of the computer. But what did I know.

And that's not the only example I could provide regarding PC users that have forgotten that old saying. As many of you may know, I have an affinity for keyboards. I have a collection of them that has been growing for years. Rubber dome, scissor switch, buckling spring, tactile, non-tactile, clicky--you name the type of keyboard and I probably have one, or had one at some point. As someone who makes a living behind a keyboard, I have developed strong opinions on their quality and what I feel are the best options. And of course, regarding keyboards, I have learned that you most certainly get what you pay for.

The Cream Of The Crop
In my opinion, the best keyboards available have mechanical key switches. They are known as mechanical keyboards, or mechanical key switch keyboards. What makes them so desirable is that mechanical keyboards tend to be constructed of higher quality materials, they last longer and are more reliable, and most importantly, once properly acclimated to one, a mechanical key switch keyboard will make you a better typist--you may even be able to get work done faster, with less fatigue.

That may sound like a stretch, but it is absolutely true. You see, the vast majority of keyboards included with white box systems or sold at office supply stores are rubber dome or membrane keyboards. They are inexpensive, mass produced, relatively low quality devices that are inconsistent and degrade the user experience. The problem is most users don't know this, or simply don't care. The appeal of cheap rubber dome or membrane keyboards is that they're usually available in a variety of styles, are included "free" with a new system, and they may sport additional features like media controls or wireless connectivity. But these cheap keyboards typically don't provide users with any tactile feedback, the keys feel mushy and may not all actuate at the same point, and the entire keyboard assemblies themselves tend to flex and move around when typed on. Not fun.

Depending on the type of switch used in a mechanical keyboard, however, it will offer distinct tactile feedback to the user--which is to say there is a pronounced "bump" transmitted to the user's finger tip when a key is pressed. Once acclimated to the tactile feedback, users of mechanical keyboards have a second feedback mechanism, other than a letter appearing on screen, by which they'll know a key has been pressed. Many mechanical keyboards also have clicky key switches, which provide a third, audible feedback mechanism--you feel the tactility of the switch, hear it click, and see the letter appear on screen. The switches are built to stricter tolerances than rubber domes as well, so key presses are consistent across all of the keys. And mechanical keyboards, more often than not, are also heavier and more rigid than rubber dome boards. All of these things add up and culminate in what is simply a better product in my opinion.

      

What's Under The Hood
Mechanical keyboards are available in a vareity of syles. There may not be quite as diverse an array of options on the market as cheaper rubber domes, but there is enough variety out there that most PC users' needs can be met. Of course, they are available in different colors, with different key layouts, and with either USB or PS/2 connections. There are also spacesaver "ten-keyless" designs out there that do away with the numpad and products designed for gamers with n-key rollover support. Another major differentiating factor between mechanical keyboards is also the type of key switch used to build them.

There are literally dozens of different key switch types currently on the market and each one has a different feel. Here in the U.S., you're likely to come across scissor switches, Cherry MX switches, buckling springs, or ALPS copies / ALPS-type switches when shopping for a mechanical keyboard. Scissor switches are a step up from rubber domes, but are not the most desirable option, so I'll mostly ignore them here. The most common types of switch used in keyboards currently in production are Cherry MX Black, Blue, or Brown switches, buckling springs, and simplified ALPS copies with White (or White-ish) or Black stems. I should note that the reason I say ALPS copies is that the original ALPS switches are no longer in production, but simplified versions based on the original design are. And those copies are what are used in current keyboards.

The differences between the various switches you're likely to come across are subtle, but definitely perceptible. Buckling springs are the type of switch used in the original "killer" keyboard, which still has a loyal following today, the IBM Model M. Buckling springs are still used in many of Unicomp's keyboards, like the Customizer 104, which is one of my all time favorites. Buckling spring switches have a coil spring supporting each keycap that buckles or collapses, at a certain point when pressed, which provides auditory and tactile feedback to the user. The keys are usually fairly firm, but the typing experience is excellent.

Cherry MX switches all have a similar physical design, but the different colored stems signify a different switch configuration. For example, the Cherry MX Black is a non-tactile, non-clicky switch--which is to say it is linear and does not transmit a bump to the user's fingertip when pressed and it does not provide an audible click. The Cherry MX Blue, however, is both tactile and clicky. And the Cherry MX Brown is tactile, but not clicky. And all three require different amounts of force to actuate, the heaviest being the Black model, followed by the Blue, and then the Brown.

ALPS type switches are also available in different configurations. White ALPS type switches, like the Cherry MX Blues, are both tactile and clicky, whereas the Black type are not. Black ALPS copies are tactile, but non-clicky.


Cherry G80-3000LSCRC-2

I Gotta Get Me One Of These!
If you've made it this far, I assume you've got at least some interest in mechanical key switch keyboards and are wondering what products are currently available on the market. Well, there are a multitide of options out there; I couldn't possibly list them all here. I will, however, run through some of the easier to obtain offerings which I consider to be high quality products, worthy of consideration.

If a tactile, but non-clicky mechanical keyboard appeals to you, the ABS M1 (simplified ALPS copies, Black) is a good option. Non-tactile, non-clicky offerings include the Steelseries 7G and the Gigabyte GK-K8000 (both use Cherry MX Black switches), they are both available at many e-tailers.  Keyboards that use Cherry MX Brown switches, like the FILCO Majestouch Tenkeyless FKBN87M/EB or FKBN104M/EB, are also excellent non-clicky, but tactile options.

If a tactile, clicky keyboard would better suit your needs though, the Cherry G80-3000LSCRC-2, Scorpius M10, and Das Keyboard Professional or Ultimate, which all use Cherry MX Blue switches, are good choices. The Unicomp Customizer 104, which uses buckling spring switches, is also a fantastic tactile, clicky keyboard as is the Matias Tactile Pro 2.0 and the Solidtek ASK-6600U which uses simplified White ALPS copies. And users looking for vintage throw back offerings should consider an original IBM Model M (buckling spring, clicky) or Dell AT101W (ALPS Black, tactile, non-clicky).

I should note, some mechanical key switch keyboards can be a bit difficult to obtain. FILCO's offerings, for example, aren't sold in the U.S., so a Japanese buying service or eBay are good places to look. And some of Cherry's own keyboards are typically available at more specialized e-tailers, that cater to POS or business consumers. Should you decide to give a mechanical key switch keyboard a try, it is most definitely worth the investment and extra effort though. A quality keyboard can enhance your computing experience, increase your productivity, and last through multiple system upgrades.

I hope that I have provided you with enough background to make an informed buying decision. If not, please, feel free to comment and ask questions or poke around the geekhack.org community, where I lurk from time to time.

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Update: I decided to shoot some video and show off a few of the keyboards currently in my collection, to give you all an idea not only as to what they look like, but how they sound as well.  As you'll see and hear, they're all somewhat different.  My current favorites are the Filco Majestouch FKBN104M/EB,  the Cherry G80-3000LSCRC-2 (not in the video) and the Scorpius M10.  The Cherry G80 and M10 use the same switches and sound almost identical, however.  Please forgive the awkward hand position while I'm typing in the video--I had a tripod and camera in the way and was moving the microphone into position as necessary.  Enjoy.

 

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