How to choose the right mechanical keyboard

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by AnandaAnatoly
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If you spend any amount of time at your computer working or playing games, you may very well be missing out on one upgrade that can improve your computing experience: namely, using a mechanical keyboard. I make no secret of my obsession with mechanical keyboards as both a hobby and a tool of my profession. Naturally, I spend a lot of money on them. You don’t need to, though. Mechanical keyboards have never been cheaper or better, and it’s an upgrade you’ll benefit from greatly. But… which board should you get? And what’s all this about switches? Allow me to explain.


What makes a keyboard mechanical and why you should have one

The keyboards that come with desktop computers are usually some version of the rubber dome design. You push the key all the way down and the contact on the dome triggers a press. The downside is that the rubber membranes are mushy, inconsistent, and you have to push all the way down every time. Laptops aren’t much better with their scissor switches. They offer a little tactility, but the low travel and mushiness are still grating over time.

A mechanical keyboard can best be described as any board with switches that actuate before the point of bottoming out. For example, Cherry-style metal contact switches. When you press the key down, a stem moves into the housing and pushes metal contacts together. This is what fires off each letter. Other types of switches are considered mechanical, but have completely different mechanisms. Topre switches are popular, but rather expensive. These switches have a stiff rubber dome and a conical spring. Here, the actuation is triggered by a change in capacitance of the spring as you press. The are also Alps-style metal contacts, buckling springs, and Hall effect switches. These are all fairly uncommon in modern boards, though.

Using a mechanical keyboard can make you a much more effective typist thanks to the precise and consistent feel of the keys. Many switches also have high tactility that helps you estimate when a press will register, allowing you to release and move on to the next key without bottoming out. For gaming, you can use switches that are much smoother and faster to actuate than the keys on cheap membrane boards.

Mechanical boards are also built to last. Each switch is good for millions of presses. Even with heavy use, a good mechanical keyboard can last many years. Enthusiasts actually harvest switches from decades-old keyboards with bad electronics to use in newly build custom boards.

Choosing a form factor

The first step in choosing the right keyboard is deciding what layout you want. The traditional full-size board is still the most common, but you might want to use your mechanical transition to change it up. A full-size board has all the keys you need to operate a computer without worrying about any function layers. There’s a full number pad as well. The main drawback of this size is that it’s rather large and inefficient. You have to move your hands rather far to reach everything and the number pad means your mouse will be pushed farther away from your main typing area. This is why I don’t like full-size boards personally.

The next step down is tenkeyless (TKL), sometimes known as 80% keyboards. These boards still don’t rely on function layers for basic features, but there’s no number pad. There’s still a number row, of course. If this sounds stressful to you, just give it some thought. How often do you really need a dedicated number pad? Unless you’re doing data entry, you can probably do just fine without one. This makes the board much smaller and brings the mouse in closer.

The next step down in mainstream boards is 60%, which has become popular in the last few years. A 60% board just has the alphas, number row, and modifiers. There are no dedicated arrow keys, no F-row, and no number pad. All those features are there, but they’re in the function layer. So, you hold function and press a different key. For example, the arrows are usually Fn+WASD or Fn+JIKL. The main advantage of the 60% form factor is that it’s compact and efficient once you get used to the function layer.

If none of those do it for you, there are some more exotic layouts that are just catching on. The 65% size is smaller than a TKL, but you get arrow keys and a few more keys like delete, page up/down, and so on. This is a good middle ground that I’m personally very into. The WhiteFox is a 65% board. They don’t take up too much space, but they reduce your dependence on function layers.

There’s also the super-small 40% category. These boards have just alpha keys and a few modifiers. They’re essentially pocket size and usually have at least two function layers to get all the basic keyboard commands covered. If you get good with a 40% board, you can be extremely efficient as everything is so close together.

Choosing a switch

So, you know what size board you want, but what do you want typing to feel like? Cherry’s main mechanical switch patents expired a few years ago, so there are a ton of clone switches that are Cherry-compatible. The vast majority of boards use Cherry and Cherry clone switches, so let’s go over those.

The first order of business should be to get a switch tester. You can get one for under $20 on Amazon that has all the major Cherry variants: blue, green, brown, clear, red, and black. These switches come in three different varieties: clicky (blue and green), tactile (brown and clear), and linear (black and red). Each of those categories is split into a heavier and lighter version. Here’s a chart with the weights of each. Note: the “color codes” of clone switches are usually the same for switches with the same properties.

switches

I can’t tell you which switches you will prefer, but I’ll note that heavy typists tend to use tactile and clicky switches, but blacks are a common choice as well. A lot of “gaming” boards use the very light, linear Cherry reds. You’ll need to try a switch to get a handle on your preference, but browns are a good choice for most people. They have a subtle tactile bump, no extra click, and a light 45g actuation weight. Clears are one of my favorites—they have a big tactile bump, no click, and a much heavier 65g actuation.

If you want to try a Topre switch, there’s a Cooler Master switch tester that includes one. Keep in mind, if you fall in love with Topre, that limits your choice of boards and keycaps. It also means you’ll spend a lot more getting your perfect keyboard.

Picking a board

Now you know what pieces you want, so the challenge is finding the right board. I will say off the bat that I think you should steer clear of “gaming-oriented” boards. They try to lure you in with flashy lights, but they require annoying, buggy desktop software and often use poorer quality clone switches. When you’re shopping, the best boards with Cherry-style switches will be either authentic Cherry (soon to be branded ZF) and Gateron (excellent Cherry clones).

A good starting point is WASD Keyboards, which makes boards in full, TKL, and 60% form factors. They also have a full selection of Cherry switches. The 60% option is actually a re-branded Poker 3, which is available from multiple retailers. This is an excellent little board with programmable layers and a full aluminum case (I own two of them). Das Keyboard (above) also makes good mainstream-ish mechanical keyboards. Its full-size boards are nice, but the TKL uses unusual (and cheap) switches.

All of the above boards are priced competitively, but are not particularly inexpensive. Rantopad makes some nice TKL boards with Gateron switches. Those are a little cheaper than Cherry switches, but I think they’re just as good. You can get these for under $100. Cooler Master’s QuickFire series (above) is also solid; under $100 in some configurations.

I’m also very much a fan of the Magicforce 68 (above), which is a 65% board that can be had for around $60-70 with either Gateron or Cherry switches of your choice. These boards are excellent values and a good way to try a switch out in practice without dropping a lot of cash.

Getting in deep

So you have a keyboard, now what? Depending how crazy you want to get, you can start customizing your board with custom keycaps and cables. You could even just decide to build your own keyboard (which I’ve posted about a few times). Assuming you want to start small with some custom keysets, you should make sure you get a board with a mostly standard layout. You can look at the bottom row to get a good idea of whether or not a board is standard. It should have 1.25-unit modifiers and a 6.25-unit space bar. Anything else, and custom keysets get more expensive and rare.

Most keysets are sold in group buys, which you have to join prior to production, then wait for the set to be produced. This can take months and gets pretty confusing. The easiest way is to join buys organized by Massdrop. You can also buy some custom sets straight-up on Pimp My Keyboard and Originative. Almost every custom keyset is MX-only. If you get a Topre (or the rarer Alps), you’re out of luck here.

Expect to pay at least $60-70 for a basic set and well over $100 for a high-end custom set. You get what you pay for, though. Keycaps made from PBT or thick double-shot ABS are more durable and pleasant to type on than the caps that come with keyboards. Even the nicer mechanical keyboards don’t go all out on the keycaps. I guess they assume you’ll buy something fancy if you care that much.

I’m going to close by mentioning something that sounds absolutely bananas to people who aren’t into the hobby, but you’ll get a kick out of it, I assume. For additional customization, there are “artisan keycaps.” They’re hand-sculpted and cast single keycaps that are meant to be used as decoration on keyboards. They are mostly made in small batches and sold in raffles, as well as the occasional group buy on Massdrop. They’re expensive.

These little pieces of art for your keyboard can cost as much as $50 if you win the right to buy one in a raffle. Supply is limited, and there are only so many slots. If you miss out on the raffle and want to buy one second-hand, you might pay much more. The more popular designs are often impossible to buy. People will only trade them for other extremely rare artisan caps. If you do see them on sale, we’re talking hundreds of dollars. I’ve seen people pay $300-400 for a single Clack Factory Skull keycap or BroBot v2.

 

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