How to Choose the Best Mechanical Keyboard

- Sep 10, 2019-

Mechanical keyboards, or keyboards with full, individual switches under every key, have exploded in popularity recently, although the technology inside is as old as the keyboard itself. There's really no substitute for that solid, clicking sensation under your fingers as you type, and the satisfying sound each key makes when you press it. However, choosing the best mechanical keyboard can be tricky, since there are dozens of models, different switch types, and more popping up every day. Here's how to tell them all apart and pick the right one for you.


A Brief History of Mechanical Keyboards

There was a time when almost every computer keyboard used individual, mechanical switches under every key. Those keyboards were expensive to manufacture, and even as the technology that went into them got cheaper, advancements in plastic molding technology made it possible to manufacture keyboards with a single "monoblock" switch instead of individual switches for each key. Combined with cheap, easily "printable" membrane sheets that shortened the keypress distance and used an electrical circuit to detect keypresses instead of individual sensors, keyboard design shifted away from mechanical components and towards cheap membranes and scissor switches, like most keyboards commercially available today. For more reading, this Wikipedia article has a great rundown of the history of computer keyboards.

Somewhere after membrane keyboards started to ship with every new PC, something changed. While people appreciated the slim form-factor and low key-press depth of smaller keyboards, many people longed for the satisfying click and detectable button-press under their fingers they missed. In response, several companies began producing mechanical switch keyboards—keyboards that were more affordable to make but similar in feel to the "buckling spring" keyboards of the past. Initially aimed at enthusiasts who wanted that feel, they grew in popularity among gamers (who wanted precise control over when a key was pressed and when it wasn't, and enjoyed the sensitivity of a mechanical switch) and programmers and developers (who found the click for each individual keystroke cut down on typos and other errors).

Why You Should Consider a Mechanical Keyboard

You probably know someone who already sings the virtues of their mechanical keyboard (or that person may be you). There are several reasons to consider a mechanical model, some of which you may have heard:


  • Mechanical keyboards can minimize typos. Depending on the type of switches you get (and we'll dive into that later), you not only get specific tactile feedback when you've pressed a key and it's registered on the screen, you'll also never wonder whether or not you've actually tapped a key or not. Once you get familiar with the way the tactile "bump" feels with certain typing-friendly mechanical keyboards, you'll find yourself more sure of the keys you've pressed and not double-typing to make sure you've actually pressed a button. The sound of a mechanical keyboard can reinforce the tactile feedback as well, as opposed to quieter scissor or membrane keyboards, where you may not even know if you've hit the right key in the first place.

  • You want a keyboard that'll stand the test of time (and use). One of the biggest benefits of mechanical keyboards is that they're durable and meant to stand up against heavy use. Depending on the model you buy, the keys are rated for dozens of millions of keypresses, which is way above and beyond the standard duty expectation of a membrane keyboard. If you're the type of person who wants a good keyboard to stick with you for the long haul, or you notice you're hard on your membrane keyboards, a mechanical could change the way you work. Plus, since the switches are mechanical, the keys pop off and go back on easily—that means a lost key or bent scissor switch doesn't mean a keyboard in the trash can. Cleaning and maintenance are a snap.

  • Mechanical keyboards are more satisfying to use. This is pretty subjective, but most people who use a mechanical model on a daily basis will tell you that it's just a more satisfying typing experience. The audible key-clicks and the sure knowledge every time you press down on a key that it's registered properly is a feeling you really have to experience to appreciate. Plus, as we mentioned, depending on how you use your computer, that audible and tactile feedback can improve your game or help you minimize typos, especially if you're a fast typer. There's even debate over whether using a mechanical keyboard (or at least some mechanical keyboards specifically) can alleviate the pain of RSI (Repetitive Strain Injury) in heavy users.

  • You have a strong sense of nostalgia. If you're old enough to remember the IBM Model M keyboard or more recently the Apple Extended Keyboard, you can probably recall how they felt to use, and the sounds they made when you clicked away on them, whether they were your first computers or you used to work on them regularly. Modern mechanical keyboards can bring that sensation back, depending on the switches you buy. We'll get to that in a moment.

These aren't the only reasons, but they're some of the best ones. Not everyone is going to love a mechanical keyboard. Some people will find them too heavy, too clunky, too loud, or just outright annoying compared to slimmer, quieter scissor switches or membrane keyboards. They're often a bit more expensive than traditional keyboards as well, especially if you're the type who's comfortable using whatever keyboard came with your PC or you picked up for $5 at your local department store. If you're an enthusiast ,however, do yourself a favor and give one a try, if not at home then in a computer or electronics store like a Fry's or Micro Center. You'll immediately feel the difference, and you'll want to take one home with you.

Get to Know Your Switches

If you're interested in mechanical keyboards, you'll need to learn the lingo before you run out and buy a keyboard that may not give you the typing experience you're looking for. Most mechanical keyboards on the market today use Cherry MX switches. The video above, from Techquickie, does a great job at quickly breaking down the different types of key switches, but here's a quick rundown of each one anyway, and some popular keyboard models that include each one: