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Choosing A Mechanical Keyboard - Helpful Tips For The Right Feel

Michael Shelton
11.20.16
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So you've decided to take the plunge and purchase your first mechanical keyboard. The clickiness finally drew you in. But did you know not all mechanical keyboards are clicky? In fact, some are nearly as quiet as rubber dome keyboards. Not all mechanical keyboards are created equal. There's actually quite a few aspects you need to consider before choosing a mechanical keyboard.

Switch Type

You may have heard of Cherry switches. They're currently the most well known and dominant switch manufacturer for mechanical keyboards. But Cherry is just a brand. Switch type actually refers to the three main variations of switch operation: Clicky, tactile, and linear.

Clicky switches have what's called a click leaf that creates an audible click sound at the point a key is pressed far enough to register the input. They also have a bump that can be felt through your fingers in the form of tactile feedback. If you asked the average person about mechanical keyboards this would be the switch type most would recognize. Cherry MX Blue is an example of the clicky switch type.

Tactile switches are, as the name implies, tactile in feel. They don't have a click leaf, so no audible feedback, but they do include the bump that provides tactile feedback that can be felt. A relatively quiet switch, which makes it a decent choice for gaming or office environments where the clickiness might make you very unpopular among your peers. Also an adequate switch type for pure typing tasks. This type of switch is considered a good general purpose switch for a variety of uses, but not specifically tailored to have one specific strength. Cherry MX Brown is a popular tactile switch.

Linear is the switch type of choice for a majority of PC gamers. Linear switches have absolutely no feedback. No clickiness. No tactile bump. Just a smooth, responsive keystroke with nothing to slow down key actuation. The properties of linear switches make them ideal for quick, repeated key presses (double tapping) often required in many fast paced games. Cherry MX Red is an example of a light weight linear switch.

Actuation Force

Speaking of weight, the actuation force is what determines the heaviness of a mechanical keyboard switch. The amount of force needed to actuate a key is usually measured in either grams (g) or centinewtons (cN). The amount of force needed to register a keystroke can range from 35g all the way up to 80g+ depending on the tension of the switch spring.

Actuation force is a switch attribute that's extremely dependent on personal preference. If you prefer a lighter touch while typing look for a switch with an actuation force of 45g and under. Heavy handed typers will probably need an actuation force of at least 65g. Everything in-between those two ends of the spectrum would be considered a medium weight switch.

Keycaps

This is probably the most overlooked aspect by users when deciding on a mechanical keyboard. Most stock keycaps on low to medium budget mechanical keyboards are mediocre at best. They're usually made from ABS (Acrylonitrile Butadiene Styrene) plastic and molded with very thin walls. Thinner keycaps produce harsher sounds while typing. ABS is also prone to "shine", which is why many old keyboards look like you just finished typing a novel after eating a greasy pizza without washing your hands. Premium keycaps are made from PBT (Polybutylene Terephthalate). PBT is a stronger plastic material than ABS that isn't prone to shine and won't yellow with age and exposure to sunlight. It's also a more difficult material to mold, which is reflected in the price of PBT keycaps.

Fortunately, keycaps on mechanical keyboards can be removed and replaced rather easily by using a keycap puller tool. If you do buy a mechanical keyboard with plans to later upgrade the stock keycaps make sure you're aware of the key sizes. Many popular brands, such as Corsair and Razer, are unfortunately guilty of using nonstandard bottom rows. This makes it much more difficult to find compatible keysets. If you have a specific set of custom keycaps in mind odds are they won't fit boards with nonstandard bottom rows. Also pay attention to the stem type. Most keysets are MX compatible, meaning they will work on the cross shaped stems housed by Cherry MX switches and the many MX type clone switches recently released to the market. Other switch brands (such as Topre, ALPS, and Matias) have there own stem patterns that will require keycaps made specifically to fit that particular brand of switch.

Try Before You Buy

You could read every review posted online, but the best course of action before choosing a mechanical keyboard would obviously be to try typing on it first. That's not always possible. If so, a switch tester may benefit you. Switch testers are just small boards with no electronics that have a mixture of switch types installed for testing purposes. They can be found for as cheap as $10 at most online retailers, a small price to pay when many mechanical keyboards cost $100 and up. That's a lot of money to risk on a product you have no experience with.

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