EDITOR’S NOTE: This article was originally published on October 8, 2014. Most of the information is still accurate, although we’ve edited it a bit to modernize references to games and hardware.
Do you have a mechanical keyboard? If you’re already pressing the beefy YES keys on your noisy device with 100+ switches, you’re excused. Go write the great American novel or play a round of Overwatch 2. However, if you’re silently tapping NO and feel the electrical circuits unraveling under your fingers, read on.
You might not know it, but if you’re an average typist, you’ll be able to log 8,000 keystrokes every hour. Suppose, for the sake of argument, that you write eight hours a day, five days a week. That’s a staggering 16,640,000 keystrokes a year, and if you’re using a standard membrane keyboard like the ones that come with most desktop PCs, those keystrokes aren’t as comfortable or reliable as they could be. .
Membrane keyboards have won over the general public with low prices and decent functionality, but gamers and seasoned typists know they’re the electronic equivalent of blowing your nose into a pizzeria napkin instead of an embroidered silk scarf.
While there are some decent membrane keyboards on the market, there’s no compelling reason to buy them other than the price. Your hands spend more time on the keyboard than on the steering wheel; Isn’t those 16 million keystrokes worth a little extra money?
how keyboards work
On any keyboard, the user taps a letter that activates (registers) and tells the device to send a signal to the computer. When the switch is on for a split second, it sends a single letter to the computer; when it’s on longer, it sends the letter over and over again (try holding the “A” button and see what happens if you don’t believe me).
On membrane keyboards, the key passes through a layer of plastic with electrical contacts and then through a hole for a second layer that breaks a circuit to record the beat. Pushing through these layers makes writing on a membrane feel like tapping your fingers on stale, stale gelatin.
For the purposes of this article, consider that “Chiclet” keyboards, such as those used by Apple’s desktop computers, function identically to regular membrane models. It’s not strictly true, but the technology is similar enough that the same considerations apply when comparing them to mechanical devices.
When you type on a mechanical keyboard, you press a key, which activates a spring-loaded switch below it. Depending on the type of switch, this spring may require more or less force and can either make a pleasant “clack” or remain silent. In all cases, mechanical switches provide haptic feedback, helping typists know that they pressed the key hard enough to register and didn’t miss a letter. Unlike membrane keys, the mechanical switches do not need to be pressed all the way down to activate, so users can avoid the unpleasant feeling of “pressing the bottom” (pressing against the base) with full force.
It might seem like mechanical keyboards require a lot more force to act than their membrane counterparts, but that’s not the case. ZF Electronics, which produces the Cherry MX range of switches, has a variety of switches available. Some switches, such as blue and green, recall the noisy writing machines of antaño, but others, such as red, are silent and do not require a heavier touch than the membrane keyboards of the workshop or the computer laboratory from school.
If you are a touch typist, getting a mechanical keyboard will increase your speed and accuracy. As users type faster, the chance of poor tracking increases. By providing strong physical and, in the case of click switches, auditory feedback on every actuation, mechanical keyboards allow you to fine-tune your strokes and generate as many words per minute as possible. You won’t have the same experience pushing two pieces of plastic.
Manufacturers can improve membrane keyboards with higher actuations and faster recovery times, but these measures remain artificial solutions to a design problem. Imagine a city, surrounded by dense ancient forest, carving out acres and acres of artificial grass and plastic trees in its business district, and you get the basic idea.
Higher mechanical rate
At Juice Mobile, we evaluate all aspects of consumer products, and one of those aspects is price. Suppose you are a massively multiplayer online (MMO) gamer. When some of the best membrane keyboards are under $100 and some of the best mechanical keyboards are over $150, we understand that this is not a trivial difference.
However, a good keyboard can last for years: five, 10, or even longer. An extra $50, or even $100, is a lot of money upfront, but not a lot when you consider it’s just an extra $5 per year of use. Also consider that mechanical keyboards can last up to 50 million clicks (or more) per key, while membrane models tend to exceed 10 million. It’s still years of use, but a mechanical keyboard can last for decades, and even then, you can always replace the keys when they wear out. Once a membrane keyboard is fried, it is usually gone forever. A $150 keyboard is cheaper than two $100 peripherals.
Buying a mechanical keyboard instead of a membrane model is like buying a Volvo instead of a Yugo. Sure, you’re paying for the brand, but you’re also paying for a car that can last 25 years instead of five.
The most common objections to mechanical keyboards are high activation and high price, but none of them stand up to careful scrutiny. Whether you’re a gamer, a writer, or just someone who types a lot, you owe it to yourself (and your fingers) to see what a mechanical model can do for you. When you’re buying a product that lasts five times longer than an average smartphone, there’s no reason to settle for a low-end device that costs a penny, but that’s silly.