If you are set to build your dream mothership or are looking to upgrade your existing keyboard, there are a plethora of keyboard options available in the market. Let alone, there are different kinds of keyboards, which itself makes things all the way more confusing. To simplify this equation to a certain extent, here is everything you need to know about mechanical keyboards to make an informed decision and pick the right keyboard that meets your requirement.
While a regular membrane or scissor keyboard works well for most people, having a good mechanical keyboard further adds to the experience with its improved performance. So if you happen to do a lot of typing, programming, or gaming through the day, there is a keyboard type to fit requirements for each of those activities and offer uncompromised performance.
Before we jump in and discuss the different aspects of choosing a mechanical keyboard, here’s a quick primer on mechanical keyboards and the factors that separate them from traditional standard keyboards. A mechanical keyboard, unlike a membrane keyboard, is one that comprises of high-quality mechanical parts such as the individual spring, base, and stem, that incorporate to form a switch. The kind of switch present on the keyboard determines the performance in terms of tactility and feedback one can expect out of their keyboard. Besides this, some of the other advantages that mechanical keyboards hold over standard membrane keyboards include removable keycaps, key rollover, durability, and the ability to clean keyboard the keyboard (DIY style).
Now then, let’s start narrowing down our approach based on various factors like Form Factor, Layout, Switches, and more.
Generally, the most common form factor that is adopted by most manufacturers, and apparently, also preferred by many users, is the full-size keyboard layout. A full-size keyboard comprises of all the keys (104 in total), including the tenkeypad or Numpad cluster, leaving no key out. In a nutshell, it consists of the Numpad, navigation keys, function keys, and a few other keys. It is an ideal choice for those whose work involves dealing with numbers and also those who do not have any preferences set in particular and are just looking for something that gets their work done.
On the contrary, those who do not prefer large layouts and want a keyboard that offers only a limited (most commonly used) set of keys, can go for a tenkeyless or TKL (also referred to as 80%) form factor. Compared to a full-size layout, a tenkeyless keyboard comprises of only 88 keys in total, which saves some space by taking away the tenkey Numpad cluster. It is preferred largely by gamers and programmers due to its lightweight and portable form factor, and also considered as one of the most compelling options by minimalists.
If a tenkeyless or 80% form factor is still bigger for your needs, there is the 75% form factor, which is much smaller and crammed up to save space and offer a more portable approach. It is pretty similar to the tenkeyless or 80% form factor, except for a few missing keys and a more crammed up approach with keys crammed right next to each other with almost no extra space in between them. The form factor offers a dedicated row for function keys and also has the navigation key cluster along with a few more keys on the far right column. It is a good choice for those who want a more compact design than the tenkeyless without compromising on the function keys and the navigation keys.
One of the smallest form factors of the lot (also referred to as the 60% form factor), follows a minimalist design approach and emphasizes more on the aesthetics. It gives up on the function keys and navigation keys to offer a small footprint that is easier to carry and operate. In general, this form factor carries around 60 keys in total and have a set potential customer base — those preferring portability and ease-of-carry over other things — to cater.
Besides the form factor, another major aspect that one should consider when buying a mechanical keyboard is the keyboard layout. As, when a user presses a key on the keyboard, say, for instance, A, the keyboard does not understand what A is, and it rather corresponds to the letter A with its raw keycode value mapped during the functional arrangement of the keyboard. So, based on the different regions across the world, there are three types of layouts that are currently considered the standard: ANSI, ISO, and JIS.
ANSI or American National Standards Institute is a common layout found on keyboards used across North America and certain parts of Western Europe. Whereas, the ISO or International Standards Organization layout is seen on keyboards in Europe, and the JIS or Japan Industrial Standards keyboard is specific to Japan. Among these standard layouts, ANSI is the most common standard used on keyboards worldwide, followed by ISO. Some of the discerning differences between the ANSI and ISO layout include enter key – horizontal on ANSI and vertical on ISO, left shift key – bigger on ANSI and smaller on ISO, backslash key – one on ANSI and two on ISO, among a few other differences.
Besides these standards based on the mechanical layouts, there are functional layouts that also bring some confusion in the decision making process. At large, QWERTY is the most commonly used layout across the world. Besides, one of its popular alternatives, DVORAK, is also used by some, but it only has a select set of users and is not predominantly mainstream across most keyboard lineups. The idea behind the DVORAK layout is to minimize the hand movement. For this, the layout has the most commonly used keys arranged on the home (middle) row. Although DVORAK claims to offer faster typing speeds with less hand movement, in case you decide to pick a keyboard with DVORAK, you should refrain from splurging on one unless you have tried your hands on one before.
Moving further, the next crucial thing you need to decide is the kind of switch used on your keyboard. Unlike regular keyboards, mechanical keyboards come with individual switches under each key, which offers better durability, and most importantly, improved performance. Mechanical keyboard switches fall under three different categories: Linear, Tactile, and Clicky.
Linear switches: As the name suggests, Linear switches offer a smooth feel from top to bottom (much like a membrane keyboard) when pressed down. They belong to the silent switches category compared to the Tactile and Clicky switches. The only noise you hear from these switches is due to the key being bottomed down, rather than the noise that a switch otherwise makes. Further, for those who want a silent keyboard switch, the noise can be cut down using O-rings that dampens the noise caused due to bottoming down of the key. Since these switches lack tactility, they are the preferred choice for gaming, as it involves a lot of rapid and repeated keystrokes. Also, since there is not enough feedback, these switches are not preferred for typing.
Tactile switches: Unlike Linear switches, Tactile switches offer a slight bump midway when actuated to offer feedback for actuation. Although the switches don’t themselves produce a clicky noise, the keys certainly make some sound when pressed. These switches are ideal for general use case scenarios and are also a good option for those whose work involves a lot of typing. You can consider these to fall mid-way between Linear and Clicky switches.
Clicky switches: Pretty similar to Tactile switches except for the added click sound for the tactile feedback when actuated. There is a distinct click sound when a switch is actuated, along with tactile feedback to let you know when the keypress is registered. Due to the hysteresis (slight delay between when the key is pressed and actuated), these switches are not ideally suited for gaming. However, at the same time, because of hysteresis, these switches make up for the best keyboards for typing, and are, therefore, a preferred choice for programmers.
The different keyboard switch types further give rise to a wide range of switch options from various companies. These variations of switches are usually judged based on the travel distance required to activate a key (or actuation point) and the amount of force required to actuate a key (or actuation force). Some of the commonly found brands include Cherry, Kaihua, Romer-G, and Razer (in collaboration with Kaihua), to name a few. While these brands offer one of the best mechanical keyboard switches, the Cherry switches are the most commonly found switches on mechanical keyboards across a wide range of brands manufacturing mechanical keyboards.
Cherry offers six switches in total, namely Cherry MX Brown, Cherry MX Clear, Cherry MX Red, Cherry MX Black, Cherry MX Blue, and Cherry MX Green categorized under three types: Linear, Tactile, and Clicky. Of these, the Cherry MX Brown and Cherry MX Clear fall under the Tactile category, with the Cherry MX Red and Cherry MX Black coming under the Linear category. And the Cherry MX Blue and Cherry MX Green being the Clicky switch options.
Both the Tactile switch options, Cherry MX Brown and Cherry MX Clear, produce average noise and require an actuation force of 45g and 65g, respectively. On the other hand, the Linear switch options, Cherry MX Red and Cherry MX Black are the quietest of the lot with an actuation force of 45g and 60g, respectively. Last, but certainly not the last when it comes to preferred choice, the Cherry MX Blue switch is the loudest of the lot with a 50g actuation force, accompanied by the Cherry MX Green with 70g actuation force, under the Clicky switch category.
Key rollover (KRO)
Key rollover is the ability of a keyboard to register multiple key presses simultaneously. Generally, most mechanical keyboards come with what is called N-Key rollover (NKRO), which means that the keyboard can register n number of inputs at the same time. One of the factors that determine Key rollover is the connection type used by the keyboard. A USB connection offers anywhere from 4 to 6 Key rollover as opposed to a PS/2 connection that provides N-Key rollover support.
That’s all. So far, we have discussed all the factors that you need to take into consideration when buying a mechanical keyboard. Besides, we also suggest you check reviews of the ones you narrow down to get a better idea of their performance.
However, in case you do not want to go through the process of hunting down the keyboard yourself, here are some of our picks (in no particular order) for the best mechanical keyboards based on different use case scenarios.
Best Mechanical Keyboards
While we plan to write a dedicated article on the best mechanical keyboards you can buy, here is a list of our favorites for now.