The keyboard is a critical input device for a computer. However, not many people know about Mechanical Keyboards and their advantages.
When you buy a computer, the keyboard is sold with it by default. Hence, even though people do adequate research on the computer processor and even the monitor, the keyboard takes a backseat. However, choosing the right keyboard is equally important. So, do you think you need a mechanical keyboard? Here is all you need to know about these keyboards to help you decide.
What Is A Mechanical Keyboard?
A Mechanical Keyboard is a keyboard in which there are mechanical switches under the keys. These are high-quality plastic switches. When a key is pressed, the switch is activated to register the keystroke.
Mechanical keyboards are sturdy keyboards from the 1980s. These classic looking keyboards are what comes to mind when you hear the word ‘keyboard’. But the regular keyboards that use a membrane are fast replacing these traditional keyboards.
In a mechanical keyboard, a switch is placed under each key. When a key is pressed, the switch is activated and the keystroke is registered. The part which is pressed is actually known as the ‘keycap’. The switch is spring-loaded. You can hear a ‘click’ on pressing the key. When released, the key quickly bounces back to its original position with another ‘click’.
Typing on a Mechanical Keyboard
Typing on a mechanical keyboard is only slightly different than typing on a regular keyboard. However, the reassuring ‘click’ sound lets you know that the key was pressed long enough for the stroke to register. This way, you can avoid pressing the key for too long or repeatedly. Also, it avoids missed keystrokes. For pressing keys on a mechanical keyboard, less effort is required. It also lets you press more than one key easily and accurately. Typing feels lighter.
Mechanical Keyboard vs Ordinary Keyboard
The ordinary keyboard is also known as a Membrane Keyboard. It is a commonly used keyboard in laptops and mobile phones. It has a rubber dome as a key. The dome when pressed completes the circuit and the keystroke is registered. It is a simple assembly and also cost-efficient.
On the other hand, mechanical keyboards use switches with metal and plastic parts. Making mechanical keyboards is costlier than ordinary keyboards. They are looked at as being more reliable and durable.
The other factor is quality. Mechanical keyboards are made from more number of parts including metal. They are of a higher quality and are more durable.
At the same time, membrane keyboards are manufactured in bulk and quality is not the prime focus. Even though dome keyboards can also be made from metal contacts, usually polyurethane is used. This compromises the quality. They are not very durable, too.
|Attribute||Mechanical Keyboard||Ordinary Keyboard|
|Quality||High quality due to quality parts being used||Low quality materials used to cut costs|
|Durability||More durable||Less durable|
|Operation||‘Click’ sound||No sound|
|Cost||Higher cost||Relatively cheap|
|Typing Experience||More reliable experience, no missed keystrokes||Keystrokes can be missed|
|Construction||Several moving parts||Polyurethane under a rubber pad|
Advantages of a Mechanical Keyboard
Mechanical Keyboards have several advantages over an ordinary keyboard. Here are the top benefits of a mechanical keyboard.
- Durability: Average rubber dome keyboards have a life cycle of about 5-10 million strokes. However, mechanical keyboards can have an operation lifecycle with up to 50 million keystrokes. They last much longer.
- Faster Operation: Using a mechanical keyboard is easy and requires less effort. You don’t have to push a key all the way down to register a keystroke. Once you hear a click, it can be released. This makes for faster typing.
- High Precision: Mechanical keyboards provide high precision. The optimum actuation point means that every key requires the same amount of pressure to register a keystroke. So, you don’t end up pressing the same key too many times or having to use different pressure for different keys.
- Good Responsiveness: Mechanical keys are very responsive, helping you switch keys easily while using.
- More Comfort: Depending on your use and preference, you can choose from a high actuation or a low actuation keyboard. Low actuation will let you type without pressing too hard. However, if you are used to hitting the keys harder while typing, a keyboard with high actuation might come in handy.
- Easily Replaceable Keys: Since every key is an individual unit, it can be easily replaced.
- Sturdy Keyboards: Mechanical keyboards are better able to withstand ingress. Their removable keys are easy to remove and clean.
- Easy to Maintain: Cleaning and maintaining mechanical keyboards is easy. If a key is damaged, only the unit for that key can be replaced. Thus, you don’t need to replace the entire keyboard or spend heavily on repairs.
Why Are Mechanical Keyboards so Expensive?
Mechanical keyboards can cost up to five times the ordinary keyboards. Here is why.
- Each key has a separate switch under it. Thus, more number of components are required. The switches are the major factor in the high cost.
- High-quality plastic and metal parts are used to make the switches and other material. So the material cost is higher.
- More labor is required in building mechanical keyboards.
While mechanical keyboards are more expensive than ordinary keyboards, there are cheap variants, too. High-end keyboards can cost about $200. On the other hand, cheaper mechanical keyboards can come for as low as $30. It all depends on the quality of the materials used in the keyboard. Here is a comparison of the materials used in cheap and expensive keyboards.
|Feature/Material||Expensive Keyboard||Cheaper Keyboard|
|Housing or Keyboard Case||Aluminum||Plastic|
|Keycaps||Thermoplastic polymer such as PBT||High quality ABS plastic|
|Metal Contacts||Gold plated||Other metals|
|Switches||Expensive switches from brands such as Cherry MX and ZealPC||Cheaper switches used|
|Backlight||RGB backlit keyboards that allow a wide range of color||White backlight or no lighting|
The expensive keyboards provide better durability. They also provide a much better typing experience. The look and feel is also superior. The cheaper variants might not compare well against the expensive keyboards. However, they still are an improvement over the rubber dome keyboards.
Are Mechanical Keyboards Worth It?
Considering the high cost of mechanical keyboards, you might wonder whether it is worth investing in one. However, once you start using a mechanical keyboard, you will notice the difference. The ease of use definitely tips the scales in favor of mechanical keyboards!
If you don’t want to spend too much, you can find a mid-range keyboard that can suit your needs. However, one thing is for sure. Mechanical keyboards are definitely worth the money.
Different Parts of a Mechanical Keyboard
The major parts of a mechanical keyboard are discussed below. This will give you important insights into the making of a keyboard. It will also let you make an informed choice when you look at the keyboards available in the market. And if you want to assemble a mechanical keyboard, this will give you a fair idea of the components required.
A Printed Circuit Board (PCB) forms the basis of the mechanical keyboard. The switches you choose are soldered on the PCB. PCBs for keyboards come in different orientations. These are as given below.
- Staggered layout: The regular keyboard layout.
- Ortholinear layout: Straight rows and columns.
- Ergo layout: Separate left-hand keyboard and right-hand keyboard.
The Plate is placed on top of the PCB. It protects the PCB. It also makes soldering of the switches easy. Care should be taken to get a plate that is compatible with the PCB.
Design and profile of the keycaps
The keycap is the top cap which has the letter, number, or symbol. Keycaps come in different standard families such as these given below.
- SA Keycaps: These keys have a high orientation. They give the keyboard a sculpted look. They are spherical on the top.
- DSA Keycaps: These keys have a lower orientation. The keycaps are curved on the top.
- DCS Keycaps: They have a medium profile. The top is cylindrical. The key caps have a sculptured look.
- LP Keycaps: These keys have a low orientation. The top of the keys has a cylindrical shape.
- KT Keycaps: These keycaps have a high profile. The top of the keys is cylindrical.
Material Used in Keycaps
Typically plastic is used in making Keycaps. Below are the popular polymers used.
- ABS Plastic: ABS is a popular material for making keycaps. It is a pliable plastic that makes soft keycaps. There is a wide range of color options available with ABS. Perhaps, the only drawback is that the keys get shiny over time.
- PBT Plastic: PBT is slightly more expensive than ABS. It gives a textures surface to the keys. The keys also don’t get shiny with use. However, the plastic does not allow for too many color options.
- Rubber: Rubberized keycaps are coated with rubber and given some texture for ease of use. This provides more grip on the keys.
The switch underneath the keycap is the most important part of a mechanical keyboard. Usually, the key switches are of two types.
- Linear Switches: Linear switches need to be pushed down all the way for a keystroke.
- Tactile Switches: Tactile switches only need to be pushed halfway down. This makes it easy to type faster.
- Tactile and Clicky Switches: The click-clack sound when the key is pressed and released.
- Optical Switches: Optical switches or photoelectric switches use infrared light to detect a keystroke. Mechanical keyboards that use optical switches are known as Optical Keyboards.
The switch consists of several moving parts. A hard plastic part known as the ‘stem’ connects two metal contacts and a spring. When the key is pushed, the spring is pushed down and the metal contacts connect. The circuit is completed and the keystroke is registered.
Stabilizers keep the keys from shaking and rattling. These are especially important for larger keys on the keyboard such as the spacebar and the enter key. They give a stable experience while typing without the keys tilting. Stabilizers come in two variants: plate-mounted and PCB-mounted. The types of stabilizers are as given below.
- Cherry Style Stabilizers: This style of stabilizers is named after the popular brand of mechanical switches Cherry MX. They are the most common type of stabilizers. They make fixing and removing keycaps very easy.
- Optical Stabilizers: Optical stabilizers are used only with optical switches. They have small clips to snap on the keycap. The keycap can be pulled out to remove.
- Costar Stabilizers: These stabilizers were used on older keyboards. However, some new ones can also have them. They are less popular because they are difficult to use. Fixing the keycap and removing it is a lengthy and tedious process.
The keyboard case is the housing of the mechanical keyboard. Care should be taken to choose a case that fits the PCB snugly. Cases come in a variety of materials. Out of these, aluminum is a good choice to have a sturdy keyboard. However, it is also an expensive choice. Other materials include wood, acrylic, and plastic.
The majority of mechanical keyboards are wired. However, if you don’t want to bother with wires, there are wireless options available in the market. In the case of wired keyboards, the connection could be USB-C or mini-USB. While choosing a wired keyboard, it makes sense to consider the placement of the CPU and the side of the keyboard from which the wire comes out.
Choosing the Right Mechanical Keyboard
Choosing the right mechanical keyboard depends on the requirement and individual preferences. However, the characteristics given below can be used to determine which mechanical keyboard is ideal for you.
- Actuation: Actuation Distance is the distance the key has to travel downwards when pressed to register the keystroke. The Actuation Force is the measure of the force required to operate the key. Depending on personal style and preference, these factors need to be considered.
- Tactility: When you press a key, it exerts an upward resistance which lets it come back to its original position when released. This is known as tactility. A mechanical keyboard with high tactility will last longer.
- Noise Level: Mechanical keyboards make a click sound when a key is pressed and also when it is released. Some keyboards are noisier than the others. Which one suits you depends on the application of the keyboard and also where it is going to be used. For example, you might want to go for a keyboard with less noise if you use the keyboard a lot and work in a shared space.
- Lifespan: Even though they have better durability than ordinary keyboards, some keyboards are more long-lasting than others. It depends on the quality of the materials used.
- Cost: The cost of a mechanical keyboard can vary. The more expensive keyboards provide better quality and durability. There are a lot of options to choose from according to your budget.
- Weight: The weight of a mechanical keyboard depends on the material used. For example, metal housing is heavier than the plastic housing. Choose a lighter keyboard if you have to be on the move and are looking for portability.
Here is an explainer video that goes through the basics of choosing the right mechanical keyboard.
Customization in Mechanical Keyboards
The most attractive benefit of a mechanical keyboard is customization. You can choose the keycap orientation, the layout of the keys, the switch type, etc. as per your preference. Some people go for modification of an existing mechanical keyboard. While this may work to some extent, the best results are achieved when you customize a keyboard from scratch.
You will need the parts as described here. The market is flooded with lots of options in each part. There are quite a lot of brands to choose from, too. Basically, there is everything for every need and every budget. Choose what you need and build a keyboard that is unique for your requirement. Here’s a video that shows the build of a customized mechanical keyboard.
Using a Mechanical Keyboard
Apart from the advantages of using a mechanical keyboard given above, below are the use cases of a mechanical keyboard.
Mechanical Keyboard for Typing
Typing can be more comfortable with a mechanical keyboard. You can expect more consistent keystrokes. Also, N-Key Rollover is improved. N-Key rollover (NKRO) is the ability of the keyboard to detect every keystroke even when more than one key is pressed simultaneously. Also, the problem of ‘ghosting‘, where an extra keystroke is registered, is prevented. The speed of typing might not be significantly more than typing on an ordinary keyboard. However, since the mistakes associated with incorrect keystrokes are minimized, the overall typing speed can see an improvement.
The downside of using a mechanical keyboard is perhaps the noise. Even the quieter mechanical keyboards are noisier than the membrane keyboards.
Mechanical Keyboard for Gaming
For gaming, mechanical keyboards do have a few advantages. Firstly, responsiveness is excellent. Also, the tactility of the keyboard lets you press the key quickly and precisely. If the key is subjected to too much tapping during gaming and suffers damage, it can be replaced easily. The customization also lets you choose the perfect switch to complement your keyboard usage during gaming.
Maintenance of Mechanical Keyboards
A mechanical keyboard should be cleaned regularly and thoroughly to keep it in top condition. This increases the durability of the keyboard. Do remember to unplug the keyboard before cleaning it.
The below steps can be followed to properly clean a mechanical keyboard.
- The dust from the keyboard plate can be removed using a handheld vacuum cleaner. Take care to not press the tube too hard down on the plate. Move the vacuum tube along each keycap. Using a non-static vacuum cleaner is recommended.
- Next, wipe the entire keyboard using a clean and damp microfiber cloth. You can also use disposable cleaning wipes.
- Wipe the keyboard with a clean, dry cloth. Avoid using dry tissues since they tend to leave residue on the surface of the keyboard.
The above steps will help you keep the keyboard clean. However, from time to time, your keyboard needs a deep clean. You can follow the below steps to achieve this.
- Remove the keycaps. Soak them in hot water (not boiling) mixed with some dish wash. Soak the keycaps for 5-6 hours.
- While the keycaps are soaking, you can clean the plate area and the area around the switches. A dry Q-tip or a cleaning brush can be used for this.
- Rinse the keycaps in plain water. Dry them well using a clean cloth.
- Reattach the keycaps on the keyboard. Clean the entire keyboard with a dry microfiber cloth.
The above steps will keep your keys looking shiny and glossy for long.
Cleaning After a Spill
Of course, you should be careful with liquids around the keyboard. However, if there is a spill, follow the below steps.
- First and foremost, unplug the keyboard immediately after a spill.
- Tip the keyboard and turn it upside down to let the liquid seep out.
- Let the keyboard dry for a couple of days.
- If the liquid spilled is sticky or flavored, follow the steps for deep cleaning given above.
Most people use a keyboard as the primary input unit. Hence, it is only fair that this critical device is given some careful thought. The standard issued keyboards get the work done. However, for a better experience, you need something better. Today, people are looking for a better experience and more comfort while they work. This is the reason mechanical keyboards are gaining popularity.