What are mechanical keyboards, and why should you buy one?
Most tech products get better year over year, and decade over decade, but keyboards have been a beguiling exception.
While some of the earliest home computer keyboards like the Apple Extended II and the IBM Model M are still hailed as some of the best input devices ever made, tech companies these days have sacrificed keyboard usability in the name of cost and thinness, the former dooming us to squishy, unsatisfying typing experiences, and the latter resulting in well documented and expensive issues afflicting all of Apple's latest MacBooks.
Luckily, if you know where to look, you can still buy mechanical keyboards today that mimic the feel of early, clicky keyboards, but with all the modern features you've come to expect.
What Is a Mechanical Keyboard?
When you press a key down on any keyboard, be it the buttons on your microwave or the letters on your computer keyboard, you're essentially pushing two printed circuits together; one on the key, and one on the board. When the circuits make contact and electricty passes through them, the computer is able to interpret that signal as a key press, and respond appropriately.
Most inexpensive keyboards separate the two circuits with either rubber domes, which are common in inexpensive desktop keyboards, or metal domes, which are smaller, clickier, and more common in thin laptop keyboards. The former can feel very squishy and imprecise, while the latter can be tiring to type on for an extended period, but they both require you to press the key all the way to the bottom of its range to register a key press.
Mechanical key switches work diffently. They're linear, meaning you press a slider mechanism into a spring-loaded housing, and a certain point in that motion (it varies by the type of switch, but we'll come back to that), the slider goes past an actuation point, causing two metal contacts to touch each other, which the keyboard registers as a key press. In most cases, this actuation point occurs before the key fully bottoms out, allowing you to type more quickly, and with less force.
It's not to everyone's taste, of course, but in my experiences, most people who try mechanical keyboards prefer them to dome-based alternatives. And since mechanical keyboards come with a variety of different key switches, you can likely find one that will suit your typing style.
A few different companies produce the key switches for nearly every mechanical keyboard manufacturer, but the largest is called Cherry, and most other manufacturers copy the brand's nomenclature for different types of key switches. Therefore, most mechanical keyboards you see (other than specialized gaming keyboards) will come with blue, red, black, or brown key switches, and those colors will usually mean the same thing, whether you're buying a keyboard from Corsair, Das, or any other brand.
Blue switches are probably what immediately came to mind when you thought about mechanical keyboards, because they produce that distinctive, loud, almost typewriter-like click with every press. That audible feedback makes them extremely popular with typists, but also means you probably shouldn't use them in an open office setting where your coworkers might get annoyed.
Red switches are considered linear, meaning you won't feel (or hear) a bump when you reach the actuation point of the switch. That can make them harder to get used to if you're coming from a non-mechanical keyboard, but gamers and fast typists who have trained on them can basically glide across them like skilled pianists.
Black switches are very similar to red switches, but with a tighter spring underneath requiring more force to press down. The choice between red or black would come down to personal preference and comfort, but most typists will probably prefer the reds, which are less fatiguing to type on for a long period of time. Black switches are, however, particularly popular with gamers.
Brown switches offer a type of compromise between the linear red and black switches and the tactile blue switches. With a brown switch, you'll be able to feel the actuation point midway down the key press, but unlike blues, that actuation won't make an audible click, though the keys still make noise if you bottom them out. These are a great option for office work, because they offer great feel for typists, without making enough noise to irritate you coworkers.
Picking a Mechanical Keyboard
If you aren't sure what kind of switches you want for your keyboard, your first purchase could be this mechanical key sampler, which includes all of the above switches, in addition to several, less common ones. It also comes with a set of rubber gaskets that you can put on any of the switches to make them quieter, if you're concerned about annoying your coworkers or keeping your family awake. Plus, after you've settled on a switch, it makes for a great fidget toy and office conversation starter.
If you're looking for an inexpensive mechanical keyboard to get started, there are a few options available for under $50 like this Aukey keyboard with red switches, and this Redragon option with blue switches. But at this price point, you won't be getting authentic Cherry MX switches; they'll be an off-brand equivalent from a brand like Outemu. They aren't bad switches, per se, but they won't feel exactly the same, and they may not last as long.
If you're ready to invest in a nice mechanical keyboard that will last, you've got plenty of great options to choose from. The go-to option for office workers has long been the Das Keyboard 4, which comes in varieties for both Mac and PC, and with both brown and blue switch options, in addition to features like USB hubs, a braided cable, and a sturdy aluminum deck. I've also enjoyed using the Corsair K68, which is less expensive than the Das, but still has blue and red switch configurations, and a premium feel. Just note that it looks a bit more "gamery" than the Das.
Das Keyboard 4 | ~$169 | Multiple configurations available
Corsair K68 Mechanical Keyboard | ~$70 | Multiple configurations available
At some point, mechanical keyboards may become more than just a tool for getting work done. They might actually become a hobby. With a keyboard like Drop's CTRL, you'll be able to swap out your switches (not just your keycaps; but the actual switches themselves) for new ones whenever you want, and completely customize the RGB backlighting using open source firmware. It seems excessive, but once you start using and loving mechanical keyboards, you may find yourself wanting to push the limits and customize every single key to suit your taste.
Drop CTRL Keyboard | ~$220
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Photo: Med Badr Chemmaoui/Unsplash