Mechanical keyboards: Are you in the loop?

Whether you're a gamer or a really fast typer, you most likely stumbled upon this article because you're not content with just any ol' keyboard, you're interested in a mechanical keyboard. In fact, your Google-Fu probably yielded several hundred similar search results so I'm not quite sure how you found me, but I am glad you did! 

I've been using a mechanical keyboard since the release of the Steelseries 7G back in 2008 after discovering the product at a Blizzcon booth. I remember the Steelseries representative being as large as an NFL quarterback and he was genuinely eager to introduce me to their brand new mechanical keyboard.  After I typed "A quick brown fox jumped over the lazy dog" I was in awe at the feel of each key press and instantly sold on the keyboard. Then out of nowhere he proceeded to HULK SMASH the keyboard violently with two hulking fists, over and over, before stopping to gently say, "You can't do that with a regular keyboard, here type again". My jaw dropped, it was then that I decided I would one day own that keyboard. I knew that if I had done that to my flimsy Logitech G15 at the time, there would have been plastic parts and salty tears everywhere. Now here I am, 7 years into ownership, happily typing away this very article. 

As far I know, the 7G was the very first mechanical keyboard that was marketed specifically for gamers. I'll spare you the technical jargon but back then, it featured 'new fangled technology' that most gamers could only dream of. To this day I still love this keyboard, it has served me really well and soon I will be replacing it for one with individually backlit keys (more on that shortly). 

If you're really looking to study up on mechanical keyboards yourself, here are two extremely valuable resources to help get you familiar with various terminology and features.
Fair warning: reading into these articles can be very time consuming and oddly educational:
https://mechanicalkeyboards.com/terms.php
http://www.overclock.net/t/491752/official-mechanical-keyboard-guide
https://www.reddit.com/r/MechanicalKeyboards/wiki/mechanical_keyboard_overviews
 
If you're a seasoned PC gamer, you already know that mechanical keyboards are one of the best weapons to have in your arsenal so hopefully you will find something of value going forward. If you're one of many still using a membrane-based keyboard from yesteryear, it's probably time for an upgrade.

Why?

Mechanical keyboards are simply better.
- They are more durable.
- They are highly customizable.
- Custom tailored to fit your needs.
- They feel great to type on.

Sure, mechanical keyboards are far more expensive as a result but there is a huge difference between the two and only one offers a consistent advantage. 

For starters, a membrane switch is near silent(not a bad thing in an office environment) and "mushy" to use. They are the 'Mitsubishi Mirage' of switches so to speak; they do the job but they are quiet, boring, and a have a short lifespan.
A mechanical switch is an entirely different beast. They are the Ferrari F40 of switches; they do the same job better, make more sound,  more fun to use, much faster, and last longer.
In short, Mechanical switches give users the ability to type faster and/or game harder.

To quickly illustrate the difference between membrane and mechanical switches, I have collected a few .gifs from the around the net that I will proceed to explain.

What is a Membrane Switch?

 A  membrane  or  dome  switch typically found on highly affordable keyboards.

A membrane or dome switch typically found on highly affordable keyboards.

These things >>

 A  scissor  membrane switch, typically found on laptops.

A scissor membrane switch, typically found on laptops.

Looking at the image on the left you can see that a key is loosely seated above a silicone, polyester, or rubber dome. When the key is pressed, the dome collapses and a contact bridge is made over an open circuit. This design requires that the key is pressed all the way down for the character to register (~4mm). Due to the dampening caused by the mushy dome, this process can be very quiet under the right fingers.
- Rated for 1-5 million keystrokes depending on the dome quality.

On the right is a very different design with very similar functionality. This design offers roughly twice the lifespan over the traditional key due to the support of the plastic scissor mechanism. When the key is pressed, the joint between the scissors collapses on the dome to bridge the contact. The distance the key has to travel is a lot less at ~2mm but as you may have experienced before, these keys are fragile, don't like crumbs underneath them and can be expensive to replace. 
- Rated for 10 million keystrokes

What is a Mechanical Switch?

Mechanical switches are completely different. They feel wonderful to use, so good in fact that once you have made the switch, you can never go back. With each press, depending on the type of switch, there is either a smooth linear feel or a tactile sensation accompanied by a responsive click. Unlike the 'one size fits all' approach with membrane keyboards, you actually want to get fitted to use a mechanical keyboard like you're buying a nice suit or dress. I'll talk more on that later but for now, let's discuss a few of the different switches that are available and how they differ.

The biggest player in the mechanical keyboard industry is Cherry. They have been making their famous 18k gold-plated corrosion resistant MX switches since the early 1980's when they brought the MX Black switch to market in 1984. Today, Cherry supplies MX switches for some of the best gaming keyboards on the market and continues to create unique designs that evolve with the industry.

As the gold standard in mechanical switches, Cherry offers several variations in design to meet everyone's personal preference. Each 'color' in their lineup functions differently from another. They even divide the feel of the press by a 'tactile' category, a 'clicky' category and a 'linear' category. 

Now this is where things start to get geeky so hang on tight. To help educate on the subject, I will quickly define some of the terminology that lies ahead. 

Actuation: How far the key must be pressed before that character is registered.
Throw Distance: How far the key can be pressed before bottoming out.
Force: The amount of pressure a finger needs to apply to compress the spring.
Actuation vs Reset: The length it takes on the upstoke before a downstroke can be reapplied to register that character again (think key repetition, like moving left or right over and over during a nice relaxing game of Tetris)

With that general knowledge passed onto you, I have included the most common MX colors for light reading.

MX Black: 2mm actuation, 4mm throw distance, 60g force.
Type: Linear
Best for: Gaming
Actuation vs Reset point - 0mm
User Experience: Firm Linear press.
MX Black's spring is extremely quick to bring the key back to the top. Its the preferred key for gamers that have high actions per minute in FPS or RTS titles.
- Rated for 50 million keystrokes

MX Red: 2mm actuation, 4mm throw distance, 45g force.
Type: Linear
Best for: Gaming
Actuation vs Reset point - 0mm
User Experience: Linear press.
MX Reds are faster to push down than MX Blacks. Reds the most common key in gaming keyboards and are great for all around gaming. 
- Rated for 50 million keystrokes

MX Brown: 2mm actuation, 4mm throw distance, 45g force.
Type: Tactile
Best for: All around
User Experience: Small Tactile bump.
MX Browns are decent compromise between the made for gaming MX Red and the made for typing MX Blue.
- Rated for 20 million keystrokes

MX Blue: 2mm actuation, 4mm throw distance, 50g force.
Type: Clicky
Best for: Typing
User Experience: Large Tactile bump with a loud 'click'.
MX Blues are the preferred key for people who spend more time typing than they do gaming. These are the loudest keys and arguably the most affordable option.
- Rated for 20 million keystrokes

That's a pretty good summary of the most popular switches that Cherry offers but due increased competition in the gaming keyboard market, several other companies have come forth with their own designs.

Razer offers custom Green and Orange switches developed by an unnamed source. 
These are very similar in design to the Cherry MX Blue switch
- GREEN: 1.9mm actuation, 4mm throw distance, 50g force.
Actuation vs Reset point - .4mm
User experience: Tactile 'bump' followed by a 'click'
- Rated for up to 60 million keystrokes

- ORANGE: 1.9mm actuation, 4mm throw distance, 45g force.
Actuation vs Reset point - .05mm
User experience: Tactile 'bump' with a quiet 'click'.
- Rated for up to 60 million keystrokes

Logitech offers a Romer-G switch that was developed in collaboration with Omron (famous for precision gaming mouse switches). These are very similar in design to the Cherry MX Brown switch as pictured above. 
This switch is only available in the Orion Spark
- 1.5mm actuation, 3mm throw distance, 45g force. Centered LED
User experience: Small tactile bump followed by a quiet 'click'.
- Rated for 70 million keystrokes

Steelseries offers their own patented QS1 switch. This is very unique switch that is not a Cherry clone like the Razer and Logitech versions. Steelseries set off to best the competition with something special and QS1 is just that.
This switch is only available in the APEX M800
- 1.5mm actuation, 3mm throw distance, 45g force. Centered LED
Actuation vs Reset point - 0mm
User experience: Linear press with no 'click'.
- Rated for 60 million keystrokes

Which color switch should I get?

Well, this is where things start to get interesting. You have read about a few of the different switches that are available but unless you have a big-box store like Fry's Electronics with an endless display of mechanical keyboards at your disposal, you won't quite know what feels 'right' until you actually try one (or even all of them). This is what I meant earlier when I talked about getting fitted for the right keyboard.

A few years ago, you really had to bite the bullet and hope for the best experience based on the reviews that you read online but now, there exist multiple affordable products to help pick the right 'feel' for you. These exist to help make your decision clear and concise because mechanical keyboards are an investment and something that you will use for many years.

These test boards come with 4, 6, and even 8 different Cherry MX keys so you can really find the one that feels right to you. 

tester.jpg

4 MX Key Tester kit @ $9.99
6 MX Key Tester kit @ $16.00
8 MX Key Tester kit @ $22.99

Once you have decided what switch feels best to you, you will be ready for the next step.

I found the right switch for me, now how do I find the right keyboard?

The team at Mechanical Keyboards know exactly how difficult finding the right keyboard can be so they have specifically built a store that is designed to help users make the right decision. The good news is, they offer the largest selection of mechanical keyboards anywhere, including some highly sought after overseas brands, at excellent prices.

When you decide to buy a keyboard from their store it's comforting to know that they offer a filter to select the switch that is the right one for you. 
https://mechanicalkeyboards.com/shop/index.php?l=product_list&c=10

Upon selecting your preferred switch, you might be presented with an overwhelming list of unique keyboards. From their, basically you just need to find the right one.

Do you want a keyboard with a Numpad?
Do you want a gaming keyboard with additional macro keys? If so how many?
Do you want dedicated media keys?
Do you want the keys to be backlit? 1 color? Custom programmable led color for each key?
Do you want to use keyboard software?
Do you want a wireless keyboard?
Do you want a keyboard that has a built a USB hub?
Do you want floating keys or recessed keys?

Those are just a few of the questions that you need to ask yourself. Once you have narrowed it down to just a few keyboards, I would suggest looking around the net for user experiences and reviews. This will let you know if there are any issues that have cropped up over the years or if the quality of the components have changed over time.

Research, research, research!

This process can be daunting but it's pretty important to make sure that other users from around the net are generally satisfied with the keyboard that you're interested in.

For example: DAS Keyboards used to be a solid recommendation with damn near everyone until they secretly changed OEM suppliers. Overnight their products turned for the worse and they are no longer recommended. Razer's switches and keyboards look great on paper but their quality control is non-existent and many users have experienced premature keyboard failures or stuck keycaps within the first year. There are even some companies have even been caught cheating and only using Cherry switches on the main keys.

Rest assured though, the enthusiast community has made a wonderful pie chart to help illustrate the most trustworthy brands.

That sounds like a lot of work, any specific recommendations?

What works best for me, may not work best for you but in general, there are a few good rules to follow.

- Don't buy into the marketing hype of 'Gaming Keyboards'. Just because it has the words 'gaming' and 'dominate', doesn't mean it's going to offer a competitive advantage.
- Just because it looks 'cool', doesn't mean it will serve you well. A lot of companies like to change the way a keyboard looks and as a result, the size and width of certain keys don't follow the ANSI standard rows.

There are several keyboards that are highly revered among mechanical keyboard enthusiasts so to help get you started on the right foot, take a look at the keyboards on this list:
https://www.reddit.com/r/MechanicalKeyboards/wiki/buying_guide
.
If you're looking for something super compact, affordable and simple:
Pok3r
Magicforce 68
- KB Paradise V60

If you're looking for something standard size:
Ducky Shine 5 
- Corsair K95
- Filco Majestouch-2 Ninja

If you're looking for something tenkeyless:
Coolermaster Quickfire Rapid
- Code
Filco Majestouch-2 TKL Ninja

If you have made it this far, please let me know if you have any corrections, questions or comments below. Also, please let me know what your favorite Cherry switch is!

Thank you for reading,
Drew
Owner of Virtus Gaming