Your Guide to Buying a Mechanical Keyboard
Many people profess their love for mechanical keyboards, myself included, but to an outsider it may be difficult to understand why. Even once they do, making a buying decision can be difficult- so with this article, we’ll kill two birds with one stone!
Why buy a mechanical keyboard? What’s the difference?
A mechanical keyboard is prized mainly by two parties: writers and gamers. The reason behind this is because mechanical keyboards tend to provide a higher level of feedback, feedback seen in two ways: tactile and audio.
Tactile feedback refers to the feeling you get when pressing keys, which is much more defined on a mechanical keyboard than other options, and is outright absent on things like tablet keyboards or touchscreens.
Audio feedback refers to the sound. A defining trait of many mechanical keyboards is a satisfying click that is heard whenever a switch is pressed down. The combination of sensation and sound tunes people to know exactly when their key has been pressed, and since mechanical keyboards don’t require full presses to register (like non-mechanicals), this distinction is actually quite useful.
In general, mechanical keyboards are also heavier, more durable and have a better build quality than their alternatives. However, they come with a few caveats in return: mechanicals are significantly more expensive, their size may not be what you’re looking for, and buying one comes with a bit more careful considerations than your typical rubber-dome keyboard you grab for $10 at Walmart.
What are the difference between switches?
The main difference between models of mechanical keyboards can be found in the type of switches they use. There’s a wide variety of switches employed by mechanical keyboard manufacturers, but most of them use variations on the Cherry MX switch, and the ones that don’t are often directly comparable to them anyways. Of the Cherry MX switches, there are four:
- Cherry MX Blue. A common choice, with both tactile and audio feedback. It comes with the click-clack that mechanicals are popular for, aand this switch also has a short travel distance, meaning you don’t need to press down nearly as much for the key to register.
- Cherry MX Brown. Basically the Blue, just significantly quieter.
- Cherry MX Red. Requires the least actuation force, making them popular for rapid-fire gaming and typing. Reds are common in gaming keyboards and can trend toward the louder side.
- Cherry MX Black. These offer no feedback at all, and have a uniform level of actuation. This means that no one part of the keypress requires more force than any other. Of the switches, Blacks are the quietest. They are the lowest in feedback, but remain popular due to little force required and little noise made.
What features should I look out for?
Mechanical keyboards are already significantly more expensive than other options, so they often come with extra features to help justify the purchasing price.
Macro keys (keys that can be set to act as if they are multiple key presses) are common in this category, as well as media keys, which perform dedicated media functions like adjusting volume, pausing and skipping tracks.
N-key rollover/anti-ghosting refers to the amount of keys that can be pressed simultaneously on a keyboard while maintaing accuracy. Many gaming keyboards will boast a high rollover statistic, but note that a USB connection will not support anything higher than 10-key rollover, counting four modifier keys. Keyboards that support a PS/2 connection can have a theoretically unlimited number of simultaneous keys.
USB and audio passthrough also become popular in higher price ranges. Many keyboards will offer a USB port that uses a an additional USB cable on the back of your computer. It’s basically a function for convenience- headphone and microphone jacks come, too, but they still have to be plugged into the back for the passthrough to work.
Finally, there’s backlighting. Backlit keys are something you might be familiar with thanks to laptops- these are keys with illuminated letters, which is helpful if you’re regularly in dark rooms and haven’t memorized your key locations. There is also RGB backlighting, which allows multiple-color key backlighting and is increasingly common in high-end gaming keyboards, albeit at a large price premium.
What brands are reputable?
When buying mechanical keyboards- or any expensive tech, really- you want to go with only the most reputable brands. Fortunately, there’s a good amount of reputable manufacturers to choose from. In no particular order:
- Razer. Typically an expensive option, but a staple in the arena of mechanicals.
- Cooler Master. Named for their work on cooling solutions, Cooler Master also offers some pretty solid keyboard options at all price ranges.
- Logitech. Logitech is a staple in the world of peripherals, and their higher-end keyboards are certainly worth the buy.
- Corsair. Corsair is known for a variety of work in the PC arena, and have earned recent praise for their K70 series. Highly recommended.
- Ducky. A keyboard/mouse-only manufacturer that provides mechanicals at all price ranges. Highly recommended.
- Das Keyboard. A keyboard-exclusive manufacturer that offers solutions on the high-end. Highly recommended.