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Home Mechanical Keyboards All You Need to Know About Mechanical Keyboards

All You Need to Know About Mechanical Keyboards

What is a Mechanical Keyboard?

Ever wondered why most PC keyboards sound and feel mushy compared to the now obsolete typewriter? It’s because most home and office PCs use membrane keyboards that utilize a thin membrane pressed up against a circuit board. And while this keeps costs down due to cheaper parts and accessories, you end up sacrificing that all-too satisfactory ‘clicky’ sound and the tactile feedback. 

In general, membrane keyboards are composed of plastic dome-shaped switches underneath each keycap. Pressing the key pushes the plastic switch through the hole in the middle membrane to connect the bottom and top membranes, which send an input to the PC. 

Mechanical keyboards, by contrast, use physical switches that are placed underneath each key to determine when the user has pressed a key. When you press the key, you activate the switch. This sends a signal to the PC that the switch has been pressed.  

If you crave a smooth and crisp ‘click’ every time you press down on your keyboard, then your best bet is to choose a mechanical keyboard. You can choose from blue switches, red switches, brown switches, and even white switches – depending on your mood.

Covering the Basics: Mechanical Keyboard Switches

It can get a tad bit overwhelming to decide which mechanical keyboard is right for you. Without boring you with the jargon, there are three things to consider when choosing switches:

  • A tactile feedback: choose between a smooth or clicky switch (red versus blue) 
  • An auditory feedback: choose between a loud or silent switch (blue versus red) 
  • The actuating force needed to activate the switch – this could play a role on your overall typing speed (red versus white)

The tactile feedback is related to the immediate feeling you get when pressing the key. Depending on your preferences, you can choose a smooth or bumpy switch. 

When we talk about auditory feedback, we refer to the sound the key makes when it is activated. Switches that make an audible sound are often called clicky. Switches that don’t make the sound are called linear and are usually silent for each key press.  

Every mechanical keyboard switch needs a certain minimum amount of force (usually measured in grams of pressure) to activate it. 

In this section, we’ll go over the most common mechanical keyboard switches, starting with the most popular, the Cherry MX family. 

Cherry MX Switches

The Cherry MX family is perhaps the most popular keyboard switches ever made. They also happen to be the most expensive with lots of copycats out there. Their switches are characterized with distinct colors to reflect their characteristics.

i) Cherry MX Red

Cherry MX Red switches are aimed towards touch typists looking for faster results with minimum resistance required to activate each key. These switches lack the clicky sound and a tactile bump of Blue switches. They offer the most barebones typing experience of all the Cherry MX switches, but are certainly a notch above membrane keyboards. 

Cherry MX Red switches have the following characteristics:

  • Linear and light 
  • Actuation force of 45g
  • Actuation point of 2mm
  • A rated lifespan of 50 million keystrokes for each key

ii) Cherry MX Blue

The MX Blue has a satisfying ‘click’ sound when activated beyond the tactile point.  They happen to have the loudest sound in the Cherry MX family. Each key stroke registers the highest tactile feedback out of all Cherry MX switches.

Cherry MX blue switches have the following characteristics: 

  • Clicky and heavy 
  • Actuation force of 60g
  • Actuation point of 2mm
  • A rated lifespan of 50 million keystrokes for each key

iii) Cherry MX Brown

Cherry MX Brown switches are in the goldilocks zone of ‘clickiness’ and tactile feedback. They’re neither too loud nor too bumpy. This is because the tactile bump in Cherry MX Browns is created by a bump in the interruption fin, which is less pronounced than the Cherry MX Blue. 

Cherry MX Brown switches have the following characteristics: 

  • Tactile and medium 
  • Actuation force of 45g
  • Actuation point of 2mm
  • A rated lifespan of 50 million keystrokes for each key 

Kalih Switches 

Commonly referred to as “Cherry MX clones”, Kalih switches are manufactured in China and have been competing directly with Cherry MX. The company behind Kalih, Kaihua, also builds custom switches for different companies. Most Kalih switches have roughly the same characteristics as Cherry MX switches and even correspond to the same color schemes. As a general rule, you’ll find keyboards with Kalih switches to be a slightly more budget-friendly, but that’s not always the case. 

If you happen to own a hot swappable mechanical keyboard (we’ll come to this later), you can easily swap out Cherry MX for Kalih switches and vice versa. 

i) Kalih Red

  • Linear and quiet 
  • Actuation force of 50g 
  • Actuation point of 2mm
  • A rated lifespan of 50 million keystrokes for each key 

ii) Kalih Blue 

  • Clicky and heavy 
  • Actuation force of 60g
  • Actuation point of 2mm 
  • A rated lifespan of 50 million keystrokes for each key

iii) Kalih Brown

  • Tactile and medium 
  • Actuation point of 50g
  • Actuation point of 2mm
  • A rated lifespan of 50 million keystrokes for each key 

Razer Switches 

Razer is relatively new to mechanical keyboards but has captured a sizable portion of the market, primarily aimed towards ‘hardcore’ gamers. They first teamed up with Kaihua to manufacture proprietary Razer switches, but decided to develop their own production lines since Kaihua was their direct competitor. 

Unlike Kalih switches, Razer switches are not Cherry MX clones and have their own distinct characteristics. Here are the two most popular: 

i) Razer Green

Primary aimed towards video gamers. The actuation point for Razer Green switches is a little higher than that of Kalih and Cherry MX switches. Other than that, their behavior is virtually identical to Kalih Blue and Cherry MX Blue switches. 

Razer Green switches have the following characteristics: 

  • Clicky and Heavy 
  • Actuation force of 55g
  • Actuation point of 1.9mm
  • A rated lifespan of 80 million keystrokes for each key 

ii) Razer Opto-Mechanical

Also aimed for the video gaming market, opto-mechanical switches are activated via light instead of via metallic contact. The switch is activated when a light beam hits the receiver once you press the key. This supposedly makes the switch more efficient. 

Razer Opto-Mechanical switches have the following characteristics: 

  • Clicky and medium 
  • Actuation force of 45g
  • Actuation point of 1.5mm
  • A rated lifespan of 100 million keystrokes for each key

A Case for Hot Swappable Mechanical Keyboards 

The switches that we described above are just the tip of the iceberg. There are dozens of more brands and switches to choose from. If you end up obsessing over keyboard switches and want to test the difference between them, then your best bet would be to buy hot swappable keyboards.

They’re called ‘hot swappable’ because you can easily swap out one type of switch for a different one (so long as it is compatible). This is a great way to test out new switches without spending money. The PCB (the circuit board inside the keyboard) has special sockets in place that let you install new switches with relative ease. 

Are you in the mood of using something quiet, like Cherry MX Red switches, for faster typing sessions? Simply swap out the old with the new.

Want the loud, clicky feel of Cherry MX Blues for a more tactile typing session? Simply pull the old switch out and replace the new one. 

The possibilities are endless. And you don’t have to buy a completely new mechanical keyboard just to try out a new switch – doing so will quickly eat into your budget. 

Of course, if your mechanical keyboard doesn’t have the hot swappable feature, you can always use a soldering gun. But this will take you hours depending on your experience with a soldering gun and the number of switches that you want to desolder.  

It is worth noting that the PCB board of the hot swappable mechanical keyboard should be compatible with all MX-style switches (such as Kalih, Cherry, Outemu, and Gateron).  

Keycaps 

One of the biggest benefits of mechanical keyboards is that you can easily swap out the keycaps for a completely different set. You don’t need to solder anything, it’s as simple as swapping out the old with the new. Most keycaps are made of plastic material, while the more expensive ones are made of exotic metals (gold, silver, and more). The most common plastic for keycaps is ABS. it’s a softer plastic that is freely available. 

You can choose from a variety of color options with ABS plastics. As always, it really comes down to your preferences. You can hop over to Alibaba and Amazon to choose from a range of keycaps. 

What Makes Mechanical Keyboards Better? 

Most mechanical keyboards are extremely durable because of the high-quality construction of switches that last far longer than regular keyboards. You’ll notice the difference immediately by weight alone. A membrane keyboard is extremely lightweight and nimble since it is made of polyurethane underneath a rubber keypad.

Mechanical keyboards are much, much heavier because each key cap has its own switch, generally made out of metal. 

Choosing the Best Mechanical Keyboard in 2020

Once you start looking into mechanical keyboards, you’ll quickly notice just how many variants there are out there. The most common boards you’ll find include Full, Tenkeyless (the ones without the numpad), 75%, and 60% layouts. The 60% boards are super small, compact, and therefore, cheaper. They are rather novel in their design and sacrifice a lot of keys that you are otherwise used to using, such as the arrow keys and the numpad.  

But you don’t have to spend a lot of money on them. Just find one that best serves your needs. A full-size mechanical keyboard without backlighting and extra macro switches will do just fine. Either way, you’ll notice that mechanical keyboards are an obvious upgrade that you will greatly benefit from.

75 Percent Layout

The 75 percent layout has been trending lately because of its compact design. It is achieved by reducing the size of the right shift key and doing away with most functions that usually appear above the arrow keys. Despite all these sacrifices, the 75 percent layout is just as efficient and functional as the larger board. 

60 Percent Layout

It is important to note that the smaller keyboards get, the more complicated it is to access all of the normal functions. 60 percent boards lack arrow and function keys, they will also force you to utilize and memorize shortcuts. The main benefit of 60 percent layouts is how small they are. They also make as excellent travel companions since they can be easily tucked into a backpack or luggage. 

You can easily find extra space to store your 60 percent keyboard in your laptop’s backpack

Other Features

Once you’ve decided which form factor and switch to go after, it’s time to look for some extra bells and whistles. As we mentioned earlier, you can always choose a barebones mechanical keyboard with zero backlighting and programmability, but where’s the fun in that? Here are a few features to look out for when choosing a mechanical keyboard:  

i) Wireless keyboards: Some mechanical keyboards come with detachable USB cables. They can also connect to your PC or laptop via Bluetooth.

ii)Lighting: While RGB lighting with millions of different color combinations seem a little silly, they are quite popular with gamers. In fact, you can program some gaming keyboards to respond and react to different situations in video games. For example, the keyboard would flash red and blue in response when cops start chasing the player in Grand Theft Auto, it can be a neat tool to have. 

iii) USB Passthrough: Some keyboard models double as USB hubs, allowing users to plug in their favorite accessories, charge their mobile phones, and help with cable management. Some keyboards also pass audio, allowing a headphone to be plugged in for players to start chatting. This is a convenient feature to have. 

iv) Macro Buttons: If you want to control specific applications in your computer (such as multimedia options), macro buttons can be of immense help. 

Wrapping Up

So should you make the switch to mechanical keyboards? The answer depends squarely on your needs and preferences. In general, you don’t need to buy a mechanical keyboard for light-use or a home theater PC. But if you’re a heavy user and spend hours-on-end on your PC, it is worth your while to shell out a few extra hundred bucks on a high-end keyboard. 

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