We spend a lot of time talking about the best CPUs or GPUs to make your computer more awesome, but you might be forgetting one upgrade that can change the experience drastically for the better: a mechanical keyboard. I make no secret of my obsession with mechanical keyboards as both a hobby and a tool of my profession. Naturally, I spend a lot of money on them. You don’t need to, though. Mechanical keyboards have never been cheaper or better, and it’s an upgrade you’ll benefit from greatly. You might be spending more time than usual at your computer as we all hunker down to limit the coronavirus pandemic, so this is a good time to jump in. But…which board should you get? And what’s all this about switches? We’re here to help.
What Makes a Keyboard Mechanical and Why You Should Have One
The keyboards that come with desktop computers are usually some version of the rubber dome design. You push the key all the way down, and the contact on the dome triggers a press. The downside is that the rubber membranes are mushy, inconsistent, and you have to push all the way down every time. Laptops aren’t much better with their scissor switches. They offer a little tactility, but the low travel and mushiness are still grating over time.
A mechanical keyboard can best be described as any board with switches that actuate before the point of bottoming out. For example, Cherry-style metal contact switches. When you press the key down, a stem moves into the housing and allows metal contacts to touch. This is what fires off each letter. Other types of switches are considered mechanical but have entirely different mechanisms. Topre switches are popular but rather expensive. These switches have a stiff rubber dome and a conical spring. Here, the actuation is triggered by a change in capacitance of the spring as you press, and the tactile bump comes from the dome collapsing. There are also Alps-style metal contacts, buckling springs, and Hall effect switches. These are all fairly uncommon in modern boards, though.
Using a mechanical keyboard can make you a much more effective typist thanks to the precise and consistent feel of the keys. Many switches also have high tactility that helps you estimate when a press will register, allowing you to release and move on to the next key without bottoming out. For gaming, you can use switches that are much smoother and faster to actuate than the keys on cheap membrane boards. The sound of a clicky switch can also be fun, provided you don’t have nearby coworkers to annoy.
Mechanical boards are also built to last. Each switch is good for millions of presses. Even with heavy use, a good mechanical keyboard can last many years. Enthusiasts actually harvest switches from decades-old keyboards with bad electronics to use in newly build custom boards.
Choosing a Form Factor
The first step in choosing the right keyboard is deciding what layout you want. The traditional full-size board is still the most common, but you might want to use your mechanical transition to change it up. A full-size board has all the keys you need to operate a computer without worrying about any function layers. There’s a full number pad as well. The main drawback of this size is that it’s rather large and inefficient. You have to move your hands rather far to reach everything and the number pad means your mouse will be pushed farther away from your main typing area. This is why I don’t like full-size boards personally.
The next step down is tenkeyless (TKL), sometimes known as 80 percent keyboards. These boards still don’t rely on function layers for basic features, but there’s no number pad. There’s still a number row, of course. If this sounds stressful to you, just give it some thought. How often do you really need a dedicated number pad? Unless you’re doing data entry, you can probably do just fine without one. This makes the board much smaller and brings the mouse in closer.
The next step down in mainstream boards is 60 percent, which has become popular in the last few years. A 60 percent board just has the alphas, number row, and modifiers. There are no dedicated arrow keys, no F-row, and no number pad. All those features are there, but they’re in the function layer. So, you hold function and press a different key. For example, the arrows are usually Fn+WASD or Fn+JIKL. The main advantage of the 60 percent form factor is that it’s compact and efficient once you get used to the function layer.
If none of those do it for you, there are some more exotic layouts that are just catching on. The 65 percent size is smaller than a TKL, but you get arrow keys and a few more keys like delete, page up/down, and so on. This is a good middle ground that I’m personally very into. The WhiteFox is a 65 percent board. They don’t take up too much space, but they reduce your dependence on function layers.
There’s also the super-small 40 percent category. These boards have just alpha keys and a few modifiers. They’re essentially pocket size and usually have at least two function-key layers to get all the basic keyboard commands covered. If you get good with a 40 percent board, you can be extremely efficient as everything is so close together.
Choosing a Switch
So, you know what size board you want, but what do you want typing to feel like? Cherry’s main mechanical switch patents expired a few years ago, so there are a ton of clone switches that are Cherry-compatible. The vast majority of boards use Cherry and Cherry clone switches, so let’s go over those.
The first order of business should be to get a switch tester. You can get one for under $20 on Amazon that has all the major Cherry variants: blue, green, brown, clear, red, and black. These switches come in three different varieties: clicky (blue and green), tactile (brown and clear), and linear (black and red). Each of those categories is split into a heavier and lighter version. Here’s a chart with the weights of each. Note: the “color codes” of clone switches are usually the same for switches with the same properties.
I can’t tell you which switches you will prefer, but I’ll note that heavy typists tend to use tactile and clicky switches, but blacks are a common choice as well. Don’t make a final decision yet, though. Your goal should be to figure out how what general type of switch you like and what weight feels best. Cherry is not the only game in town anymore, so you might be able to mix and match some of these properties to find the perfect switch.
Some of the most popular Cherry-compatible switches come from Gateron and Kailh. Gateron switches look like Cherry switches, but Kailh has a variety of innovative choices. For example, the “box” switches like the Pale Blue below are less wobbly than traditional Cherry-style stems.
If you find you like tactile switches, you may consider trying a Topre board. There are very few switch testers with Topre domes, so you might need to jump in with a real keyboard like the HHKB2. Keep in mind, if you fall in love with Topre, that limits your choice of boards and keycaps. It also means you’ll spend a lot more on the keyboard.
Picking a Pre-Built Board
Now you know what pieces you want, so the challenge is finding the right board. I will say off the bat that I think you should steer clear of “gaming-oriented” boards. They try to lure you in with flashy lights, but they require annoying, buggy desktop software and often use poorer quality clone switches. Cherry, Gateron, and Kailh are all respected switch manufacturers.
A good starting point is WASD Keyboards, which makes boards in full, TKL, and 60 percent form factors. The 60 percent option is actually a re-branded Poker 3, which is available from multiple retailers. This is an excellent little board with programmable layers and a full aluminum case. WASD has a full selection of Cherry switches, as well as some more exotic options like Zealio and Cherry. That’s rare in pre-build keyboards. MechanicalKeyboards.com has numerous options like the aforementioned Vortex Poker 3, but also well-reviewed boards from Ducky, Leopold, and more.
All of the above boards are priced competitively but are not particularly inexpensive. Rantopad makes some nice TKL boards with Gateron switches. Those are a little cheaper than Cherry switches, but I think they’re just as good. You can get these for under $100.
I’m also very much a fan of the Magicforce 68 (above), which is a 65 percent board that can be had for around $60-70 with either Gateron or Cherry switches of your choice. These boards are excellent values and a good way to try a switch out in practice without dropping a lot of cash. Drop (formerly Massdrop) also has several high-end 65 percent and tenkeyless boards available most of the time. The Alt is a fully-programmable compact 65 percent, and the Ctrl is a similar tenkeyless.
Input Club’s Kono Store has a number of solid boards under the Hexgears brand. IC’s own WhiteFox, NightFox, and Kira boards are sold out at the moment. When and if they come back, those are great options for a bit more money.
Getting in Deep
So you have a keyboard, now what? Depending on how crazy you want to get, you can start customizing your board with custom keycaps and cables. You could even just decide to build your own keyboard. But why would you want to do that? With a custom board, you can put your experience with switch testers to work and find the perfect switch. Most of the cool, innovative switches in the keyboard world aren’t used in retail keyboards.
The aforementioned Zealio switches are popular and come in many variants. There are also numerous Kailh switches that offer additional spring weights and click designs that don’t have a Cherry equivalent—check out the selection at retailers like NovelKeys. There are a handful of hot-swappable boards out there, but you’ll probably have to learn to solder if you want a keyboard with these exotic switches.
If you want a custom board but are apprehensive about soldering, KBDfans might be your best bet. This China-based keyboard manufacturer sells DIY kits, but there are also finished boards in stock on its website. You can even buy a DIY kit of certain boards and pay $17 extra to have it assembled with the switches of your choice.
If you don’t want to jump right into custom boards, you can still jazz up your mechanical keyboard with some custom keysets. Just make sure you get a board with a mostly standard layout. You can look at the bottom row to get a good idea of whether or not a board is standard. It should have 1.25-unit modifiers and a 6.25-unit space bar. Anything else and custom keysets get more expensive and rare.
Most keysets are sold in group buys, which you have to join prior to production, then wait for the set to be produced. This can take months and gets pretty confusing. The easiest way is to join buys organized by Massdrop. You can also buy some custom sets straight-up from companies like Pimp My Keyboard and Originative. Almost every custom keyset is MX-only. If you get a Topre (or the rarer Alps), you’re out of luck here.
Expect to pay at least $60-70 for a basic set and well over $100 for a high-end custom set. You get what you pay for, though. Keycaps made from PBT or thick double-shot ABS are more durable and pleasant to type on than the caps that come with keyboards. Even the nicer mechanical keyboards don’t go all out on the keycaps. I guess they assume you’ll buy something fancy if you care that much.
If you do decide to build a custom board, be prepared to spend at least a few hundred dollars on the kit. These keyboards are in high enough demand to command high prices, but not enough to be in mass production. So, you can easily spend $500 or more before you even get to keycaps or switches. The Zephyr above is a $600 kit that includes a PCB, plate, and case. A more modest custom kit might cost $250-300.
I’m going to close by mentioning something that sounds absolutely bananas to people who aren’t into the hobby, but you’ll get a kick out of it, I assume. For additional customization, there are “artisan keycaps.” They’re hand-sculpted and cast single keycaps that are meant to be used as decoration on keyboards (see above). They are mostly made in small batches and sold in raffles, as well as the occasional group buy on Drop. They’re expensive, and you’ll pay even more if you miss the group buy and have to buy second-hand from someone in the community. Maybe this guide will be your first step along the way to that kind of incoherent madness. I’m sorry.
Check out our ExtremeTech Explains series for more in-depth coverage of today’s hottest tech topics.
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