Mechanical keyboards are a mystery to many. Some don’t see the point in spending potentially hundreds of dollars on a keyboard when the one they have works just fine. As a developer, however, I've come to not only appreciate but rely on my mechanical keyboard. Little things like macro keys, media keys and the soothing sounds of triggers help me to get in to “the zone” much faster when coding.
In this article, we will go over some basic concepts of choosing a mechanical keyboard to fit your needs. We will touch upon form factors, switches, and layouts.
The most famous switch manufacturer, and by far the best is Cherry Corporation. Cherry Corporation was founded in the United States in 1953 and started producing keyboards in 1967, making them the oldest keyboard manufacturer in the world still in business. The company moved to Germany in 1967 and were bought by ZF Friedrichshafen AG in 2008, but their keyboards and mechanical switches are still produced under the Cherry brand.
Their most popular line of switches, the Cherry MX series, was introduced around 1985. These switches are usually referenced by their physical colour, with each colour denoting the switch’s handling characteristics — whether it is clicky, whether it is tactile, and how much force is required to actuate the switch, in centi-Newtons (cN) or grams (g).
There are three main offerings from the cherry MX line:
Linear switches are the simplest of the MX series. They have to tactile feedback and no loud clicking sounds. The most common offerings are the black and red switches.
Cherry MX Black switches were introduced in 1984. They have a very high actuation force at 60 cN, which means they are the stiffest of the four most common Cherry switches. These switches are normally used in point-of-sale stations, but are not ideal for typing due to their stiffness. They have, how ever, found use in RTS video games, where the high weighting can prevent accidental key presses that might occur on less stiff switches. The heavier spring also allows them to rebound faster, meaning they can be actuated quite quickly given enough force. Many find that the stiffness causes their hands to become fatigued quickly.
Cherry red’s are the newest offering from the Cherry Corporations. Introduced in 2008 they were made with gamers in mind. Reds have a very low actuation force, at only 45 cN. Due to their low actuation force these allow gamers to input commands much faster than a regular keyboard. This light actuation force comes at the cost of typing errors as many will find them selves hitting extra keys accidentally when their fingers so much as brush up on a key.
Tactile, non-clicky switches:
Tactile switches provide a nice physical click as the key actuates. This does not refer to a click sound but rather the feeling of a slight click under your fingers. As you press the key down, there is a noticeable bump which indicates that the key press has been registered.
The most common of the tactile, non-clicky switches are the cherry browns. Cherry brows were introduced in 1994 as special ergonomic switches but soon became a favorite among many keyboard enthusiasts. Cherry browns are considered a middle-of-the-road offering for both typing and gaming. There switches are commonly found in offices but to their quieter nature, while still giving the user some tactile feedback.
Tactile, clicky switches:
There are two types of people in the world, those who love clicky keyboards and those who don’t. Clicky switches add a loud and deliberate click sound. This along with the actuation bump makes it easier to know that the key was actuated. The clicking sound is produced by a more complicated mechanism, involving a blue plug and a white slider. When the actuation point is reached, the slider is propelled to the bottom of the switch and the click noise is produced.
The cherry blue switches that the most common of the clicky variety, and were introduced in 2007. Cherry blues are a favorite of those who write often on their computers but are less suitable for gaming as the high actuation force of 50 cN and high release point cause the user to have to let the key come all the way back up before triggering another click. Cherry blues are extremely loud, making them not suitable for any kind of close working environment as they will be very distracting.
There are many other switches offered by not only the Cherry corporation but by its many competitors, they include:
- Silent Red (Pink) switches are quieter variants of the linear MX Red switch, with rubber pieces inside that dampen the sound of the switch returning to its default position. The actuation force remains 45 cN.
- Speed Silver is a shortened version of the MX Red switch, actuating at 1.2mm instead of 2mm and with a total travel of 3.4mm compared to 4mm.
- Clear switches are a stiffer version of Brown switches, with a tactile bump and weighting of 65 cN.
- Grey switches are used for space bars on Clear keyboards, with a weighting of 80 cN.
- Green switches are a stiffer version of Blue switches, with a tactile bump and audible click, weighted at 80 cN. It is primarily used for space bars.
- White switches are very similar to green switches, with modern versions being weighted the same (80 cN) but being slightly quieter.
- Super Black switches are extra stiff (150 cN) linear switches designed for space bars on keyboards with Black switches.
- Dark Grey switches are moderately more stiff linear (80 cN) switches designed for use as space bars on keyboards with Cherry MX Black switches.
- Cherry MX Lock switches are locking linear switches that stay down until pressed again, typically used for Caps Lock and TTY lock in keyboards before the 1980s.
Keyboards come in many sizes and shapes. Some are ergonomic, some are compact and some are scrabble(?!). In this section we will go over some one the most common standards and how they vary.
When asked to think of a keyboard a full size is what comes to mind. Full size keyboards include the alphanumeric keys, the function keys, the number pad and the arrows. The full size form factor has around 104 keys in total, depending on the layout.
This form factor is made of those who want to leave nothing behind, and have the desk space to spare. The inclusion of the number pad is a must for those work with numbers crunching applications such as excel or quickbooks. As long as you have the space to accommodate a full size form factor, this is a solid choice.
Tenkeyless, sometimes referred to as 80% is the first step down from a full size form factor. This form factor trades in the number pad for a little extra desk space. The function keys and arrows are still present in their usual positions. The Tenkeyless form factor has about 88 keys depending on the particular design.
This form factor is popular among the PC gaming community because it is seem as a optimal trade off between for and function. The extra space allows for gamers to lower their mouse sensitivity allowing for wider sweeps of the mouse and their fore better accuracy. Its small size also helps it to be more ergonomic as you can easily center the keyboard in front of you rather than having to type at an angle.
The 75% form factor offer all the same functionality of the tenkeyless, albeit more cramped.
This form factor is not very popular in the market, but it is however very practical. If you prefer to type on a laptop keyboard you should feel right at home with this form factor. The most obvious disadvantage is that people tend to hit multiple keys when typing fast. This Form factor is best for gaming since gamers don’t move their hands often on the keyboard. Like the Tenkeyless, the 75% form factor also has about 88 keys in total.
The 60% form factor removes all none alphanumeric keys from the keyboard. Their function, however, are still usually accessible by key combinations. The 60% form factor has about 61 keys, depending on the layout.
The 60% form factor lends it self to those looking for a minimalist solution, or those who are more worried about aesthetics then functionality. This form factor is fantastic if you are looking to customize your mechanical keyboard, or just take it on the go with you.
Gaming keyboard don’t adhere to any particular form factor as they come in all shapes and sizes. The most common however emulate either a full size (with extra keys) or a Tenkeyless form factor.
A gaming form factor is usually a proprietary form factor that incorporates macro- and media keys, and sometimes deviates from the ANSI or ISO standard, which will be explained in the next section.
For more examples of custom keyboard checkout the /r/mechanicalkeyboard gallery
The layout refers to the physical shape and size of a keyboards keys. Besides form factor, layouts play the next biggest role in how a keyboard looks and feels. Layout play a especially big role in laptop keyboards as they vary drastically from model to model.
ANSI, ISO and JIS
The most common layouts on the market today are the ANSI, ISO and JIS. They vary slightly from one another and are usually seen in their particular country of origin. ANSI for America, ISO for Europe and JIS for Japan. keyboards from the 80’s and 90’s stuck to the ISO layout, but ANSI has taken the lead as of late.
The best part about most mechanical keyboards is the keycaps are removable allowing for easier cleaning and customization. Depending on the switches on your key the key caps may be different so make sure to check that new caps are compatible before purchasing. Also make sure to keep as eye out for your layout as this may effect the size of certain keys.
Next up is the layout. The ANSI standard layout is privileged to most options in the market. Whatever you have, make sure to match the set with the layout. ISO sets don’t fit entirely into ANSI layout keyboards, and vice versa. This is due to the different Enter and Shift key sizes, and the extra key ISO layout has.
Lastly I want to leave you off with some examples of amazing and crazy custom builds. Enjoy!