My Latest Obsession: Mechanical Keyboards
I decided to buy a physical, non-consumable product, so naturally I did months of research beforehand.
Every once in while I will get seriously involved in researching a particular consumer product— call them fascinations or mild obsessions. This habit was at least partially inspired by my discovery of The Wirecutter, a website that attempts to recommend one single product for a given category (“Here’s the best water bottle/portable hard drive/weather app/TV for most people”). Previously I wrote about 10 things I’ve purchased thank to the site.
In late 2012 and early 2013 I spent a lot time reading about digital cameras and then ended up buying an Olympus OM-D EM-5. Then in early 2014 it was a lot of desktop productivity applications and coding environment stuff. For the past few months I’ve been trying to learn as much as I can about mechanical keyboards.
I didn’t know there was a fundamental difference between mechanical, rubber dome, and scissor switch keyboards until I found this Life Hacker article about why and how to choose a mechanical keyboard. As someone who spends a lot of time typing at his computer (both as a social media editor and as a programmer), the idea of improving that experience definitely appealed to me. So I started Googling and reading.
Wait, Why Would I Want a Mechanical Keyboard?
If you’re using a MacBook right now you’re sitting in front of a keyboard with scissor switches, a type of rubber dome-switch keyboard. Basically, when you press a key the plastic back of the keycap presses down on a rubber membrane and the circuit registers the keypress. This makes the keys feel mushy, and they wear out and feel worse after a certain amount of presses. Additionally, keys must be pressed all the way down for the key to register.
As the Life Hacker post explains, mechanical keyboards last much longer and are more comfortable and subjectively more pleasurable to type on. The keys feel crisper and less mushy than rubber domes. Each key has an independent mechanical switch, which generally provides a better feel for when the key has been “actuated.” Also, unlike rubber dome keyboards, you don’t have to press a key all the way down to get it to register. Instead, you only have to go about halfway down (2mm on Cherry MX switches), which feels nicer to me. Of course you can “bottom-out” every key every time if you’re a hard typer (4mm down), but it’s nice that you don’t have to.
And lastly, they’re kind of old school (literally you may have used then in your school’s computer labs).
With my interest sufficiently piqued, I continued my research beyond the Life Hacker article.
Of course I would need to do more research before buying one than reading just this introductory article from Life Hacker. I soon found the r/mechanicalkeyboard subreddit on Reddit. I don’t have a ton of experience with small internet communities, but /r/mechanicalkeyboards seems like a very inclusive, active, and supportive one. (There are other, more intense internet communities focused on keyboards like Deskthority and Geek Hack, but I found the subreddit much more welcoming and less technical.)
As far as I can tell the majority of the subreddit’s contributing members (currently 44,992 subscribers) are young males, mostly students and/or gamers. Since most of them are young and free of the time-consuming responsibilities of adulthood, they have a lot of time on their hands to research and lust over consumer goods.
Likewise since at least some of them are students, the community seems to have a particular sensitivity to price. A lot of users come to the subreddit looking to spend less than $150 or $100 on a board, despite clearly having done weeks or even months of research on the subreddit and elsewhere. Another example of the student-level price sensitivity is how the subreddit’s extensive buyer’s guide lists keyboard in the $150 to $199 range as “I’m willing to spend a lot for my feels.” Hell, the most-prized, sort of “Holy Grail” the community talks about is the Happy Hacking Professional 2, goes for about $260, which, sure is a lot for a computer keyboard (for reference, a new Apple keyboard goes for $69), but that’s the most expensive you can go without going custom (which seems to be a rare choice).
I ended up checking the subreddit’s front page almost every day this summer. I became very interested in the variety of choices facing a prospective buyer of a modern mechanical keyboard. Through countless anecdotal posts, the subreddit offered much more nuanced and personal information about the various choices. And I got closer and closer to making a decision about my first purchase.
Obviously the primary choice is which keyboard, from which company, to buy. But selecting a mechanical keyboard also necessarily involves several other decisions as well.
Types of Key Switches, Keycaps
One of these choices is what type of key switch to get. Key switch refers to the “switch” that lies under each key that registers the key press. As you’d expect, there are many types.
They most common type of switch is called a Cherry MX switch (Cherry is the company who makes them). Cherry manufactures 6 or 7 different types of MX switches, and these different types are classified by color. The main three are Cherry MX Red, Cherry MX Blue, and Cherry MX Brown, but there’s also Clears, Greens, and Blacks and some other even rarer ones. I won’t go into the differences between the Cherry MX switches (the Life Hacker post does a decent job with the GIFs, plus here’s the subreddit’s switch guide, one manufacturer’s overview, and an infographic-style description), but sufficient to say that, considering that most keyboard models come in a variety of key switch types, choosing a mechanical keyboard also involves choosing a key switch type, making the process that much more wonderfully complex and conducive to subtle and involved research.
Additionally, consumers can also weigh the pros and cons of the shape and the type of plastic that the actual key caps are made of. You can buy these later and replace the stock keycaps their board came with yourself. (Of course the subreddit offers information and many opinions on this topic as well).
And of course there are tons of other modifications you can make to any given board, examples of which are often featured on the subreddit’s front page.
The subreddit helped me understand all of these choices to a greater degree (for example after a few weeks I concluded that my first keyboard should probably be a Cherry MX Brown. Be sure to explore the subreddit’s Wiki and its buyer’s guide.) But it was also fun to read and check for other reasons.
Delightful Quirks of the Subreddit
Like any good community, it also has some fun little quirks— one of which is that when users post photos of their keyboards they commonly include one of their shoes in one of the photos. The nominal reason for this is to provide evidence for a “keyboard science” theory put forth by one of the subreddit’s more active moderators that there is a correlation between shoe choice and type of key switch (Cherry MX Blue or Brown or Red, etc.). (Preliminary conclusions.) But really I think it just gives the community a silly tradition.
Also, if you had any doubt that a vast majority of the subreddit members are heterosexual males, there’s an idea is the community that Cherry MX switches, particularly Cherry MX Reds on a Filco keyboard, feel like typing on a “cloud of boobs.” So you know, make of that what you will.
Another interesting aspect of the community is their coverage and use of a site called Mass Drop, which organizes group buys of hard-to-find products. Interestingly, some of the products coveted by the community— a certain type of key cap, or a certain keyboard with a rare Cherry switch— are seemingly not produced by the manufacturer for months on end, presumably due to low demand. Thus suppliers will be out of stock or simply take down certain listings during these dry spells. There are also issues related to international shipping and availability that I don’t quite understand.
Mass Drop works with these companies to get limited production runs of these products and offers a limited number of them to Mass Drop members (free to join) in a group buy. As more members sign up for a specific “drop” the price for all participating members falls. It’s a really interesting economic model— a different side of the Kickstarter/Donors Choose crowd-funding, if you will (I haven’t participated in any drops yet).
Perhaps as a result of the urgency conveyed by the Mass Drops or just after reading about other keyboards so frequently, many members end up purchasing more than one keyboard. I admit even as I type this on my first mechanical keyboard, I’m checking availabilities of different, more expensive ones.
Factors I Considered When Looking at a Given Mechanical Keyboard
After a good amount of research, I learned that there are a number of factors to consider when purchasing a mechanical keyboard. As I understand it, the basic list of variables you want to know about a given keyboard are:
Form-factor: This term refers to layout of keys and the size of the keyboard. There’s standard (with number pad and arrow keys), Tenkeyless or TKL (no number pad but with arrow keys), and compact, aka 60% (no number pad or arrow keys— really interesting). Here’s a simple infographic explaining the three sizes.
Switch type: If Cherry MX, what “color” is it? (Note that the actual color of the keys is totally independent of the type of switch). Beyond Cherry there’s also Topre (a highly-regarded but expensive option) and Alps. Some are louder than others, some provide more resistance (measured in grams generally). Overall I’d say this is the most important factor.
Price: Obviously a factor. Although I argue that since the range from cheapest board generally recommended to most expensive is only $85 to $260, and considering what most of us pay for our computers, price shouldn’t be that much of a factor.
Aesthetics: Obviously you should like how the board looks. And there are tons of options. Color, shape, build, etc.
Noise: So I’ve kind of kept this under wraps until now, but the one serious advantage of rubber dome keyboards (including your MacBook’s scissor switch board) is that they’re generally much quieter than mechanical keyboards. I got my first mechanical keyboard for my apartment, where noise isn’t that big of a issue. But if you work in a super quiet office, finding a keyboard to improve on whatever rubber domes you’re currently using will be a bit trickier.
First of all, some Cherry MX switches are quieter than others, but they’re all louder than rubber dome. You can add o-rings to your keys, deadening some of the sound when you “bottom-out” the key. Another option is to buy a keyboard with some type of silencing built in to it, like this Matias or the Happy Hacking Pro 2 Type-S.
Construction Quality: Is the keyboard well-built? Is the company known for making well-built products that work for years? Pretty standard.
Stock Keycaps: The keyboard comes with keycaps on it. Keycaps have 6 variables to consider: the type of plastic they’re made out of, thickness of the plastic, color of the keys, font/placement/color of the markings, how markings are printed on them, and their shape, or profile.
The two most-common types of plastic seem to be ABS (Acrylonitrile Butadiene Styrene) and PBT (polybutylene terephthalate). There’s seems to be a preference for PBT. Additional variables here are the thickness and the shape or profile of the keycaps. If your board has a relatively standard configuration/layout, you can buy keycaps from elsewhere and replace them yourself. (More info on keycap construction here)
I don’t know much about the different printing techniques or the shapes/profiles yet.
Operating System Layout: Most boards are laid out with Windows users in mind. Which, for our purposes, means that the modifier keys on the left side of the board go Control, Windows key, Alt. On a Mac, the order is Control, Alt/Option, then Command. If you use a Mac like me, you have a few choices:
- Buy a keyboard with a Mac layout (options include a Matias or a semi-custom WASD v2)
- Find a keyboard with physical DIP switches, allowing the keyboard itself (rather than some software) to switch the functionality of the two keys. Then physically switch the keycaps, assuming the Alt and Command keys are the same size (this is what I ended up doing).
- What if your keyboard doesn’t have a DIP switch to switch the functionality of the modifier keys? In your OS X settings, switch the function of the modifier keys for your keyboard (there are also separate programs for keyboard re-mapping to change the function of the modifiers keys to whatever you want). Then either learn to ignore what’s printed on the keys, or physically switch the Windows and Alt keys the keyboard come with (obviously the two keys have to be the same size).
Note: Some boards like the Vortex/KBC Poker II provide a ton of programmable key options, which might be something you want.
Backlighting: Your Macbook’s keyboard has lights under the keys that help you use the keyboard in the dark. Some mechanical keyboards have this feature, others don’t.
Physical Keycap Customizability: If you get a keyboard with Cherry MX switches (doesn’t matter the color) and relatively standard-sized modifier keys (control, alt, command, spacebar, shift), you can buy new keycaps from a third party and replace the ones you got. If you get a board with weirdly-sized keys or a non-Cherry switch, it’s going to be more difficult to find replacement keycaps that fit.
Stabilizer Type: We’re getting a bit in the weeds now, but longer keys like enter, shift, caps lock, and the spacebar require some sort of stabilizer so that when you press the edge of, say, the right shift key, the key will go down evenly. There are two common kinds: Costar and Cherry. Apparently the Costars are slightly crisper feeling and are preferred over the “mushy” Cherrys, though I’ve read that the Cherry’s are simpler and thus make switching the keycaps easier (source 1, source 2). The board I ended up going with has Cherrys, which do feel a bit mushy but it’s not a big deal.
I’m sure there are more factors to consider but those are some basics.
So what keyboards was I looking at?
As usual, I ended up making a series of Google Doc spreadsheets weighing the pros and cons of each board I deemed a good fit for me. I got it down to 7 or 8, namely the CM Storm QuickFire Rapid (aka QFR, a popular recommendation for a starter board), WASD v2 87-Key Custom Keyboard (and their “CODE” model with MX Clears), Realforce 87-U Tenkeyless (White/Gray, Silent), Matias Laptop Pro Quiet (Mac), HHKB Professional 2 Type-S, Leopold FC660C, and the KUL ES-87.
After learning about all these variables I began to get an idea of what I wanted in my first board: I wanted a moderate price in case I hated it; I figured Cherry MX Browns would be a good switch; it needed to play well with Mac; a sturdy build; tenkeyless; and high customizability options for the future. After a few more weeks weighing options, I narrowed down my search to one.
My First Mechanical Keyboard
After careful consideration, I decided to pull the trigger on a KUL ES-87 with Cherry MX Brown switches from Amazon (official product page) a week and a half ago for $129 (here’s my nerdy post to the subreddit announcing my joining of the club). KUL, which stands for Keyed Up Labs, is a relatively new company, but their boards have gotten positive reviews on the subreddit and beyond.
As you can see, I have the Alt keys in the middle and I even switched Control and Caps Lock. I also switched the backslash and backspace keys— more on these choices later. I also got a wireless mouse and a stand for my laptop to round out my desk upgrade, which are all working out really well.
A Quick Word On My New Mouse
For the mouse I wanted (a) buttons that didn’t extend all the way to the back of the mouse, which would lead to accidental clicks for me (thus ruling out the popular Razer DeathAdder), (b) fully compatible with OS X and (c) well-built. The Logitech G602 looks a little flashy and futuristic, and it has a ton of extra buttons (it’s sold as a “gaming” mouse), but I found that it fit my bill the best. Since it’s programmable with OS X, I downloaded and used theLogitech software to disable most of the extra buttons. I consulted r/mousereview a few times but it’s not as active or as interesting as r/MechanicalKeyboards. I really like using the mouse.
r/MouseReview did turn me on to this mouse pad which I like and works well. And while we’re talking about accessories, you may need to buy a USB hub to connect all this stuff. I had an old Belkin USB 2.0 4-port hub sitting around that I’m using now, but if I were buying new Wircutter recommends this HooToo USB 3.0 model.
Why I Chose the KUL ES-87
The 3 main reasons I decided on the KUL were that (1) reviewers described it as sturdy and well-made, (2) it doesn’t look too flashy, and (3) it’s highly adaptable, specifically for Macs thanks to switchable alt and command keys and 7 DIP switches on the bottom of the board. Not only did these switches allow me to set the Mac functionality for command and alt, but I also switched control and caps lock and switched backslash and backspace (the company includes these alternate keycaps and a basic keycap puller in a small bag with the keyboard).
One downside that I decided to accept was that the board has Cherry stabilizers instead of Costars. But I figured that shouldn’t be a deal-breaker given all the other things I liked about the ES-87.
So How Do I Like the KUL So Far?
Overall I love it. It feels super sturdy— like it will last for a decade if not a few. It also makes me want to type more often, sometimes just for the sake of typing.
Shortly after opening it I switched the modifier keys and put in some of the alternate keys. The alt and command keys work exactly as I expected— no need to change any OS X preferences. And I love that my preference for switching the left control and the caps lock is reflected in the keycap labels. Also the Mac media keys (F7 to F12) work just like they do on my MacBook Air keyboard.
The Cherry MX Brown switches are lighter than I thought they’d be (rated for 45 grams of actuation force). I’m definitely getting used to them, and I am making some typos due to the sensitivity of the switches. But the positive of the high sensitivity is the speed of being able to press a key very lightly and having it register. If I were to get a second board with Cherry MX switches I’d probably try Clears, as they are described as a “stiff” Brown.
The Cherry stabilizers do indeed feel a bit mushy compared to the other keys. But it’s not a huge deal to me.
When I go back to the scissor switch board on my MacBook Air I can definitely feel the difference. The biggest difference is the lack of feedback as you take your finger off of a key. The KUL gives you a sort of “bounce” to get your finger off to the next key you’re going to press. The Air’s keyboard just feels like “blah,” nothing.
The only real objection to the KUL board I’ve seen is the mushy Cherry stabilizers and that the stock ABS keycaps run on the thin side and thus are kind of shitty. Of course to my knowledge I’ve never used a board with PBT caps, so I don’t really know what the alternative feels like. But I might spring for a PBT set in the next few weeks to see what that fuss is all about. There’s also the more colorful (and rare) Penumbra set that looks pretty cool.
My Next Board?
As I mentioned above, I’m looking for a quieter board to use and leave at work. I’ve also heard a lot of good things about Topre switches, which are more expensive than any of the Cherry switches, but are pretty universally praised. Lastly, I’m intrigued by smaller, more compact boards, as they both take up less desk space and minimize the amount of distance your hands have to move when typing. For all those reasons I’m probably going to get a Happy Hacking Professional 2 Type-S next, which is kind of a thing.
I bought the Happy Hacking Pro-2 and wrote a quick write-up of my impressions after about a month of using it. (Spoiler alert: I love it and rarely use my KUL now.)