Finding Your First Mechanical Keyboard
I did the research on finding your first keyboard so you don’t have to.
After a lot of internal debate and research, I decided to get a mechanical keyboard. I don’t claim to be a keyboard enthusiast and this post isn’t meant to convince you to get one. In fact, you probably don’t need one. A mechanical keyboard won’t make you a better programmer, writer, or gamer. But if you have any interest in them but feel overwhelmed about where to even begin getting one, then you’ve come to the right place. I’m going to tell you how I went through the process of selecting my board and keycaps from an absolute n00b perspective. I had some great help and guidance from friends of mine and I want to pay it forward. We’re going to sort through the endless acronyms and terminology together .After reading this you should be armed with the necessary information to select your own keyboard, if you like.
Let’s start with why I wanted to get one in the first place. I’d heard all the hype. I have a couple friends who had them and raved about them. They loved the touch and sound of their keys and the layout that fit their needs. But what finally got me was wanting inject some personality into my computer setup. In the same way some people love to decorate their laptop with stickers, when I looked at my desk I wanted it to feel more like my own space. I spend nearly all day at work in front of a computer and more time at home. Looking at my laptop and monitor everything is so black and grey. I wanted bright color and fun. I didn’t want stock, out-of-the-box, cookie cutter options. I wanted something that felt like me where I could sit down at my desk and feel joy. This process of selecting the layout, switches, and keys I wanted, putting it all together was tedious at times, but it lead to something that feels my own and I’m happy with the result.
There are a lot of interwoven choices to make when it comes to mechanical keyboards. I didn’t realize how some of the choices I made would end up impacting my future options. Here I’m going to walk through questions you can ask yourself, a bit like a flowchart to determine a good starting place for you. Then instead of browsing through hundreds of options, you’ll have a better sense of how to narrow down your search and find a good fit. I’m not trying to sell you anything, just giving you the tools you need to be able to read an item description and know better what it is that you are getting.
Size and Shape
The shape of keyboard that you want is going to depend on how you use your keyboard whether that’s gaming, programming, writing, web browsing, etc. I took a minimalist approach to get the smallest keyboard I was comfortable with while keeping the keys that I wanted. To follow this route, you should first ask yourself if you want a number pad or not. If you do, then your best option is to get a standard/full-size layout. If you don’t need a number pad, then the next question would be if you want the arrow keys. If you want arrow keys, the I would recommend looking for a ten-keyless (TKL) layout. If you don’t want/need the arrow keys, then a compact/60% layout could be a good fit for you. These are the three most common sizes and they are a good place to start.
For me, I found myself in an odd place where I did want the arrow keys but I wanted something smaller than a TKL size. I also really wanted the function row. So I didn’t take my own advice and I found a nice middle ground called a 75% layout. While I love the layout, it did make finding keys a little bit more difficult. It also really narrowed my options on the available manufacturers, increasing the price options that I had. That’s why in general I would recommend starting with one of the three most common layouts. Similarly, you might be interested in a split or ergonomic keyboard. If you are then go for it, but be aware you may end up with fewer options when it comes to selecting caps which fit in your layout.
The Perfect Touch
The mechanical in mechanical keyboard, refers to the switches. There are lots of different types and they are what give the key press its feel and sound. While there are plenty of key manufactures, I’m going to save you time and say for your first keyboard to focus on Cherry MX. No offense to other manufacturers, but Cherry MX seems to be the standard to the point that others will boast that theirs are MX-compatible. The keycaps will fit into the top of the switch, so the type of switch you get will determine which keycaps you can buy. Since these are the most common and easiest to find, going with Cherry MX gives you the most options.
Within the Cherry MX line there are three main types of switch: tactile, linear, and clicky. I could describe the feel of each, but honestly you need to feel them for yourself. The advice I got and I’ll pass on here is to get a switch tester. Maybe your keyboard loving friend or co-worker already has one that you can borrow. I picked up one on Amazon for about $15 (the current price might differ). It comes with nine keys each with a different Cherry MX switch, three of each type each of those with a different amount of stiffness. Tapping each of the keys gave a feel for which one seemed the most natural to me. For me, the Cherry Black, which is a mid-stiffness linear switch, was the most natural feel. #teamlinear
Adding Your Personality
The part I was most excited about was the caps themselves. While the switches and layout have the most functional customization, having something that you can look down at and makes you smile has its own value. As you search for keycap sets, you be bombarded with different types of plastics (ABS and PBT) and lettering methods (dye sublimated, double-shot, and laser etching). Now these plastics are supposed to have a different feel to them, but it’s slight. And the different methods of lettering can impact the crispness of the letters and the potential for wear after use. But in my search, this felt like noise. These differences seemed far too subtle for someone looking to get their first keyboard. I would recommend not worrying about these kinds of options. It’s great to know these options are there, but if the other pieces fit and like the look, then get them and leave researching plastics for another day.
What you do what to look for, other than a color scheme that you like, is that they fit the layout that you have selected. Caps come in different profiles and sizes. The profile of the cap determines it’s slope and the size determines its width. While there are many different profiles with varying feels, it helped me to only consider either sculpted (OEM, Cherry) or uniform profiles (DSA, XDA). Enthusiasts will know that there are many more shapes and profiles, but in my research I found these four to be the most common and I would recommend focusing these as options.
Sculpted profiles have different key shapes depending on the row. The top rows pitch the keys down towards the home row, the middle rows are roughly flat, and the bottom rows pitch away from the user towards the home row. This makes the face of the key slant towards your fingers, assuming they are coming from the home row position, which gives a natural feel when typing. The different feel of the keys can also help to keep your figures in the correct position or to re-center your hands if you move them from the home row. The two most common sculpted profiles you’ll find are Cherry (not to be confused with the switch name) and OEM. Cherry is a slightly lower profile, but for the sake of simplicity I would recommend focusing on sculpted vs uniform instead of OEM vs Cherry.
With uniform profiles, each key has the same slant regardless of its position. While the overall ergonomic idea of this shape is less clear to me, it makes them easy to fit into non-standard layouts because the keys from the set can be moved to any row without issue. My TAB75 came DSA keycaps, likely due to it’s less common layout, and because of that I biased my search towards uniform profile caps. The most common uniform profiles are DSA and XDA. Between them XDA is slightly taller, but for my consideration on a first keyboard I considered them roughly equivalent.
When it comes to key sizes, the main aspect here is the legend/control keys (control, shift, space, enter, tab, etc). The sizes of keys are relative to the size of a letter key which is considered 1U. So your layout might have a 1.5U shift key (meaning one and a half the size of a key) or a 2U shift key (meaning twice the size of a letter key). Again, going towards a common layout (full/TKL/compact) will help avoid some of these issues/consideration. Lots of cap sets you will find have multiple size options so that could be used on a range of layouts. There would be nothing worse in this experience than spending money on a board and caps that you love only to find they don’t fit. So before you hit that purchase button just do a double check on the legend sizes of the layout and the keycap set.
There is plenty more that I haven’t touched on here, like back-lighting or programmability. So you have lots more to discover on your own if you wish. If you do want to go down that route, I recommend reading the wiki from /r/MechanicalKeyboards/ on Reddit. It has plenty of guides for aspects that I purposefully glossed over here as well as recommendations on where to buy everything. If you are specifically interested in the board and keys I’ve chosen, then you purchased the board from mechnicalkeyboards.com and the keys from KBDFans on AliExpress. Enjoy your search and I hope you get a happy result as I did.