Mechanical Keyboards: No, They Won’t Rise Up and Take Over The World…

Picking a Keyboard for your Custom Computer

Picking a keyboard for your Custom Computer can be a very personal task, much like picking a mouse or case. You’ll see it very often, and beat the crap out of it with use.

As such, keyboards come in a wide range of options; including connection type, color, size, usage type, LED. However, the main option is mechanical or membrane.

MECHANICAL/MEMBRANE

No...it’s not a Transformer. It’s not a Terminator either. Thankfully, all of the world-ending sentient robots aren’t in disguise of mechanical keyboard. Mechanical keyboards simply use a different key actuation technology than standard membrane keyboards do.

KEYBOARD TECHNOLOGY

Let’s back up and talk about basic keyboard technology first though. Keyboards work by the user tapping a letter that actuates (registers), and tells the device to send a signal to the computer. When the switch is on for a moment, it sends a single letter to the computer; when it's on for a bit longer, it sends the letter over and over (try holding down the "A" button and see what happens if you don't believe me).

MEMBRANE KEYBOARDS

Membrane keyboards work by passing the key through a plastic layer with electrical contacts, and then through a hole to a second layer that interrupts a circuit to register the stroke. These layers can feel like Jell-O over time, which can mess with your word per minute (WPM), accuracy, and stress on your fingers/hands. When you’re averaging about 10-16 million keystrokes/year, that adds up very fast. 

Membrane keyboards typically cost less, and might weigh less, but it’s basically the equivalent of using a cheap paper napkin instead of a cloth handkerchief.

MECHANICAL KEYBOARDS

Mechanical keyboards (man I love typing that), are a totally different animal, and once you use one, you won’t want to go back. These keyboards work by pressing the keycap, which is directly connected to a spring-loaded switch underneath. There’s no electrical funny business, just good ole manual. Sounds like I’m talking about automatic transmission vs manual transmission, right?

Depending on the type of this “mechanical” switch, it can require more or less force, and either make a pleasant “click” noise, or remain silent. Every mechanical switch, though, provides some sort of tactile feedback that helps the user register that they haven’t missed a key. Unlike membrane keys, mechanical switches don’t have to be pressed down fully to actuate. This eliminates the unpleasant “bottoming-out” feeling that happens when you hit the keyboard base at full force.

THE TACTILE DIFFERENCE

You may think that mechanical keyboards require more force than membrane keyboards, but that’s not quite the case. There are a wide range of switches (generally Cherry MX) that include Blue, Green, Red, Brown, and a few others. Blue and Green do imitate olden loud typewriters, but Reds are nearly silent, and no heavier than your typical membrane keyboard.

Manufacturers love to dress up membrane keyboards with higher actuation speeds, and faster spring-back times, but this is like putting a Band-Aid on a gaping hole in your leg. The core design flaw is still there, waiting to fail.

ROBUST DESIGN

Now, mechanical keyboards are generally a good $30-$50 more than their membrane sidekicks, which isn’t a trivial cost. BUT, a mechanical keyboard will last you 5-10+ years, where a membrane keyboard might bite the dust in 2 years. The other benefit, is that Cherry MX keys are generally rated for 50 million+ clicks/key, where a membrane keyboard might get 10 million max. 10 million is a lot, but the mechanical option is by far the longer-term option. Plus, you can always just replace failed mechanical switches individually. Try taking a membrane keyboard to a tech shop and asking them to fix a busted key. Won’t happen.

This is one of those times where it pays back tenfold to pay for the brand name, the high quality, the nice gear. Your hands will thank you.

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