A Guide to Selecting Your Mechanical Keyboard

Some people are fanatics about mechanical keyboards. It makes sense; we spend hours in front of our computers for work and play, and the keystrokes over time add up. Many typists develop Repetitive Strain Injury (RSI) in their fingers from the prolonged and repetitive motion of hard typing. Besides taking breaks and stretching, a mechanical keyboard may help if you are experiencing RSI. There are tons of mechanical keyboards out there, and many opinions about each brand. Here are the main things you should decide on as you consider which mechanical keyboard best suits your needs.

Mechanical vs Membrane Keyboard

The first thing to realize is the difference between a mechanical and membrane keyboard. A mechanical keyboard consists of spring-loaded switches and removable keycaps. Depending on the switch in the keyboard, you can register a keystroke, or actuate, before fully depressing the key, or bottoming out. A membrane keyboard consists of multiple membranes with unmovable keycaps. For a keystroke to register, it needs to bottom out. The reason why a mechanical keyboard can help with RSI is that the switches allow the user to type lightly. For the rest of this article, we will focus on mechanical keyboards.

Switches

Under every mechanical key is a switch, which registers the keystroke at the actuation point. There are many switches out there, but here are the most common ones.

  • Linear — no tactile bump and no click. Pros: very fast actuation that’s good for gamers. Cons: easy to bottom out and typo-prone due to the lack of feedback. Examples: Cherry MX Red, Cherry MX Black
  • Tactile — small tactile bump at the actuation point. Pro: versatile and recommended for beginners to mechanical keyboards. Cons: not as quiet as linear. Examples: Cherry MX Brown, Cherry MX Clear
  • Clicky — small tactile bump and loud click at the actuation point. Pros: gives the user great feedback that the keystroke has been registered. Cons: distracting in a quiet office setting. Examples: Cherry MX Blue, Cherry MX Green

Keycaps

Keycaps are where users can unleash their creative side. You can design custom keycaps as long as they fit (not every keycap fits on every keyboard, especially if you get a keyboard with a nonstandard bottom row). Keycaps are most commonly made of ABS and PBT plastic. ABS is more affordable but gets shiny with use. PBT is more expensive but also more durable. Keycaps can be single-shot or double-shot. Single-shot keycaps are made of 1 layer of plastic, with the graphic on the keycap printed or lasered on. Double-shot keycaps are made of 2 layers of plastic, with the graphic on the keycap molded into the plastic. This means the graphic will never fade with wear and is flush with the surface of the key.

Size

Beyond switches and keycaps, you should consider how you’ll use the keyboard and get the size that suits your needs.

  • Full-sized: contains 104 keys, great for number entry
  • Tenkeyless (TKL): contains 87 keys, frees up desk space, and allows the right hand to travel a shorter distance to reach the mouse
  • 75%: more compact than TKL but can be difficult if you have a tendency to press more than one key at once
  • 60%: contains 60 keys, great for travel due to its small size but contains no function or arrow keys

Backlit

A backlit keyboard is a keyboard that contains light underneath the keys. It illuminates the space surrounding the key as well as the graphics on the keys if you have double-shot keycaps. Most backlights emit white light, though rainbow (RBG) is also a popular option. If you enjoy typing in low light environments, you may want a keyboard that can be backlit, since this allows you to see the keys in the dark. However, backlit drains the computer battery a tiny bit.

Ergonomic

You can also get ergonomic mechanical keyboards. Since there is no standard definition of an “ergonomic keyboard”, this could mean a split keyboard or one that is simply curved. Keep in mind that if you’ve never used an ergonomic keyboard before, there may be a learning curve to get used to it.

O-Rings

If you have a loud keyboard and want to make it quieter, consider getting O-rings. These are rubber rings you can put on your switches to make them quieter when you bottom out. They also shorten the distance you have to press before a key is registered. However, if you have a clicky keyboard, this will not help with the clicky sound as that happens at the actuation point.

Brands

In recent years, the market for mechanical keyboards has exploded. There are countless brands and models of mechanical keyboards to choose from. For any brand, there will be supporters and detractors, but that being said, I’ve personally seen a lot of programmers and typists use Das and WASD keyboards, and gamers use Razer keyboards.

For the past 4 years, I’ve been typing on a Mac (membrane) keyboard and a Logitech K120 (membrane) keyboard and getting increasing discomfort in my finger joints. After trying out a mechanical keyboard for a week, I was convinced I needed one for myself. I decided I wanted a non-ergonomic, non-backlit, minimalist, tenkeyless, quiet keyboard with PBT double-shot keycaps, so I bought the WASD V3 87-Key Doubleshot PBT Black Mechanical Keyboard. It’s been gentle on my fingers for the past 2 months and I recommend it.

You can find plenty of opinions and comparisons on NYT Wirecutter, Reddit, and YouTube, but my advice is to do your research and find the best one for your needs. If it works out, that’s great, and even if it doesn’t, many people own multiple keyboards or even build their own, so you’ll just be one step closer to finding your dream keyboard. Good luck!

Written by

Software Engineer @ Google. B.S. Math/CS from Yale.

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