Why my mechanical computer keyboard is better than your $10 keyboard

Written by Alex J. Fierro

Look down at that keyboard you're typing on right now. Chances are if you're like most people, you're using that crappy keyboard that came free with your computer. Or you're on your laptop and you've got one of those little flat "Chiclet" key keyboards. 

Perhaps ignorance is bliss,  but believe me when I say, if you type as much as I do, upgrading to a mechanical keyboard a life-changer.


The difference is in the mechanism hiding behind the plastic shell of each key.


Non-Mechanical Keyboards


Rubber Dome Keyboard "Rubber Dome" If you're at a desktop computer right now, this is probably what you're using. Go ahead and slowly press a key and feel it. This type of keyboard works by taking the electrical contacts and printing them on a large board under the keys and the key pushes through a rubber dome, a peg hits the board and the rubber dome pops the key back up. Now that you know that's how it works, push another key slowly. Doesn't it feel... "squishy"? Apart from the weird feel, if you type very quickly it's possible to push down so that the dome depresses but the key didn't bottom out and thus your stroke was not recorded.


Scissor Key Keyboard "Scissor Key" This is the most common laptop key. It's virtually the same technology as the rubber dome key above with a different mount to keep the key's low profile. Unfortunately, it suffers the same drawbacks as the rubber dome. "Squishy feel" and no tactile feel to ensure the key was fully depressed and the keystroke recorded.



Mechanical Keyboards (The good stuff!)


By far, the biggest manufacturer in mechanical keyboard switches is a company called Cherry. They have many different models which vary in their "clickiness", their tactile feel, their force and key travel distance (how far you have to press). These models are differentiated by their color. For the animated diagrams below, note that they show the switch without the keycap (as opposed to the animations above). The switches look like the picture below after you remove the key cap.

Scissor Key Keyboard


Cherry Brown Keyboard Switch "Cherry Brown" Cherry browns are my personal favorite and the one I use daily. As you push the key, the mechanism travels over a small bump allowing you to feel that the key has been pressed. With a little practice, this dramatically improves typing speed as you learn to type with a much lighter press and know exactly when the key has actuated and registered the stroke. Because of this fact, the brown are manufactured to feature a light amount of force and a short key travel distance.

Cherry Red Keyboard Switch "Cherry Red" Cherry reds are very similar to the browns above, they are nearly identical in their actuation force. The main difference is that there is no "bump" removing the tactile feature of the brown switch. This makes them more suited for gamers who will almost always be bottoming out the keys anyway and benefit from the light touch.

Cherry Blue Keyboard Switch "Cherry Blue" Cherry blues are the most unique and what most people familar with typing associate with mechanical keyboards. They are widely considered to be the best keys for typing. They have a light actuation force and the clearest tactile feel. As you press, once the key goes past the "bump", the internal cap is forced down creating a distinct "click" you can both feel and hear. While it's the best key for typing, I don't use it because they can be quite loud and annoying as anyone within earshot of you in the office will hear you click clacking all day as you type. But, if you're by yourelf, the noise isn't irritating at all and actually can be quite satisfying, similar to the sounds of an old keyboard make you just feel so good as you type. (No? Maybe it's just me then!)

Cherry Black Keyboard Switch "Cherry Black" Cherry blacks are just like the reds except they are stiffer and require more force to press. Gamers sometime prefer this as it reduces errant, accidental presses during a gaming session.

Cherry Clear Keyboard Switch "Cherry Clear" Like the blacks, the clears are stiffer versions of a previous model (the brown). Some people prefer them over the browns, but I wouldn't know personally as I've never tested a Cherry Clear keyboard. They are pretty rare. Cherry didn't make many of these and thus, you don't see too many keyboards with them. As of the time of this writing, no keyboard manufacturers use the clears.


Non-Cherry Mechanical Keyboards


IBM Model M Keyboard


Buckling Spring Keyboard Switch "Buckling Spring" These became popular with the IBM Model M keyboards of the mid-80's (seen above). I'm sure your Dad has one of these in his attic and if you're a child of the 80's and 90's, you probably remember these keyboards from the library/computer labs. They were huge and heavy. The keys were very thick and although they were white/grey, with time they gained this yellowy hue as they were exposed the elements. Additionally, the key spacing ensured that every last crumb landed inside so that when you shook it out after awhile, you had enough to rebuild a sub sandwich. But we loved them. Everybody loved these keyboards. As you typed, it made this obnoxious metallic "click" which was really more a "ting". The noise is clearly explained in the animation. It's as simple as a buckling spring, when you push the key, the spring buckles and makes contact, registering the stroke. Most people can't describe exactly why they loved typing on these; they will usually say "because of the noise". But the truth is, this was most people's first (and last) experience with a mechanical keyboard. The noise was what we remembered, but that's not what made them so pleasurable, it was the tactile press and the non-squishy feel that made typing a joy. If you see this and have any clue what I'm talking about, pick up a Cherry blue (or a brown if you don't like all the racket). You'll fall in love all over again!