How to Shop for a Mechanical Keyboard
Compared to membrane, butterfly or scissor-switch keyboards, mechanical keyboards are more enjoyable to type on, more durable and more customizable.
But when you’re ready to make the switch, buying your first mechanical keyboard can be a confusing process; the words thrown around can sound like a completely different language.
That's why we're here to help you cut through the confusion and find the perfect mechanical keyboard based on your needs. So, if you’re interested in mechanical keyboards but have no idea where to begin, keep on reading.
Choosing the Right Switches
The biggest feature that separates mechanical from normal keyboards are the switches, which are placed under each key and result in a very reliable keystroke. There are dozens of different switch types out there, so it can be a bit confusing to navigate.
In essence, switches can be broken down into three main categories: linear, clicky and tactile.
Linear switches feel incredibly smooth and have no bumps. When you press a linear switch, you’ll feel it depress smoothly until it’s all the way down. They are also relatively quiet. Common linear switches are red and black.
Clicky switches are on the other side of the spectrum. They produce a loud click noise on each keystroke and offer a strong bump when pressed, which results in a satisfying sensation for your fingers. Common clicky switches are blue and green.
Tactile switches are like a hybrid of linear and clicky. They offer a bump when pressed, a small physical sensation that is reminiscent of a click, but they don’t produce a clicky noise. Common tactile switches are brown and clear.
- The first thing you should consider when choosing a switch is sound. Don’t buy clicky switches if you work within earshot of family or coworkers. Their high-pitched clicks tend to be particularly irritating to bystanders. While linear and tactile switches still make considerably more noise than a membrane keyboard, they lack an annoying click and are a better choice when you’re around people.
- The second thing to consider is feel. You can buy switch testers which will give you the opportunity to feel each switch, and for a reasonable price. But note that pressing one switch with one finger is barely indicative of what it feels like to type on a keyboard full of that switch.
Choosing the Size and Layout
Once you've settled on your switches, it’s time to decide what size and layout you want. Keyboards come in a variety of shapes and designs, but they fall into four main categories: full-size, tenkeyless, compact and ergonomic.
Full-size keyboards have all the keys you could ever want, including letters, numbers, modifiers, function keys, arrow keys and a number pad.
Tenkeyless (TKL) keyboards are full-size keyboards but without the number pad. After all, you can pick up a numpad separately if you really need it.
Compact keyboards often refer to a variety of sizes and layouts, including 75%, 65% and 40%. 75% keyboards have the same keys as tenkeyless, but they’re all packed together to fit into the smaller frame. 65% keyboards lose the function keys along the top but keep the arrow keys and a few keys from the navigation cluster.
Ergonomic keyboards can come in any of the above sizes but are split down the middle so you can hold your hands, wrists, arms and shoulders at a more natural angle than you would on traditional flat keyboards.
- Unless you use the numpad on a regular basis, get a tenkeyless or smaller. Smaller keyboards take up less desk space and are more portable if you need to take it with you.
- You can also buy a separate numpad if you really need it and it can be put away when not in use, leaving you with more work space.
Other Features to Consider
Here are some features worth looking into when shopping for a mechanical keyboard.
Keycap Material: Many keyboards come with ABS keycaps, a lightweight type of plastic that’s more prone to wear and can become smooth and shiny with heavy use. Keycaps made of PBT tend to be more durable and have a grittier texture.
Programmability: Many non-mechanical keyboards can’t be programmed, which means you can’t change the default behavior of certain keys to perform other actions. For example, you can switch between Windows and Mac layouts, swap the Caps Lock key to Ctrl, or disable OS-specific keys like the Windows or Command keys.
Hot-Swappable Switches: Most mechanical keyboards require time and expertise to desolder and solder in the switches when you want to swap them out. On a hot-swappable board, you can simply pull the switches out and snap new ones into place.
RGB Lighting: RGB lighting is not a useful feature, but it is fun to have.
Removable Cable: A removable USB cable is preferable to a built-in one because if the cable breaks, it’s easier to replace just the cable rather than the whole keyboard.
Your First Mechanical Keyboard
Whether you’re new to mechanical keyboards or know the basics, remember that choosing the right keyboard and determining what features are right for you ultimately comes down to your preferences and what works best for your application and budget.