Explained: What you need to know about mechanical keyboards & switches
Mechanical keyboards are quite popular to anyone who spends a decent amount of time typing on a computer. But, before we get started on this buying guide, let’s first discuss what a mechanical keyboard is and how it is superior, in the eyes of many, to the membrane keyboard you are probably typing on right now.
Membrane vs Mechanical
Most keyboards used in today’s world are membrane keyboards. This means the keycaps are just sitting on top of these rubber domes. When you go to press a key, the key holds against the pressure until you push down with enough force to bend the rubber dome downwards so that they keyboard can register the key press. This is ineffective in the sense that you have to push the key completely down before your keyboard registers the key press. This results in a less tactile feel to the keyboard that many mechanical keyboard users refer to as mushy. The plus side is membrane keyboards are typically really quiet and resist dust and spills really well.
Mechanical keyboards are the IBM keyboards of old. Instead of having the membrane sheet under all of the keys, mechanical keyboards utilize a mechanical (duh) switch for each key. While mechanical switches were more commonplace, with the Model M keyboard from IBM being the most well-known, they are now only used in premium keyboards that cost significantly more than membrane keyboards. There are many different types of mechanical switches that yield unique typing experiences usually based on the color of the switch.
Mechanical Switch Types
There are many different types of switches in use today. Alps switches used to be the most used switch, but Cherry MX switches have become the favorite of mechanical keyboard users. Other than “knockoff Cherrys”, your other options are Buckling switches and custom switches like LG’s Romer-G switches—which were built for a specific keyboard and not used in any other companies’ keyboards. While Cherry MX switches offer the most reliable and trusted performance, there are decent, cheaper alternatives that are in use in the mechanical world. These include the Kailh switches and Gateron switches. Some enthusiasts find that the Kailh or Gateron versions of the Cherry MX switch types can be superior to the Cherry originals. Apparently, they prefer the knockoffs to the originals.
Cherry MX types
There are a lot of different types of switches—way too many for me to go in-depth with and adequately explain enough for you to get a good idea of which one you would prefer. So, I am going to limit myself to four of Cherry MX’s most popular switch colors. The color of the Cherry MX switches indicates the type of performance you can expect from them.
Blues are, by far, the most popular and widely used of all mechanical keyboard switches. MX Blues offer a nice tactile feedback (think click) and a loud audible feedback (think clack). The specifics of Blues include a 50g actuation point. This means you have to push down with 50 grams of force in order for your computer to register that you are pushing that key. Blues tend to be a favorite for many people as they remind users of the old Model M keyboard from IBM I mentioned before. The downside to these switches is that they are really loud. This can limit usage as roommates would definitely not take too kindly to someone trying to crank out a paper due the next day on MX Blue switches.
Very similar to the MX Blues, the Browns offer a lighter tactile feedback without all of the noise. They are noticeably lighter with an actuation force of 45g, but they aren’t hindered by the noise of the MX Blues. These are generally the favorite of those looking for a nice feeling typing experience without annoying everyone around them with the obnoxious typing sounds that accompany the Blues.
Unlike the MX Blues and MX Browns, the MX Reds are a linear switch. You don’t get the tactile feedback and only really feel the keypress once you bottom out. In mechanical keyboard speak, that means you press the key all the way to the bottom.
With an actuation force of 45g, they still feel lighter due to the linear design and lack of tactile feedback. These key switches are marketed towards gamers due to the light feeling switches, allowing for more responsive movement when in-game.
The Blacks are much like the Reds in that they are a linear switch. Once again, you won’t feel anything significant unless you bottom out. However, they are much heavier than the Reds and even the Blues at an actuation force of 60g. These switches are also commonly used by gamers because of the linear design. The stiffer feel of these keys supposedly enables double tapping to come more quickly and easily. However, I haven’t been able to try out Blacks side-by-side with Reds, so I couldn’t tell you the truth of that statement.
If you are interested in checking out more switch types or interested in Cherry MX Greens, check out WASD Keyboard’s comparison.
Now it is time to look into all of the additional features that your keyboard could have. There are many different options, such as a USB pass-through, audio pass-through, or backlighting. You also get other features like anti-ghosting, 6-key/N-key rollover, and macro keys.
If you want, there are features like USB pass-through and audio pass-through. As the name implies, this puts a USB port or audio jacks on your keyboard. The downside to this is that the cable for your keyboard will split off into multiple inputs. For a keyboard with USB pass-through, you’ll have to plug two USBs into your computer. One for the keyboard, and a second for the pass-through. The same goes for the audio pass-through.
You can leave these additional cables dangling if you don’t want to use the pass-through feature, but then you have dangling cable parts. You’ll have to decide if you want one of these pass-through features, or if you are okay with having extra USB plugs and audio jacks hanging around your computer’s ports if you buy one with pass-through and don’t want to use it.
Most mechanical keyboard enthusiasts don’t care too much about backlighting. The gamers, however, are all about that RGB backlighting. It doesn’t matter which type you are, as long as you know what you are looking for. For lighting, there aren’t very many different choices. You can get no backlighting, single colored backlighting, or RGB backlighting. Single colored backlighting can be in various different colors. Some manufacturers will include blue backlighting with Cherry MX Blue switches, red backlighting with Cherry MX Red switches, and white backlighting with Cherry MX Brown switches.
Most of the time, however, you will just see white backlighting unless you are going for a keyboard designed and marketed for gamers. Gamers will be given the option of RGB lighting—for a premium. This gives them all the colors they could ever want. Most of these keyboards come with additional software that will allow users to play with the lighting to get exactly the colors they want on the keys they want. You can even set patterns through the software.
Anti-ghosting is a feature that isn’t really a feature anymore. Some companies just throw the term out there as a way to impress people with a long list of features and no true understanding of what those features mean. For gamers, anti-ghosting will mean that you can hit the WASD keys along with other keys needed for gaming like your MOBA keys without a random key unrelated to the keys being pressed down registering.
So, if you are trying to move forward and to the right while reloading a weapon in an FPS game, you’d hold down ‘W’, ‘A’, and ‘R’. While pressing those keys, there is a chance that the wiring of the keyboard might make ‘N’ activate. Anti-ghosting ensures that you can hit just about any combination of keys with your left hand without triggering some random key that you aren’t actually pressing.
6-key rollover (6KRO) and N-key rollover (NKRO) represent how many keys you can push down and still will be registered at once. 6KRO will give you 6 keys and modifier keys with them all registering. NKRO will let you press all of the keys on your keyboard. 6KRO is the most common since NKRO isn’t even really possible through USB. Most keyboards will advertise themselves as 6KRO through USB and NKRO using a PS/2 adapter.
Honestly, 6KRO is plenty, even when gaming. Unless you are planning on typing your English essay by smashing your face into your keyboard and hoping that the complete works of Shakespeare pop out, you are good with 6KRO.
Macros are another mechanical keyboard feature usually reserved for gaming. However, I am aware of a decent number of content creators who use macro keys to make actions in Photoshop or Adobe Premier easier. Macros are basically programmable buttons. You can program these buttons using software. There isn’t really much else to say about them. You can get a keyboard with lots of them or none of them. There are even some keyboards like the Logitech G810 that will allow you to program the function row keys (F1 – 12) to be macros if you want. Going a bit further in, you can find completely programmable keyboards where you can reprogram every key to register as something else. Basically, an entire keyboard of macros.
There’s a lot to know about mechanical keyboards, but luckily, you don’t need to know it all before buying them. By following the info above, you can easily make an informed decision on your next keyboard, whatever that may be. Stay tuned to YourTechExplained for reviews and more information on various gaming gear!