The Joy of Mechanical Keyboards
One of my favorite things about the internet is that it enables “communities in everything”. I love discovering internet communities that are super passionate about some hyper-specific topic, especially when it overlaps with my interests. And since my interests include parking in front of a computer for hours every day working or playing games, I am very interested in mechanical keyboards.
I hear you saying, “a keyboard is a keyboard.” Yes, that is technically true... Any old keyboard will let you send emails, but a mechanical keyboard will make you feel good while you do it. The free Dell keyboard you got with your computer is like the ubiquitous Malm Ikea furniture line -- it’ll work just fine, but it’s definitely not going to spark joy.
Most cheap keyboards have a rubber or silicone dome under each key. When you press down on the key, it smooshes the dome, connecting the circuit underneath and sending the keypress to your computer. It’s like mushing a pea under your finger each time you press a key… not good. But they’re cheap to make, which is why they’re everywhere.
In contrast, mechanical keyboards have a single, mechanical switch underneath each key. Each switch has a spring that resists your keystroke, a plastic stem that travels up and down when you use the key, and a housing. When you press down on a key, you move the plastic stem which triggers the switch by allowing the circuit to be closed. The shape of the stem, the design of the housing, and the contact point where the stem closes the circuit can all have a noticeable effect on the feel of the switch as you type.
Not only do mechanical switches feel pleasant to type on, but the elements of an individual switch combine together in a glorious, tactile combination that you can feel and hear. Keyboard enthusiasts have all sorts of words for describing the sound typing on a keyboard makes - thocks, tocks, clicks, clacks. There is software for playing different mechanical keyboard sounds as you type. There are endless videos of mechanical switch sounds on YouTube.
And that’s just the switches. We haven’t even talked about the cornucopia of choices in form factors, or aesthetic keycap choices available to you. Would you like your keyboard to match your desk mat and nail polish? Go for it. Looking for something darker? We have that too.
I used to think it was silly (or at least pretentious) to care so much about a keyboard, but over time I’ve realized that a keyboard is one of the most important digital-physical interfaces out there. Unless you’re only typing on your phone, your keyboard is your access point to participate in online culture. Whether that means tweeting, writing a newsletter, or even just spamming Twitch chat with inane memes, so much of our interactions exist digitally today. The keyboard is the tool that most often bridges the virtual gap of the internet, and enables us to talk to each other. So don’t skimp!
I frequently get asked by friends who are interested in getting their first mechanical keyboard what they should buy. I assume this is because I own more keyboards than one person can reasonably use. (My household has had to institute a “one-in, one-out” policy.) I got sick of sending the same set of messages every time a new friend would ask, so I’ve written up this guide to share. Let’s get to it!
The short answer is there is no correct answer -- it comes down to your aesthetic and functional preferences. For new mechanical keyboard users, I suggest limiting our choices and sticking to the basics. Otherwise your brain will melt from the sheer number of options that exist. You can get some hipster switches and obscure key layout when you’ve gone deep and are buying a 4th keyboard.
For your first keyboard, there’s only a few questions you need to answer for yourself to make a decision.
What size keyboard?
You have three main options:
Full-size - the keyboard layout you’re probably used to with f-keys across the top, and a numpad on the right.
Tenkeyless (TKL) - this layout is identical to the full-size layout, except the numpad has been lopped off so it’s missing the “ten key” layout (“ten key” is the name of the classic numpad layout that was copied from calculators)
60%/65% - an even more compact layout that typically removes the f-key row across the top, and squishes the arrow key cluster and other keys in closer on the right side of the keyboard. They’re named 60% or 65% layouts since they are roughly that % less wide than a full-size keyboard. This layout has many variations so if you want one of these pay very close attention to the layout.
My recommendation for most people is to get a tenkeyless (TKL) keyboard. The layout matches the standard layout you’re familiar with, but most people do not need a numpad. Using a TKL saves desk space, and is more ergonomic since your arms don’t need to be spread as wide when using your keyboard and mouse side by side. If you occasionally need a numpad, you can always buy a standalone numpad and plug it in when you need it. But look, if you live in Excel all day, get the full-size.
60%/65% keyboards look cool, and seem great in theory. Who really uses the f-keys anyway? (Except Excel jockeys, I know…). The problem is that they are going to be different in ways you are not used to, and it’s hard to predict if you’ll be okay with the differences without using one for a while. For example, you may think you don’t need arrow keys, but until you go for a week on a keyboard without one, you don’t really know if it will drive you crazy or not. For this reason, I’d stay away for your first keyboard unless you’re willing to do some experimenting and buying/returning keyboards.
But look, this is your keyboard. Get what you want, and make no apologies.
What kind of switches?
Don’t do this, but if you look up a list of all the different mechanical switches out there, you will see an absurd list of choices. Not only is the list long, the naming conventions are inscrutable. For some reason everyone has decided to name their switches after colors, but with only vague standardization -- so we have Cherry MX Browns, Kailh BOX Royals, and Outemu Ice Purples. Don’t worry though; for our purposes we only need to know a few things.
There are three basic types of mechanical keyboard switches: clicky, linear, and tactile.
Clicky switches have a clear activation point - you’ll feel the resistance of the spring as you press down, but then you’ll cross over the activation point, and the switch will “click” and send the signal for whatever key you were pressing. Clicky switches are notoriously loud, so you probably don’t want these in an office environment (remember those?) or if noise is generally a problem.
They are very fun to type on though, and people who write a lot often prefer them because you don’t need to use much force to activate the key - your muscle memory will learn to just press with enough force to activate the switch. Once you hear the “click” you’ll instinctively move on to the next keypress, without needing to wait to see if your input went through. I admit I’ve always wanted to get a keyboard with clicky switches, but haven’t ever pulled the trigger because of the noise. Maybe for the next keyboard… The most common version of this is the Cherry MX Blue.
Linear switches are the opposite of clicky switches, and are completely smooth while you are depressing a key. The only thing you will feel is the spring resisting your finger stroke. Because of this, linear switches are the quietest. Gamers often prefer linear switches because they allow you to rapidly press keys without having to release the switch all the way back to the top. Clicky switches need to “reset” when you let up on the key, which can make them worse for certain kinds of gaming. (Though in truth unless you are a top 1% competitive gamer, you probably won’t notice the difference.) The most common version of this is the Cherry MX Red.
Tactile switches are basically a compromise between linear and clicky. They have a tactile bump instead of a loud, clicky activation point. So you’ll still feel a moment where the keypress “crosses over” the bump and the signal is sent, but it isn’t as pronounced (or as loud) as a clicky switch. They’re also in theory the best compromise between gaming and typing, though again it’s mostly just preference. The most common version of this is the Cherry MX Brown. Brown is not at all the color you get when you combine red and blue, so this seems like a missed opportunity.
My recommendation for most people is to get a linear or tactile switch. They’re simply quieter and less prone to annoying people around you. If you’re a light typer, you might prefer a tactile switch, because you won’t need as much force to trigger the switch since you only need to get past the tactile bump for the switch to fire. However, many people prefer the smooth feeling of linears. If you’re a heavy typer and you always “bottom out” (that is, fully press the key down) with every key press, then linear or tactile are both fine.
Other specific requirements?
Besides the layout and switches, the only other thing to consider is if you have any other nice-to-haves for your first keyboard. Some common things to consider:
RGB LEDs - many keyboards these days let you trigger fancy lightshows with every keypress so you can, uh, rave while you work I guess. I’ve never really cared about this, but I also don’t subscribe to the stereotypical gamer aesthetic of “all black hardware with rainbow LEDs”. To each their own.
Media keys (volume control, play/pause) - many keyboards let you use a special modifier key + another key to act like media keys. (Most mechanical keyboards don’t have a dedicated set of standalone media keys.)
Other aesthetic considerations - what color are the keycaps themselves? Do you like the font? What color is the case? Are the keys “floating” above the case, or are they enclosed? You can (mostly) change these things later, so don’t worry too much about them if you aren’t sure.
Hotswappable switches - for most keyboards, the switch is soldered to the PCB, which means if you decide you don’t like linears and want to swap to tactile switches, you either need to manually desolder them (a huge pain), or swap your entire keyboard. Some newer keyboards have “hotswappable” switches that let you simply pull out the switches without desoldering and swap in new ones. If you’re unsure about your switches this can be a good way to give yourself some flexibility.
Where do I buy?
Phew, that was a lot, so a quick summary - I recommend getting:
A tenkeyless (TKL) keyboard
Linear (Cherry MX Red) or Tactile (Cherry MX Brown) switches
Whatever aesthetics or other features float your boat
With that, now you’re ready to do some window shopping. The easiest way to do this is to go here, filter by the size you want, and just look around. If they’re in your budget range, I’d recommend trying a Varmillo, Ducky, or Leopold brand keyboard for your first one. They all have great build quality (which can actually impact how the same switches feel and sound). If you’re looking for a decent entry-level keyboard with hotswappable switches, the Glorious GMMK is a good option. If MechanicalKeyboards.com is out of stock of whatever you’re looking for, try searching for the model online - you can often find the same keyboard elsewhere.
This should be enough to get you started in the wonderful world of mechanical keyboards. If you end up loving them, there are many more “boutique” choices you can make such as custom keycap sets, more obscure, custom switches built from the parts of other switches, crazier layouts, and more…
The internet has enabled niche communities like mechanical keyboards to come together through gathering places like Reddit, but also through group buys, design collaborations, and even new ways for creatives and artists to express themselves.
I love the fact that the simple keyboard has become a whole subculture, and a canvas for expressing yourself. And it seems only appropriate that the tool we use the most to express ourselves in the modern, digital world reflects us. At the end of the day, a keyboard really is just a keyboard. But just like how a car can represent freedom (at least in the US), a keyboard is also your gateway to participating in digital culture, which is more and more the culture that matters. Go forth and type.
If this helps you make a decision, let me know, and send me a picture of your new keyboard on Twitter!