Maybe you saw an amazing keyboard on Tiktok or YouTube, or you went to a friend’s house and saw them clacking away on theirs, or you saw a retro board in a show like Severance. Whatever your hook was, you’re now standing outside the keyboard hobby looking in. You’re intrigued but saying: yeah, they’re cool, but are they worth taking the leap?
Every hobby requires a commitment of research time and money, and keyboards are no different. I’m not going to lie: I’m biased. I love keyboards. I mean, I work for a keyboard company. It’s pretty obvious. So I’m just going to put all of my cards on the table and say it: in this article, I’m going to try to convince you to get into mechanical keyboards.
I should start off by saying that I’m comparing mechanical keyboards to rubber membrane keyboards and scissor switch keyboards, those monstrosities found in many laptops like the MacBook Pro. If you’d like more information on those, check out our article, What is a Mechanical Keyboard?
When it comes to gaming, you want a switch that has a balance of quick actuation and fast return, yet one that’s heavy enough to prevent accidental presses. For you, this could be a light linear switch or a thick tactile switch with distinct feedback. Everybody’s different, and finding the right switch is easier said than done. Prepare yourself for trial and error.
If you were to buy just any keyboard on Amazon or Office Depot, you’d likely be buying one that doesn’t allow for hot-swapping (i.e. the ability to change the switches out at will). What this means is that the keyboard you buy is the keyboard you’re stuck with–for better or worse. Why is this bad? Well, you might buy a keyboard that uses clicky switches without even knowing what a clicky switch is–or that you’ll come to hate them. You might buy a keyboard that uses linear switches when what you would really game best with is tactile. Without the ability to hot swap? Tough luck.
Hot-swappable mechanical keyboards allow you to home in on exactly the switch that’s going to make you a better gamer.
As with gaming, a hot-swappable mechanical keyboard allows you to home in on the best typing switch for you. For many, this means linear switches. Unlike gaming, which requires split-second decision-making that can benefit from tactility bumps, typing benefits from whatever prevents fatigue. But you may decide that you actually prefer tactile switches, and that’s okay! The best part of the mechanical keyboard hobby is that you can customize your board to your exact preferences.
While it’s possible to buy ergonomic non-mechanical keyboards, they generally limit the degree of ergonomic support they provide. Take this keyboard, for instance. 4.5 stars on Amazon! The answer to your chronic pain!
Well…maybe, but that depends on a lot of factors, including where your chronic pain is located, your height, arm length, desk height, shoulder width, and much more. The harsh reality is that ergonomics is not one-size-fits-all. You want a keyboard that allows for as much customization as possible. A better solution is to get a split ergonomic keyboard like this one.
ErgoDox 76 "Hot Dox" V2 Mechanical Keyboard
If you have upper back pain, a split keyboard allows you to spread the two halves of the keyboard across your desk so that your shoulders roll back, and your upper back can relax. Unlike the “ergonomic” keyboard from Amazon, you can separate the halves to the exact width that you need. (As a writer with chronic upper back pain, let me tell you that owning a split keyboard has changed my life.)
If you have wrist pain from supination or pronation, a split keyboard that “tents” is going to help you immensely. A tented keyboard inclines towards the middle so that your wrists are rotated to a more natural and sustainable position. What works for your wrist pain might not work for others, so look for a tented keyboard that allows for at least some control over the angle.
If you have finger pain from extending to reach faraway keys, an ortholinear keyboard might help. Ortholinear keyboards align the keys in straight rows rather than the traditional staggering method we’re all used to seeing. Of course, getting used to the new alignment will take some time.
Beyond these solutions, there are some cutting edge and DIY methods that are worth exploring. The Dactyl/Manuform Keyboard is perhaps the holy grail of keyboard ergonomics, as it provides every ergonomic solution we’ve covered so far and more, the most obvious of which is its “manuform” shape that conforms to the natural shape of your hands. Your mileage may vary with such an extreme keyboard, and it’s always advisable to try simpler solutions, like split and tented keyboards, first.
Spend sixty seconds browsing keyboard TikTok or YouTube and you’ll find example after example of incredible-sounding keyboards–and all of them are mechanical. Due to the huge number of sound-changing accessories and mods like o-rings, switches, and foam liners, the sound of a keyboard is as customizable as its aesthetic. You could probably manage to apply some of these mods to non-mechanical keyboards, but not nearly as extensively or easily as you can with a mechanical keyboard. That’s because modern mechanical keyboards typically use hot-swap boards and discrete parts that allow you to disassemble and reassemble the entire board without using a soldering gun.
Mechanical keyboards offer multiple tactile experiences that non-mechanical keyboards don’t, or only to a limited degree. Keycaps, for instance, come in many different profiles, heights, and textures. There are flat, spherical, and smooth keycaps that mimic old-school typewriters. There are sculpted, cylindrical, and textured keycaps that conform naturally to the hand. And there are many more. Newbies to the hobby are often surprised by how many ways that a keyboard can feel to the touch. Finding your perfect set is a matter of trial and error, but the exploration process is fun and rewarding.
Another tactile experience that mechanical keyboards offer is the feeling of realness. If you’ve ever gone from playing an electronic keyboard to playing an acoustic piano, you know what I’m talking about.The electronic keyboard key is plastic and flimsy, whereas the acoustic piano key is weighty and responsive. Going from a non-mechanical to a mechanical keyboard is the same way. This is because a mechanical keyboard uses mechanical switches that physically travel and touch the keyboard’s motherboard. As simple as the mechanism sounds, there are an endless number of ways that keyboard switches can be made to produce different speeds, push-back feelings, tactile bumps, and more.
In the world of commercial keyboards, there are three basic aesthetics available: sleek and minimal (Apple Magic Keyboard), LED-lit and gamery (Razer), and black and chunky (everything else). If your aesthetic falls outside of these categories, sorry. You’re out of luck.
The world of mechanical keyboards is very different. Unlike Apple and Razer, who are beholden to shareholders and quarterly projections blah blah blah, mechanical keyboard designers often use the “Group Buy” model of marketing (think Kickstarter). With this model, designers can create unique and particular designs that appeal to smaller, niche markets. How niche? I’m talking espresso lovers, aviation aficionados, and jungle witches.
Maybe you don’t have niche interests, per se, or at least not any that are so near and dear to your heart that you need them objectified in a keyboard. Heard. Lucky for you, there are droves of keyboards that just look really, really pretty. These little artsy marvels are perfect for tying together the colors of your office or adding a pop of aesthetic pleasure to your workspace.
A non-mechanical keyboard is like a flatscreen TV. When it breaks outside of the warranty window, unless you’ve got an electrical engineering degree and a soldering gun, you’re out of luck. A mechanical keyboard, on the other hand, is like a bicycle. The parts are discrete and easy to disassemble. If the tire pops or the chain breaks, you can easily replace it yourself. And because the parts are discrete, you can make informed decisions on the best, longest-lasting ones to buy.
It’s very easy to buy long-lasting, sustainable parts for your mechanical keyboard. Here are some examples. ABS plastic tends to get shiny over a number of years, but PBT keycaps keep their appearance for decades. Cherry MX switches are rated for 50 million keypresses, which translates to 10 to 15 years of heavy use. Barring water damage or other catastrophe, a good circuit board should last 50-70 years. So don’t buy a flatscreen TV that’s going to end up in a landfill. Buy a mechanical keyboard that can be sustainably repaired over time.
If you’re sitting there with a non-programmable keyboard, you’re probably thinking, Programmability? Big deal. I, too, used to hold this bad opinion and feel no shame about it. But then I got a programmable keyboard.
A programmable keyboard allows you to create your own hotkeys, keymaps, layers, and macros. Want to use one keymap for general use and another one for playing Elden Ring? You can do that. Want to bring the number row to the home row with a press of the function key? Or bring the Backspace key into reach? You can do that, too. Want to completely remap your keyboard to Dvorak? You can do that, too. A programmable keyboard allows you to fully customize everything about your keyboard. It’s an insane productivity boost and life hack that I didn’t know I was missing out on until I got a programmable board for myself.
A mechanical keyboard is customizable from caps to cable. Chances are you can find whatever keyboard you can imagine no matter your aesthetic. Do you want a keyboard that sounds exactly like the keyboards of your childhood school computer lab? You got it. Do you want a keyboard that looks like it can launch a rocket into space? You got it. Do you want a keyboard that sounds deep and muted or loud and obnoxious? You got it.
You’re probably a lot like me. Before I got into mechanical keyboards, all of my friendships were founded on a shared love of non-mechanical keyboards. My entire social network, in fact, was composed of people who deeply identified with keyboards that were not mechanical. My friends and I loved commercial keyboards! You, too, probably met your friends in the aisles of Office Depot, where you exchanged quick glances (community!). Or shared a laugh in the Non-Programmable Keyboard Discord (memes!). Ah yes, you and your friends are deeply passionate about commercial keyboards, and your social life is a rich tapestry.
No? Hm. That’s a shame. I’m sorry and kind of shocked that it didn’t work out that way for you. Well, the good news is that the community that you missed out on in non-mechanical keyboards is available in mechanical keyboards. The community is–honestly–massive, with YouTube channels, in-person meetups, group buys, kickstarters, forums, Discord servers, subreddits, TikTok accounts and more. There are tons of ways to meet people, share your interests, be creative, and, frankly, make up for lost time!