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Kono's Quickstart Guide to Mechanical Keyboards

Kono's Quickstart Guide to Mechanical Keyboards

Hello, I'm Zurry. "Long time" mechanical keyboard enthusiast. I started with a Das Keyboard in 2012 and quickly fell in love with clicking and clacking. My next board was a WASD keyboard in 2013 with custom (anime) legends that I designed myself [so you know I'm a real one].

There seems to be a lot of confusion regarding the various aspects of mechanical keyboards, so here is a quick and easy guide to get you started.

Note: All components we are talking about here are specifically Cherry MX compatible. Cherry (the company) started a lot of these standards for mechanical keyboards, so many things are labeled "Cherry" to denote they are the same standard. This is why there's both Cherry MX stems on switches and Cherry Profile on keycaps, but manufactured by other companies.

Keyboard

Layout

The first thing to look at with a board is the Layout. The layout determines how many keys the board has and where those keys are located.

Here we are specifically talking about the ANSI layout and variants thereof. For those with ISO layouts, keep in mind the keys and sizes that are different for your region.

Layouts are often described shorthand as %, with 100% representing a full-size board with a number pad (104 keys total, generally).

Lower % means less keys (generally), so you can imagine a 96% board (like the Kira) is removing a couple keys to be more compact but retaining a vast majority.

A board without the numpad is called a TKL, ten-key-less, or 85%, as it is missing the "10-key" numpad.

From there boards keep getting smaller. 75% (like the Kono 84) has compacted the board down, but retained the F1-F12 row. A 65% (like the WhiteFox) retains the arrow keys, but loses the F1-F12 row. A 60% layout loses the arrow keys. A 40% drops the number row and is mostly just alphas with a few modifier keys.

These smaller layouts access the missing keys through Fn layering, often personally customized by the user (in order for them to actually remember everything). For example, on a 40% keyboard with no numbers, the numbers 1-0 are likely under a layer (requires Fn to be held) across the top row of letters (Q through P).

Ortholinear boards are another option for layout. These boards change from the standard staggered rows into straight vertical columns, effectively making the board a grid. This keeps your fingers within a consistent vertical column when stretching to other rows, which some find to be more comfortable long term.

Split is another option of layouts, often paired with Ortholinear. This makes the board two separate pieces, allowing your hands to be spread out and your shoulders more relaxed. An example of both Split and Ortholinear is the ErgoDox.

Wired vs Bluetooth

Wired or Bluetooth is mostly personal preference as the latency and consistency of Bluetooth is dependent on your setup and needs. You probably know if you want Bluetooth or not already. Most Bluetooth boards should also be capable of working wired, so there's no real downside.

If you're hardcore gaming on a desktop, you might want to consider going wired for the reduced latency and to not deal with battery life. Customizing your dedicated cable is also a fun way to personalize your setup further.

Hot-swap

Hot-swap means that the PCB has sockets that allow for switches to be inserted and removed freely. Traditionally, keyboards required the switches to be soldered (welded by metal) to the PCB, thus making them effectively permanent (other than manually de-soldering and re-soldering new switches).

Hot-swap has many benefits, primarily that switches can be exchanged without the need of disassembly or soldering. This means a board can be customized aftermarket easily, as later on down the line you can easily swap out the switches for an entirely new feel. This also easily enables fully customized layouts with individual keys using specific switches, for example custom switches on WASD or Spacebar.

Keycaps

In general, keycaps relating to mechanical keyboards are all compatible with the same "Cherry MX" stem. This is shaped like a plus ( + ) which you can see under each keycap. Keycaps receive the switch stem, which when aligned, fits on with a firm press. Keycaps are held to switches in a press-fit and can be removed just by carefully pulling up off of the switch, ideally with a keycap puller to reduce the chance of damage.

There are two aspects of keycaps to keep in mind for compatibility with your board, Size and Profile.

Sizes

Keycaps come in sizes denoted by their length compared to a single key. The "A" key (or any letter) is 1 unit length long, known as 1u. The standard Backspace key is 2 keys long, 2u. The Left Shift key is 2.25u. The Tab key is 1.5u. Etc.

Check your board for any unique keycap lengths, as to make sure keycap sets can fit your board properly. In compact boards, this is most commonly Right Shift and bottom row modifiers like Ctrl and Alt.

Profile

Keycaps have a shape to them, called the Profile, when viewed from the side. This is sometimes referred to as the "sculpt" of the cap.

Profiles are generally listed as a prefix to the keycap set. For example, Cherry Profile, SA Profile, KAT profile. Sometimes the prefix is the manufacturer, like GMK who is known for a specific profile (Cherry in this case).

Different profiles may have different shapes per "row" of the keyboard.

For example Row 1, (shortened to R1, the Esc row) will generally have a sharper "scoop" from top to bottom. While R3, Enter row, might be mostly flat when viewed from the side. This is to give the keys smoother angles while typing.

It is important when checking compatibility for keycap sets on a compact or non-standard layout to make sure your profiles are being covered properly. Often compact boards will put 1u keys in R3 and R4 that have no comparable keys from a standard keycap set. You can use Novelties or blanks for keys that don't have an equivalent for that row, so you can have the right profile and they still "feel" correct while typing.

Some keycap sets are a uniform profile (like SA Granite). This means the whole keycap set is the same profile, and thus you can easily swap keys to any location without mixing up the row profiles.

Materials: ABS vs PBT

ABS plastic and PBT plastic are the two most common materials for keycaps.

ABS (Acrylonitrile Butadiene Styrene) is a durable plastic, used commonly in toy plastics and helmets. It can have very vibrant colors and is resistant to impacts and corrosive chemicals.

The downside to ABS is that it 'shines' easily over time. Within a few months of heavy use, you may notice that matte ABS tends to develop shiny wear points, commonly seen on laptop keyboards. The upside for manufacturers is that specific colors are easier to achieve and it is simple to mold.

PBT plastic (Polybutylene Terephthalate) is a very stable material under high temperatures and strain. PBT resists shine unlike ABS, and maintains its surface over long periods. The downside is that it can be more complicated to produce for manufacturers, and thus can have a higher price.

Ideally you want to favor PBT plastic over ABS, however many manufacturers may only produce in one type of plastic. Your choices may be limited if you want a specific manufacturer or colorway.

Legend Types

There are 4 common ways for legends (the labels on the keycaps) to be produced. These are Doubleshot, Dye-sub, Laser, and Pad print.

TL;DR

Doubleshot or dye-sub are desirable over laser or pad printed (laser and pad printing wear off over time, doubleshot and dye-sub don't). Doubleshot is the most desirable, but is the most restrictive in what can be printed. Dye-sub can be very detailed, but has trouble achieving specific colors, especially light on dark.

Doubleshot is two separate pieces of plastic that are molded together, one for the outer keycap and one for the legend itself. Doubleshot is desirable because the legend can never wear down, as the plastic itself is molded into the shape of the label. A downside of Doubleshot is that it can generally only be 2 colors per cap, as more colors (doing tripleshot) makes the process very expensive. Doubleshot is generally identifiable by the underside of the cap having two types of plastic present, one for the legend and one for the outer cap.

Dye-sub requires a chemical process which stains the surface of the keycap plastic. Dye-sub does not wear off, as the surface itself has been stained. There is also reverse dye-sub which is a more complicated process, allowing light colored legends to be printed on dark colored caps (which is not possible with standard dye-sub processes). Dye-sub can print very complex images with multiple colors and can be used to print on the sides of a cap along with the top. Downside of dye-sub is that often it cannot print lines as crisp as doubleshot and has trouble achieving specific colors as it is dyeing colored plastic into another color. Dye-sub is identifiable due to the surface being stained with the color and not creating any extra surface material.

Laser is a process where the surface of the cap is painted and then the legend is lasered off by a machine, exposing the underlying plastic surface (normally transparent). Laser cap legends can wear out over time, as the outer layer can flake from long term use. You can identify laser legends because the underside will be all one type of plastic. You can normally see the edge of where the outside print ends on the underside and it will generally be an uneven layer.

Pad printed legends are printed onto the keycap itself. Pad printing can wear over time, as long term use will wear off the print on the caps. You can generally identify pad printing because you can feel the legend raised slightly from the surface of the keycap.

Switches

Compatibility (3-pin vs 5-pin)

The first compatibility check when buying switches is the number of pins they have and what kind of PCB your board is. Standard Plate mount (3-pin) switches are the most common, they are seated into a metal plate above the PCB. If your board has a plate above the PCB, you can use 3-pin switches.

PCB mount, or 5-pin switches, have 2 additional plastic nubs that allow the switch to stabilize inside holes of a compatible PCB. The PCB itself needs to have these additional holes in order for these switches to fit.

If you wish to use 5-pin switches on a Plate mount PCB (that doesn't have the extra holes), you can simply trim the plastic nubs (not the metal connecting pins) off with metal clippers (nail clippers work in a pinch). Obviously this is a 1-way mod, and will make the switches no longer PCB mountable, but will be fully functional for Plate mount.

Choosing a Switch

Choosing between switches will almost be entirely personal preference. From type of switch, to use case, to noise level, there are many aspects that go into choosing the perfect switch for you.

We offer switch testers and 10 packs of all our switches to make it easy to test out new variants and see if they are right for your setup.

Clicky, Tactile, Linear

Clicky switches are the closest to that typewriter feel. They give the most feedback (both auditory and tactile) and are great if you've got a separate office or live with someone who doesn't mind the noise. Clicky switches often have a unique feel because of the way they produce their click. This can mean a little more "give" before the switch "snaps" into actuation.

Tactile switches give tactile feedback on each press to physically denote where the key actuates. Once a user is comfortable with the location of the bump, bottoming out is no longer necessary. This can help with reducing noise if you're a light typist. Tactile switches generally have the most tunable aspects for designers, and thus the most variants. The tactile bump can be lighter or more pronounced, and spring weight can greatly change how the tactility feels.

Linear switches are the smoothest switches. They have no feedback on actuation, and thus are better for more experienced typists or those who don’t mind bottoming-out, like gamers. Linear switches are the least prone to “breaking in” or developing long term wear, as they have the least points of friction.

Spring Weight

This is probably the biggest factor in how a switch feels, however it is entirely personal preference. A heavy switch for one person might be too light for another and vice versa. The best way to get a feel for this is to simply try out a bunch of different switches. Unfortunately keyboard meetups aren’t as common as they were pre-covid, but switch testers and buying sample quantities should help determine the best setup for you.

Personally, as a musician I started my journey searching for heavier and heavier tactile switches with distinct tactility, but over the years found that my favorite switches are actually light spring linears. -Zurry

Switch Lube

Lube is an optional improvement that will make your switches more consistent and smooth. It helps to reduce chattering and clatter between the movement of stem and the body, and can overall improve the feel of your board.

The downside is that it requires manually disassembling and reassembling each switch. This can be helped with a switch opener and proper tools, but simply takes a lot of time. Using a fine-tipped brush, apply the lubricant to the spring, stem, and inside housing of the switch (all the internal places that friction happens).

GP105 is the general standard for switch spring lubrication.

Stabilizers

Most keyboards come with their own stock stabilizers, found framing the longer keys like Spacebar, Shift, Backspace, and Enter.

Upgrading your stabilizers is an inexpensive and easy way to enhance the smoothness and reduce the noise of some of your most used keys.

PCB / Plate Mounting (Screw-in vs Snap-in Stabilizers)

There are two types of stabilizer mounting, for PCB and Plate, similar to switches. When upgrading stabilizers it’s important to keep in mind what kind your board supports.

PCB mounted stabilizers are called “screw-in” stabilizers and screw directly into the PCB. They will have screw slots, so will visually look distinct. Plate mount stabilizers are called “snap-in” stabilizers and snap into the plate (generally from underneath). Some stabilizers are compatible with both mounting methods (like the Kono Midnight Stabilizers).

Stabilizer Lube

Lubing even just your stock stabilizers can be a big upgrade for your keyboard. This will reduce the “floppiness” and “clackyness” of your stabilizer keys and can greatly reduce the noise of your board. To properly lube stabilizers, you need to disassemble and lubricate the stems, housing, and the ends of the metal bar connected to the stabilizer housing.

GP205 G0 is the standard for stabilizer lubrication due to its thicker viscosity. I personally have used Super Lube-21030 for stabilizers to great effect.

Accessories

Cable

Check your board’s connector to make sure you’re buying the right kind of cable. However, most modern boards should be using USB-C at this point.

Aviator cables reduce wear on ports for valuable boards, by letting you swap the cable from the middle. There are different connectors for Aviator cables, depending on the type of release and size. You can check out our GX16 Aviator cables as an example.

Deskmat

A deskmat can be a nice addition to a keyboard setup, as it enhances keyboard and desk acoustics greatly. If your desk resonates while typing, consider a deskmat to create a dampening layer. It also creates a bit of give between your board and the desk, softening some of the impact that your fingers feel when bottoming out.

Reducing Noise

Clicky switches will obviously be the most noisy, however a lot of the noise from mechanical keyboards comes from the board and keycaps themselves. Even a Linear board can be very noisy with heavy typing, as bottoming-out will still cause the board and keycaps to resonate. 

Silent switches, lubricating stabilizers, a deskmat, and o-rings are common first-steps to getting less noise out of your setup. You can look into advanced dampening techniques, such as adding foam padding to the inside of your board, if you require even more noise reduction.

Next article Keycap Compatibility and Purchase Guide - How to Find Keycaps That Fit Your Keyboard