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What Is a Mechanical Keyboard?

What Is a Mechanical Keyboard?

For those just starting out on their mechanical keyboard journey, we hope this article will be an easy and fun first step. We’re going to tackle some of the most common questions we hear from newcomers. Welcome! 

What is a mechanical keyboard? 

A mechanical keyboard is a computer keyboard that uses spring-activated switches. 

A rubber membrane keyboard with its keycaps removed.

Unlike the scissor switch keyboards found in modern laptops or the rubber membrane keyboards found alongside most PCs, a mechanical keyboard uses discrete parts that can be customized in every way imaginable. 

What makes it “mechanical”? 

All keyboards are mechanical, right, so what makes a mechanical keyboard special? The “mechanical” aspect we’re referring to is the spring-activated switch.

Spring-activated switches, or just switches, are the components that bridge the keycap you press and the circuit board that converts your keystrokes into digital signals. 

Switches are the heart and soul of mechanical keyboards because they play a decisive role in how your keyboard sounds and feels. Plus, without them your keyboard wouldn’t work.

What is a mechanical keyboard used for? 

A mechanical keyboard is used primarily for typing, gaming, and programming, although they have applications in music production, graphic design, and anything else you can use a keyboard for. 

Why do people use mechanical keyboards? 

People use mechanical keyboards for many reasons. Some people use them in order to type and game faster. Some heavy typists use them in order to prevent themselves from making accidental keystrokes. Some people just love the way they sound and feel. Those are just a few reasons! Here are some of the many others:

  • For the nostalgia factor. 
  • For sprucing up a lackluster workspace with something both fun and functional. 
  • For expressing yourself. 
  • For typing in low light.
  • For being part of a fun and thriving community. 

You may find yourself relating to one or all of these reasons, but the most common reason why people use mechanical keyboards is because they give you what non-mechanical keyboards don’t: options!

How do mechanical keyboards work?

Mechanical keyboards tell your computer that a key has been pressed, so that your computer can register that keystroke in a game, browser, or other program. 

This seemingly simple process all starts with the keycap, which is the piece of plastic that represents a number or letter, like “G”, that you press down with your finger. 

The keycap sits on a switch, a mechanical device made of plastic, a metal spring, and metal electrical connectors. When you press the keycap down, you’re also pressing down the switch. When the switch gets pressed down, the electrical connectors inside of it touch, which creates an electrical circuit.

Just like the keycap is sitting on the switch, the switch is sitting on a circuit board, which is like the keyboard’s nervous system. The circuit board has a circuit for every keycap. When the switch’s electrical connectors touch, they form a circuit with the circuit board, which then tells your computer that a circuit has been completed: voila! Whatever circuit you pressed will appear on screen. 

Are mechanical keyboards loud? 

Only if you want them to be. 

(Skip to 6:45 for a good sound test)

You may have heard that mechanical keyboards are louder than jackhammers, and that using one is a sure-fire way to make your housemates glare you down into a fine dust. 

Let us set the record straight. 

Although mechanical keyboards can be loud, they definitely don’t have to be. They’re fully customizable in the way that cars are. Just as the keyboard world has its monster trucks, it also has its ultra-quiet electric vehicles. 

See our Quickstart Guide to see how you can design the keyboard that fits your lifestyle. 

Are mechanical keyboards expensive? 

Again, only if you want them to be. 

You may have seen articles or YouTube videos about people spending thousands of dollars on mechanical keyboards and thinking that it’s all just too expensive for you.

That couldn’t be further from the truth. 

Mechanical keyboards start at around $60. Even if you’re minding a budget, you can buy pieces of a keyboard at a time until you’ve built the whole thing. 

Are mechanical keyboards better for typing and gaming? 

Absolutely. 

Mechanical keyboards are much better for typing than average keyboards as they do not require you to “bottom out” or press all the way down. Bottoming out results in the application of unnecessary stress on your joints and fingers. 

Mechanical keyboards typically only require a key to be pressed halfway to send a signal to your computer, allowing for quicker and easier typing.

For even more speed, you can use fast-activating switches that allow you to complete keystrokes more quickly and with less effort. 

There are also programmable keyboards that allow you to create shortcuts, multiple layers, and even ditch the QWERTY layout all together. All of these things can save you time and effort, and lead to a faster workflow and gaming setup.

Are mechanical keyboards more ergonomic? 

They absolutely can be. 

A split keyboard, for example, can do wonders for your posture and upper back. A split keyboard is like a regular keyboard except separated into two independent halves. When you separate those halves on your desk, you allow your shoulders to roll back and your upper back to relax. 

Some split keyboards can also be “tented,” or tilted, in a way that prevents supination pain in your wrists. 

In addition to split keyboards, there are keyboards such as ortholinear keyboards that can help prevent finger strain. Ortholinear keyboards use a linear key layout rather than a staggered key layout, preventing your fingers from stretching as unnaturally or as far as with traditional layouts. 

Are mechanical keyboards always wired or can I get one with Bluetooth?  

Although most mechanical keyboards use a wired connection, many like the Discord TKL Mechanical Keyboard have Bluetooth connectivity. 2.4Ghz wirelss USB dongles are becoming more common as well.

Which parts of a mechanical keyboard can be customized? 

Almost all of them.

The most obviously customizable components are the switches, keycaps, and removable cable if the keyboard has one. Some boards have multiple frame or body options and can come in a wide variety of colors and layouts.

How many types of switches are there? 

Broadly speaking, switches are categorized into three groups. Linear, tactile, or clicky. Linear switches don’t make a noise or give a tactile bump when pressed–they’re silent and smooth. Tactile switches give a silent yet tactile bump when pressed. Clicky switches make an audible “click” and give a tactile bump when pressed. 

There’s a lot more to say about switches that we don’t have time in an introductory article. Check out our Quickstart Guide for more. 

Is there a difference between a mechanical keyboard and a gaming keyboard? 

There can be. 

Unlike a mechanical keyboard, which has a clear definition (i.e. a keyboard that uses mechanical switches), there is no clear definition of a gaming keyboard. 

A gaming keyboard can use mechanical switches, rubber membranes, scissor switches, or optical switches. Really, any keyboard can be used for gaming; therefore, any keyboard can be conceivably called a gaming keyboard (even a really crappy one!). 

Unfortunately, marketers being marketers, some companies will slap the name “gaming” in front of a really bad keyboard just to increase sales. For that reason, it’s better to shop for a “mechanical gaming keyboard” or “optical gaming keyboard” than just a “gaming keyboard”. 

Now, are there differences between a gaming keyboard and a mechanical gaming keyboard? There can be. 

You can think of a mechanical gaming keyboard as a species of mechanical keyboard, similar to how orangutans are a species of primate. 

A mechanical gaming keyboard will share many similarities with a plain mechanical keyboard that’s optimized for typing or programming, but it can have differences, too. Those differences can include switch type, layout, programmability, and more, and vary from model to model. 

Some of the features that manufacturers add to gaming keyboards can actually benefit gaming, but many do not. Gaming is big business, and marketers know this. Do your research and read plenty of reviews before making a purchase. 

How long do mechanical keyboards last? 

From a year to multiple decades, depending on the quality of the components. 

As long as you keep your keyboard clean and dry, the circuit board should last between 50-70 years. 

When it comes to keycaps, the determining factor for longevity is the type of plastic the keycap is made of. ABS plastic tends to get shiny with use as it absorbs the oils from your fingers over time. Eventually, the lettering will fade and a shiny patina will form. This doesn’t prevent the keycap from working, but many keyboard enthusiasts hate the way it looks. 

PBT plastic on the other hand, while it can be more expensive, doesn’t absorb the oils from your fingers, so they won’t get shiny over time. Barring catastrophe, PBT keycaps should last multiple decades. 

When it comes to switches, Cherry MX mechanical switches are rated for 50 million keypresses. Under heavy use, they can last between 10 and 15 years. The average rubber membrane keyboard, on the other hand, is rated for only 5 million keypresses, which roughly translates to about two years of heavy use. 

What do mechanical keyboards sound like? 

Clicky or clacky? 

Every year, a huge number of people get into mechanical keyboards solely because of the way they sound. Some people find their sound to be nostalgic or comforting, while some even experience ASMR–a pleasant tingling sensation that runs from the scalp to the upper spine–while using them. You can find examples of this on YouTube. 

One of the fascinating parts of the hobby is just how many different ways that a keyboard can sound. The reason for all of this variety is that every component of the keyboard, from the keycaps to the switches to the case itself, has an effect on the final sound. A plastic case will sound different than an aluminum case, which will sound different from a brass one–and that’s only one example. 

This huge variety of keyboard sounds creates a spectrum of possibilities that common keyboard adjectives like “thocky” and “clacky” can only grasp at. The best way to get a better understanding is through watching review videos or buying a keycap switch tester. 

Which mechanical keyboard switch is the best for gaming? 

Linear, tactile, or speed switches. 

Ideally the switch you choose for gaming will be a balance of quick actuation, fast return, and heavy enough to prevent accidental presses.

For you this could be a light linear switch, or a thick tactile switch with distinct feedback. Clicky switches work, however they aren't ideal for voice chat or games with a ton of rapid presses unless you love the noise!

You can try Kailh Speed Switches. Similar to a hair trigger, speed switches actuate earlier and faster than other switch types, giving you a slight competitive edge. These switches are easy to flutter near the top and have springs on the lighter side.

Which mechanical keyboard switch is the best for typing? 

Linear switches may have the highest potential to be best. 

Of course this is an opinion - much like the one above for gaming, but it has its basis in logic. 

Tactile switches are a great starting point for any mechanical keyboard user, especially switches with a lighter bump, as they can be used similarly to a linear switch as the user becomes comfortable. This can help train your fingers to get used to "hovering" actuation rather than bottoming out, which can prepare you for not bottoming out on linear switches.

Unlike gaming, which requires split-second decision-making that can benefit from tactility bumps (see above), typing benefits from whatever prevents the most fatigue. 

Although clicky and tactile switches can feel like they’re sending energy back into your fingers with every bumping upstroke, they actually take more energy to operate and will wear you out sooner. Linear switches, on the other hand, will conserve your energy and allow you to type for longer. However, bottoming out with any switch, including linear switches, is not good for ergonomics or fatigue.

Conclusion

Keyboards can get very interesting and there is considerable depth to explore further in this topic. Check out some of our other guides for more information on mechanical keyboards!

We hope we’ve answered your most burning keyboard questions! Please see our other articles for more tips and know-how. If you think this article is missing something important, let us know!

Next article Kono's Quickstart Guide to Mechanical Keyboards