The Best Mechanical Keyboard Is...

… not going to be a magic bullet recommendation from a random publication on the internet. This article will help you find the best mechanical keyboard for your needs.

This is the keystone article in our “How to Find the Best Mechanical Keyboard” series, which will be released over the next few weeks:

 

1. What is a Mechanical Keyboard? What Does a Mechanical Keyboard Do?
2. Are Mechanical Keyboards Better Than Regular Ones?
3. What is the Best Mechanical Keyboard?
4. What is the Best Mechanical Keyboard Switch? Is It Cherry MX?
5. Cherry MX Compatible Keycap Guide
6. How to Buy Keycaps for Mechanical Keyboards (Group Buys)
7. How to Clean a Mechanical Keyboard
8. What to Do About Mechanical Keyboard Spills
 
Top ten mechanical keyboard lists and “best mechanical keyboard” articles are polluting the mechanical keyboard market. Each publisher makes assumptions about their audience, targeting keywords and demographics to draw you (and that irresistible ad / referral revenue) in. Even independent authors can show bias toward certain brands and models.
 
Our guide to keyboards and its accompanying articles will help you develop your own opinions. Kono products will be used as examples, but we won’t tell you that they are your best or only options. We think that informed, enthusiastic keyboard buyers are ideal.

Choose A Mechanical Switch

 

Switches make mechanical keyboards tick. Input Club’s Comparative Guide to Keyboard Switches provides detailed graphs and descriptions if you need more information about certain models. We’ll cover switches in detail with another article.

Pick A Mechanical Keyboard Layout / Size

 

Most users are interested in 104-key, condensed, and tenkeyless layouts. Those aren’t the only options, though. Mechanical keyboards come in every shape, size, and key configuration that you can imagine (including staggered and ortholinear variants). We’ll break things down into five primary size categories (full size, tenkeyless, condensed, ergonomic / split) and two primary layouts (ANSI, ISO). Each has distinct sub-classifications, so we’ll touch on those as well.
 

Staggered Vs. Ortholinear

Keyboards are available in offset (staggered) and grid (ortholinear) patterns. Staggered layouts were developed in typewriters due to mechanical limitations. QWERTY also accommodated typewriter designs, though it may have been influenced by Morse Code operators. Dvorak and other alternative layouts, which haven’t been widely adopted, were created later on to combat inefficiencies in QWERTY.
 

 

Ortholinear keyboards take a different tack, as modern keyboards don’t have the same mechanical constraints. They aren’t inherently better than staggered keyboards, but they are reasonable and usable. All mechanical keyboard enthusiasts should try one at some point -- if it’s more comfortable, consider switching.
 

Mechanical Keyboard Layouts / Sizes

 

104-Key Layouts
 

 

Standard 104-key keyboards dominate the desktop market, as most office computers use the layout. Some gaming keyboards and alternate layouts (like the split space bar shown above) add a an extra key or two, which doesn’t cause a category change.
 
Tenkeyless And Compact Layouts
 
Keyboards without number pads are considered tenkeyless. Tenkeyless mechanical keyboards are great for typists who want to save space, but data entry may be difficult without a number pad. Different tenkeyless variants are assigned percentages that roughly reflect their size in relation to standard 104-key mechanical keyboards. Some keyboards are classified by key number if they don’t fit into the traditional percentage scheme (like the Kira). Note that most tenkeyless keyboards use function keys or layers to cover the same inputs as full size models. We’ll go over the most common percentage-based sizes below.
 
• Tenkeyless / 80% Mechanical Keyboards
 

 

80% keyboards, which are typically referred to as tenkeyless keyboards, delete the number pad.
 
• 75% Mechanical Keyboards
 

 

75% keyboards remove the number pad, but they keep a number of miscellaneous keys by deleting extra space between clusters.
 
• 60% / Compact Mechanical Keyboards
 

 

60% keyboards do away with the number pad, arrow keys, delete cluster, and function keys.
 
• 40% Mechanical Keyboards
 

 

40% keyboards only preserve the alpha cluster.
 
Condensed Layouts
 
Condensed keyboards reduce their desk footprint by changing key sizes, removing keys with duplicate functionality, and moving keys to different locations. They retain most or all of the per-key functionality found in full size layouts. Mechanical keyboards tend to come in two condensed flavors. Rubber dome keyboards, particularly those used in 17” laptops, can be found with a variety of proprietary condensed layouts as well.
 
• G80-1800 Layout Mechanical Keyboards (and clones)
 

 

Cherry’s G80-1800 mechanical keyboards are known for their clever use of space. They cut down on width while retaining a full complement of 104 keys. The keyboard shown above is a nonstandard G80-1800 clone with extra keys above the main clusters.
 
• 96-Key Mechanical Keyboards
 

 

96-key layouts use every trick in the book to optimize space usage without losing number pad or per-key functionality. The Kira, which actually has 99 keys, falls into this subclass of condensed layouts.
 
Ergonomic And Split Layouts
 
Ergonomic mechanical keyboards come in a variety of shapes and sizes. Designs that reduce wrist and finger strain can look and feel quite odd. Many ergonomic keyboards, and some nearly-normal models, try to increase comfort with a split design. Separate cases, plates, and PCBs are necessary for such keyboards. We’ll list a few interesting ergonomic keyboards, which tend to showcase unique layouts.
 
• Lexmark / IBM M15 Ergonomic Mechanical Keyboard
 

 

The IBM M15, manufactured by Lexmark, is the grandfather of modern ergonomic mechanical keyboards. It rotates, changes elevation, and separates to provide a comfortable typing experience. It has not been in production since the mid-1990s.
 
• Infinity ErgoDox Split Mechanical Keyboard
 

 

The Infinity Ergodox is designed for people with different shoulder sizes. Its split design allows users to position the keyboard halves wherever they are most comfortable. Thumb buttons are also meant to improve typing performance. Its key pattern is considered “vertically staggered.” Similar split keyboards exist in a number of layouts, like the ortholinear “Let’s Split.”
 
• Pace VG-101 Ergonomic Mechanical Keyboard
 

 

The Pace VG-101 uses a single chassis with two “pods” that allow a wide range of angle adjustments. Keyboards like the Kinesis Advantage2, which uses rounded key depressions that purportedly improve ergonomics, operate on a similar (but less complex) principle.
 
Extended Layouts
 

 

Extended layouts add an arbitrary number of extra keys with any number of functions.
 
ANSI Vs. ISO
 
ANSI and ISO layouts are used in different areas of the world. JIS, a third major layout, is less common due to its near-exclusive use in Japan.
 
• ANSI Keyboard Layout
 

 

ANSI is commonly used in the United States. It can also be found in a number of other countries. A wide 1 unit tall (1u) enter key is its most notable feature, as it leaves room for the pipe / backslash key.
 
• ISO Keyboard Layout
 

 

ISO variants are used in widely in Europe and many countries around the world. ISO’s blocky 2u tall enter key and short left shift provide a different typing experience. Standard ISO layouts have 105 keys, which can be useful in languages that have a large number of modified characters. Note that the Displaywriter shown above has a nonstandard ISO layout, so it won't represent all ISO keyboards.

Evaluate Keycap Options For Your Keyboard

 

Keycaps cover switches and provide a finger-sized surface to press. Good keycaps should feel great and last for a long time. We’ll cover keycaps and group buys in separate articles.

Consider Backlighting And RGB Lighting

Keyboard lights, and backlights, are mainly useful in dark rooms. Bright rooms turn lighting into an aesthetic feature, which makes good design vital. There’s a huge difference between artful use of color in an excellent case and RGB vomit in a generic gaming keyboard.
 

 

A number of firms are developing lights that respond to programs and games, which may add utility to RGB lighting in the future. Current “Smart RGB” implementations suffer from a number of limitations, including poor APIs.

Software And Programming

Most gaming keyboards come with software that runs in the background. That’s not ideal, as it saps computer resources. Those same keyboards tend to have programming limitations.
 

 

Hardware level configuration, which provides near infinite customization options, doesn’t require active software. All Input Club keyboards have unlocked and fully programmable firmware. Simple programming methods, like their easy to use online configurator, make hardware configuration accessible for everyone (not just computer scientists).

Keyboard Plate Materials And PCB Mount Designs

Plates add durable structure to mechanical keyboards and their switches. As a rule of thumb, harder metals create harder bottom outs. Input Club used aluminum in the WhiteFox to minimize hard bottom outs and corrosion. The industry standard is steel, a hard metal, which can rust if it is poorly painted or exposed to damage at the edges of the keyboard.
 

 

A few plateless models, known as PCB mount mechanical keyboards, are available. They sacrifice some durability to achieve the cushiest bottom out possible. You should sample plate and PCB mount keyboards to find your favorite.

Keyboard Case Materials And Shape

Mechanical keyboard cases influence your entire typing experience. Cases should be solid, creak free, and subjectively attractive. There are few guidelines so long as basic functionality is achieved. Metal and plastic cases, if designed well, are equally usable.
 

 

Every case design will sound different. Discerning keyboard enthusiasts should sample a number of case styles with different switches before buying a daily driver. As a general rule, small cases amplify high pitched sounds. Large cases tend to amplify midrange and bass sounds. They also add tiny amounts of reverb, particularly when there are empty cavities.

Open Source Software And Hardware

Proprietary software packages and keyboard designs tend to result in fewer updates, if not planned obsolescence. The traditional model also kills creativity, as big brands are all about profits. Not risks and innovations.
 

 

Flagship products from Input Club, our first partner, are different. All of their designs are open source. Community suggestions, bugfixes, and hacks are welcome. Our teams are composed of keyboard collectors, forum members, and enthusiasts. We aren’t going to abandon our roots. You can find I:C's projects on GitHub.

Shop For And Buy A Mechanical Keyboard

 

You’ve learned enough about mechanical keyboards to be a responsible, informed buyer. Use your best judgement to make a list of features, then take a peek at what’s on the market. You’re welcome to visit Kono, our website, and compare its keyboards with average retail options.