On a recent episode of The B&B Podcast, Ben Brooks let Shawn Blanc have it over his new Das Keyboard, maligning the entire idea behind the obnoxiously loud, bulky, often hideous monstrosities known as mechanical switch keyboards.
It was awesome.
In fact, I think everyone hates mechanical keyboards until they use them. I’m not writing this to affect change in Ben’s opinion. I’m just writing this in defense of mechanical keyboards. Growing up our typing lab in school was outfitted with Apple Extended Keyboards, I had one at home until I was around 12, and those are what I learned to type on and I still remember very fondly. I’ve used them on and off my whole life depending on where I was and what I was doing. I’m currently typing this on an Apple Aluminum Keyboard (wired). It’s a gorgeous keyboard. And the typing on it isn’t… horrible. But there are a lot of things about mechanical keyboards that really do make them fantastic pieces of technology. And if I wasn’t currently relegated back in to Starving College Student status, I’d order a Das Keyboard in a heartbeat.
What is a mechanical keyboard?
A mechanical keyboard refers to a keyboard that uses mechanical key switches. There is a physical mechanism made of moving parts that is responsible for sending an electrical signal to your computer that says “this key has been pressed”. Obviously all keyboards have moving parts, but these parts are often just used to control the movement of the keys themselves, and don’t hold any of the responsibility for indicating whether or not the key has been pressed.
Two of the most common key switches used in cheaper, consumer-line keyboards are scissor-switch keys and rubber membrane keys. The Apple Aluminum keyboards use a rubber membrane; basically, there is a small rubber membrane that sits on top of a circuit board. There are usually small bubbles or raised sections of the membrane right under each key, holding the keys up, with an electrical contact on the underside of the dome. When the key is depressed all the way down (that’s the important part), the electrical contact hits the circuit board and sends the appropriate signal for the appropriate key. You can tell, because when you type it feels like you are “squishing” the keys down, and you don’t get much feedback or resistance from the keys themselves until you bottom out. To a lot of people, this minimal resistance with feedback only coming when the key is fully depressed sounds like a good thing. We’ll come back to this.
As I stated before, a mechanical keyboard uses physical switches. Often, there are two pieces of metal used to complete the circuit that are held apart by part of the key mechanism. Some sort of force-resistance mechanism, like a spring, provides tactile feedback. Pressing the key down will displace the piece holding the circuit open, sending the signal, and then releasing the key opens the circuit back up, like so:
image from the overclock.net mechanical keyboard guide
What’s so great about all that?
Up front, this means a few things; the keys are louder, yes. This is what gives mechanical switches their infamous “clicky” sound. If you’re coming from squishy keyboards, you’ll feel like you have to type harder or initiate a longer keystroke. In fact, I think that on the B&B Podcast, Ben even makes a jab about having to take a longer keystroke. This is actually false. It will feel this way if you attempt to fully actuate they keys. But mechanical key switches have an activation point that is in the middle of their keystroke. Once you learn how to type on a mechanical keyboard, you can actually type much, much, much lighter on a mechanical keyboard than on a squishy keyboard. This is a result of a concept on physics called Hooke’s Law that has to do with oscillators; with a spring being a type of oscillator. The basic premise of Hooke’s Law is that the farther away you stretch a spring away from its neutral — or equilibrium — point, the more force it exerts on you in the opposite direction. Completely depressing a mechanical switch will require the most force, but reaching the activation point of the key will require much less. It’s simply a matter of learning how your switches work. After practice and learning the travel distance of your keys, you can quickly develop a much lighter and a much less strenuous (literally, strenuous on your body) typing style. This is why requiring a complete key press like mentioned earlier isn’t necessarily a good idea. Slamming your keys in to the bottom of the mechanism produces way more counter-acting force on your fingers and wrists than a semi-depressed mechanical key.
The Tactile and The Clicky
There’s a reason that people like Gruber call mechanical-switched keyboards “clicky keyboards”. The mechanical switch, when it connects and completes the circuit, will produce a light bump (the tactile feedback) and a discernible, audible “click” (the clicky). These are two feedback elements that lead to learning how to use a mechanical keyboard and becoming a light finger dancer upon the keys instead of a club-fingered caveman bashing away at a squishy keyboard.
Mechanical keyboards are huge, heavy beasts. They aren’t meant to be easily portable, like either of the Apple Aluminum models. But this leads to nice side effects. For example, your keyboard won’t slide around on your desk as much1. I personally like this about them. Many people also whine about the fact that pretty much all of the mechanical keyboards on the market aren’t wireless. This isn’t so much a factor to me, because I don’t consider a mechanical keyboard to be a portable device. It makes a great fixture for a desktop computer or a portable workstation that doesn’t move around that much. And if a keyboard is on my desk, the only reason for it to be wireless is simply to reduce cable clutter. Now, I’ll admit that to some people that can be a big deal. But at the end of the day, if having wires on your desk is what’s preventing you from being productive then you probably need to reevaluate just how important to you whatever you’re working on actually is. Invest in some sharp cable management and move on with your life.
Another plus: mechanical keyboards last a long, long, long time. The lifetime of your average mechanical keyboard is usually somewhere around 15-20 years. 50+ million keystrokes, vs the 10-20 of a typical squishy keyboard.
Want to learn more about mechanical keyboards?
If you’re a super geek and you want to get in to things like obsessing over the travel distance of keys, how much force different switches take, how to tune the springs in your keys, and other such super-geekery, then the go-to guide (and where I learned pretty much everything I know about mechanical keyboards from years ago) is the Geekhack Mechanical Keyboard Guide. Check it out if you want, but it’s fairly information-dense.
All we are saying, is give clicky keyboards a chance.
This isn’t a big problem at home, because my desk is an unfinished and unstained door slab. But my wireless keyboard at work slides around like mad.↩