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Mechanical Keyboards

Ah, keyboards. They are the most intimate form of connection we have with our computers. However, for the past couple years, I have given little thought to what actually goes into making a good keyboard.

Aside from the built-in keyboard on my laptop, I have only used several other types of external keyboards. The first few were those that were bundled with any PC “package” you could purchase at the local Best Buy. However, after I began to develop a slight repetitive strain injury (RSI) a half-year ago, I decided it was time to put a little time — and money — into protecting my wrists and hands.

Hear that echo? It’s the rabbit hole that is keyboard research.

Types of Keyboards

My first round of research showed me that, on the highest level, keyboards are categorized by a single measure: the type of mechanism used in the keys — typically called a switch.

A switch is, essentially, everything from the top of an individual key to the bottom; the entire mechanism. If you’ve ever noticed the differences in the way one keyboard feels while you’re typing over another, that difference can be equated to the type of switch that particular keyboard is using.

The Wikipedia page for Keyboard technology lists the 10 different types of keyboard mechanisms out today. The list:

  1. Membrane
  2. Dome-switch
  3. Scissor-switch
  4. Capacitive
  5. Mechanical-switch
  6. Buckling-spring
  7. Hall-effect
  8. Laser
  9. Roll-up
  10. Optical

Membrane and Dome switches are, for our purposes, the same type of mechanism. These types of keys are typically found in laptop keyboards and could be described as having a “mushy” feeling. This is due to the rubber or silicone membrane that separates the top of the key from the underlying circuit board. Membrane and dome switches are used in the mass market due to their cheap production costs and durability. Some people enjoy the tactile feeling afforded by these types of switches; however, these are by no means the best typing experience you can get.

Scissor switches are the next rung up on the proverbial typing ladder. Scissor switches, as the name suggests, use a mechanism modeled after a pair of scissors, with two interlocking plastic pieces. One advantage of this design is that it allows for a very thin design, and if you take off any keys from a Macbook, you’ll probably find a scissor switch mechanism underneath.

Capacitive switches aren’t worth talking about. You wouldn’t want to type with them, and, frankly, I find them uninteresting. Also worth ignoring: Hall-effect (interesting, but found in aircraft cockpits, not on your desk), Laser (impractical), Roll-up (ha), and Optical (same category as Hall-effect).

That leaves us with mechanical-switch and buckling-spring keyboards. If you’re serious about typing, these are the types of keyboards that you want to look at.

Buckling-spring

Originally patented by IBM by Richard Hunter Harris, the buckling-spring keyboard, as the name suggests, uses a spring as the main form of resistance. As a typist presses down on a given key, the internal spring will begin to compress and eventually buckle outward, clacking into the internal casing.

Typing with a Buckling-spring keyboard will be loud, and there are different variants of the mechanism; each with a different level of force required to buckle the spring. From my research, although Buckling-spring keyboards were popular in the early- to mid-90s, their popularity has dropped off significantly over the past decade.

Mechanical-switches

We’ve now arrived at, what most consider to be, the final stop for anyone who is serious about typing or gaming: Mechanical-switch keyboards.2 Unlike the aforementioned keyboard mechanisms, mechanical keyboards use a single, mechanical switch for every single key. This type of design offers a number of advantages over other keyboard styles, but the main advantage is the array switch types available within the mechanical-keyboard realm.

The Cherry MX Switches

The Das Keyboard Blog has a great writeup that covers the various types of mechanical-key switches available. The most popular style are the Cherry MX Switches, which are created by ZF Electronics GmbH (a German computer peripheral-device maker).

Cherry MX switches come in five different styles: Black, Brown, Blue, Red, and Clear.3 Each switch has a different tactile feel (in regards to force required for actuation and the physical “bump” experience while depressing), and certain colors (Clear, notably) are more difficult to find and purchase than others.

Unlike the buckling-spring keyboards, mechanical-switch configurations have grown to be incredibly popular over the past few years. Sites like WASD Keyboards allow you to build completely-customized keyboards (down to the color of each keycap) and use whichever Cherry MX switch you want. Because mechanical-switches are incredibly durable and modular, you can replace any switches that fail on a key-by-key basis, which means a mechanical keyboard, with proper care, will last a very long time.

Typically, a good mechanical keyboard will run you around $150. This might seem expensive, but we are not talking about a $15 Logitech Home Keyboard with Media Keys™ anymore. A mechanical-switch keyboard is a finely-tuned piece of hardware, designed for those who truly care about their typing speed, accuracy, and performance.

Back to RSI

Mechanical keyboards are widely regarded as the de-facto keyboard for writers, programmers, gamers, or anyone who spends most of their day typing. However, for individuals who suffer from RSI, a change in key-switch type may not be enough to alleviate the strain on their fingers and wrist. Here, a new category of keyboards emerge: ergonomic keyboards.

Up until last year, the Microsoft Natural Ergonomic Keyboard 4000 was one of the only decent, albeit ugly, ergonomic keyboards available. Thankfully, Microsoft updated the Natural line to the, very pretty, Sculpt Ergonomic Keyboard. At $130, the Sculpt Desktop (keyboard and mouse4) is pricey, but after spending most of last August typing in pain, I pulled the trigger and ordered myself one.

It worked. After a week of using the Sculpt Keyboard, the pain in my fingers and upper wrist went away. I felt fine again and could go back to typing on my Macbook Air’s built-in scissor-switch keyboard without pain. Like my laptop, the Sculpt Keyboard uses scissor-switch keys, which means that I get a similar tactile feeling when switching keyboards. However, “similar” doesn’t necessarily mean “great.” The scissor-switch keys get the job done, but I would very much like to try a mechanical keyboard and see if the difference is as noticeable as others say.5

Further Reading

I’m going to continue entertaining the idea of picking up a mechanical keyboard. As someone with mild RSI, I don’t want to spend money on something that will, literally, hurt me later on. However, I want to see whether getting a mechanical keyboard with Cherry MX Blue switches, which you don’t have to press all the way down to actuate, would provide similar strain-reducing benefits as my current Sculpt setup.

If you’re interested in reading up on this topic, here are some of the articles I’ve read that I liked:

  1. Don’t even get me started on the difference between capacitive and resistive touch screens. 

  2. I’m not a gamer per se, but I did dedicate a majority of my childhood to Age of Empires. Before I was a mature player, I would dedicate all my resources to building up an army of cannons, and then laying waste to any infrastructure my cousin had managed to build in the meantime. 

  3. There’s a new type of switch out, the Cherry MX Green, but I haven’t read much about it yet. Shawn Blanc describes the Green switch as “pretty much identical in sound and feel to the Blue switches,” but with a heavier actuation force than any of the other Cherry MX line. 

  4. Surprisingly, the mouse that comes with the Sculpt Desktop has quickly become my favorite little device. Its odd shape and design is not only comfortable but also slightly amusing to look at. I’ve affectionately nicknamed the little guy “fat mouse.” 

  5. Shawn Blanc swears by his Filco Ninja, and John Gruber calls his Apple Extended II keyboard his “favorite piece of Apple hardware ever.” 

Saturday, 1 March 2014