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A Quick Overview of Mechanical Keyboards

PhantomTaco

18 months ago

Hey folks,

So I just thought I'd start working on a bit of an overview/dossier of mechanical keyboards because I feel like a lot of people know the most basic of basics and run with it. As with all components in PC building and just about any other hobby, there is a lot more depth to keyboards than the vast majority of people imagine. I'm not going to spend the time in this guide to go over all the switch types as there are plenty of wikis out there to cover that. With that said, here is a few links of sites/articles I suggest reading up on to give you an idea of the basics of switches (linear, tactile, clicky and the like)

PCGamer: The complete guide to mechanical keyboard switches for gaming This has a decent overview of switch basics and covers a decent amount of the switches on the market currently. Keep in mind that it is outdated, and they don't have a lot of more recent information on newer switches and retooling.

Input:Club's Comparative Guide to Mechanical Switches Assuming you read through the last link, this will give you more detailed information about the keystrokes of a lot of switches out there, as well as some subjective opinions on each. Keep in mind, though, that Input:Club does have their own switch designs (Halos and Hakos) and as such some of their opinions may be slightly skewed when it comes to impressions on certain switches.

Now that you've got a basic idea of the switches that keyboards use, let's talk a little bit about keyboard form factors. As a relatively good starting point, Wooting's Ultimate Guide to Keyboard Layouts and Form Factors does a good job of showing most of the keyboard layouts available on the market. That being said there are a couple extra relatively common form factors that are worth mentioning as well. The first is a couple of compact full size layouts:

  • The 1800 - The 1800 refers to Cherry's G80-1800 line of keyboards. These boards push the arrow and numpad cluster close together and put the modifier row above the numpad (modifier being ins/delete etc). Other versions include the Leopold FC980M

  • The 96 - The 96 key layout goes a step further and unifies all the keys so that there are no gaps between them. There are several variations to this layout. 96 key layouts are predominantly kits that you build yourself, such as the Melody96, Red Scarf III, RS96 and ZZ96.

Next we have the 65% Layout. The 65% has a couple different variations, the most commonly known being the Magicforce. It is basically a 60% layout but with arrow keys and sometimes a few of the extra modifiers. Other popular variations include the Leopold FC660C/660M, the Tada68 and the iGK64.

Now that we've got the basics down, I feel it's important to discuss a couple common misconceptions.

Cherry's are the best - It makes sense at face value, they had the original mx style switch design (though to be clear, they're far from the original mechanical switch design) so one would assume they in turn make the best switches on the market. This doesn't necessarily hold true for several reasons. First and foremost, switch preference is subjective. There is a HUGE selection of switches out there and the reality is each person has their own preference. Now that isn't to say that there are not some objectively not so great switches out there (pre-retooling Cherry's had gone pretty downhill, the first iteration of Gateron was pretty abysmal etc), but largely it comes down to preference. That being said, there are a few that are commonly regarded as not so great. Gateron has made great strides and offers some fantastic switches that rival and in some cases surpass any of Cherry's offerings. Kailh/Kaihua has also made significant advancements not only in working to match the Cherry standard, but surpass it and innovate in new and creative ways with offerings using their new clickbar technology as well as box switches. Even Outemu has been listening to the community a lot and working with community members to make new switches to better suit the demands of the market (such as the Ice line).

Some switches are not so good This may come off as being in stark contrast to the previous section, but the simple reality is there are some switches that are not all that great. The first and easiest offender is Logitech's Romer-G's. For those that aren't as familiar, Romer-G's are Logitech's original answer to Cherry's RGB switch exclusivity with Corsair back in 2014. The switches feature thick landing pads at the bottom of the housing to dampen/mush up the downstroke, an entirely different stem design (meaning you cannot replace the keycaps outside of Logitech's own designs), and a housing design more similar to rubber domes. The problem with these Romer-G switches are that they are a) very scratchy due to relatively poor surface finish/tolerances on the sliders and housings, b) feel more akin to rubber domes due to the large landing pads and finally c) use a proprietary stem that means if you want to replace your keycaps, you're kind of SOL. The keycaps Logitech offers with their boards have a love 'em or hate 'em font print and are mediocre at best with slightly thinner walls than average and use an ABS variant that will wear over time.

Another offender is Razer's in house switches, which were originally based on the first iteration of Kaihua/Kailh switches. These started off really rough, with severe issues with scratchiness and loud keystrokes. They have begun to improve them, though, but they still aren't up to par with the Cherry/Kailh/Gateron offerings on the market.

Some notes on Gamer Keyboards Now this is going to get me some flak, but that's fine. You should not be looking at gamer oriented keyboards. I know that brands like Corsair, Logitech, and Razer are what you see all the MLG players use and what the tech review sites are showing off, however they aren't really who you should be looking at. The pro gamers use the products that they get endorsed by, or the products that are sponsoring the competitions, not the ones they prefer to use. Many of them (as I'm going to assume you as well) have likely not tried keyboards from higher end brands, so it's like relying on a car salesman to tell you what aftermarket audio systems are best suited to your vehicle: they have some knowledge, but not necessarily enough to guarantee they'll get you the best option. So what's wrong with these gamer boards? Let's start off with a list. Keep in mind that this list doesn't pertain to each individual gamer board, but rather points out issues that many of the popular brands are guilty of.

  • The use of nonstandard layouts: Corsair is a big offender here. Corsair chooses to use a bottom row layout that is by and far almost entirely unused outside of their own products and a few other smaller time companies. The problem with this is if you choose to swap over to a new keyset, many will find that their bottom row is not going to fit. This all largely has to do with the sizing of the Windows and Alt keys being shortened in favor of making the others wider.

  • Thin/Poor Keycaps: This is something just about every gaming brand is guilty of. They all tend to use relatively low grade, thin, and highly wear-prone ABS plastics for their keycaps. What does this translate into for you? Higher-pitched, more rattly noise and faster keycap wear-out. Wear out is a two stage thing: it starts with the keycaps beginning to "shine" as the surface texture is removed, and later the legends begin to fade out.

  • Thin plates/poor casing design: This is something endemic of just about every single gamer brand on the market. The switch plate is the barrier between the PCB and the top of the board, and is essentially what your switches rest on. The plate is extremely important because it is one of the largest determinants to how your keyboard feels when you type. A thin plate means that it will be very loud and pingy.

Generally speaking for the money gamer branded keyboards try to focus more on giving you gimmicky features like macro keys (you folks do know you can program them yourself with programs like autohotkey right?), and edgier designs and as a result tend to suffer on overall build quality and typing experience.

Now a commonly asked question I see/get is "What switch should I get?". Well, the reality is that's a pretty hard question to answer, but I can give you some general guidance to help you figure out what you'd like most. To start off, figure out what you prefer most between the three basic types of switches (as per PC Gamer link above): linear, tactile, and clicky. Once you have an idea of what you like there, figure out how heavy you'd like it to be. the variation is pretty wide here from around 35 gf/cN up to 150 gf/cN. Most people tend to prefer the light-medium range which is about 35-60, with the rest tending to prefer around 70-80. Once you've figured that out here are some personal recommendations for each category:

Linears: Zeal's Tealios (pricey but very nice Gateron-based switches), Cherry Reds/Blacks, Kailh Box Reds/Blacks, Cherry Silent Reds/Blacks for quieter switches.

Tactiles: Kailh Box Browns/Burnt Orange/Box Royals (Royals are a collaboration between Kaihua and Novelkeys), Zealios/Zilents (zilents are a silenced variation of Zealios), Topre switches. * Note on Topre: these are my personal favorite tactile switch, however they are not cheap. They use a hybrid design with a slider/spring underneath a conical rubber dome and use capacitance to register keystrokes. These come exclusively on the following keyboards: HHKB, FC660C, FC980C, Realforce 87U/104U/RGB. Be careful of the RGB, while it is the only Topre variant that supports MX keycaps, the sliders really ruin the feel of the switch.

Clicky: Kailh Box Navys/Jades/Whites are easily the go to switches for clicky. Unfortunately you cannot buy these switches on keyboards, but we'll discuss that in the next section.

What keyboard should I buy?

I'm not going to attempt to answer this question, but I will give some general guidelines. Some of the more reputable brands of keyboards that are worth considering include:

  • Ducky
  • Coolermaster
  • Realforce
  • Leopold
  • Cherry
  • Varmilo
  • Vortex
  • Filco

Now for those of you that are interested in some of these switches that aren't available on standard keyboards, there are hot swappable switch keyboards out there that are perfect for a few different reasons. First off, they allow you to try out different switches on the keyboard without having to go through the process of desoldering and resoldering switches and they give you access to the entire gamut of switches. A couple worth looking at include:

  • Input:Club's K-Type
  • The GMMK
  • Redragon K556

While some of them aren't the greatest of build quality, they're still fairly decent and at least on par with gamer boards. There are others out there, but this is just a starting point.

If this generates enough interest (or hate), I'll fill out this guide more over time. Happy clacking folks.

EDIT: As a preemptive measure, I decided to include this. I'm almost certain that I will get replies to this along the lines of:

Well I have X product with Y switches, and you said they're not that great, and I beg to differ, they feel amazing!

That's awesome, I'm genuinely glad you enjoy your X with Y's. That being said, I'd ask you to think how many other switches out there you've tried. Have you tried all the basic (MX Red/Blue/Brown/Black) switches? Have you tried any from other manufacturers like Gateron? Topre? Kailh? Have you tried out other boards from more enthusiast-oriented companies? If the answer to these is no, it's probably the reason why you enjoy your product so much. And that's perfectly fine. But saying that this product is great based on a history of only this product and an old Dell rubber dome board doesn't lend a whole lot of credibility to your claim. I'm not going to say that I've tried every switch under the sun (I doubt anyone really has), but I've probably tried a good 30-40 switches on keyboards, not just on switch testers. A decent amount I owned, many more I tried at meetups. The suggestions I make are not only my own but more in-line with the enthusiasts in the keyboard community as a whole. If you are happy not having tried more keyboard products out there and want to stay within your comfort zone, that's great and you have saved yourself a considerable amount of money. However, I don't think it gives you much authority to comment on what is a solid product.

Comments

  • 18 months ago
  • 9 points

But saying that this product is great based on a history of only this product and an old Dell rubber dome board doesn't lend a whole lot of credibility to your claim.

God DAMN I wish more people understood this. Not just with keyboards, but also stuff like headphones where they recommend Krakens because they liked them better than their old ****** apple airpods. Great guide that perfectly articulates what needed to be said about keyboards. I'm gonna bookmark this for later reference.

[comment deleted by staff]
  • 18 months ago
  • 2 points

I have the Redragon Kamura (red LED) and the switches are soldered. According to Q&A on Amazon, the RGB has replaceable switches.

The noise of blue switches got on my nerves after a few months, o-rings barely made any difference. For an extra $17 I went for the E-Element Z88 RGB (81 keys) with Outemu brown switches, it comes with 4 spare switches and a switch puller, plus is 1.7 inches less in width and the cable is also replaceable. Somewhat interesting, the key font is exactly the same as the Kamura. Switch type and key layout is subjective, but I'm content.

Otherwise, nice overview.

  • 18 months ago
  • 2 points

Thanks for the heads up, it wasn't the Kumara I guess, it was the K556

[comment deleted]
  • 17 months ago
  • 2 points

It's a consistent thing. If I had a nickel for everytime someone has used this logic in a discussion on keyboards I'd have enough to build a new PC.

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