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Mechanical Animals – A Beginner's Introduction to Mechanical Keyboards

Hardware Reviews By Ed Orr on March 07, 2018

Mechanical Animals – A Beginner's Introduction to Mechanical Keyboards

You might have heard them coming. The rhythmic clack of mechanical switches grows louder every time I pass through the local gaming cafe, and the legions turning to these peripherals is growing. For those of us that have never used anything more than the three dollar keyboard, scratched out the bottom of the manufacturers packaging, Mechanical keyboards can seem more than a little intimidating. There are enough colors to make RGB enthusiast green, and an absolutely intimidating array of terms.

So why even bother? Well, it’s all about the feedback and feel. Apart from looking fantastic and being easy to customize or maintain, these keyboards give a very definite response. Use a mechanical keyboard, and you can be assured that when you press a key that you can actually feel what you are doing.

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If you have not made the jump to a mechanical keyboard yet, then there is a fair likelihood you might be using a dome membrane keyboard. While this isn’t the only technology out there, it’s a good point of reference to compare and explain the inside of a mechanical keyboard. The membrane keyboard consists of four main parts, the keycap, a slider that sits beneath it, a rubber membrane, and the electronics beneath. This rubber membrane spans the entire breadth of the keyboard and provides some resistance when a player pushes down on a key. The keycap, and the slider mechanism beneath it, press down onto this membrane, and ultimately onto a printed circuit board beneath. This registers the keypress and swings your sword.

As a mass market product, this type of peripheral still has plenty of value in the market. They are affordable and can still look dam fancy. Massive manufacturers are still churning these out, and the Logitech G321 shows a definitive commitment to keeping the membrane market alive. Mechanical keyboards, however, are an entirely different beast.

MECHANICAL CONSTRUCTS

Mechanical keyboards are, at their simplest, a base of electronics, metal, and plastic, all sitting snugly beneath an array of keys. These switches are a set of independently housed components that all fit together to make a single key, each key acts as a single unit, providing  distinct feedback to the user and are made up of the following components.

THE KEYCAP

Keycaps are essentially a simple piece of plastic. Just like all keyboards, they are the visible part of the keyboard for beginners generally come in two forms, single or double shot injection molded caps.

Single shot molding is not particularly common in mechanical keyboard design. These keys are functional, and are made of a single piece of plastic. Letters are generally printed on top to the plastic and will suffer from wear and tear fairly easily.

Double shot molded keys are far more common in this line of product. Created by fusing two pieces of plastic together, these provide a far more durable product and will mean the letters on the key cap will be very durable.

There is also the difference between certain types of plastics used. The most common is ABS plastic, which is found on most gaming keyboards. Enthusiast keyboards sometimes opt for the denser and more expensive PBT plastic. PBT keycaps are more resistant to shine and breakage over time and are often said to feel better due to their greater density.

THE STEM

The stem sits directly under the keycap and can vary in design depending on key manufacturer. Essentially this is where the keycap rests and the first thing you’ll see if you pop off a cap.

THE HOUSING

This is simply the housing that encases the rest of the key components. It holds the key together as one independent unit, allowing individual keys to be replaced, one at a time if necessary.

THE SLIDER

The slider is a fairly substantial internal component of a mechanical key. Each key includes a slider which is pushed down beneath the keycap and stem. This will interrupt the connection of a series of metal contacts in the key.

THE METAL CONTACTS

This is essentially two separate components that make a complete circuit. The metal contact on the side of the key will register a keystroke when they make contact, closing their circuit. This action occurs when the slider is push down between them, interrupts their contact causing their contact components to separate and connect.

THE SPRING

The spring sits at the base of each key housing. It provides some of the physical resistance felt when applying pressure to each key, and returns a key to its depressed, or reset, position.

The result of this over design is a set of individual components, all crafted to work as part of a larger product, as opposed to a single homogeneous unit. This is just the start of picking a keyboard that will suit you. While the internal circuitry, lighting, RGB color selection, USB ports, and all have an impact, one of the most perplexing points is the myriad of switches available form a host of manufacturers. Form an understated bump to a resounding clack, every color seems to be different, so what types of switches are there?

FEELING GOOD?

Mechanical keys are commonly called switches and they come in three forms, each giving a particular type of feedback and feel to their movement.

CLICKY

As you inevitably march towards your mechanical fate, you might want to dance to the rhythm of a clicky switch. This type of feedback is, as it suggests, a description of any mechanical key that makes a clicking sound as the internal components move.

TACTILE

Tactile keys are a type of mechanical switch that will provide a physical bump when each key is pressed. It gives players a physical feedback that a key has moved far enough to register a keystroke.

LINEAR

This type of switch does not include a bump or a click. These focus on maintaining a smooth operation and a linear motion, giving players the fastest response time between deciding to fire off a key press and getting there with the minimum of fuss.

TERMS OF ENDEARMENT

By now you know that Mechanical switches are built as independent units, and made up of several parts. Each switch can have a particular type of feedback to it but there are a few more terms you need to know if you want to start shopping around. These are some of the most common ideas around

Actuation Force

  • Put simply, the actuation force is a measure of how hard you need to press a key for it to register an input

Actuation Point

  • This is a measure of how far down you have to press a key for it to register.

Travel Distance

  • How far the key can be pressed down before it can’t go any further

Bottoming out

  • A key can’t go any further down

Reset Point

  • The point at which the whole switch moves back up and is ready to be pressed again

MANUFACTURERS

CHERRY SWITCHES

A few years ago the only the Cherry MX brand was the only key worth your time. These are still generally considered to be the de facto model of switch and the standard by which all other keys are measured. You’ll find lots of keyboards still use these, from the bare essentials, to the more indulgent purchase. They come in a variety of colors, each relating to very specific specifications.

CHERRY MX BLUE

  • Color: Blue
  • Tactile Profile: Clicky
  • Actuation Force: 50g
  • Actuation Point: 2.0mm
  • Travel Distance: 4.0mm

The heaviest feeling of the Cherry MX branded keys, blues require some force to register an input. Cherry MX Blue keys produce a bump when they are activated and are particularly loud,  producing a very audible click when pressed. They tend to give you to have a very definite impression of when a key stroke has been registered and when one hasn’t. They’re great for typing and can work perfectly well for gaming, but if you’ve ever seen twitch chat complain about the clicky clacking of a keyboard, it’s quite probable these are blue keys. If you have to get on with other people, make sure they don’t mind the noise or have some enormous headphones.

CHERRY MX BROWN

  • Color: Brown
  • Tactile Profile: Tactile
  • Actuation Force: 45g
  • Actuation point: 2.0mm
  • Travel Distance: 4.0mm

Brown keys are are not dissimilar to their blue counterparts. They require less pressure to use and dispense with the loud click. These continue to retain the physical feedback, in the form of a bump, that some mechanical keys provide.

CHERRY MX RED

  • Color: Red
  • Tactile Profile: Linear
  • Actuation Force: 45g
  • Actuation point: 2.0mm
  • Travel Distance: 4.0mm

The red variant of this brand have been, for some time, the go to key for gamers. They provide fast, responsive input with a linear profile. They require less force than blue key switches, dispense with the loud clicking noise, and do not posses an obvious bump. This all leads to a much smoother operation while retaining some feedback when a key bottoms out, impacting the bottom of the board.

CHERRY MX BLACK

  • Tactile Profile: Linear
  • Actuation Force: 60g

Like the red variant, black iterations of the Cherry MX brand are a linear key. They have no click, and dispense with the obvious bump but do require a weightier impact to push the key down. This can be good more heavy handed gamers or those that like to spam, without the tactile feedback of the brown and blue editions.

CHERRY MX SPEED

  • Color: Grey
  • Tactile Profile: Linear
  • Actuation Force: 45g
  • Actuation Point: 1.2mm
  • Travel Distance: 3.4 mm

Although gray, the speed are not defined by their color. They are distinctly different to this manufacturers other keys, having a higher actuation point. While we haven’t gone into this much, it means that the distance of travel required to register a key press is significantly shorter than other Cherry MX keys. The tactile profile of these keys should be similar to the red class of Cherry MX switches. These are a sacrifice of speed over tactile feedback that will suit the light touch gamer.

While the Cherry MX brand is possibly the dominant player in this market, new designs are starting to arrive all the time. The market default is no longer the premium model and a dazzling array of brands provide various options. In short, the current market is competitive. Cheaper models are available but not all of them provide the same build quality as the industry’s de facto standard. Some of the more prominent competitor models are below.

RAZER SWITCHES

Coming into the market in 2014, Razer switches appear exclusively in Razer products. Branded as a set of switches designed primarily for gaming, these are found exclusively in Razer keyboards. Their most obvious physical difference, apart from color schemes, is that these keys all have a particularly short distance to travel between being activated and resetting. This means that, for anybody who can feel the difference, these are ready to go again very quickly.

The Blackwidow Chroma v2 and Blackwidow Tournament Edition Chroma V2 are just two of the keyboards we have handled with these particular switches. Just like the Cherry brand, they define their switches specifications by color.

Razer Orange

  • Color: Orange
  • Tactile Profile: Tactile
  • Actuation Force: 45g
  • Actuation Point: 1.9mm
  • Travel Distance: 4.0mm

Razer Orange keys are equivalent to the Cherry Brown keys. They have a tactile bump when activated but no audible click.

Razer Green

  • Color: Green
  • Tactile Profile: Clicky
  • Actuation Force: 50g
  • Actuation Point: 1.9mm
  • Travel Distance: 4.0mm

Razer Orange keys are comparable to the Cherry Blue keys. They have a tactile bump and a clicking noise when activated.

Razer Yellow

  • Color: Yellow
  • Tactile Profile: Linear
  • Actuation Force: 45g
  • Actuation Point: 1.2mm
  • Travel Distance: 3.5mm

Razer designed their yellow switches with the FPS and MOBA crowd in mind. These are a direct competitor to the Cherry Speed key and have an almost identical actuation point, meaning  if you want to spam heals or get out a lot of dps and buy Razer, these might be worth considering.

KAILH SWITCHES

Kailh switches are probably the other major brand of key you are going to come across when buying your first mechanical keyboard. In fact, unless you are splashing out on something tropical or expensive, then the budget mechanical keybaord due on your doorstep is probably coming crammed with some of Kailh’s finest.

The Azio MK Retro Classic and Viper Gaming V770 are just some examples of keyboards built around Kailh keys, and sometimes referred to as Cherry MX equivalents. These can have something of a chequered reputation, with keyboard warriors finding easy targets in these cheaper alternatives to the big brand products. Don’t let this put you off. We’ve found that, in reality, you can still get a perfectly serviceable keyboard full of these switches.

Coming out of china, the Kailh keys define their attributes by the same standard as Cherry and tend to conform to similar specifications.

KAILH BLUE

  • Color: Blue
  • Tactile Profile: Clicky
  • Actuation Force: 50g
  • Actuation Point: 2.0mm
  • Travel Distance: 4.0mm

KAILH BROWN

  • Color: Brown
  • Tactile Profile: Tactile
  • Actuation Force: 45g
  • Actuation point: 2.0mm
  • Travel Distance: 4.0mm

They come in a similar variety of colors, including red, and will tend to ape their Cherry counterparts  in this respect. You might also find other Cherry MX equivalent models in Greentech,  AULA, and Huano, to mention a few. What we’ve introduced here ifs the de facto standard, a popular alternative, and the low cost competitor to both.

CONCLUSION

This introduction is only a brief sampling of what you'll find in the market. From Bloody’s new optical switches, to the hybrid mecha membrane keys hitting the market, there are dozens of new technologies to come across. Hopefully by now you’ll know what bottoms we’re talking about, why blue is loud, and what type of keybaord you might be looking for.