Mechanical Keyboards..? What manner of mysterious technology is this..?!
A few weeks ago I started noticing some troubling issues with my then-beloved Logitech G19 gaming keyboard. A few of the keys were starting to stick a little, which was becoming troublesome for typing, and even more frustrating for gaming. I started to troubleshoot the issue by cleaning the keyboard — first with some compressed air, then when that didn’t work…I popped the keys off to have a look. The keyboard was really pretty clean, with no foreign objects nestled beneath the plagued keys.
I did a little research on the issue and discovered that my problem was unrelated to my G19, but rather it was a problem with “rubber-dome” keyboards in general. After awhile the keys just become more sensitive to non-direct key presses – meaning…key presses that are not delivered squarely upon the center of the key. I find that when I type or game – sometimes my key presses tend to be a bit off-center, hitting closer to the corner of the key. These types of keystrokes were causing some of my keys to not register or literally “get stuck”. This behavior was costing me additional time by having to go back and fix typos, not to mention it was causing me major headaches when gaming.
The term “rubber dome keyboard” was something I had been unaware of up until about 2 weeks ago. I had always just thought all keyboards were pretty much the same, aside from all of the added bells and whistles you get with some of the fancier multimedia ones, such as my G19. After a few search engine queries, Google ended up leading me down a rabbit hole – introducing me to the mysterious and wonderful world of mechanical keyboards.
For those of you, like me – who were more or less oblivious to this subtle, yet distinct difference in input devices – here’s a brief overview of rubber dome vs mechanical keyboards. I’m in no way an expert on the subject, so consider this a basic description in layman’s terms…
Rubber Dome Keyboards
A rubber dome keyboard uses a single rubber mat in the keyboard tray with raised domes for each individual key. When a user presses a key, the dome pushes down to connect two pieces of metal – completing the circuit which registers the particular key press. Rubber dome keyboards are what the majority of computer users are familiar with.
Rubber dome keyboards became mainstream in the 90′s when computer manufacturers began packaging them with their systems due to the lower manufacturing costs involved. In addition, rubber dome keyboards are a bit more welcome in a home PC environment where a quieter keyboard is usually more appreciated. Rubber dome keyboards are also pretty durable. You can spill a soda on a rubber dome keyboard, and apart from things getting a little sticky…there’s usually no harm done. Also, because they’re typically pretty affordable, they’re easily replaced once they become a little worse for wear.
Mechanical keyboards utilize a mechanical switch beneath each and every key on the keyboard. These types of keyboards were pretty standard back in the 70′s and 80′s, before PC manufacturers made the switch to the more economical and less ‘clackity’ rubber dome keyboards in the 90s. However, they are still widely used today in many business settings that depend upon accuracy and efficiency, e.g, legal, financial, medical and other service-related industries.
Mechanical keyboards utilize an independent mechanical switch beneath each and every key. This mechanical switch system provides for a very smooth, precise and tactile feel when typing.
Pressing a key on a mechanical keyboard has a very smooth and accurate feel, rather than the “mushy” feel you get from a rubber dome keyboard. The term mushy may be a bit of an exaggeration, but it’s commonly used when describing the sensation of typing on a rubber dome keyboard.
Mechanical Keyboard Switches
To suit the varying needs of individuals and to offer a more tailored typing experience, mechanical switch keyboards are offered with a variety of different switch types. The main differences between the various switches are: the force required to press the key – and – the point at which the key stroke actuates, i.e., when the character registers on your screen.
After doing a great deal of research on mechanical keyboards, I found that the popular switch types are made by a company called Cherry, and that the switches are called: black, blue, brown, clear and red. Cherry, the company that manufactures the switches, uses color identifiers to differentiate the various switch types. The color is in reference to the color of plastic used for the actual switch mechanism beneath the keycap, with each key switch having a different actuation type. Of these five: black, blue and brown are generally the most popular and widely used amongst manufacturers of mechanical keyboards.
Differences Between Black, Blue and Brown Switches
Cherry MX Black – This is regarded as the gaming switch. Black switches are fully linear, with no “click” at all. This type of switch is designed for full and forceful keypresses, where the only tactile feel is the key bottoming out on the switchplate. This keyboard is considered one of the “louder” types of mechanical keyboards due to the “thud” sound created at the point of actuation. Black switches are primarily recommended for gaming – where fast and furious same-key presses are typical. Cherry MX Black switches have often been touted as the most durable of the switch types – rated at 50M keystrokes.
Cherry MX Blue – Considered to be the preferred switch for typing purists. They require a very light key press, with actuation near the beginning of the keystroke. Blue switches have a mechanism in the switch that floats independently of the keycap and spring – giving it a very precise feel at the point of actuation. Touch typists love these keys because they are very tactile and require little effort to press. Because of the distinct actuation in the keystroke, Cherry MX Blue switches have a very “clicky” sound – making this type of switch arguably the “loudest” of all the Cherry MX switches. Although they’e considered noisier, to me it seems more or less that they’re just higher pitched — all of these switch types are loud.
Cherry MX Brown – This switch type is probably the most popular. It’s considered somewhat of a hybrid switch in that it works great for gaming, but it also has a more tactile feel and requires a lighter touch than the black switches, which makes it really good for typing as well. Another selling point of the brown switches is the noise. Although the difference between the brown and the black is not that distinct…the browns do sound slightly more muted. However, they are definitely not “stealth” and are far from “silent”… a couple of words that manufacturers have used to market these types of keyboards.
No matter which type of mechanical switch you decide upon, know that they are all quite loud. Mechanical keyboards are much, much louder than rubber dome keyboards and infinitely louder than the scissor-switch type which are used in most laptops.
Here’s a video comparing the noise made by the different switch types…
That will give you a rough idea as far as what to expect in terms of noise, but you cannot truly appreciate how loud they are until you’re using one in a quiet room.
Alright, well I ran on a bit longer than intended here, so I’m going to wrap this up for now and move on to my mechanical keyboard purchasing decision in the next post…