For geeks, mechanical keyboards are the holy grail of input devices. They’re relatively rare, they’re expensive, and require some explanation for people to understand them. It’s everything a geek could ask for.
If you’re not a keyboard enthusiast (yes, there are people who call themselves that) then you’ve probably heard of mechanical keyboards and their wondrous benefits, but you may not know how they work.
As you’ve probably guessed from the term mechanical keyboard, products labeling themselves are fundamentally different from more common keyboards. But how?
It comes down to what is known as a key switch. This is the term used to describe both the mechanism by which a key moves and the mechanism by which a keystroke is registered.
On your typical modern keyboard, the keys are supported by a rubber dome membrane which lies beneath the keys. The rubber dome naturally resists any attempt to depress it, thus returning keys to their original position. When a key is sufficiently depressed, two contacts come together, which is registered as a keystroke.
Mechanical keyboards are, functionally, very similar. They also resist each keystroke, thus returning to their original position after a user removes their finger, and most also use contacts that come together to register a key press. However, instead of using rubber, springs are used. This creates a smoother, more linear key feel, and also results in a quicker return to the key’s original position.
Pick Your Switch
Although mechanical keyboards are often boasted as if they are a unique and uniform line of products, they’re actually just a category. There are many different types of mechanical key switches which use entirely different designs, resulting in different traits.
The most popular line of switches on the market today are designed by a company called Cherry. These switches use a small spring in the bottom of the switch to create resistance. It is attached to a plastic plunger, all of which is placed in a self-contained housing.
What’s interesting about Cherry is that they have numerous different options which use slightly different spring rates and plunger designs to create a different key feel. Some have a tactile “bump” that can be felt at the point where the switch’s electrical contacts come together to register a key press, while others have tactile feel purposely taken out of the switch entirely.
Another common switch is the buckling spring. If you used an IBM keyboard in the 80’s or early 90’s, but haven’t used a mechanical keyboard since, this is the switch you’d be used to. As the name implies, these keys have a spring inside that resists the user’s finger. However, at a certain point the spring is overwhelmed and buckles, creating a nice mechanical sound and provides instant tactile feel.
This benefit is also their biggest downfall. All mechanical switches are loud relative to a typical rubber dome, but buckling spring switches are exceptionally noisy. Today, this switch is rarely found on new keyboards, although you can purchase new keyboards meant to replicate old IBM Model M keyboards from .
Those looking for the ultimate switch should consider keyboards using the Topre design. Actually a hybrid switch, it uses a combination of a mechanical spring with rubber dome specifically designed to create tactile feedback when it collapses. These keyboards are known for a smooth, tactile keystroke that doesn’t require much effort, and because the design isn’t 100% mechanical, it is not excessively loud.
The downside is simply price, as keyboards using the Topre design (under the brand name Realforce) typically cost over $250. You can buy keyboards with Topre switches weighted for different degrees of force and some keyboards tailor key switches typically pressed with your pinky (your weakest finger) so that they require less force to activate.
These are not the only switch designs ever created. The first keyboards used some rather extravagant designs that weren’t fully mechanical, such as the hall-effect switch, which used the current generated by a passing magnet to detect keystrokes. Most modern mechanical keyboards, however, use the switches described above.
Mechanical keyboards are not particularly complex. Each switch contains just a few moving parts. Their rarity is due to the fact that a mechanical switch costs more to make. Although mechanical switches are generally much more durable, most consumers understandably find a $20 or $30 rubber dome model more appealing.
Hopefully I’ve explained the switches sufficiently, but if you have any questions, feel free to leave them in the comments!