Technology Explained

How Does a Mechanical Keyboard Work?

Georgina Torbet Updated 30-03-2020

Most people don’t think much about the keyboard of their computer. But as something you use every day it can really make a difference to how your computer feels when you interact with it.

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Many serious tech geeks love mechanical keyboards. This type of keyboard is more expensive than a regular keyboard, but gamers and writers often swear by them. So you might be wondering, what is a mechanical keyboard, and how does it work?

How a Traditional Keyboard Works

How Does a Mechanical Keyboard Work? membrane deposit photos
Image Credit: Ikostudio/DepositPhotos

Mechanical keyboards are different from traditional keyboards. Traditional keyboards are called rubber dome keyboards, and they consist of layers of plastic membrane. When you press a key, a rubber switch pushes through a hole in the membrane and completes a circuit. This sends an input signal to your computer.

The advantage of this type of keyboard is that they are cheap to manufacture and are somewhat resistant to having liquids spilled on them. They are also easier to make shallow, like the kind of keyboards you find on a laptop.

However, people who type a lot or who game often find rubber dome keyboards feel “mushy.” They lack a distinct clicking sensation when you push a key. Instead, it can feel like you are pushing down through soft material. This means it takes more effort to type and the results are less accurate.

How a Mechanical Keyboard Works

How mechanical keyboards work - mechanical keyboards

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This mushiness is why serious users often prefer mechanical keyboards. These keyboards don’t use the rubber dome system. Instead, they have switches under the keys which have springs in them. When you press a key, the spring is pushed down to connect the circuit and register a keystroke.

This is why such keyboards are called “mechanical,” because they have a physical mechanism (the spring) which connects the circuit. A mechanical keyboard might look the same as a rubber dome keyboard, as they can have the same key caps. But the feel of pressing down on a spring is different from pressing down on a rubber dome.

Many people find mechanical keyboards more pleasing to interact with, as well as finding it makes their typing more accurate.

How Mechanical Keyboard Switches Work

How mechanical keyboards work - switches

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Mechanical keyboards don’t only come in one style, however. The switches that they use can differ. Different switches have a different feeling when you type on them. Some are light and easy to press; these are good for gamers who need to hit buttons very quickly and want an extremely responsive keyboard.

However, keys which are light and easily pressed lead to more mistakes when typing, as you can accidentally press a key without meaning to. Therefore, people who type a lot often prefer a heavier switch which requires a more deliberate push to register a keystroke.

How difficult a switch is to press is measured in a quality called an actuation force. This measurement, presented in grams, reflects how hard you need to push to activate a keystroke. The higher the actuation force in grams, the harder you need to push.

Another quality which differs between switches is whether they have a tactile bump. Switches which have this tactile bump give a clicky feedback when you press them. Some people like this as it helps them to be more accurate with their typing. Other people find it distracting. It’s up to you which version you prefer.

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Finally, one more consideration is how noisy the switches are. Switches generally make an audible click when they are pressed, which is louder than a rubber dome keyboard. But some mechanical switches are louder than others, so you should consider whether the noise will bother you or the people around you.

Types of Switches for Mechanical Keyboards

The best-known manufacturer of mechanical switches is Cherry. This company is well-known for their high quality switches. On most high-end mechanical keyboards The 7 Best Mechanical Keyboards of 2019 Mechanical keyboards have a distinctive feel that's arguably better. Which is the best mechanical keyboard for you? Read More , you’ll find they are advertised as coming with “Cherry MX” switches.

Within the category of Cherry MX switches, there are a number of different styles available. These switches have different characteristics and are known by color names. Some of the Cherry MX switches you’ll come across are:

  • Cherry MX Red, a light-feeling switched with a 45g actuation force. These responsive switches are ideal for gamers but writers may find they lack the satisfying click of heavier switches.
  • Cherry MX Blue, a heavier switch with 60g actuation force and a tactile “bump.” The clickiness of these switches make them popular with frequent typists, though gamers will find them rather tiring to play on. These are also the noisiest switches, which may be something to consider if you work or game around family or housemates.
  • Cherry MX Black, which is similar to the MX Blue but lacks the bump so has less tactile feedback.
  • Cherry MX Brown, a middle ground switch with 45g actuation force which makes it suitable for both typing and gaming.

Other Mechanical Keyboard Switch Brands

It used to be the case that if you wanted a high-quality mechanical keyboard, you had to go with Cherry switches. But that’s not the case any more. Several other companies make their own switches, which can be of comparable quality and can be used in more affordable mechanical keyboards Which Mechanical Keyboard Should You Buy? 6 Keyboards for Typists and Gamers While CPUs and GPUs remain essential to computer performance, there's an underappreciated peripheral: the keyboard. Everyone uses keyboards, but few people think about them when buying a new PC. Read More .

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Other popular brands making switches including Buckling, Topre, Matias, Kailh, Razer’s Mechas, Logitech’s Romer-Gs, and Gateron. Some of these are Cherry clones, meaning they are other brands’ interpretations of the Cherry versions. Others are original switch designs which have slightly different feels and characteristics.

The best way to decide what kind of switches you want for your keyboard is to try out as many as you can. Try out a friend’s keyboard, or go to a computer store and try their sample keyboards. If this isn’t possible for you, then Cherry MX Brown switches are the option which is likely to be most pleasing for most people and use cases.

Is a Mechanical Keyboard Right for You?

Mechanical keyboards are more expensive than regular keyboards. And you need to try out a variety of switches to find the one that suits you. But if you type or game a lot, then the greater accuracy and ease of use can make a mechanical keyboard a worthwhile investment.

Can’t find the exact perfect keyboard for your needs and feeling adventurous? Why not order switches and other components and build your own custom keyboard with mechanical switches How to Build a Custom Keyboard With Mechanical Switches: A Complete Guide Custom keyboards are easy to make with mechanical switches. You need only a few parts and a little bit of elbow grease to get started. Read More ?

Explore more about: Keyboard, Mechanical Keyboard.

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  1. mick register
    October 29, 2011 at 1:18 am

    I typically like mechanical devices better. I would want one merely because it is mechanical. Sadly, my wallet doesn't support it right now...

    • M.S. Smith
      October 31, 2011 at 5:41 pm

      They are expensive. Try finding used models on eBay or another site. Their durability makes them reliable even after years of use.

  2. lee
    October 28, 2011 at 8:36 pm

    tried one, didn't like it. Too noisy in an office environment. Ended up with a Logitech Wave which I love.

    • M.S. Smith
      October 31, 2011 at 5:41 pm

      Understandable. They are fairly loud. You might want to give a quiet-key mechanical keyboard a try sometime, however. I use a keyboard with Cherry black switches, and it's only slightly louder than a rubber-dome unit.

      • Lina
        November 17, 2016 at 12:06 am

        hi,
        do you know if mechanical keyboards are better then the modern rubber dome models to protect the wrist and have an overall easier time typing? I am an older and a poor typist.
        Thank you.
        Lina