Are mechanical keyboards a necessary piece of equipment, or are they a gimmick?
PC gamers tend to take our peripherals very seriously. One of the essential peripherals on our desk is the keyboard. In the last five or so years, there has been a massive shift to mechanical keyboards. With that shift has come a lot of questions around whether or not mechanical keyboards are superior for gaming.
Unfortunately, there is no definitive answer to this question. Peripherals tend to be wildly personal. It is effortless for me to tell you whether or not a piece of kit is good, but only you know if it meets your needs. To get a handle on why mechanical keyboards are all the rage, we need first to understand the difference between membrane keyboards and mechanical keyboards.
Before we discuss mechanical keyboards, let’s talk about the
more common membrane keyboards. Membrane keyboards dominate most of the
consumer market today, and for a few decent reasons. These reasons include cost,
form-factor, and sound. I am typing this article on a membrane keyboard.
In a standard membrane or rubber dome, keyboard feedback is
provided by a small rubber dome under the key. Additionally, the keystroke is
recorded when a metal contact in the rubber dome contacts the PCB below. You
can see why this style of keyboard is cheap to manufacture.
There are several other membrane keyboards you have likely
encountered. If you have used the keypad on a microwave, you have dealt with a
flat-panel membrane keyboard. Full-travel membrane keyboards, on the other
hand, function similarly to a rubber dome keyboard. There are dome-switch
keyboards, which are some middle ground between a rubber dome keyboard and a
mechanical keyboard. There are also scissor-switch keyboards that give gaming
laptops their sleek form factor while offering more tactile feedback.
If you like inexpensive, thin, low-profile, quiet keyboards, you should look no further and stick with membrane keyboards. If you prefer comfort, longevity, precision, and tactile feedback, you should read on.
When you think of the big, classic looking, hefty keyboard,
you are likely thinking of a mechanical keyboard. I grew up in the early 90’s,
so I have always preferred the clickity-clack of a solid mechanical keyboard.
In reality, a mechanical keyboard can be best described as high-quality plastic
switches that are actuated by keycaps.
That definition is likely unclear without a little bit of
explanation. Let’s clarify with MORE definitions:
top cap with letter/number
the part under the cap that moves when you press the key
the case holding together all of the components
When you press down on the keycap, the stem moves down and
activates a mechanical switch, which is spring-loaded. This action causes a
“click,” which provides tactile and audio feedback. A linear switch
needs to be pressed down all the way to register the keystroke, while a tactile
switch only requires a partial press.
Mechanical Keyboards – Switch Colors
The first time I looked for a mechanical keyboard for gaming, I got very confused by all of the talk around switch colors. My initial thought was, “Does it matter? There is a keycap covering that”. It turns out it does matter. In the early 1980s, the company Cherry was the exclusive manufacturer of plastic key switches called Cherry MX Switches. These switches were often referred to by stem color. Though many other brands manufacture switches, Cherry MX switches are one of the most popular.
Here is what each Cherry MX color indicates:
for serious typists. Tactile and audible feedback; switch works when halfway
depressed. Not ideal for gaming.
stiffer than the Blue.
linear gaming switch. Very smooth.
stiffer than the Red. Great for games requiring precision.
ground switch. Smooth like the Red with a tactile bump.
switch, great for games requiring constant key pounding.
Knowing what the switch color means will save you a ton of headache in buying a mechanical keyboard. I, luckily, ended up with a keyboard using Cherry MX Brown switches. That ended up being very fortunate, as it is an excellent switch for hopping between gaming and daily tasks, which is what I was doing at the time.
Picking a Mechanical
At this point, I assume you have decided that a mechanical keyboard is for you. There is a wide array of mechanical keyboards available for gaming today, and their features and prices range wildly. As I mentioned earlier, selecting the right peripheral is a very personal experience, so here are a few things to consider.
The first is cost. You can’t buy what you can’t afford. With
keyboards as low as $60 and well over $200, it is crucial to set a price range
Next, I would think about space. As previously mentioned, mechanical keyboards can take up a fair amount of space. If you have a small desk or your keyboard lives somewhere with limited clearance, you need to take note of that.
In my opinion, tactile feedback is the most critical aspect.
I enjoy a tactile switch and a beveled keycap. If you prefer a smooth linear
switch with flat keys, we likely won’t enjoy the same keyboard.
I already mentioned that mechanical keyboards are louder
than their membrane counterparts, but how loud is right for you? Living with
roommates will likely mean you need a keyboard that is quieter than the one I
have in my dedicated office space.
The most important factor to consider is the keyboard’s lifespan. Plenty of keyboards are rated up to, and above, fifty million keystrokes. When you take into account that the average keystrokes per hour are about eight thousand, you’d have to game two-hundred and sixty days straight before causing a failure. Some keyboards will be rated for less and others for more, so take that into account.
Mechanical keyboards are great if you like what they offer. I find them a superior experience both for everyday work and for gaming. Between the hardy construction, tactile feedback, satisfying “click,” and precision, I don’t think you can go wrong.
Everybody has different tastes, and your gaming peripherals should fit you, not the other way around, so I urge you to go try out as many kinds of mechanical keyboards as you can. I acknowledge that there are a lot of entries in the market, and it can be overwhelming even to find a starting point. I hope to remedy that by reviewing several popular mechanical keyboards in the coming months. Make sure to follow Gamezo if you are interested in those reviews.