Mechanical Keyboards: What are they and which one do you want?

Once upon a time there was the Northgate OmniKey Keyboard, most notably the OmniKey Plus. It was the best keyboard ever. It was sturdy, mechanical, and proffered a plethora of function keys. It was heavy, meaty, robust. You could pound on it an it would stay in place on your desk and just take it. It did not ghost and it did not miss a stroke. And it went “clickity clickity click” when you typed on it. And all was good.

But an evil spell was cast on the world of computers that caused everyone to think that membrane style keyboards — the ones with no click, no oomph, no mass, no quality — were good or at least acceptable. They are neither, but for a long time, all keyboards were cheap and worthless until one day, the Avant Stellar keyboard was forged by Creative Vision Technologies, created in the image of the OmniKey. And it was good. It was an excellent clone of the earlier Northgate keyboard, quite possibly even more rugged, a bit heavier, and about equally as clicky.

But the evil spell was strong and hard to shake, and eventually, the Avant Stellar keyboard followed the Dodo into a state of extinction. Since they were so sturdy, the Old Ones can still be found and acquired today in the wilderness of eBay, if you watch closely and wear the proper amulets. Indeed, vintage Northgate OmniKeys are occasionally spotted in the wild, but beware. Many of the old OmniKeys are not the Plus, and may indeed have only the function keys on the side, or only the top, and not both as is the original will of the keyboard demigods.

But then time passed, and the old generation got old and forgot things, like what a good keyboard is, and it seemed that there would never be another clicky keyboard.

By and by, a new generation came up, and there was a weak ember, a vague spark among them. They were different. They were not the code monkeys of the church of emacs who could not handle using their pinky for more than one thing, nor were they the hackers of the church of vim who liked to hold the awful membrane keyboards on their laps, or even atheists who use getit or notepad or Text Wrangler to code.

They were gamers.

And one day a gamer, we don’t know who and we don’t know when, accidentally used one of the old OmniKeys or perhaps an Avant Stellar and discovered that a mechanical keyboard is superior to the task and will help you win. And winning is all that matters.

Suddenly, years after the demise of the original mechanical keyboards, a new generation of mechanical keyboards emerged.

Das Keyboard for the PC, Matias Mechanical or the Mac (yes, early Macs had their own mechanical form as well) and, more recently, Aukey. These keyboards spread and became common in gamer world, and other manufacturers started to make clicky keyboards as well. And things have gotten more complicated and nuanced. There are now several kinds of key mechanisms offering a wide range of experiences, and in some cases, these different kinds of key mechanisms are mixed and matched on one machine. Some keyboards have lit keys, sometimes very cleverly lit. There are different levels of mechanical lifespan as well, and of course, different costs. It is now possible, as it always has been, to spend well over $100, perhaps over $200 on a keyboard, but a mechanical keyboard that is fun and functional can also be acquired for closer to $50.

The Different Kinds of Keys

When someone refers to the “key” of a “keyboard” they are often talking about the key cap, the part you press. This part can generally be removed with a keycap puller.

Underneath the key cap is the key switch. The key switch is the mechanical part, with a little up and down thingie that interfaces internally with click-making magical parts and the electronics needed to send a signal to your computer.

A key cap sitting on a key switch, properly, is a key.

Let me tell you how it works.

As the key is depressed, the mechanism reaches an “actuation point.” This is the moment where the signal is sent from your keyboard to your computer. There is a reset point, higher up, to which the key must return before it will accept another down stroke. The total distance a key can be pressed is the “travel.” Different keys will have higher or lower actuation points. Most are about in the middle of a 4mm total travel. Some are a bit higher up, for faster response.

The sticky-outy thing on the switch that the keycap pressed down is the stem. Underneath there is a spring.

There are three broad features combined to make different kinds of mechanical keyboards. Linear means smooth acting and silent. Tactile provides a little bumpy feely experience as you press the key down. Clicky means that the key makes a clicky sound. Key switches with all combinations of these features, and with different actuation points and different resistances to being pushed down (the force needed to actuate the key), are available.

It is the mechanical and/or auditory feedback, in some personally preferred combination, that makes these keyboards faster to type. That and the superior mechanico-electronic response properties make these keyboards generally better. Gamers may prefer no sound or tactile response, just smooth and silent, but mechanical nonetheless.

A person who types 80 – 90 words a minute on a membrane keyboard might find themselves typing over 100 wpm on a mechanical with tactile and sound response. A gamer who wins often but not always may find themselves a master when they switch from membrane to linear mechanical. Truly, this is powerful magic.

There is a nomenclature of key types that is associated with different feelings and properties of keys. This depends on manufacturer, but the most common well regarded swithces are the Cherry MX variety. Since Cherry is the most well known brand, their color coding is sometimes copied by other brands.

To exemplify the variety, for Cherry MX stwitches, the following types are available.

Red

Linear, low force required, modal actuation point (50% of the way down) and travel distance. Very quite. Fast action and not tactile, so minimal feedback. This is better for some gamers, not as good for typers.

Black

Linear but with a heavier feel, requiring more force to push. Quiet. Also a gamer style stitch.

Blue

This requires a larger than average force to depress, and makes a loud click. This is a typists ideal keyboard.

Brown

This is is a quiet key mechaism, but with a feel of medium level and a moderate actuation force. One might see this as a compromise between a gaming and typing key.

Speed

This is a quiet, linear, low-pressure keyboard for gamers who want the fastest possible action and rarely hit the wrong keys. The actuation point is higher, meaning that the signal will be sent to the computer sooner.

Others


There are also switches made by Razer and Kailh, with a similar range of qualities. At the time you are ready to buy a keyboard, consider googling around for the latest information, perhaps using this pre made search

The Keyboard You Want

I’m not sure which keyboard you will want, other than an Avante Stellar, but I’ve tried out a few of them and can give you some suggestions. I am not recommending one of these over the other because they are distinctly different and you will need to figure out what is most important to you. Me? I’ve got all three and I have used all three, but the Avant Stellar (not available to you) is hooked to my main Linux box, the Dad Keyboard S to the Mac, and the Aukey to the Raspberry Pie, and carried along to use as an external keyboard to go on my Linux laptop.

Das Keyboard

At present, Das Keyboard is probably one of the more expensive options, but it is also probably the best in terms of overall quality. There are several different kinds of Das Keyboards.

I am currently using the Das Keyboard Model S Professional for Mac Clicky MX Blue Mechanical Keyboard (DASK3PROMS1MACCLI) on my Mac. It is heavy and solid. It uses Cherry MX Blue keys, so it is is a bear to type on and scares the cat. Perfect for my needs.

I like the feel quite a bit. This particular keyboard has all the Mac buttons, but the special Mac functions along the top require using an Fn key to use them. In other words, instead of hitting the “sound down” or “sound up” key, you have to hit “Fn-sound-down” or “Fn-sound up.” This may seem like a bug but it is actually a feature, as it frees those keys up that the Mac ecosystem eats, so you can use them for other purposes.

The same keyboard but layed out for a Linux or Windows machine is the Das Keyboard Model S Professional for Mac Clicky MX Blue Mechanical Keyboard (DASK3PROMS1MACCLI). Interestingly, you can also get this keyboard (Model S pro) with Cherry MX Brown keys, as the Das Keyboard Model S Professional Soft Tactile MX Brown Mechanical Keyboard (DASK3MKPROSIL). That’s a tactile medium force quiet keyboard, in case you don’t want to scare the cat.

Some of the Das Keyboards have a volume control built right into the keyboard. Most or all have USB outs and at least the one I have has two USB connectors that run from the keyboard to the computer, one for the keyboard and one to feed thorough to said outs.

One think I don’t like about DasKeyboard is this: The letters on the keycaps are lower case and somewhat small. I want giant upper case letters. This is not a very large problem, but if I was redesigning DasKeyboard, I would do that.

Matias

Matias makes a variety of keyboards, but the one I recomend, and that I do like quite a bit, is the Matias Tactile Pro Keyboard for Mac. There is also a compact version, the Matias Mini Tactile Pro Keyboard for Mac, which lacks the number pad. I’m not sure why one would want this.

I had the larger Matias keyboard for years, pounded it on it constantly, and eventually it broke. Matias does not repair keyboards, but it isn’t actually that hard to swap out keys if you know how to use one of these suckers.

Aukey

For many people, the best choice is going to be something like the AUKEY Gaming Keyboard , which has LED baclit keys and blue switches. This is a different style keyboard all together. The keys are not sitting in a cowl-cover face, but rather, are exposed all around looking a bit like an unfinished product. It is very clicky (as it should be) and a bit lighter than the other keyboards, but still substantial.

The biggest difference is that they keys light up, and that there are various fun or practical patterns you can light them up in, mostly random or responsive to your key touch. The most practical pattern is the one that lights up the usual gaming keys.

I have mixed feelings about a light up keyboard, but it works great at night! The great thing about the Aukey keyboard is that it is much less expensive than the others. The lights can, of course, be turned off.

The down side is that the “blue” switches are not Cherry MX, but a knock off, and are not expected to last forever. But, the keyboard costs less than half the amount of a Das Keyboard. There may also be a problem with some of these keyboards, in the other electronics. Some published reviews indicated this, and the first one I got died inexplicably. Aukey did replace it promptly. So, even though there are some down sides, given the cost, I’d recommend it especially for folks who are not totally sure they want a clickly mechanical.

The manufacturers claim that the Aukey is water resistant as well, so don’t worry about spilling your coffee all over it!

Other Keyboards

There are other mechanical keyboards out there, but I’ve not tried them. You might have a look at the Unicomp Keyboards, based on the original IBM design. Logitech also makes keyboards with mechanical key switches Let me know if you’ve got others you like.

If you’ve not tried a mechanical keyboard, you are missing out. Find one and give it a spin, and upgrade!

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9 thoughts on “Mechanical Keyboards: What are they and which one do you want?

  1. I have a Logitech K120 at work and it has a nice feel but the mechanical keyboards are loud. I use the keyboard that is built in to my laptop (docking station) mostly. At home I use a “chiclet” Logitech Bluetooth. I like it because it includes a touch pad. I hate using mice.

  2. …scares the cat

    Since cats are the source of all that is evil in the world, that feature alone makes the keyboard worth having.

  3. I’ve used many of the keyboards you’ve listed, and I’m using the Matias Tactile Pro. It doesn’t have as many keys as the Avant, but more to the point, the keys don’t curve the way my most beloved keyboards did; they lie more or less in the same plane.

    Some of my favorite keyboards used quiet membrane switches, and died when I spilled a glass of wine on them. What most appeals to me is a lot of extra keys and feedback from proprioception rather than sound or touch. I took typing in high school, I only look at the keytops when I’m wondering where my nail clipping went or trying to find a special symbol which as often as not isn’t something I can type with [Option] and [Shift].

  4. Aukey is my favourite one keyboard while playing a game it gives a pleasant feeling. its most unique key with LED backlit keys and blue switches attracts me more, I also use many keyboards. it is one of the best water resistance keyboard.

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