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Understanding mechanical keyboards and switches

Red, brown, blue, black! So many switches. So much confusion. Fret not young keyboard warrior, read on for deepening your understanding of mechanical switches and keyboards.

For this piece I’d like to go back a few months and reminisce about how this year’s CES. The Nerd Squad had gotten together for a few overnight keynote sessions as we usually did back then. We’ve had this little thing for a while now, staying up through the night to watch CES keynotes while gaming on the side. So when we heard of Cherry’s new silent switches, the conversation veered towards mechanical keyboards. Now most of us have mechanical keyboards at work and at home but there are some who don’t find it feasible to plunk down the hefty initial investment for a mechanical keyboard. I too didn’t bother much with mechanical keyboards for a long time.

Cherry MX blueHaving spent most of my gaming sessions on membrane keys, I never found membrane keys to be lacking. But as time goes by, the cheap membrane keys tend to bottom out and never recover. And sometimes the key caps grind the shaft to such an extent that pressing keys tend to be more laborious as the keyboard ages. Add a little bit of dust and grime, and you have a recipe for FPS disaster. RTS players can get by but those who’re a little too dependant on keyboard macros will feel the pain as well. Ever since I’ve moved to mechanical keyboards, I’ve completely banished the thought of going back to membrane. Even buzz-wordy hybrid switches seem to be a leap of faith. But more on that later.

Like most HIDs (Human Interface Devices), your choice of a mechanical keyboard is very much suited to your preferences. And mechanical keyboards have a lot of parameters worth noting but at the end of the day, you might just go with something you are most comfortable with. Which is why, you need to try out any keyboard before you buy them because you don’t want to spend a large amount on a keyboard which proves to be discomforting and too noisy for your ears (this is a genuine complaint).

Let’s break down these parameters into cosmetic and functional. We’ll stick to the functional aspects as these are what matter, the cosmetic parameters are key agnostic. Since mechanical keys are individually wired, you tend to get N-key rollover with every one of them. For gamers and ultra-fast typers, this matters as they tend to press quite a few keys together and a poorly wired keyboard might not register a key every now and then. But with mechanical, you don’t have to worry about that. There’s another caveat here, N-key rollover is guaranteed with PS/2 connectors but with USB you need to read the fine print. Any keyboard with above 4/5-key rollover is more than sufficient for the vast majority of us. Even for those who claim to have very high WPM (words per minute).

IBM Model M

The key component with keyboards are … the keys. There are so many different types of keys available you’re literally spoilt for choice. Up until a few years back there were just a few companies making mechanical switches but with the recent craze for mechanical keyboards, these numbers have risen substantially. You can still get keyboards with buckling spring switches, those which were part of the legendary IBM M Keyboards (I believe we still have one in the Digit Test Labs). Then you have Topre, Kailh, Matias switches among others. Some keyboard manufacturers have even developed their own keys like Logitech’s Romer-G, Razer Green, Orange and Mecha-Membrane, and the SteelSeries QS1. But the most well known of mechanical switches – so much that they’ve become synonymous with mechanical keyboards – are Cherry MX switches. The MX is actually a series from Cherry which is present in most mechanical keyboards.

key switch

Each key has a few defining parameters to it. Perhaps you like keys to be a little extra stiff or maybe you like a little clickety clack with each key-press. All keys from the Cherry series are easily distinguishable thanks to colour coding. The most popular is Cherry MX Red which makes no noise, has no tactile feedback and the spring is fairly soft. The second most popular key is the Cherry MX Blue which is slightly stiffer because of a bump along the key cylinder. But they are noisy. Having tried most of the keys from Cherry’s arsenal I tend to lean towards Cherry MX Brown but Black is fine for me as well. My first mechanical keyboard was the TVS-e Gold with Cherry MX Blue and I moved on to Red switches later – because Blue was too darn noisy at night. There are hybrid keys as well, but we rather not talk about them as they are rubber dome switches with slightly improved durability.

If you’re in the market for a mechanical keyboard but don’t want to spend a lot, then the TVS-e Gold is a good one to start with. If macro keys are an absolute need then the Corsair K95 is one you should consider since it has 18 of them. What you should keep in mind is that since mechanical keys are tall, the keyboards can be slightly strenuous to work with. So either get a keyboard with a palm rest or get one separately, especially if you tend to type a lot. As mentioned earlier, you should really try out mechanical keyboards before purchasing them as you need to figure out which key type you are most comfortable with – be it for gaming or for day to day typing work.

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