Information you need to know before purchasing a mechanical keyboard

Information you need to know before purchasing a mechanical keyboard
December 28, 2018 Suadmin
In Test Report

Most of the keyboards you’ve ever encountered have probably used some form of rubber membrane or scissor mechanism (in the case of laptops). They might get the job done, but any substantial amount of typing or gaming demands something more robust, and a mechanical keyboard is indeed that. The switches on a mechanical keyboard will last longer, remain more consistent, and be more comfortable than a cheaper board. The problem is deciphering all the enthusiast lingo to learn what board is right for you.

A mechanical keyboard usually costs over $100 (or more) and will last you for many years. You don’t want to make the wrong choice, so consider this your crash course in mechanical keyboards.

full wasd


The first thing you’ll need to decide on is a layout. The traditional desktop 104-key full-size layout is still common. That means you have a full numpad, a function row, and arrow cluster. This is probably what you’ll be most comfortable with, but these boards usually cost a little more than smaller options (they have more switches, after all) and they’re big.


The next step down is the tenkeyless (TKL) form factor above. They’re sometimes called 80% boards. This is the same as a full keyboard, except the number pad is gone. This makes the board a little cheaper and more portable. It also lets you center the alpha keys more in front of you without having the board hanging way off to the right.


A less common design, but one that’s increasingly popular, is the 60% or mini keyboard (above). These boards drop everything except the alpha keys, modifiers (enter, shift, etc.), and the number row. So, what about all the other keys? They’re accessed via a function layer, for example Fn + WASD for your arrows. The advantage is that these boards are a little cheaper than TKL and full-size boards, and once you get used to the function layer, you can type incredibly fast as your hands don’t have to move as far to access various functions. They’re also super portable. There are a few options slightly bigger than this called 67 or 68% boards, but they’re rather uncommon.


A form factor that is increasingly popping up among enthusiasts is known as 40% or ortholinear (above). These custom boards are even smaller than the 60% (obviously), consisting of just four rows of twelve keys aligned to a grid. It’s basically just the alpha keys and a subset of modifiers. That means you’ll need to learn two function layers to have access to all the common keyboard features, but they are usually completely programmable to work however you want. Because they’re so small, your fingers are never more than two keys away from a function. You can be very fast with an ortholinear keyboard, and they almost fit in your pocket.


Lastly, there’s the ergodox (above). These are also custom boards that you can’t just buy outright most of the time, but some people swear by them. They’re split boards, with half the keys on each hand. Like the mini and ortholinear keyboards, they have function layers that can make you very efficient once you’re acclimated.


Most boards can be purchased with your choice of various switches — this is what makes a mechanical keyboard mechanical. The most common switches are Cherry MX and the various Cherry clones from manufacturers like Gateron and Kailh. Switches are color-coded to help identify their unique characteristics.

These switches come in three basic varieties: clicky, tactile, and linear. Clicky switches like the MX Blue and heavier MX Green make an audible click when you depress them. Tactile switches (MX brown and the heavier MX Clear) have a little bump you can feel as you depress them, but don’t click. Linear switches (MX Red and the heavier MX Black) don’t click or have a tactile bump. There’s really something for everyone.


A Cherry MX Clear switch.

If you’re mainly interested in a good typing experience, the sharp click and tactile feedback of a blue or green switch is probably best. Browns and clears are good for typing too, but won’t annoy those around you. Linear switches are mostly used in gaming boards, but you can type on them too. Cherry and the clone switches all have the same plus-shaped colored stem under the keycap, which allows you to identify the type and differentiates them from other switches.

topre switch

A Topre switch.

Another popular switch type to consider is Topre. They’re found in fewer boards and tend to be very spendy. These are hybrid electro-capacitive switches consisting of a rubber dome, spring, and capacitive contact. They have a larger round stem for easy identification. They’re extremely smooth and tactile with a distinctive “thock” sound when pressed. They come in a few different weights, and offer a great typing experience.

Finally, you might come across some keyboards with Alps clone switches. These have a rectangular stem and come in various flavors of clicky, tactile, and linear. Original Alps switches aren’t made anymore, but there are some clones used in popular boards from companies like Matias and Filco. There is little reason to seek out Alps switches in particular with all the varieties of Cherry switches out there.


So you’ve decided on a layout and a type of switch that seems right for you. Now what? The keycaps on some boards might be a deciding factor as you shop around. Most keyboards have inexpensive ABS keycaps with printed or lasered legends. These tend to get shiny after some use and the legends might wear off. A step up is a double-shot ABS, which should retain the legends over time.

abs vs pbt

The best keycaps are made from the harder PBT plastic. It has a rougher texture that makes the keys feel less slippery and they’ll last much longer than ABS caps before they start to look used. There are still some of these that use printed legends, but the nicer ones are dye sublimated, meaning the dye for the legends is integrated into the plastic itself. There are a few other ways of getting legends onto keys, but they aren’t very common.

If you pick a board with backlighting, you may well get keycaps that have transparent lasered legends. These are usually ABS, and the transparent infill material is sometimes not very durable. They look cool in the dark, though.


So, you finally picked a keyboard, but you were foolish to think that was the end of it. There are various customizations that can make your board more personal, ranging from simple keycap swaps to modding your switches. If you think you’re going to want to make changes to the keyboard, you might want to make sure you get something with standard key sizes. Some boards have unusual bottom rows that make it hard to find custom keycap sets.

jukebox keycaps

A standard bottom row has the following key widths: (1.25)(1.25)(1.25)(6.25 spacebar)(1.25)(1.25)(1.25)(1.25). Anything else, and it’s going to be somewhat of a pain to swap out keys. Be aware, this is where the cash starts piling up. Some keycap sets can run over $100, depending on rarity. Remember, Topre switches have different stems, and most custom sets are MX only.

You might also keep an eye on the keyset profile. Almost all boards have OEM sculpted keys out of the box. You probably think of these as “normal” keys. The keys are slightly angled and the heights vary from row to row. There are also taller SA keysets that are more angled from one row to the next, then DSA keysets that are flatter and not sculpted differently row to row. You might find one of these more comfortable than the others.

If you can’t find just the right switch, it’s possible to open most Cherry switches and swap the springs for something more to your liking. For example, some people open MX Clears and put in lighter springs to make “Ergo Clears.” Most boards require you to de-solder the switches in order to open them, though.


By far, the most insane aspect of mechanical keyboard customization is collecting artisan keycaps. These custom caps are created in the shape of skulls, monster heads, gems, cat paws, robots, and so much more. Because most are hand made, sales are sporadic and demand is high. If you’re lucky to get in on the sale, you might pay $20 to $50 for a single cap. The secondhand prices are ridiculous, though. People regularly sell the rarest keycaps for several hundred dollars.

Wrapping up

Some of the coolest mechanical keyboards aren’t easy to find, but there are great boards for sale at retailers like Amazon and Newegg. For a solid full size board, check out products from Ducky, Das Keyboard (just the full-size), and Cooler Master. Gaming-oriented keyboards from Corsair are well-reviewed too. WASD Keyboards also makes some excellent products in both full and TKL sizes. Other popular TLK boards include Filco’s Majestouch products and Cooler Master QuickFire. For mini boards, the Vortex Poker 3 is probably the most popular, but there’s also the Ducky Mini, KBP v60, and a few others.

If you want Topre switches, you’ll have to spend more on a HHKB (a 60% board that costs $250 to $300) or the more reasonably priced Cooler Master NovaTouch (TKL). Realforce boards (both full and TKL) are regarded as the best Topre experience, but they’re hard to find.

Whatever you choose, it’ll probably be with you for years to come. Don’t be afraid to be picky.


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