Mechanical Keyboard Guide

Intro

Pause for a moment before reading any further.  If you’ve never tried a mechanical keyboard before, maybe never even heard of one, consider whether it’s worth peeking behind the curtain.  There’s nothing wrong with using a normal keyboard, some mass produced wireless Microsoft or Logitech product, in the same way that there’s nothing wrong with driving a Ford Fiesta.  It does what you want, it gets the job done, it’s generally reliable… that’s everything right?

Anyone who uses a mechanical keyboard knows that the answer is no, that is not everything.  Not even close.  There’s a lot going on behind the scenes that can’t be appreciated until you know it’s there.  This guide is intended to help break that knowledge barrier – to serve as a complete introduction to mechanical keyboards and cover everything from the basics of what a mechanical switch actually is to different keycap plastics to the top brands on the market right now.  It’s not intended to be digested in one sitting.  It won’t answer all of your questions.  But after a lot of work and numerous revisions it’s become a foundational and kickass reference that will help you navigate a range of topics and new jargon to help you make more informed decisions.

 

Mechanical vs. regular keyboards

Keyboards use switches to register keypresses, which operate by making or interrupting an electrical connection when depressed.  The mechanism switches use to register keystrokes varies between conventional and mechanical keyboards.  A conventional keyboard will use rubber dome switches, which are made of polyurethane plastic or silicone and coated with a conductive carbon material on the interior.  When the dome is collapsed, two circuit traces are connected to register the character input.  Typical travel distances are 2.5 – 4mm.  The collapsing dome mechanism does not offer great tactility or responsiveness.  They’re also rated for significantly fewer keystrokes – between 5 and 10 million compared to 50 million for mechanical switches – and are well known to get mushier over time.

Low profile laptop and tablet keyboards use scissor switches where plastic stabilizers link the keycap to a plunger which depresses the rubber dome.  This allows for a more tactile and smaller diameter dome that functions with off-center keypresses.  They generally feel more stable compared to plain rubber dome switches due to shorter travel distances between 1 and 2.5mm.

A mechanical keyboard uses mechanical switches to register key presses instead of rubber domes.  Each switch housing contains a metal contact that registers a keystroke when interrupted and rebounds using a spring-loaded stem.  Modifying the spring will change the weight of a switch – the amount of force required to reach the actuation point.  Various types of metal contacts and stems exist to change the tactile and auditory feedback offered by a switch allowing you to tailor the keyboard to your preferences and usage.  Switches are also rated around 50 million key presses, greatly exceeding the lifetime of rubber dome switches, and are easily replaced.

 

What do tactile and clicky mean?    

You’ll hear a lot of terms used to describe different switches.  Tactile and clickiness describe the types of feedback you receive when using a keyboard.  Tactility refers to the bump that you feel before bottoming out to indicate that the keystroke has been registered.  A more tactile keyboard offers more feedback in the form of a larger bump.  The clickiness of a keyboard describes how loud the switches are when pressed.  Some switches are designed to give loud clicks using a two-part slider mechanism.  The audio feedback can be quite gratifying but will drive your roommates, spouses, and co-workers crazy.

 

Why buy one?

Putting money into a mechanical keyboard is probably the best investment you can make in your computer peripherals.  It will provide a better user experience and is guaranteed to last.  It can be precisely tuned to your requirements and preferences.  And if you’re so inclined, you can splurge on quality parts or a custom board and join a community of gamers, hobbyists, and artists who share their recommendations and creations on various online forums.

 

Durability

Mechanical switches rebound using springs which will retain their mechanical properties through use.  This makes them very durable and reliable.  Quality switches (Cherry MX or better) are rated to last around 50 million key presses.  A dedicated typist would take years to rack up enough keystrokes to approach this rating.

Rubber dome switches are rated from anywhere between 1 and 10 million keystrokes.  A rubber dome’s elastic properties will degrade with use; keypresses will become mushier and become more likely to stick.  I’ve gone through this on work keyboards and my personal laptop and it’s not an enjoyable experience.

 

Performance and feel

Performance-wise, your keyboard can be customized to whatever task you want to optimize for.  For extremely fast double taps for first-person shooters and RTSs, see red switches.  For fewer typos and a generally more enjoyable programming or writing experience, try a dedicated typing switch like blues.  If you find a tactile bump helps you type but you also want to double tap quickly, give browns a shot.

Mechanical switches also provide physical and auditory feedback that makes them immensely more pleasurable to use compared to rubber domes.  It’s difficult to describe to someone that hasn’t used a mechanical.  And it’s entirely possible to create the experience that’s entirely right for you based on the switch.  Do you smash the keyboard when typing?  Use switches with a higher actuation force.  Do you have dainty fingers that fatigue halfway through your first 250-word paragraph of a five-paragraph essay?  Hate clicky keyboards?  There are around a hundred different quality switches available.  Find one that works for you.

 

Customization and aesthetics

The number of ways you can customize a keyboard is staggering.  First there’s the surface level stuff.  You can get a sick set of keycaps, a beautiful color scheme, a MARBLE case, pretty much anything you fucking want.  Incredible artisan keycaps can be as expensive as they are hard to resist.  Then you get to the internals.  You can play around with various switches or a combination of switches for different keys.  You can rip open the keyboard and implement a USB hub, hand-wire in LEDs, or split the keyboard in half.

These are just examples of what people have done in customizing their keyboards and turning them into works of art.  The only real limit to what you can do is your imagination.  And perhaps your wallet.

 

Community

The mechanical keyboard community has hundreds of thousands of members that collectively share recommendations, DIY walkthroughs, advice, and of course pictures of their keyboards.  It is an engaged and active community extremely friendly to newcomers.  The forums are:

  • r/mechanicalkeyboards

The central hub on the internet for mechanical keyboard enthusiasts where you can find reviews, keyboard science, guides, meetups, news, deals, and purchasing help.  It’s basically a hobbyist’s wet dream.

  • Geekhack.org

Another very active forum that’s more structured compared to r/mk.  The tone tends to be a little more serious but overall a lot of the same topics are discussed.  I think the layout is garbage but the content itself is still great.

  • Deskauthority.net

Deskauthority is best known for its comprehensive Wikipedia page (https://deskthority.net/wiki/Main_Page) that is constantly being updated and covers many of the topics from this guide in more detail.  Many keyboard-related google searches will land you there.

 

An introduction to force diagrams

Now that we’ve established why mechanical keyboards are good it’s time to discuss how to go about selecting one.  And since mechanical switches are the integral component of a mechanical keyboard, we should understand how they are evaluated and differences between different switch types.

A keyboard force-displacement diagram simply illustrates how a switch will respond to an applied activation force.  The tactility and weight of a switch can be deduced from this diagram.  Let’s look at a few examples to get a better idea of what this means.

A Cherry MX Blue switch force diagram is shown here.  If we start at the left side of the graph (where the key hasn’t been displaced at all), we can follow the downstroke to see how the switch will respond.  When the keyboard has been pressed around 1mm, the amount of force required to continue to push the key suddenly increases to 60g before decreasing between 1.75 and 2.25mm.  This rise and fall in force is the ‘tactile bump’, like a car driving over a speed bump, and is commonly associated with blue switches.  A more tactile switch will have a larger bump.  The ‘actuation point,’ the force required for a switch to activate by getting to the top of the bump, is 60g.

The bottom line corresponds to the switch returning to its initial position.  The reset point (when a switch has returned to its initial position and can be pressed again) occurs at 1.5mm.  However, the switch also has a large “reverse-bump” as it resets where it will travel from 1.5mm to 0.5mm even if your finger is on the key.  This switch has very high hysteresis, the distance the key must travel to deactivate before it can be used again.  Waiting for the switch to clear this bump before it can be pressed again will make it a little harder to do quick double-taps.

Let’s also look at a Cherry MX red force diagram.  You can see the distance the switch travels is directly proportional to the force applied and does not go through any bumps.  The actuation point is around 45g.  The upstroke is also very linear, and there is only a slight change in force as it clears the reset point.  Double taps are very easy on this switch because the travel distance (2.0 –> 1.9mm) and applied force (45g -> 35g) for the key to reset are both very small.

 

How much money should I spend?

This depends entirely on what you’re looking for and how deep into the rabbit hole you want to go.  There are so many options ranging from Chinese manufacturer using cheap Cherry MX knockoffs and lower quality keycaps to mid-range to custom or scratch-built boards going for $200+.  In general, you will need to spend at least $75 for a keyboard with decent switches and keycaps.  Mid-range keyboards will typically go for at least $120.

There is a general increase in quality with price with diminishing returns the higher you go.  Very generally, you can expect the following:

<$50: Cherry MX knockoffs, subpar keycaps (occasionally double-shot ABS), gamer fonts

$50 – $100: Cherry MX or Gaterons, laser-engraved ABS

$100 – $150: Cherry MX or better, ABS double-shot or PBT keycaps, normal fonts

$150 – $200: Cherry MX or better, ABS or PBT double-shot keycaps with a wide color selection, other customization options

$200+: Topre, custom Korean keyboards, keyboard kits

A lot of higher priced keyboards tend to eschew backlighting options in favor of better construction, aesthetics, and keycap quality.  Keyboard enthusiasts can regularly spend $500+/year on custom boards, keycap sets, or artisan keycaps.

 

Which switch is the best?

Everyone has a switch that is right for them and there is no universal best switch.  Your typing style, main use for your keyboard (typing vs. gaming), and tactile/auditory feedback preferences will factor into your selection.  Some switches are more preferred than others which I’ll comment on below, but that’s not saying they’re right for everyone.

I highly recommend trying multiple switches before you buy a keyboard.  The one exception to this is if you’re a first-time buyer and 1) know you will only be using the board for typing applications (no gaming), 2) know that you’re fine with clicky switches, and 3) will be dropping a relatively small amount of money to you on the keyboard.  If these conditions are met and you don’t have the time, means, whatever to test different switches, I would recommend Blues.  MXs if you can afford them or Outemus (a cheaper MX knockoff, but louder) if you can’t.  Blue switches are almost universally preferred for typing but suck for certain gaming applications.  Gaming switches are a bit more finessed and subjective.

Switch testers

Switch testers are great for trying out a bunch of switches for the first time.  They can be ordered from Amazon, wasdkeyboards, and various other vendors.  Get an idea of what kind of switches you’d like to try from ratings here and then purchase an assortment switches you’re considering.

 

Cherry MX

Cherry MXs are the gold standard that all other switches are benchmarked against and a textbook case of first-mover advantage.  Cherry has the widest selection of switches on the market of any manufacturer.

Cherry MXs are a bit scratchy when you get them and can take some breaking in.  They’re commonly lubed to help with this.

Blues – 50g actuation, tactile, clicky.  MX Blues have a big bump and are super clicky.  They maximize touch and auditory feedback to make for an enjoyable typing experience.  However bump makes them pretty shitty for gaming as your single- and double-taps will come out a little slower.

Reds – 45g actuation, linear.  Made for gaming.  I don’t think a switch exists that will give you faster response times.  They’re on the light side so do pose some potential for misclicks.  Which also makes them terrible for typing.  Expect lots of typos and frustration when key presses register just from resting your fingers.

Browns – 45g actuation, tactile.  MX Browns give a small bump without the click.  There’s a 50% chance you will love this switch and a 50% chance you hate it.  Some people consider them a perfect balance between Blues and Reds that are good at both typing and gaming.  The rest think they feel mushy, off-linear, and prone to misclicks.  Try before buying.

Greens – 80g actuation, tactile, clicky.  A heavier version of Blues with the same click.  Good for heavy-handed typists but too heavy for most people.  Even worse than Blues for gaming.  Good luck peeking corners.

Blacks – 60g actuation, linear.  A heavier version of Reds.  They’re easier to actuate without bottoming out but will fatigue your fingers faster especially when typing.  Not a bad choice if you’re prone to misclicks on Reds or have heavy hands.

Clears – 65g actuation, tactile.  A heavier version of Browns for people who need the bump and weight without the noise.  The bump takes some getting used to.

 

Gaterons

Gaterons are a legit competitor to Cherry and many users prefer them because they are noticeably smoother.

Blues – 55g actuation.  A bit stiffer than MX Blues with a higher pitched and more satisfying click.

Reds – 45g actuation.  Smoother than MX Reds and ideal for gaming.  They’re just as prone to misclicks.

Browns – 45g actuation.  Slightly less tactile compared to MX Browns and quieter.  The difference is hard to notice unless you’re comparing the two side-by-side.

Greens – 80 actuation.  These are normally only used for specific switches like the space bar, escape key, or numpad.

Clears – 35g actuation.  A lighter version of Reds in contrast to MX Clears.  They’re very sensitive – great for gaming and smooth but you will be misclicking all day if you so much as breathe on these with your fingers.

Blacks – 50g actuation.  One of the smoothest switches out there.  Noticeably lighter than MX Blacks.  My preference for gaming as they will not fatigue my hands the way MX Blacks will and are more resilient to misclicks compared to Reds.

 

Kailh

Until the end of 2017, Kailhs were regarded as cheap and inferior MX knockoffs and did not warrant purchasing under any circumstances.  Then Kailh released a revamped set of switches, including “Speed” switches – switches with shorter travel and actuation distances, and “Box” switches, which are super smooth on account of the switch stem pushing against lubricated nubs.  Both are good but don’t bother with the originals.

 

Topre

Topre switches bear elements of rubber dome and mechanical switches, but instead use a capacitive sensor to register key presses.  They feel like a stiff and high-quality rubber dome switch – very smooth and with a pronounced tactile bump at the top of the stroke.  Solid all-around switches for typing and without the clickiness of most mechanical switches, somewhat like more responsive MX Reds.  They run on the light side making for easy misclicks and are most notable for their distinct thock sound when bottoming out.

Topre switches are not MX-stem compatible (with some exceptions) so it’s generally more difficult to find custom keycap sets and mod boards.  They’re also much more expensive than conventional switches.

 

Matias

Matias switches are clones Alps switches, which stopped being made when Alps stopped making keyboards in 2012.  They three variants: click, quiet click, and quiet linear.  They’re generally nice to type on but infamous for having issues with wobbling.  They have a shorter key travel of 3.5mm compared to the 4mm of MXs/Gaterons.

Matias Click: 60g actuation.  Extremely loud and tactile, even when compared to MX Blues.  The feeling differs significantly due to a difference in how the click is made.

Matias Quiet Click: 60g actuation.  The same feeling as the Click switch but without the crunch.  They’re dampened internally to reduce downstroke/upstroke noise, so wind up being even quieter than closest equivalent (MX Clears).

Matias Quiet Linear: 35g actuation.  A very subtle bump caused by the slider clearing the switchplate that other linear switches won’t have.  Smoother than MXs but they suffer from the universal problems of light linear switches.  The shorter travel distance doesn’t help in avoiding typos.

 

Buckling Springs

The granddaddy of switches.  The spring is designed to buckle instead of compress (hence the name) to register a keypress.  This results in insane tactile and auditory feedback.  They are an absolute joy to type on but will drive everyone in your vicinity out of their mind.  Much harder to find these days compared to conventional switches, but there’s nothing wrong with adding a Model M off EBay to your collection as a tribute to yesteryear.

 

Layouts

Different layouts exist for the same reason so many switches do: everyone has their own preference.  Nothing sucks more than buying a keyboard that 1) takes up too much desk space or 2) doesn’t cover all the functionalities you need.  If you’re new, your instinct might be that you *need* a full-sized keyboard because that’s all you’ve ever used.  I can promise that this probably isn’t true.  It’s generally cheaper to build and buy boards with more compact layouts, but this shouldn’t be a deciding factor if you have your heart set on a certain design.  Let’s look at some of the possibilities starting from large to small.  The % number for smaller keyboards approximates the number of keys and size/weight relative to a full-sized version.

 

Full-sized

Full-sized boards are the ones you’re used to.  They have function keys, a number pad, nav cluster keys, the whole shebang.  Generally, there are 104 keys total although several layouts will integrate additional keys.  The escape key and function keys are separated along the top of the board, with the navigation cluster and numpad to the right.  They take up the most space on your desk and offer the most utility.

 

Ergonomic

Ergonomic keyboards come in a variety of shapes intended to prevent awkward hand positions with contoured layouts, split boards, and ortho-linear keys (keys are oriented vertically without an offset and kept closer together).  They normally do away with the numpad and are comparable to TKL boards.

Ergonomic mechanicals keyboards brands come in the same styles as commercial rubber dome varieties. Mechanical ergonomic keyboards don’t come cheap as most are custom built, while a decent rubber dome board like the Logitech Wave or Microsoft Natural will run around $50.  Rubber dome varieties will solve the ergonomic issues just as well but won’t give you the rush of using mechanical switches.

 

1800 – Compact

1800 keyboards are full-sized keyboards compacted to remove the gaps to the function keys, navigation cluster, and numpad.  Typically, 1-5 of the navigation keys are also axed.  They’re just smaller versions of a full-sized board that sacrifice minimal functionality.

 

Tenkeyless (TKL)

Tenkeyless is probably the most popular layout that sacrifices the number pad in favor of compactness, opening the right side of your board for more mouse space.  The function keys and navigation cluster remain so you’re not sacrificing any gaming or typing functionality.  They will generally be a 10-20% cheaper than their full-sized equivalents from a given manufacturer.  Much better for smaller desks.

 

75%

75% boards are when things start to get really compact.  It’s essentially a TKL board that eliminates space between keys and rearranges the navigation cluster so that there is only a single column to the right of the backspace and enter.  There’s no “standard” 75% board, but generally several nav cluster keys will get axed to fit everything in.  They achieve a comparable reduction in space to 65% and 60% keyboards while still offering function key and navigation utility.

 

65%

Bye function keys.  With that top key row gone the board loses a couple centimeters of height and about 15% of its weight.  Normally the function key utility is combined with the number keys (FN + number key) while the multimedia shortcuts get mapped onto letter keys.  This won’t let you play Starcraft but it will let you retain full use of your board if you’re willing to adjust to new shortcuts.

 

60%

What’s left to take at this point?  Please not the arrow keys, not the arrow keys… yes it’s the arrow keys.  Along with the remaining navigation keys.  And possibly the backslash key.  60% boards downsize to the essentials, leaving a very barebones and portable keyboard.  Similar to the 65% board, the function keys usually get mapped onto the number keys and the multimedia shortcuts get mapped onto other letter keys.

Note that a lot of custom keyboards are 60% so there is some variation in which keys are retained.  I have seen keyboards that preserve the arrow keys at the expense of shorter shift/backspace/return keys.

 

40%

40% boards are typically custom-made, enthusiast boards that axe the number row and remap numbers to other keys.  They are super fun to build and usually exhibit a ton of color and creativity.  Several brands make 40%s, most notably Vortex.

 

Construction

If you’ve read keyboard reviews before, you’ve probably come across phrases like “high quality construction,” “solid construction,” “good build quality,” etc.  What the hell does this mean?  What is bad construction anyway?  Does the keyboard fall apart when you unbox it?

The construction quality of a keyboard is a measure of how the individual components synergize together.  A plastic case can feel flimsy and make your switches sound cheap and tacky, or it can be stiff and sound-dampened with multiple rubber pads.

Feedback on build quality/construction is generally vague and unhelpful because the line between a well and poorly constructed keyboard is very narrow and subjective.  It takes a good amount of experience with mechanical keyboards (and helps to have built one or two) to pull one out of the box and give a quick rundown on its construction quality.

Some factors to consider when evaluating the construction of the keyboard are:

 

Key pinging

Oftentimes keys will vibrate after they are pressed and released making a faint metallic pinging sound.  This results from a switch spring resonating with the metal backplate and is most common on larger keys, especially the shift and space bar.  Bottoming out quickly causes this making tactile switches more prone to this behavior.  The baseplate, backplate, and mount surface can all contribute to the degree of pinging.  Sound dampening mats help reduce pinging.

Large keys can also rattle, which is different from pinging, but this is normal and can be fixed by applying lube to the stabilizers.

 

Key Layouts

Several keyboard layouts exist but you normally get whatever your country uses.  There are some small differences worth noting.

ANSI

ANSI layouts are standard in the United States and most of North America.  The enter key and left shift are sensibly sized.  Most keycap sets are designed with ANSI in mind so they’re easier to customize.

ISO

ISO boards replace the right alt key with the Alt Gr key to access third characters on keyboards.  This is used for various European language accents.  Stick with ISO if you plan on typing in a non-English language but otherwise the layout is inferior.

JIS

JIS boards contain extra keys for writing in Japanese.  Don’t worry about this unless you’re really committed to being an otaku.

 

Switch quality

Good switches are smooth when pressed and not scratchy.  Lube can help alleviate problems but is a hassle to apply to every switch.  The consistency of the springs across the switches can also vary but it can be hard to distinguish without having used mechanical keyboards for some time.

 

Baseplate/case

Cases come in a variety of materials including plastic, acrylic, aluminum, and wood.

Plastic cases are by far the most common type due to cost and are generally inferior compared to other materials.  Switches generally sound more hollow, cheap, and clacky.  You won’t feel a difference for linear switches but the difference for clicky and tactile switches is very pronounced.  Depending on the construction and size of the board, plastic cases are also prone to rattling on desks.

Aluminum cases are more expensive, heavier, and stiffer than plastic cases.  They sit tighter on desks and produce a higher-pitched, more muted click from switches which sounds better.  However, they are prone to amplifying key pinging so rubber pads are common to reduce resonance.  You can end up feeling the switches more since the keyboard does not dampen the vibrations as readily.  This usually depends on the number of mounting points to the case.

Acrylic cases are between plastic and aluminum in terms of feel and rigidity.  They generally tend to be an aesthetic option when underglow effects are desired.  They’re likely to break if dropped from any substantive height so require a little more care.

For wood, the density, texture, and workability are important factors and will vary widely based on the type of wood used.  The finish is important as well – oil finishes will feel much softer than a wood that has been lacquered.  Wood cases are very sturdy and better at dampening switch vibrations, but also tend to be very stylistic and expensive.

 

Backplate

The backplate refers to the piece behind the switches that sits in the case.  Backplates are made of steel, aluminum, or acrylic.  Backplates don’t have a significant effect on the feel of a board compared to the case material.

Steel and aluminum make up the vast majority of backplates due to their rigidity and cost.  Steel backplates are heavier and more durable.  Aluminum is slightly cheaper and has a bit more flex.  Steel is usually painted black or white to prevent rust whereas aluminum can be anodized into a variety of colors.  Aluminum plates can also be easily scratched easily depending on the surface treatment.

Acrylic is even cheaper than steel and aluminum but needs to be cut thicker so that it won’t flex or break. It’s only practical for small keyboards where flexing won’t be an issue.

 

Cherry vs. Costar Stabilizers

Stabilizers (or stabs) are the support structures on the ends of larger keys that keep keystrokes vertical and prevent wobbling.  A thin rod connects the two ends of the stabilizers underneath the switch. Wobbly stabilizers suck and will ruin your keyboard.  If you are buying a keyboard, check the stabilizers when you buy them to make sure they aren’t loose.  If you’re building a keyboard then for god’s sake, do not buy cheap MX stabilizer knockoffs.

Cherry stabs are essentially switches that don’t have any springs which just clip onto the board.  They are more common but can dampen the feel of switches.  It’s common practice to clip the extra bumpers on the ends of Cherry stabilizers to alleviate this.  Cherry stabs don’t have any key inserts so swapping keys is much easier.

Costar stabilizers are generally preferred because they feel less mushy.  However, Costar stabs are more likely to introduce computability issues when customizing a board.

 

Plate vs. PCB-mounted switches

Plate-mounted switches are clipped directly to the keyboard backplate and are more common among modern keyboards.  They clack significantly more than PCB-mounted switches as the switch will bottom out on the plate.

PCB-mounted switches have two extra legs that stabilize the switch against the PCB.  The extra legs can be clipped off if you want to opt for plate-mounting.  PCB-mounts allow more flexibility in changing the layout without having to desolder the entire board.  It also offers a softer landing point for keystrokes.

 

Backlighting

Backlighting is an aesthetic decision that’s extremely popular in premade keyboards.  It disguises cheap keycaps and can also make an otherwise bland board pop.  In the mechanical keyboard community, it’s not considered necessary or desirable.  Think of it as a different style of art that some people really appreciate and others don’t.

 

Keycap Materials

ABS

The majority of keycaps are made from ABS plastic, a blend of acrylonitrile, butadiene, and poly-styrene.  ABS caps are considered lesser quality because they are cheaper to produce, generally thinner, and shine much faster than PBT caps.  ABS has a hard, smooth feel and produces a higher pitched sound than PBT caps.

The main advantage is that ABS can be double-shot, meaning the legend is first molded, followed by the rest of the cap in a second color (frequently transparent to allow for backlight effects).  Because ABS is easier to work with it comes in a wider variety of colors and combinations.

It’s common to find ABS caps with cheaper character prints (laser engraved instead of double-shot) on lower tier boards.

 

PBT

PBT, or polybutalyene terephthalate, are generally thicker, harder, and more resistant to shine than ABS keycaps.  PBT caps also have more grain and texture.  It’s denser than ABS so keystrokes will have a deeper note.  It’s also considered higher quality than ABS, but that’s not to say you can’t have a good set of ABS keycaps.

Legends are usually dye sublimated which limits the color pallet.  PBT is more prone to warping in the manufacturing process and is more difficult to find double-shot.  Large PBT keys (mainly space bars) are prone to bowing and it’s common to see ABS keycaps substituted for these.

 

POM keycaps

POM (or polyoxymethyleneor, commonly known as Delrin) keycaps are between ABS and PBT keycaps in terms of feel and considerably more expensive.  POM caps are on the smoother and slippery side but do retain some texture.  They are also more durable and will not shine over age.  POM caps tend to have a higher density than PBT and a hard feel, which yields deeper keystroke sounds that can be very satisfying to type on.  Some people find POM greasy or oily but I tend to attribute this more to ABS caps.

It’s very difficult to find double-shot POM keycaps due to 1) the density of the plastic and the issues this creates in the molding process and 2) lack of demand for POM.  You’ll be stuck with sub-optimal printing (mainly laser engraving + infill) where the legend extrudes from the keycap and can be felt during typing.  Blank POM keycaps are thus relatively common.

 

Polycarbonate

Polycarbonate is usually used for translucent keycaps with opaque lettering.  Polycarbonate keycaps are slightly slick but harder than ABS.  Extremely uncommon and only readily available through Signature Plastics.

 

PVC

PVC (polyvinyl chloride) keycaps have been used extensively for mass-market keyboards.  They have average hardness and texture properties, so ABS, PBT, and POM are much more interesting keycap materials for enthusiasts.  PVC use is also reducing due to the co-production of environmentally hazardous byproducts.

 

Printing types

Dye sublimated

Dye sublimation is a printing process where the base plastic is heated and then impregnated with a dye to form the legend.  Legends printing this way will not wear out over time because the legend is essentially tattooed into the keycap.  However, this method does constrain the ink color to be darker than the base keycap color.

 

Laser etched

Laser etching, or charring, heats the keycap surface to burn the plastic and create the legend.  Contrary to popular belief, keycaps made this way will not fade over time – it is commonly conflated with other methods of laser printing.  Laser etching constrains your legend color to the color the plastic burns to.  Additionally, the contrast between the legend and keycap is notably poor.

Laser etching is fine for straight lines but is noticeably worse at filling in shapes such as arrow heads and the Windows key.

 

Laser engraved

Laser engraving burns deep groves into the plastic which can either be 1) left empty, 2) filled with a colorant known as an infill, or 3) expose a transparent plastic for use in backlit keyboards.  Legends printed this way can be felt on the keycaps.

Laser etching with an infill is one of the most common keycap printing techniques.  It’s cheap and allows for any colors to be used as the keycap and legend.  It’s extremely common for black keycaps.  The legend will show substantial wear over time as the infill fades.

 

Double-shot injection molding

Double-shot molding consists of having different molds for the legend and keycap body.  It is considered the highest quality method for printing keycaps because the legend/markings will not fade over time, it allows for the maximum variety of colors and contrast, and the legend is flush with the keycap.

Double-shot keys are expensive due to the need for multiple molding steps and separate molds for each legend character to be printed.

 

Pad printing

Pad printing is the process of pressing a rubber pad inlaid with ink onto the keycap surface.  It is the cheapest and most widely used form of keycap printing and allows for the widest variety of characters and colors.  However, the imprinted character is vulnerable to wear because the ink/molding is not ingrained into the keycap as in other methods.

In some cases, a thin transparent coating is applied over the printed character to reduce fading.  This will make the area around the character glossy.

 

Artisan

Artisan keycaps are keycaps which are handmade by artists and enthusiasts.  There’s no cohesive way to describe them as the depths that some of these guys go to is incredible.  Keycaps can depict landscapes, nebulae, coral reefs, baked goods, Christmas trees, include water effects… the list is endless.  Most are molded or sculpted by the artist and hand-painted.  I highly recommend checking them out but be warned – nothing will suck the money out of your wallet faster.

 

Top Vendors

Every brand will have different tiers of keyboards but themes regarding the quality of the board, appropriate pricing, software, and keycaps will remain.  This is a short summary of some of the most frequently discussed and notable vendors.

Ducky

Excellent reputation and build quality, far superior to mainstream gaming brand keyboards and cheaper than other high-end mechanical keyboard brands.  They have a good selection of full-sized and TKL boards with and without backlighting. Macros can be programmed into keys using just the board.  Reasonably priced.

Leopold

A Korean brand that’s roughly equivalent to Ducky and also highly recommended.  The quality and price are around the same while the color schemes tend to be more classic.  You can’t go wrong with one.

GON

Unique keyboard designs with acrylic backplates and colorful keycaps.  Top-notch PCBs and a very intuitive software package.  Really good as a parts supplier but absolutely terrible on the customer service side… do not order boards fully assembled as you can expect more than a year of waiting time with no updates.  Slightly expensive but worth it.  Buyer beware.

Das

More of a show-offy brand with a really good marketing team that has put them on the map (cough Ultimate cough).  Everything is generally overpriced for what you get.  Their compact boards use subpar switches and for the same price as a full-sized board you can get a good Filco or KUL board.  I guess the dedicated onboard media keys and USB slots might appeal to some.

Cooler Master

Another highly recommended brand especially for entry level boards.  A tier lower than Ducky due to inferior keycaps and a worse software/macro package, but prices are lower to account for this.  They only do classic designs.

Filco

A high-quality Japanese brand that has been around for a long time and now benefits from its reputable brand name by overcharging.  Generally lacking in features compared to competitors.  Very pricy outside of Japan that may no longer haver justification given the number of other quality brands available, but build quality is still top-notch and will last forever.

WASD

WASD is best known for offering *almost* full customizability of their boards (sans backlighting), allowing you to pick the case, switch, keycap color, and sound dampeners.  This is going to cost you more than an equivalent Ducky/Leopold/iKBC but winds up being a downgrade due to the thin ABS keycaps.  It’s also a little more expensive than buying a custom kit from the start.  It comes down to how much you mind ABS caps compared to splurging or building your board from scratch.  The bare bones keyboard option (no keycaps) for $50 less is a good option; you can then put that money into buying a keycap set on the side.

WASD also offers higher end boards with GMK keycaps with limited customization (switch and case color).  GMK is universally regarded as one of the best keycap manufacturers around and produces thick, heavy ABS double-shot keycaps that will not shine over time.  Highly recommended but also very expensive.

KUL

An underappreciated brand with heavier and more sturdy boards that result from using thicker backplates.  High build quality with a good set of features except for the stock keycaps (laser-engraved ABS) that leave something to be desired.  Priced appropriately.

Varmilo

Absolutely beautiful, high-quality keyboards that will make your mouth water.  They also have a full customization option for choosing the plate color, switches, LEDs, keycaps, etc… even the layout.  All of this will run you a pretty penny though, and none of their boards are programmable.

iKBC

Right up with Ducky and Leopold from a quality standpoint for standard TKL/full-sized boards.  But the real value comes from their boards with all-aluminum (backplate and case) frames – all which are absolute steals for the price and tanks on the desk.

KBParadise

A lesser known Taiwanese brand with some interesting color schemes and layout options down to 60%.  Quality is up there with Ducky and Leopold.  Best known for the inclusion of Matias switches in many of their boards which can be a good or bad thing depending on how you type.  The colors are nice but there isn’t much else that makes these boards unique.  Priced appropriately and in-line with other upper-tier vendors.

Rosewill

A budget and entry-level brand.  Very similar to Cooler Master but not as reputable.  Cable routing is a pain with these guys as the input USB connection can break if put under pressure.

Happy Hacking

The Tesla of keyboards without reliability issues.  Minimalist design, nothing too fancy, featuring Topre switches instead of MXs, and generally adored by anyone who owns one.  Expect to pay a pretty penny for one of these.

Ganss

The king of underglow boards.  Beware of looking up images because you will want one.  Note that the keycap LEDs are actually single color, not RGB.  Good keycaps and a nice aluminum backplate are icing on the cake.

Vortex

Maker of the gold standard of 60% keyboards.  The Vortex POK3R is probably the most famous mechanical keyboard on the market today.  The Vortex Core is also very hard to beat as a 40%.  All around great keyboards you can’t go wrong with if you’re willing to shell out.

Topre

Topre locks up larger boards with the Type Heaven and Realforce (TKL and full-sized respectively) leaving HHKB to brand the 60% boards.  Topre’s boards are definitely more classic and retro than other brands.  These boards check all the quality boxes (with the exception of the Realforce RGB which is inexplicably made much worse by the inclusion of LEDs – no joke it sounds terrible) so buying one is more a question of whether you like Topre switches.

 

Cleaning your keyboard

For quick cleans (not removing the keycaps) just use a compressed air bottle to blow out as much crap as you can.  Wipe off the keycaps with a cloth and dilute isopropyl alcohol solution.  Don’t use acetone as it can warp keycap plastics.

For deep cleans, start by removing all the keycaps.  You can then hit the board with either compressed air or a vacuum brush and use Q tips with alcohol to get the hard-to-reach areas.  The keycaps can be cleaned either by wiping them off with a cloth and the same alcohol solution or by soaking them in hot water with a denture cleaner.  If doing the latter, rinse them off after and leave them out to dry.  This is a surprisingly effective and easy way to clean your keycaps in bulk.

 

Sound Dampening

Sound dampening mats

Thicker desks will naturally dampen switch reverberations but this isn’t always an option.  Mats or liners under the keyboard are the most common solutions to cut down on resonance of the case and desk.  A “proper” solution normally consists of a vibration absorption mat or large desktop gaming mousepad.

A scrappier solution is to just put a towel or microfiber cloth under the keyboard.  It’s just as effective but you’ll have to sacrifice some aesthetic appeal.

Aluminum cases tend to benefit the most from sound-dampening mats as they have the most natural reverberation.

 

O-rings

When a keycap is fully depressed, the bottom of the keycap hits against the switch creating the “clack” sound.  Adding O-rings between the top of the switch stem and keycap prevents this by keeping the keycap from fully bottoming out.  O-rings can also change the feel of a switch by creating a softer landing for the keycap, reducing key travel distance, or making tactility more pronounced.

The O-ring you select should depend on what you’re trying to achieve.  A softer O-ring will make a switch quieter than a harder equivalent but change the landing feel.  Thicker O-rings will reduce key travel distance the most and reduce sound more effectively.

For soft, sound dampening o-rings, look for 40-50A durometer hardness but expect some change in how the switch feels.  For harder o-rings that won’t change the landing as much, look for 80A hardness and higher.

 

Keycap soft-landing pads

Soft-landing pads are pieces of foam cloth with a circle cutout which can be placed over the switch stem.  They are generally thicker than O-rings – even the firmest landing pads are softer than 40A O-rings.  They will alter the keyboard feel and make your switches feel mushy.  Softer versions will just make switches even harder to push.  Soft-landing pads generally offer a very narrow window between creating a desirable landing and destroying the feel of your board.

 

Silencing clips

Silencing clips such as the QMX-clip and Zealencio prevent full bottoming out by preventing the keycap from hitting the top of the switch on the downstroke in the same manner as O-rings.  The reduction in travel distance for clips is much less than for O-rings as they’re much thinner.  The firm landing is also better preserved.

Switch clips cannot be installed on large keys with Costar stabilizers because they block the wire rotation.  They can only be installed on MX-style switches.  Also make sure to check whether the size and orientation of your LEDs is compatible with the clip

 

Switch Lubrication

Adding lube to switches reduces friction between the stem, spring, and switch housing which results in 1) an increase in the smoothness of switches, eliminating scratchiness which is especially prevalent for Cherry MXs, 2) a reduction in switch pinging, and 3) a slight increase in dampening.  While lubing won’t turn bad switches into good switches, they will make good switches even better.

Lubing switches is incredibly tedious and takes a long time, but the results are well worth it.  You’ll get a deeper and crisper bottoming out sound, a reduction in reverberations, and smoother switches while maintaining all of the tactility.

 

Software remapping

Remapping applications can be used to adapt your keyboard to your exact need and remap keys that you don’t use.  They also allow you program macros into hotkeys for gaming.

The most popular remapping applications are Sharpkeys for Windows, Karabiner for Mac, and Xmodmap for Linux.

 

Other features

N-key rollover

N-key roller, or NKRO, means you can press an unlimited number of keys and have them each register to your computer at once.  Similarly, 6-key rollover means that only 6 keys can register simultaneously, but the catch is that certain combinations of 3+ keys will actually not register if pressed together.  NKRO is desirable for gaming applications. not because you will need to press all of your keys at once but because anything less than NKRO may end up handicapping you.  It’s standard in every half-decent mechanical keyboard so don’t read into it too much.

 

DIP switches

A dual in-line package (DIP) switch is a small cluster of binary switches configured to remap different keys depending on their setting.  Mappable switches at the hardware level eliminate the need for OS-based remaps or on-board memory banks.

 

Keycap profiles

A keycap profile describes the side-profile and contour of keycaps.  Spherical keycaps (keycap is molded against a dome giving a spherical concave sculpt) were replaced by cylindrical keycaps (likewise but with a cylindrical indentation instead) due to ease of manufacturing and creation a uniform-looking board.  Spherical keycaps are still available for purchase from Signature Plastics (SA and DSA profiles) but no longer come standard with boards.  Sculpted refers to profiles where the angle between the top and bottom of the keycap differs from row to row.

Keycap profiles are like switches – different people have different preferences and there’s no way to know until you’ve tried them all.  If you’re new to mechanical keyboards, don’t worry about picking the “right” profile.  Your feel for different profiles will come over time if/when you pick up more boards or keycap sets, and the thickness of the keycap plastic and texture will affect the feel just as much as the profile itself.  Here’s a quick rundown of the most popular profiles for mechanical keyboards:

 

OEM

Medium-high profile, cylindrical, sculped keys.  These are the stock caps you get on just about every board.  If it’s not OEM, it’s probably Cherry or DCS.  They’re a little on the high side which introduces more wobble than on similar profiles.

Cherry

Medium profile, cylindrical, sculpted keys.  They sit at about half the height compared to OEM.  Key edges tend to be slightly sharper.

DCS

From Signature Plastics – medium-profile, cylindrical top, sculpted keys.  Corners are more rounded and the plastic tends to be a little thinner compared to OEM and Cherry.

SA

From Signature Plastics – high-profile, spherical top, sculpted keys.  Known for being tall, thick, and a little loose.  Community feedback is very mixed on whether the spherical top makes it better or worse to type on.

DSA

From Signature Plastics – medium-profile, spherical top, non-sculpted keys.  Like SA, feedback is mixed on whether the spherical top makes these better or worse to type on.

Topre

Medium profile, cylindrical, sculpted keys.  Very similar to Cherry.

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