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Week in Tech: All Hail The Mighty Mechanical Keyboard

Red, brown or blue?

Featured post The cheap way to get a taste of those Cherries

Mechanical keyboards. What, dear readers, is the schitnitz? Dare I say it, there is such a thing as the mechanical keyboard movement. Indeed, we’re now at the point where there’s significant debate within that community over various types of mechanical keyboard switches. Knowing your Cherry MX Red from your Blue and Brown absolutely matters. But what exactly is a mechanical keyboard, why is it rapidly becoming so revered by some gamers and should you pop out and pick one up? While we’re talking keyboards, are programmable keyboards with per-key full-colour RGB LED backlighting the next big thing? For answers to all these questions (at best), ride your rodents to the other side.To begin at the beginning. It’s got springs. A mechanical keyboard, that is. And lots of them. It’s tempting to assume what we’re talking about here is traditional keyboards with tall, long-travel keys versus flatter, laptop-style keyboards with the chiclet keys. But that ain’t actually it.

Rather than being related to the look or shape of the keys, the contrast in question actually involves the switches (or absence thereof) under the keys. A proper mechanical keyboard has individual switches for each key, every one made up of multiple moving parts including a central stem, metal contacts and a spring.

The alternative is a single plastic sheet or membrane that stretches across the entire keyboard. Into this membrane, a dome for each key is moulded. Inside that dome is a contact and underneath the membrane is a single, large circuit board.

Mechanical switches plus RGB LEDs. Is this the ultimate input device?

To cut a long story short, the keys squish the domes down onto the circuit board, creating a contact that’s registered as a keystroke. Pretty simple. And very cheap to make.

The upshot of all this is several fold. For starters, a multi-part mechanical switch for every key is much more expensive than a sheet of plastic with some contacts and a circuit board. That said, mechanical boards tend to be more robust and longer lasting, helping to offset the added cost.

But the mechanical keyboard’s gaming raison d’être involves switches that offer both more precision and more tunability in terms of feel, travel and noise.

Some keys give an audible click part way through the key stroke, some are more of a clack at the end of the stroke. Broadly, the idea behind all this is a combination of precision, feedback and consistency of response that allows the skilled gamer to tune into the response of his or her keyboard and activate the trigger point of a registered keystroke more accurately.

If that’s the basics, things get more complicated when you get into the nuance of the different switches currently available for mechanical keyboards. Currently, one brand dominates the market for gaming keyboard switches and that’s Cherry and its MX range.

A Cherry MX switch, yesterday

You may have faintly heard of the likes of the Cherry MX Red, Blue, Brown et al. For some (sightly silly) insight into the engineering that goes into Cherry’s mechanical keyboard switches, check out this Linus Tech Tips video.

I’m not going to get into a detailed discussion of the various merits of each colour of Cherry keyboard switch. But the basics go like this. The Blue switch is the noisy / clicky one, the one with a tangible click mid-way through the stroke. The Red switch has a smooth, clickless stroke. The Brown is something of a halfway house.

Such is the scope for subjectivity that keyboard samplers (shown at the very top of this post), sort of mini keyboards with, typically, four different keys so you can sample the range of feel and feedback on offer, can now be bought (available in the UK for £9 and in the US for $10).

At this point, I should note in traditional BBC fashion that other keyboard switch brands are available. Whatever, there’s a whole new mechanical-keyboard modding community springing up, pun intended, with tweaks available from individual switches of various colours for swapping in and out to custom key caps including metal or transparent keys and the zany ‘running man’ escape key cap. Again, head over here for a look at what’s on offer.

An escape key. Geddit?

Price wise, there’s a lot of variance, but proper mechanical keyboards do not come cheap. Really roughly, you’re looking at £60/$75 and up.

As for me, confession time. I’m a bit of a keyboard-switch philistine. I actually prefer short-stroke chiclet style keyboards and my weapon of choice is Apple’s current full-width desktop keyboard.

I’ve been trying really hard to get my head around mechanical keyboards with a decent Corsair board. I definitely get the tactility aspect of a good quality switch. But I’m in the minority that just can’t get on with them. In games, I prefer the shorter stroke of the Apple board.

I want my keystrokes to be near instantly registered, not arrive some way through a long travel. For typing, I like the lack of wobble from the keys and the tighter spacing. My typing accuracy with a mechanical board is truly appalling.

It genuinely and tangibly takes me longer to type anything and this is fully three months into using one a few days a week on a project that’s been taking me into a proper office while my Apple keyboard remains hooked up to my main production box at home. The increased noise of many mechanical keyboards also does my head in a bit.

I’ll just grab my coat…

But, again, I’m fully aware I’m in the minority, so I put it to mechanical keyboard converts among you to make your case in the comments below. I have absolutely no doubt that, for most people, proper mechanical keyboards have something to offer.

One final word of warning – some vendors can be disingenuous at best when it comes to mechanical keyboards. A good rule of thumb is that if the switch type used is listed, you should be getting the real deal.

Now then, what about those LED-backlit RGB boards? Gimmick or gaming greatness in the making? These are, ultimately, highly visual products. So instead of reinventing the wheel on this one, I’m going to encourage you to motor through this video review of two of the most prominent new LED-backlight boards.

I’ve only taken one of these boards for a brief spin. Some of the effects are an awful lot of fun, but in the end it’s utility not visual fireworks that will make or break them. In other words, features like profiles that include game-specific mapping that highlight relevant keys.

Corsair’s Gaming K70 RGB is big on programmability

Arguably, you don’t need reminding of key mapping for your favourite titles. But at the very least, highlighting keys for new games you’re just getting to grips with sounds pretty useful to me. As ever, it probably comes down to cost.

For an extra 10 quid or bucks, it would be a no brainer. But the combination of mechanical switches and all those LED lights makes for some pricey boards. Corsair’s Gaming K70 RGB, just as a for instance, is around £140 in the UK, $170 Stateside. Ouch.

Me? I like the idea, but then I’d want it with my ghastly short-travel chiclet keys. Not likely.

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