Note – this piece is aimed at people who are as ignorant about mechanical keyboards as I was until around a week ago (and probably still am), not at old hands.
For the longest time, my major interest in a keyboard has been whether it’s got big, easy multimedia controls. Apart from that, it’s a plastic thing with buttons on it, right? Then people (including our resident tech-head Jeremy) started talking about mechanical keyboards and how they were the best thing to happen to both typing and gaming since Ian Keyboard invented the keyboard in 1426, and I started to worry about being left behind.
Then I looked at the prices of these things, and stopped worrying. I do not want to spend £100+ on a plastic typing rectangle, thank you very much. Also people kept talking about ‘Cherry’ switches and I just associated that with horrible beige budget keyboards from the 1990s. (Turns out it is the same company. Who knew? Everyone except me, that’s who!)
This week, makers of preposterous hardware and ugly snake logos Razer had a big sale to celebrate CES. Which is a funny thing to celebrate, but I suppose when you’re in the batshit hardware business it’s the most important entry in your calendar. Anyway, I had a look on a whim, quickly discovered that all the coolest stuff like their super-slim gaming laptop isn’t available in the UK, and looked in dismay at what was there – mostly over-priced mousemats, unspeakably ugly t-shirts and gigantic headsets for people who like shouting obscenities at strangers.
Then I clicked on the keyboard section and things got more interesting. Mechanical keyboards! Like the young people keep talking about! The stock prices were unthinkable, but the sale permitted me to buy one thing at a 50% discount. For £60 – still twice what I’d ever thought I’d spend on a keyboard – I ended up with the Blackwidow Ultimate Classic, which has a blue backlight instead of the sitcom’s-depiction-of-a-drug-den bilious green of the non-classic version. You can also get non-Ultimate versions which lack a backlight, or Stealth ones which have quieter keys, or a board from an entirely different company. I hear good things about Corsair’s ones, but again: there was a sale on.
The typography on Blackwidow’s keys is frankly ghastly, the sort of thing you’d see on the frontage of an early 90s laser tag place, but otherwise it’s a decent, minimalist-looking keyboard that’s refreshingly bereft of pointless bells and whistles. Black-bodied, matt finish, feels pretty premium in everything other than font. It’s also really heavy, which I like a lot – this thing isn’t going to shoot across my desk every time the cat jumps onto it or I bang my stupid knee again.
Anyway, let’s talk about the mechanical aspect. It’s a refined throwback to how some keyboards used to be made, rather than a wholly new innovation. Basically, a mechanical keyboard has an individual, spring-loaded switch under each key, rather than the squidgy rubber membrane of a standard keyboard. Those switches are precision-made (i.e. a big step on from old school clickety-clackety keyboards), and available in various flavours of travel distance and noise. This system has longevity benefits, but mostly the gain is in tactility. It feels better. It bounces and clicks rather than taps. I’m sure the spell will wear off, but just under a week in and I’m still almost excited about using it. It’s also very noisy, however, or at least it is if you didn’t buy one with specially-quietened switches.
I didn’t get one of those. Thus, this keyboard goes CLICK CLICK CLICK CLICK CLICK CLICK really loudly. It’s like a typewriter from All The President’s Men. Initially I was horrified by this, even though I’d been warned about it, but now I love it. It doesn’t matter what I’m writing – even if it’s blathering nonsense like this article, it sounds incredibly important and forceful. I am hammering my thoughts into the computer. THESE WORDS HAVE POWER. It makes typing fun, almost. I’m finding I’m typing slightly more rapidly too, as the clicking and bouncing enhances the rhythm of writing.
What I’m still struggling with slightly is that it’s tiring to use – i.e my finger tips ache a little. This is because my old brain is accustomed to a keyboard which requires me to press each key all the way down before a character will appear, and the keys on this thing require quite some force to do that. I’m currently hammering it, in other words. In fact, a keypress on this thing triggers when a button is relatively lightly, so what I’m trying to do is train myself to type less forcefully.
This does involve unlearning how to type to some degree, but I’m getting there, and eventually I’m going to find the degree of button-pushing which is the best fit for me, rather than that what is mandated by the travel distance of the keys. It’s slowly happening, and there’s both less volume and less ache because of it, but without losing the wonderful bouncy, clicky, look-at-me-I’m-doing-something-physical sensation.
There’s not too much to report for games, if I’m honest. High-end players love these things because there’s no chance of the keyboard having a wobbly when you press too many buttons at once, and because the whole key travel distance thing means in theory you can have less delay in inputting commands, but that’s just not my world. Frankly you might as well ask me to diagnose a sick dolphin. What I do like is that hitting reload or use or whatever feels a lot more like doing something physical now – again, this is about the tactility and to some degree noise of a mechanical keyboard. If you want to hit a button with purpose, this is the way to go.
This Razer thing also has repogrammable keys, macro recording and a USB port, but your mileage may vary on that sort of gubbins, depending on which board you go for. I’m just blathering about the general mechanical vs traditional keyboard concept here. This particular board has certainly impressed me, but there are far more attractive mechanical keyboards out there. If you can find the money for them, that is. I got this one because it was cheap, for one time only, and while it’s really only the fonts on the key-tops that bother me, in time I may regret going for a stingy option. That seems fairly unlikely right now, though.
The move to mechanical is definitely a more than superficial change – after all, we’re talking about making the main means of interfacing with one’s PC feel more enjoyable – but I think I’d have seriously struggled to spend the £100+ generally required for these things. Hopefully we’ll see prices lower – for entry-level models at least – as interest in mechanical keyboards continues to rise, which I’m rather it certain will be the case.