Younger people, such as myself, probably don’t recall the old clacky keyboards much anymore – now that we are seemingly spoiled with modern tech full of sleek lines and chicklet style keyboards. For a bit, chicklets were my preferred keyboard (such as on my now deceased Lenovo T530 or current Mac). However, I recently have become interested in the mechanical keyboard craze as I type daily for a job and want the most pleasant experience possible.
I should warn people of my experience up-front so they can turn away and stop pursuing this idea if they are happy with what they have. My experience was that I didnt know what I was missing until I tried them – so I probably could have just not started the pursuit and saved some cash… Seriously, if you like what you have, stick with it – there is no reason to pursue something else!
I probably could be plenty happy with the traditional rubber dome or scissor type of keyboards, but comparison is the thief of contentment. I started noticing how the non-mechanical keyboards felt with the rubber dome, it simply collapses (requiring a full depression of a key to get characters on the screen – this is just how the key actuates, the PCB must be touched with the capacitive material) and provides an inconsistent feedback. When trying out a mechanical keyboard, in comparison, you get fairly consistent force required for actuation and a pleasant feedback, oh – and if you care about nerd points, you can seemingly buy them with a mechanical keyboard.
The barrier to entry is around $5 at Goodwill if you know what you are looking for, and are pretty darn lucky. Unfortunately, I really didn’t up front – so a friend at work lent me his IBM Model M. Apparently, this is revered as one of the best typing keyboards to date and their value is surprisingly high for a keyboard from the mid 80’s still being produced. Take a look on eBay, they’re still selling (used) for $70+ and new in box for a bit more. The true barrier is around $75, with the current intro keyboards really beginning around there.
The main problem of deciding whether or not a mechanical keyboard is attractive for your typing needs isn’t very hard to gauge, if you type a lot – you will benefit from the customized feel, tactile and/or audible feedback, and lower impact on your fingers/joints. That being said, the feel of various switches (the true value of the mechanical keyboard) is highly subjective. Unfortunately, few stores carry enough mechanical keyboard models for customers to try side-by-side – so in this highly subjective topic sphere, I had to mostly rely on subjectivity and the few great sites with the objective stats.
To get some personal experience (as I would suggest for anyone joining the club), I had a few options.
- Some companies, such as WASD have a sample kit of Cherry MX Switches, keycaps, and sound dampeners. I didn’t bother with this idea since that seems like it is pretty far from the actual typing experience that I wanted before dropping $75 – $150 on a keyboard.
- Borrow a keyboard from a friend (maybe you are lucky and have multiple friends with various switch types)
- Find a store that carries some mechanical keyboards to begin scratching the surface of your preference.
I utilized options 2 and 3. The Model M was a great introduction into the market, but I may lose lots of credibility when I say that I don’t really care for the Model M. The audible and tactile feedback is nice as this uses a buckling spring instead of the Cherry MX’s (read: provides substantial feedback). From my limited use of it verses the cherry series, it is most comparable to the Blues. In my use, however, the keys just seem too high which makes the use of the keyboard after a long period somewhat uncomfortable for how I hold my hands. It’s also worth noting that this thing is loud. In my own office or at home it’s not a problem, but with an office mate or working in an open area – people seem to dislike you.
That experience at least let me get my feet wet and encouraged me to see if the modern keyboards are more desirable. My best luck for a side-by-side comparison was Fry’s during a trip to Indianapolis where I found Browns, Blues, and Reds. These three seem to be the most commonly found, but plenty of others also exist.
There is a valid claim for some subsets of nerds to like specific switches: gamers tend to favor the reds with their low actuation force while typists enjoy blues due to the combination of tactile and audible feedback. However, there is no hard and fast rule, as this like most things is really a subjective decision, anyone who suggests otherwise is probably just an elitist who’s opinion probably isn’t worth a whole lot.
Anyway, for my experience – I started off with trying out the couple of keyboards at Fry’s that were available (some Cooler Master CM Storms, a Logitech, and a Razer). Side by side, they seem to be as I had expected after reading a bit about the differences between switches.
I only spent about 30 minutes comparing these, so the quick summaries are fairly base level and not terribly educated. My focus at this point was also on the feel of the switches – not the design of the keyboard nor the features of it. I strictly wanted to determine the type of switch I wanted to start with on an introductory board.
Reds (Razer Black Widow): These were easy to actuate and the force required is minimal. For me, I thought I would accidentally hit to many other keys. Supposedly gamers really like this as they actuate and rebound fairly quickly and are light to press. They also are pretty quiet unless you bottom out the keys a ton (but still quieter than most others).
Browns (Cooler Master CM Storm Rapid Fire Pro): I was expecting a major tactile bump, which I did not experience. The keys, however, felt good and the feedback was helpful – I think my expectations were just incorrect. I was really wanting to try the clears, which are supposed to be a heavy version of the Browns. So this one most interested me as a precursor to ordering something like The CODE Keyboard.
Blues (Cooler Master CM Storm QuickFire): Immediately I was sold on this for my first board. It isn’t perfect nor does it have all the bells and whistles of the next one I want (fortunately, I have enough computers between home and work to necessitate several new keyboards). But the switches provide a good combination of tactile and audible feedback. This is only slightly quieter than the Model M, but for my home uses it hits the mark. The actuation is fairly high so you really do not need to press the key very far to start seeing progress on the screen. The only downside for anyone wanting to game with Blues is that the reset point is above the actuation point… So spamming a key is slightly more work.
As an intro to the market, the Cooler Master CM Storm* series are both around $75 – 80 from what I have seen. I happily sacrificed some of the nice features of the $150 boards to simply get an exposure to something for a while before making the full plunge. So far, the only reason I would get another board (something different to experience another option) is to have one at my office and home. However, I can’t really speak to the validity of that claim yet as I am only a week into ownership. Once I have had the board a bit longer, I will be adding a review of it as well.