Inspiration

A Beginner’s Guide to Mechanical Keyboards

A keyboard is an essential part of a PC setup, much like the mouse, monitor, and the PC itself. But can it be much more than that? After all, how much innovation can possibly go into a keyboard, right? The answer is a lot! In fact, mechanical keyboards are a great example of just how much passion can go into a PC setup component. If you’re not familiar with mechanical keyboards but have heard of the craze surrounding them, don’t worry. We’ve prepared a beginner’s guide to mechanical keyboards complete with a history, a list of components, and other information you may find useful.

What Are Mechanical Keyboards?

In the world of computer keyboards, variety reigns supreme. There are flexible keyboards that conveniently fold for easy storage, ergonomic keyboards built for comfort, and membrane keyboards, which are perhaps the kind you’re most familiar with. To better explain what a mechanical keyboard is, let’s compare it with the widely used membrane keyboard.

As the name suggests, the “keys” on a membrane keyboard are not individual parts but rather printed on a continuous flexible surface. When a key is pressed, it creates an electrical contact with the circuitry inside the keyboard. This type of build makes membrane keyboards resistant to dirt and water and cheaper to mass produce, hence its popularity. However, because the tactile feedback you get from each key press is largely minimal, it can be hard to determine whether or not you pressed a key. Not to mention, the membrane is prone to wear and tear.

Mechanical keyboards are essentially the stark opposites of their membrane counterparts. Each key is its own separate unit. When pressed, it triggers a key switch (more on this shortly) which then sends a signal that registers the press. The small bit of resistance felt each time a key is pressed results in a “feel” often preferred by keyboard enthusiasts, plus it makes it easier to know you’ve pressed a key. As opposed to the membrane keyboard’s quiet disposition, mechanical keyboards have an audible keystroke that can be customized to the desired volume. Because each key is separate from the next, impurities can easily slip through the cracks. However, their hard plastic construction makes mechanical keyboards more durable, albeit more expensive to produce and purchase.

Old Mechanical keyboard

 

Membrane keyboard on laptop

A Brief History

To understand the history of a mechanical keyboard specifically is to understand the history of the keyboard itself. So, let’s map it out with a timeline:

  • In 1863 Christopher Latham Sholes develops the QWERTY layout for typewriters which is still in use today
  • In 1874 the first commercial typewriters are introduced, although they won’t be a mainstay in offices until the 1880s
  • Teleprinters, used to transmit messages through different communication channels, gained popularity in the early 20th century
  • In the 1940s teleprinters are adapted for data input in early computers
  • Video terminals, which were essentially a monitor/keyboard combo connected to a computing device, gained popularity in the 1960s
  • Starting in the 70s, manufacturers began experimenting with different input technologies including membrane circuitry, magnets, and the switches mechanical keyboards are currently known for
  • By the 1980s, most computers include keyboards similar to those in use today

Historic Mechanical Keyboards

Through the years, manufacturers have developed mechanical keyboards that hold special significance for enthusiasts. Some of the most notable ones include:

  • Alps SCB1A163: Created in the 1970s by Alps, a company that would later manufacture all of Apple’s keyboards, the SCB1A163 came from the first computer at UCLA. It had a reed switch mechanism composed of two metal reeds and a magnet. When a key was pressed, the magnet would cause the reeds to touch, registering the key press.
  • IBM 3276: The Beam Spring switches in this keyboard simulated your finger’s touch and ultimately led to the touchscreen technology we have today. Fun fact: in the 70s, this keyboard would have a price tag of about $1,500 or $8,000 in today’s economy.
  • UDS Comtest CEX-17C: Created in 1980, this keyboard had an early version of the popular Cherry switches (more on those later) known today.
    Space Cadet: One of the most popular keyboards to this day, the Space Cadet used sealed Honeywell Hall Effect switches that were almost impermeable. This made it a keyboard with one of the longest life spans around.
  • Teletype 40k 104 DAB: The Rolls Royce of keyboards, this peripheral was luxuriously made with high-end keycaps, used hand-wired electrodes, and boasted switches that could produce two functions: press and they react, but press more and it completes a different action.

How Did They Gain So Much Popularity?

Before the 90s, virtually all keyboards were mechanical, but with the rise of membrane keyboards, they slowly found their way into the shadows. In the early 2010s, mechanical keyboards were essentially niche computer products with a passionate, albeit small, fandom. However, in the later part of the decade and well into today, companies realized mechanical keyboards had tremendous potential. The rise of gaming, esports, and streaming further helped foster popularity. In fact, in 2020 a popular streamer and professional gamer known as Tfue made big tech news when he commissioned a $3,500 gaming keyboard. Shroud, one of the biggest gaming and streaming personalities around, even launched his own line of Logitech gaming keyboards and gaming products.

Are There Different Types of Mechanical Keyboards?

Yes! And it largely has to do with their different sizes. Let’s say you’re building a new PC setup and desk space is an issue. A  60% keyboard, which is smaller in size compared to full-sized keyboards, would more than likely fit your needs. Keyboard size varieties are generally denoted by percentages based on a full-sized keyboard’s size, such as 75%, 65%, 60%, all the way down to a simple number pad. Of course, getting anything smaller than a full-size keyboard means you sacrifice keys such as designated numbers, symbols, or functions. Other key differences between mechanical keyboards revolve around switches, keycaps, and even the typing experience:

Let’s Talk Switches

At their core, the most important part of a mechanical keyboard is its key switches, and when it comes to keyboard switches, variety is the spice of life. Cherry, a German switch manufacturer, has been the main player in the switch game for decades. However, brands like Logitech and Asus have burst into the scene with their own designs. A key switch’s design prioritizes several factors, such as feel and sound.

A switch such as the Cherry MX Red has what’s known as “linear travel,” which means there’s less resistance when pressed, making them popular among gamers. Cherry MX Brown key switches need to be pressed harder to function, which makes them a favorite among typists. Some switches, such as the Cherry MX Blue, prioritize their “clickiness” over anything else. These key switches have an incredibly noticeable sound. So much so, that you may want to think twice about getting them if you share a home with others.

Let’s Talk Keycaps

Variety in keycaps may not be as wide as with key switches, but there are several options mechanical keyboard enthusiasts can choose from. The first important factor comes down to key material. ABS plastic is the most widely used material and the cheapest to produce. It’s smooth, shiny, and can struggle with what can be described as a “greasy” feel. PBT keycaps, on the other hand, have a textured feel that helps with grip but can wear down with use. Stainless steel, aluminum, and even resin keycaps are also available but primarily used for customization.

The other factor in keycaps is their legends. In most cases, legends are printed onto the keycap or laser-engraved. As you can imagine, the former are more susceptible to wear. Doubleshot keycaps have legends that are molded into the keycap and filled in via injection. They’re the most resistant to fading but generally more expensive.

Let’s Talk Experience

The mechanical keyboard experience comes together when key switches and caps are chosen. Perhaps you want a full-size keyboard with loud clicks and customized keycaps made with resin. Or maybe you want a 60% keyboard that’s a little on the quieter side and with a “feel” made for gaming. You could even illuminate it all with RGB lighting!

How Can I Build One?

If a mechanical keyboard is something that piques your interest, there’s a chance you’ll want to build your own at some point. Perhaps the best way to go about this giant rabbit hole is with baby steps. And we mean tiny, little baby steps. You see, customizing a prebuilt keyboard is relatively straightforward. You can swap out the keys or mess around with your RGB settings to nail the illuminated color schemes you’re after. In fact, companies such as Corsair, Ducky, and KBParadise make great customizable keyboards. However, building your own mechanical keyboard is a more involved process.

You’ll need to start with the case. Since you’re building your own keyboard, you can choose from a different variety of colors, styles, and even materials like wood and resin! From there you’ll need to find switches that fit your case and accommodate the “feel” you’re looking for along with the circuit board where your switches will rest. While some keyboards are “hot swappable,” meaning you can simply pull out the switches and swap them as you see fit, others require you to solder them in place. If you lack soldering experience, we recommend practicing your skills on the inner workings of an old alarm clock or radio. If you get stuck through these crucial steps in the process, remember that YouTube is your friend! There are plenty of guides out there that provide detailed steps to help you out.

Once your case, circuit board, and switches are in place, the rest of the process is relatively straightforward. All you really have to do now is install your keycaps! Oh, and you’ll need to make sure your newly built mechanical keyboard actually works. Plug it into your computer, cross your fingers, and enjoy those dulcet clicking sounds.

Custom mechanical keyboard with lights around it

Put It to Good Use

Now that you’re on your way to mechanical keyboard fandom, why not put your top-of-the-line peripheral to use for the greater good? Your greater good! Customizing your own keyboard is a fun part of entering the tech world. If you’re excited about working in tech, check out our programs and use this guide to help you build your dream workstation! Apply today and we can also help you find the right tech for your success.

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