Mechanical Keyboards: The Analogy Explainer

A deeper look at what makes them good, bad, and different.

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Over the last several years, there has been a major boom in the sales of mechanical keyboards. What used to be a niche market has blossomed into a significant segment of sales, and with that growth came lots of innovation. There are now dozens of keyboard manufacturers and switch types to choose from. Rather than force all you wonderful people to wade through forum threads, press releases and Wikipedia pages, we are here to lay out the basic groundwork of what a mechanical keyboard is, how it’s different from other keyboards on the market, and we will even provide you guys with some insight on various switch types, complete with personal experiences.

What Makes A Mechanical Keyboard Different?

This is the biggest starting point for any mechanical keyboard discussion; just what the heck is a mechanical keyboard. It all has to do with how the keys work. In a normal laptop, or any modern “standard” keyboard, you will find the keyboard is littler more than a massive circuit board with a series of little rubber buttons underneath the keys. These are called rubber dome, or membrane, keyboards. The little rubber nubs are conductive, so that when you push the key down, it touches the circuit board and makes a connection. It’s a very simple mechanism, and it’s very cheap to make. This is why most keyboard makers switched to this kind of construction.

Mechanical keyboards on the other hand make use of individual mechanical assemblies that feature springs and metal actuation switches. This is where the name mechanical comes from. This construction method gives mechanical keyboards some very distinct advantages and disadvantages over their membrane counterparts.

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  1. You left out the king of mechanical switches, the buckling spring. Found in IBM Model M keyboards these are the best and most tactile of all they mechanical keys. Unicomp still produces keyboards with this design.

    • We left this switch out on purpose. While generally considered to be the king of mechanical switches, the IBM Model M Keyboard actually uses a membrane. Instead of a proper mechanical keyboard the Model M is more of a hybrid, using a mechanical actuation of a lever in each switch, but that switch activates a membrane sheet on a PCB like a normal membrane keyboard. There are older model IBM boards that use a buckling spring switch that is a proper mechanical switch, but thanks to the varied designs of these boards and their very limited use today, we felt it was best to leave it out. Happy to see a fellow enthusiast jumping in to add this though. Is people like us that keep this technology alive. 🙂

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