The newbie’s complete (and easy) guide to mechanical keyboards
In a previous article, I looked at the 17 coolest mechanical keyboards that we’d ever seen here at CyberNews. That article was mostly based on the visual part of the keyboard and the time and money people spent building those boards.
However, when talking to a lot of mechanical keyboard enthusiasts, we found they use a lot of specifc language that can be very confusing for newcomers. So in this article, we’ll be giving all those newbies who are interested in mechanical keyboards a firm walkthrough of mechanical keyboards with the help of Frankie (u/sleepyboylol on Reddit or @Nyhilest on Instagram/Twitch.Tv/Twitter), a passionate hobbyist.
What are mechanical keyboards and how do they differ from regular keyboards?
Regular, modern keyboards are known as membrane keyboards, because the keys that you press down on sit on a large rubber or silicone membrane:
Beneath that membrane is the circuit board that registers the keystroke. Looking more closely at the dome-switch style of membrane keyboards, you can see that each key depresses a plastic switch that is embedded in the large membrane, and which presses down on the circuit board:
These are generally easier to produce and cheaper than mechanical switches, and they’re found in most modern keyboards.
Mechanical keyboards have a different anatomy (which we’ll look at below), but the biggest difference is that each key is separate, with its own separate mechanical switch, so there’s no large membrane. This generally offers users more sound and tactile feedback when they press on the keys than the membrane keyboards provide.
Generally, they also offer more customization possibilities, so that users can find more expressive ways to build their own keyboards.
The anatomy of mechanical keyboards
If you really want to get into mechanical keyboards, or at least nod knowingly when a friend turns to the “board side,” you’ll need to know the general makeup of a mechanical keyboard.
These mechanical keyboards may come with many different options, but they’ll have the same parts (from the bottom up):
- The case or shell which houses all the parts of the keyboard
- The PCB, or printed circuit board, which registers the keystrokes and sends signals to the computer or other device
- The mounting plate which holds the keys in place
- The keyswitches (or just switches) which largely determine the sound and feel of the keyboard
- The keycaps whose color, size and shape are often customized and swapped out
Besides those parts, you’ll also have other accessories like lube, padding, lighting, cables, even mice that the mechanical keyboard community will likely talk about.
One important thing to note is that, while the “feel” of the mechanical keyboard is its biggest draw, it is very subjective. And while switches determine a lot of this “feel,” the actual feel will come from many components of the board, including:
- Switch type
- Switch-mounting construction
- Keycap construction
- Case construction
- Keycap printing
Keyboard sizes: 40%, 60%, 65% and 75%
There are many different sizes of keyboards, and they are relative to the full-size regular keyboard, which here would be 100%. A 100% board would include the numpad, so they’re most likely used for desktop and older computers. Laptops, on the other hand, don’t normally include the numpad, so they would have a 65% keyboard, or 75% for older laptops.
The most common types are 40%, 60%, 65% and 75%, but there are also others like 70% or 85%.
Frankie told CyberNews: “Generally people go with 60% or 65% as they're the most popular. This means more things like cases, PCB's, and plates are available, and you can be a bit more budget friendly with the keycap sets.”
This is the most viable compact keyboard. These keyboards usually contain no number row, a limited number of punctuation keys, and usually no navigation or cursor keys, no numpad, and no function (F) row. To access the missing functionality, they use one or more Fn keys.
Below is an example of a 40% keyboard layout, but many other variations exist:
60% keyboards are like 40% keyboards, except that they will also have the number keys. These keyboards don’t have the numpad, function row and navigation cluster. One or more Fn keys are used to access the missing functions.
If you have a relatively new laptop, you probably have a 65% keyboard. This is a 60% with a column on the right which usually contains cursor and navigation keys (Home, End, Insert, Delete, Page up and Page down).
These keyboards can be found on older laptops, and they have an extra row on the right side of the Enter key. 75% keyboards don’t have the numpad.
Layouts: ergo, split, and ortho
It’s also important to mention the layout of the keyboard. Regular keyboards normally come as one-part, rectangular (straight-edged) boards, but other variations exist.
Short for “ergonomic,” these keyboards are shaped with the aim to minimize injuries or strains related to typing, or to provide relief for users already suffering from injuries.
Split keyboards are keyboards (usually 40%) that are separated by spacing in the center of the board, or physically separated and connected by a cable. A split keyboard is a type of ergo keyboard.
Most keyboards you think of have their keys arranged in a normal or equal stagger, where the rows or columns are offset. However, other layouts exist. One popular one is what’s known as an ortho (for “ortholinear”) layout, also known as a matrix layout. Ortho keyboards have no staggering:
Because making custom cases is expensive, most hobbyists don’t customize. There are makers that focus specifically on cases, and then sell those to customers. Cases are ordered based on the size (%) of the keyboard or other specifics of the layout (such as ergo).
Many hobbyists also create wooden cases for their existing boards.
Frankie told CyberNews, “You could totally get a case fabricated;” however, for newbies, he states: “I'd say if you're just starting out, you'll be able to mostly pick out the case, keycaps, plate, and switches that you want” rather than create your own.
“When it comes to PCB's,” Frankie told me, “there are two to consider: solder and hot-swap.”
The solder-type PCB requires the user to solder each individual switch. Some switches are supported only by the PCB (known as PCB-mounted), while better keyboards will include a steel mounting plate to support the switches (known as plate-mounted).
“You'll need a soldering iron, soldering wire, a brass wool ball (to clean the soldering iron), as well as a desk fan (to blow the fumes away), and some extra time,” he told CyberNews. “The solder version is the one I prefer as it gives each switch a nice sturdy place on the PCB. I also enjoy soldering.”
Hot-swap PCBs are much easier. “The hot-swap PCB doesn't require any of the above. It's like Lego, where you just pop the switches in and you're done. This is definitely the beginner friendly way to go, or if you just don't want to solder. I have a hot-swap PCB coming in soon because sometimes I just want to pop switches in and out for testing, or for fun. There's no shame in hot-swap!”
If you’re into cool lighting on your keyboard, you need to be careful what kind of PCB you choose.
“Solder PCBs don’t have underglow lighting. At least the ones I have (DZ60). This means if you like your keycaps to light up, this won't provide that for you. However, a hot-swap PCB can sometimes have the in-switch lighting, which are LED's on top of the PCB! Something to consider. Just remember that most keycaps are solid and don't let light shine through.”
A lot of time and energy among hobbyists is spent on switches. Switches sit under the keycaps and give a lot of the “feel” of the keyboard at large.
Let’s look at the important parts of the switch:
As you press down on the key, you push down on the stem/slider, which is held up by the spring. The slider sits between the two metal contact leaves, and as the slider moves down, it allows the two metal parts to complete the circuit, registering the keystroke.
When you choose which switch you’d like, there are some important terms to understand. These include:
- Actuation: this is when the switch goes from open to closed (when the metal contact leaves touch). Note that this often happens before the switch is fully depressed, or “bottomed out.” Switches usually show the amount of force needed to get to the actuation point, and the force is measured using either of two units: the centinewton (cN) and gram-force (gf, or simply g).
- Travel: this describes the vertical motion of a key – how far, in distance, the key moves before it is “bottomed out”. Note that actuation happens about halfway. If a switch’s travel is 3-4mm, the actuation happens at 1.5-2mm. If actuation happens before “bottoming out” it is called “pre-travel”
- Linear: we won’t get technical here, but a linear switch has a smooth, quiet and consistent feel throughout the keystroke
- Tactile: tactile switches have a noticeable “bump” or physical feedback when the key is pressed
- Clicky: clicky switches are tactile switches with a noticeable “click” sound when pressed
The most popular type of switches are the Cherry MX switches, which come in different colors for differing styles. For newcomers, Frankie recommends getting a switch tester to see which kind of switches (linear, tactical or clicky) fit you best. “Also if budget is an issue, Gateron switches come pretty cheap,” he told CyberNews.
You can also watch this video to get an understanding of the different Cherry MX switch colors:
So, for example, Frankie tells us that he currently owns Tealios v2 67g (linear) switches from Zeal PC. That means that those switches are smooth and quiet (linear) and require 67g of force for the keystroke to be registered (heavier than the light Cherry MX Silent Red which requires only 45g).
Over time, Frankie has come to prefer linear over tactical: “So far, my favorite have to be the Tealios v2 and the Tangies. They're both linear switches and are very satisfying as well as much quieter than the tactile Hako Violets, which I don't actually like anymore.
“I originally thought I was a tactile guy, but I guess I'm linear gang now!”
Lubes and film
That was a very fun little title to write, but fortunately or unfortunately “lubes and film” only refers to ways to make your switches and typing experience much smoother, with less rattle and scratchiness.
Filming is the process of putting a small piece of plastic or rubber between the upper and lower part of the housing, thereby reducing the wobble and improving the sound and feel. Lubing involves using a lubricant and applying it on parts of the switches. Some switches come factory lubed, although the quality of the lubing is up for discussion.
Lubes come with different numbers to denote the viscosity and grade. For example, 104 would be less viscous than 204. Numbers beginning with 10x denote oils, while 20x denote grease. There are also grades – lower grades are smooth and higher ones more peanut butter-like. So a 205g0 is more viscous and smooth.
With that in mind, you should be able to understand Frankie when he says:
“I lubed my Tealios v2 with Krytox 205 Grade 0 lubricant and filmed with the Deskey switch films; however the Tangies come factory lubed, and are extremely smooth out of the box!”
Keycaps are like your keyboard's clothes, hair color, nails, piercings or tattoos – in short, they’re the biggest, most visible part of your keyboard’s personality. For that reason, people will throw down a lot of money to get the best keycaps.
When discussing keycaps, people will often talk about the keycap profile. This describes the shape of the keycap when viewed from the side.
Besides profile, most discussions go with what brand of keycaps you’re likely to buy – and GMK are the industry’s best. “GMK keycaps are very expensive. They can be over $200 CAD for a single set during the group buy phase, and up to 3x that aftermarket. If the price is shocking, there are lots of good, budget friendly options on KBDFans, as well as Amazon, AliExpress, etc.”
The material is also important for the board community. “There is also a bit of a debate between PBT and ABS keycaps. This is the type of plastic they're made of. A lot of people will say PBT is superior, however the most sought after GMK keycaps are ABS, so don't worry too much about it if you're just starting out.”
“The most sought after keycaps are ones made by a company called GMK,” Frankie says, and they’re pretty hard to come by. “The only way to really get a set of GMK keycaps is to join a group buy, which is like a pre-order. Except that, after the group buy ends, they don't continue to sell the keycaps, unless they were extremely popular. This means once you order the set, you can wait from 6-8 months, or more for the keycaps to arrive.”
He has some good advice for newbies too: “If you're used to buying off the shelf keyboards, like Logitech, Corsair, etc, you're probably used to the more standard profile like OEM, Cherry, etc. Cherry is my prefered profile, and the profile GMK makes their keycaps in. Cherry profile has varying heights and shapes of the keycaps for each row of the keyboard, making it a bit more ergonomic in feeling; however I'm not an expert in ergonomics so don't quote me.”
Time and money and other things
There are a few important things to consider when getting involved in the mechanical keyboard community.
“The first thing that comes to mind is price. This hobby isn't cheap, however there are some cheaper options for beginners I can recommend.
“The main learning curve is building the keyboard itself. It takes a long time to lube the switches, film them, and then solder them into the PCB. The last keyboard I built, which was for my wife, is an 80% WKL [windowkeyless, meaning no Windows key], and a 20% numpad, and together, they took me around 12 hours. She didn't want her switches lubed, so that probably saved me another 6 hours. For a 60% keyboard, it's a bit faster and for your very first time it will most likely take you up to 6 hours to complete.”
However, building these from scratch (or close to scratch) isn’t necessary, as there are kits you can buy that you’ll simply need to assemble yourself.
“You may also want to look into DIY kits, which gives you almost everything you need to build a keyboard. They usually exclude switches and keycaps from the kit. A really good one to grab is the Glorious PC GMMK Hot-Swap keyboards, like the GMMK Pro for example!”
Beyond that, you can make other choices for an easier first build: “As a newcomer, if you're intimidated by soldering, you may want to opt for a hot-swap PCB. This is a plug-and-play PCB that requires no soldering at all.”
For people who are already into the hobby, Frankie recommends joining group buys as soon as possible:
“If you plan on joining the community as an enthusiast, hurry to your proxy for keycaps like DeskHero for Canada and join your GroupBuys now. You can use this link as a reference for what keycaps, switches, and cases are coming out, or have already passed.
“The worst feeling is wanting a specific aesthetic, and then you realize you missed the group buy by a day or two, and you have to wait a year or more for it to come back, or worse, get it in the resale market for three times the price.”