The Chronicle

of a ColdFusion Expatriate

Type Like Optimus Prime: the Mechanical Keyboard Renaissance

April 24, 2013

Set aside for the moment the fact that Optimus Prime’s defining characteristic is his ability to transform. Pretend, instead, that he’s just an enormous, sentient robot. That’s what your keyboard would be like if you had mechanical key switches in there. Maybe you already do and this is old hat; if that is the case, move along. But if you want to learn about Cherry MX Blues and the siren song of the Rosewills and the Leopolds, by all means, read on.

Most keyboards do not have mechanical key switches. The reason for this is quite simple: mechanical key switches are more expensive to manufacture. That’s really the only reason I can come up with.

To the contrary, most keyboards have some type of “conductive rubber pad” mechanism, which usually consists of a single circuit board, a rubber overlay that provides resistance to key presses and holds conductive rubber pads above a grid of switch-like breaks in the circuit board traces. When you press down on a key, you are depressing one of the rubber “bumps,” which eventually collapses and allows the conductive pad to touch the circuit board underneath, completing the circuit.

Making keyboards this way has a few advantages:

  1. The materials and manufacturing are really cheap.
  2. The parts can be extruded or molded and assembled by machines.
  3. The keyboards are typically quiet and comfortable to use, which is appealing in the modern office environment.

Unfortunately, there are also disadvantages. The primary disadvantage is that commodity keyboards fail quickly; generally in under a couple million key presses, but by comparison to mechanical key switch keyboards they often have a cheap or flimsy feel during use. Even the nicer conductive keyboards pale in comparison to the feeling of pressing down on an actual, mechanical button.

So what makes mechanical key switches better? How about another list?

  1. Most mechanical key switches (the popular ones) are made by companies that do not make keyboards, they only make key switches. This specialization results in a higher quality product.
  2. Rather than failing after one or two million key presses, mechanical key switches are generally expected to survive thirty, forty, or fifty million key presses before succumbing to the wear and tear of their owner’s constant hammering.
  3. They feel awesome to type on. Seriously. There are a few types of key switches, which I will go over, and they all feel so much better to type on than your run-of-the-mill Microsoft or Dell keyboard.
  4. Geek cred. More on this at the end.