If you were using computers back in the 80s, you might remember using a dull, heavy, gray keyboard. You might have even used IBM’s Model M keyboard before people began to realize its novelty. This keyboard is remembered for its unique switch process; a buckling spring mechanism within each key that produced a definitive click-clack sound and a certain level of resistance that made typing easier, due to the tactile feedback received by the typist. While the iconic IBM Model M keyboard is still in demand, present day keyboard manufacturers have now begun to mimic this switch process in what are called mechanical keyboards. These keyboards have slightly different switches than the Model M, but they also strive to produce that same tactile feedback that IBM’s keyboard did in the 80s.
New mechanical keyboards have individual spring switch mechanisms within every key, unlike most modern keyboards nowadays whose keys are mounted to a single membrane. There are many different types of switches that new mechanical keyboards use; typists get to choose their preference based upon the amount of resistance they desire and the click-clack sound made when the key is pressed. For example, some switches require that the key is pressed all the way down for a keystroke to be registered, whereas others may only need to be pressed halfway. Some people enjoy the loud clicking of keys, while others do not want to disturb their whole office, and some people like to have to use more force to press down a key as opposed to a softer resistance. The most popular brand of switches for mechanical keyboards is Cherry’s MX line. They provide a variety of switches that allow the typist to distinguish between the factors that go into choosing the right switch. Their four most popular switches are Black, Red, Blue, and Brown; each mechanism for these switches is slightly different, for example, Blue has a louder click-clack sound while Black requires more force to be pressed.
Not only do these modern mechanical keyboards provide tactile feedback to typists, there are many other benefits that come with these keyboards that make them more valuable than your average keyboard. Many of these keyboards are manufactured with backlights, making typing in the dark easier. Sometimes these LED backlights may even be programmable by the user. Also, because of mechanical keyboards’ individual switch mechanism, they have the ability to register multiple keystrokes at once, as opposed to a normal keyboard, called a membrane keyboard because the keys on these keyboards are mounted to a single membrane. This is referred to as key rollover. A greater key rollover number is better; for example, a 6-key rollover would allow you to press up to 6 keys at once and have them all recognized by your computer, or the more high-end mechanical keyboards might even come with n-key rollover, meaning that you could press any number of keys at once and have them all be recognized. This might also be referred to as anti-ghosting; it is called ghosting when more than one key is pressed at once and some keystrokes are not recognized. Many of these mechanical keyboards also come with programmable multi-media keys (e.g. you could program a key to turn up or down your computer volume). Lastly, mechanical keyboards typically allow the user to remove the key caps and replace them with customized keycaps or keys of different colors.
All of these features mentioned make mechanical keyboards highly desirable in the gaming industry. The tactile feedback ensures that a player has fully pressed a key without looking away from the screen. The LED backlight provides for a better view for those who choose to game in dim environments for a better visual of the screen. A high key rollover means that a player would never have to worry about multiple moves being lost due to ghosting. Programmable multimedia keys make it easier for players to make adjustments without having to leave the game they are currently involved in, and for more visual based gamers, being able to change the colors of the keycaps that are used most frequently during a game might make the experience easier than having to read the labels on each key to ensure they are pressing the correct one.
Because of all the benefits and features provided by these mechanical keyboards, they tend not to be cheap. The lower end of the spectrum, those typically with imitation Cherry MX switches instead of the real ones and lacking backlights, might go for around $40. The lowest you might pay for a keyboard with Cherry MX switches and a backlight could be from $80 to $120. Some of the most expensive keyboards with the best features go for an upwards of $150 to even over $200. If you’re lucky and happen to come across an original IBM Model M keyboard, those might cost around $100 on Amazon or eBay. While these prices might deter some from making the switch from a normal membrane keyboard, the benefits of a mechanical keyboard to the frequent typist or gamer could be worth the cost.