Mechanical Keyboard

I remember reading a number of years ago in a column about gifts for computer people that there was a really great keyboard that used old style switches under each key unlike almost every keyboard out there. I remembered that they were called cherry switches and mentioned that to Eric. He said that’s what his keyboard has in it (it figures; for a guy with no money, he has some of the nicest stuff). So this started me looking at possibly getting a new keyboard. The Cherry MX switches (it’s a brand name; they are actually made in Germany) are mechanical and come in a lot of different types. Geeky computer people and gamers are very particular about the specific type of Cherry switch in their keyboard. It seems like most prefer “red” switches (the plastic plunger is actually red plastic; different types of switches use different colors of plastic, but you wouldn’t know what color the switch was unless you pry off the key cap) which require a very light touch but has no tactical or sound feedback. That doesn’t mean they are quiet, just that they lack a distinct click. You still get a clack or thump as you press the key all the way down and bottom out, and this noise is louder than with most keyboards which have keys sitting on a rubber mat inside the keyboard. The brown switch has tactical feedback as you feel, but don’t hear, a click as you press. Then the blue switch has tactical feedback plus an audible click. This is what Eric has. The blue switch also requires a little heavier touch than the red or brown. The force required to press the key is usually measured in grams (or centinewtons, which are basically the same thing): red and brown take 45 grams, blue takes 50 grams. There are other colors as well. Black is stealthy like the red, but requires a heavier touch, while green is like the blue except it also requires an even heavier touch of 80 grams.

There are a number of keyboards out there that use mechanical Cherry switches. They are called mechanical keyboards instead of the common and very cheap membrane keyboard where instead of springs and switches, you push down on a key and it depresses a rubber dome onto an electronic switch. A mechanical keyboard is still electronic, but has wires inside that actually make contact as you press down. You can get a mechanical keyboard for around $70. At a higher price you can get a backlit keyboard. I realized that this would be very helpful for my desktop computer because the keyboard is often in the dark, especially in the early morning when I get up and I have a hard time finding the right key. I have a lamp that I use at night, but it would be kind of nice if the keys just lit up, plus it would be cool looking. There are different colors, with the most popular being white, blue, and red. An LED is included underneath each key and the letter on each key is translucent so it will light up. The problem is that each key has a piece of plastic under the middle, so you can only light up around the outside of the key, so the letters are small and located in the upper corner, and for keys with a shift function, they might put the shift function in the other upper corner, wasting a lot of space, but I guess it works.

So there are decisions to be made. Not just what brand of keyboard, but what type of Cherry switch and what color of backlight. I kind of like the simplicity of white backlighting. Blue is kind of neat, but orange really seemed like the best, though red would be similar. I found a company called Max Keyboard that some people recommended. You can buy directly from them and you get a very good selection of LED colors and switch types. You can even customize your keyboard by having some keys with different color LED’s. For gamers, they might want the arrow keys (or the A, S, W, and D keys which are used like arrow keys for the left hand) to be distinct from the others, or the function keys. I think I would rather have the number keys a different color, but that wasn’t an option on the website. You pay extra for each customization and the keyboards start at $145. I’m not real sure why the LED’s aren’t always white and then they can just put keys with different color translucent plastic under the letters for color. You can buy different color LED’s from Max Keyboard and unsolder the original ones and solder the new ones in place. It seems like it would be easier to replace the keys.

For the Cherry switch, a lot of gamers like red, but brown also had a lot of followers. The clicky blue switches seemed to be something people would outgrow, though people who are less into gaming and more into typing seemed to prefer the blue ones.

Amazon had the Max Keyboard Nighthawk N8 with Cherry MX brown switches for only $130. They also had the Max Keyboard Nighthawk N9 with Cherry MX red switches for the same price (the model N7 uses clicky Cherry MX blue switches). After a lot of looking and no small amount of frustration with a lot of models being out of stock, I found the best deal at NewEgg for a Rosewill keyboard with Cherry MX blue switches and blue backlighting. It was $120, but they had a 15% off code that brought it down to $102. I ordered that. But within a few minutes I found the same keyboard with red backlighting that I think I would like better at the same price, but with a different discount code. I tried cancelling the order online to no avail. But then I remembered the telephone, and actually called and talked to a person who was able to cancel the order. Next I went back and ordered the red backlit keyboard, but the discount code for this keyboard had expired yesterday. So I wound up ordering the blue backlit one all over again.


While I was looking for this I also found out about the IBM model M keyboards. These were included on the original IBM PC’s, and instead of a mechanical switch use a “buckling spring” to give a kind of metallic boingy noise when pressed (at about 70 grams of force; people actually make graphs of the force required plotted against the key travel). Wikipedia says people who type a lot prefer the buckling spring keyboard to the Cherry switches. One person pointed out that the Cherry switches were a bad imitation of the buckling spring switches, which in turn were a bad imitation of the keys on the IBM Selectric typewriter (not sure how true that is). IBM got out of the hardware business and Lexmark started making this type of keyboard, but even Lexmark gave that up when they couldn’t compete with the cheap membrane keyboards. However, the people who worked at the Lexmark factory in Kentucky believed they had a superior product and wanted to keep their jobs, so they bought the rights to the keyboards and still make them today under the brand name Unicomp, but you have to buy directly from them and pay postage. Plus no backlighting, so I didn’t end up with one of those, though I came pretty close. If I like the new keyboard, I might try a Model M and take it to work (though some people say they are really too noisy for an office situation). There is a good overview of switches here.

Anyway, I’ve typed all of this on my regular old keyboard, but should get the new one in a few days.

8 thoughts on “Mechanical Keyboard

  1. Most of my typing by day is on an Apple wireless (short / no keypad) with a wireless Magic trackpad. I like it a lot, but it is basically the engineering behind their laptops.

    By night / weekend / travel I am typing on my MacBook Pro keyboard and I have enjoyed having the auto-adjusting backlighting. It has two dedicated keys for adjusting the light if I’m not happy with the auto-adjust. I like this feature a lot.

    All membranes, of course, since thin and quiet is so important to Apple.

    Apple keyboard and trackpad.

    • This keyboard is very heavy, around 3 pounds. Not Apple-ish. But it does have 3 levels of brightness and a “breathing” mode that brightens and dims the keyboard. I’m not sure the keyboard really makes that much difference, but we’ll see.

  2. I am typing my first words on the new keyboard. It is decidedly clicky, and maybe that not bad about bottoming out and making more noise, unless you really just beat down on it. But I’m typing kind of lightly just to make sure it doesn’t bottom out and every now and then I might miss a letter. The LED backlighting is pretty nice. I thought there might be too much spill of light underneath the keys, but the brightest thing you see is definitely the letters on the keys. I’ll see if I can get a picture, but for some reason right now the letters in the pictures don’t appear as blue as they do in real life.

  3. I didn’t know about Unicomp. I agree that the original IBM keyboards are too noisy for office use, but I got one with buckling spring switches and the integrated mouse stick between the “g” and “h” keys.

    I’ve always wanted to try a mouse technology that didn’t upset my hand position on the keyboard, and I’ve always wanted a clickety IBM keyboard for home, and I don’t want a PS/2 keyboard, so I bought their EnduraPro.

    • That’s pretty cool. Let us know what you think of it! I’m tempted to get a Unicomp keyboard for work despite the noise. I’m not sure I could get used to the mouse stick.

      • So far I love the keyboard but do not like the mouse stick at all. I have grown accustomed to the scroll-wheel feature of today’s mouse or touchpad. The stick is really annoying.

        I cannot imagine using this keyboard in an office unless I had walls and a door. It is every bit as noisy as the IBM keyboard I used at James Brown’s old house in Augusta in the 1980s.

        But this nice keyboard is making me intrigued about using a keyboard with Cherry MX Blue switches.

  4. After using the new keyboard for a couple for a couple of weeks, I like it, and probably prefer it over a normal keyboard, but it’s hard to put a value on it, so I don’t think it is worth the extra money for me. I do like the backlighting for my situation though, and the clicky keys are kind of neat. If you want to borrow it for a few weeks, let me know.

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