Complete Guide to Understanding Mechanical Keyboards

What is a mechanical keyboard and why are there thousands of people going crazy over them? You would think that a keyboard is just a keyboard. Some are soft, some are nice to the touch, some are quiet, and maybe the one you’re using is just the right one for you because you’ve gotten used to it.

But if your keyboard is just an off-the-shelf you bought along with your workstation, most likely it feels a little bit clunky, like the keys will be blown off anytime, and that it’s a bit stiff to the touch — in which case, you’ll enter an entirely new realm with mechanical keyboards.

20 Best Cheap Mechanical Keyboards

20 Best Cheap Mechanical Keyboards

Mechanical keyboards are in general, much better in terms of quality compared to standard membrane PC keyboards. They... Read more

After reading this article you will learn the difference between regular keyboards and mechanical ones, and how the mechanical keyboards differ from each other based on the brand, materials used, the method how the keycaps are made, and what’s inside each of the keycaps — all put together can contribute to your overall typing experience, whether you will use it for work or gaming.

Shall we?

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Evolution of Keyboards (Membrane to Hybrid to Mechanical)

In order to understand what mechanical keyboards are, it is important to first make the contrast between regular keyboards that you see and use today versus mechanical keyboards.

In the most basic sense, around 90% of the keyboards in the market today are either membrane or dome-switch keyboards.

Membrane keyboards

For membrane keyboards, these are made of one huge plastic sheet that has domes that presses the circuits when the keys on top of them are pushed down – and because of the material’s natural inclination to return to its original form, once you lift your fingers off the key caps, the plastic dome will push the keys back up.

If you open the keyboard, there will be one huge membrane of plastic covering the entire circuitry as pictured below.

Inside of a membrane keyboard

(Image: Wikipedia)

Dome-switch keyboards

As for dome-switch keyboards, they are hybrids of membrane keyboards and switches. Basically, think of the same setup, but this time it has switches below the membrane that provides a nice clicking noise and tactile feedback – signaling that the keypress was registered. See photo below:

Inside of a dome-switch keyboard

(Image: MechanicalKeyboard.org)

As you can see, there is still a dome (black), but it also has a scissor switch mechanism for tactile feedback. Think of it as the next evolution of membrane keyboards.

Now, what about mechanical keyboards?

Mechanical keyboards
Mechanical keyboard

(Image: Razer)

Unlike the examples I mentioned above, mechanical keyboards don’t rely on one entire sheet or membrane to operate. Instead, mechanical keyboards rely on an individual mechanism under each key, with some sort of spring that pushes the keys back up.

If you’ll look closely on the image above, you’ll see that under each keycap is its own mechanism.

Depending on the type of keyboard, it provides a tactile response and a clicking sound, or smooth and linear response. And depending on the keys, the mechanism might also change.

I know that there’s a lot of pieces here, but I will endeavor to explain everything as clearly as I can, and hopefully by the end of this article you’ll find the perfect keyboard for you, just as I am currently looking for one.

Anatomy of a Keyboard

As I mentioned above, there are a lot of moving pieces in a keyboard, and depending on the maker or profile, the labeling, size, layout, parts, and others might differ.

For example, if you search for keyboards on Amazon, you might be greeted with a result that says the following:

TKL Mechanical Gaming Keyboard - 87 Keys - Double Shot PBT - NKRO - USB Type C (Cherry Brown, White)

Terminologies used on titles for mechanical keyboards

Here are more examples of what you’ll probably end up seeing if you search on Amazon or any other marketplace. There are some slight variations but you’ll get the general idea soon enough. Basically, the brand name is usually followed by the keyboard’s version (GK61, K320, etc.)

Amazon mechanical keyboard search results

This might not make sense to you, if you’re new to keyboards. But every bit of this headline has a meaning, which we’ll explore together below. But to give you a quick overview.

Here’s the breakdown:

TKL

Refers to Ten Key-Less, which is just a fancy way of saying that the keyboard doesn’t have a numpad to the right.

87 Keys

Is pretty much self-explanatory in a sense that it is composed of 87 keys.

Double Shot

Refers to the production method of casting the key caps. Many people prefer this because the letters and numbers will never ever fade because they are casted along the key caps.

They are not printed on top of the keys, but instead two materials are molded together to make the entire key and legends. So, if you cut the key caps in half, you will see that the legends are actually embedded in it.

PBT

PBT or Polybutylene Terephthalate is the material used to cast the key caps. Many people prefer this because the legends are clearer and they do not become shiny over time.

NKRO

NKRO means N-Key Roll Over. The N here refers to the number of keys pressed. In the most simplest terms, NKRO means a keyboard can process each keystroke individually, and several of them at a time.

If you’re familiar with old keyboards from the early 2000s, maybe even 2010s, most keyboards would freeze if you pressed more than 4-6 keys at a time. This is particularly stressful for gamers who use multiple keys (plus the mouse keys) during gameplays.

USB Type C

USB Type C refers to the connection type to your laptop or desktop computer. When buying a keyboard, make sure that the connection type matches with your laptop or desktop.

Cherry

Cherry refers to a company/brand that produces switches for keyboards. Mechanical keyboard makers and enthusiasts have hailed it as a standard for switches, so it’s important that you know about this ahead of time.

Brown, White…

Usually comes together with “Cherry Brown” or “Cherry White” or “Cherry MX {color}”. This refers to the different types of switches, with each having a different “feel”. For example:

  • Red and Black are linear, meaning they glide easily and are quiet, without the clicking sound nor feeling
  • Black is stiff, meaning you have to press harder
  • Brown is soft and tactile, meaning you can easily press it and a physical feedback will be felt
  • Blue gives more “click” sound and is softer
  • White is somewhat stiff, with soft clicking sound, and is tactile
Mechanical keyboard cherry colors

(Image: /r/mechanicalkeyboards)

There are also a bunch of other colors like Green, Grey, Clear, Silver, Dark Grey, etc., each with some bit of differences.

Anyway, that was a load of information but I hope you are still hanging around, because we’re just halfway!

Mechanical Keyboard Layouts

ANSI versus ISO keyboard

For now, let’s talk about the layouts of keyboards. I’m sure you’ve seen the difference before but you really can’t quite put your finger on it.

Basically, there are two main keyboard layouts. ANSI and ISO.

In the simplest terms, if the left shift key is short, the same size as the rest of the letter keys, it is ISO. If it’s long, it is ANSI. The return key for ANSI is rectangular, while ISO is L-shaped.

For many gamers and writers like myself, we prefer ANSI because of how often the left shift key is used. But maybe that’s just me?

Mechanical Keyboard Sizes

Depending on your needs, there are several keyboard sizes that can help you achieve your goals. Whether it’s for office work, home office setup where minimal space is available, for the always-on-the-go, gaming, accounting, and others – there’s a keyboard for you.

Mechanical keyboard sizes

(Image: Keyboard University)

For the sake of brevity, the keyboard size types are divided into 3 types: Common, Compact, and Unconventional.

Common Types

100% Full Size – it’s the whole shebang with function keys and numpad

Mechanical keyboard sizes 100%

(Image: Amazon: RK Royal Krudge)

TKL or Ten Key-Less – As mentioned above, the main difference is it doesn’t have the numpad. It’s the most common compact keyboard as well.

Mechanical keyboard sizes TKL

(Image: Amazon: Corsair)

75% has all the keys except for the numpad, but smaller

Mechanical keyboard sizes TKL

(Image: Amazon: Corsair)

65% has all the keys as well and is more compact, but still retains the arrow keys

Unconventional Types

1800 Layout – is pretty much Full Size too, but the keys are closer together

Mechanical keyboard sizes 1800 layout

(Image: Amazon: Drop)

Ten Key Number Pad is literally just the numpad plus other keys that can be used for calculations, so it’s 10+ keys

Mechanical keyboard sizes Ten Keys

(Image: Amazon: Foloda)

Binary Keyboard is just composed of 2 to 3 keys – one for 1, and the other for 0. The other one is the return key

Mechanical keyboard sizes binary keyboard

(Image: Amazon: Kraken Keyboards)

Binary Keyboard is just composed of 2 to 3 keys – one for 1, and the other for 0. The other one is the return key

Mechanical keyboard sizes ortholinear keyboard

(Image: Amazon: YMDK Store)

Binary Keyboard is just composed of 2 to 3 keys – one for 1, and the other for 0. The other one is the return key

Split keyboards are split in the middle, so you can have a degree of freedom and you can move the split keyboards independently from each other

Mechanical keyboard sizes split keyboard

(Image: Amazon: Kinesis Store)

Macropad keyboards have dedicated and programmable keys for a specific purpose. You can use them as a numpad or set them up for specific shortcuts per key

Mechanical keyboard sizes macropad keyboard

(Image: Amazon: Vaydeer Store)

Compact Types

60% doesn’t have dedicated arrow keys and function keys, but are instead integrated with other keys that can be toggled with a key press

Mechanical keyboard sizes 60 percent keyboard

(Image: Amazon: RK Royal Kludge)

40% is the most compact keyboard you can buy, with all the letter keys, but without the function keys’ dedicated section and no arrow keys as well

Mechanical keyboard sizes 40 percent keyboard

(Image: Alibaba)

Mechanical Keyboard Switches

Mechanical keyboard switch - how it works

(Image: Lethal Squirrel)

A keyboard switch refers to the components directly under the key caps which determines the look, feel, and clickity clack of the entire keyboard.

It is important to note that for mechanical keyboards, each key has its own switch, so you can just imagine that there are a lot of moving parts inside.

Keyboards Switch Parts

The housing usually has 5 different parts, from top to bottom, explanation as follow:

1. Top housing and Bottom housing

Top housing and Bottom housing holds all the important part of a switch, it’s where the Stem is connected, a LED slot, and legs for pressing down

2. Stem

Stem refers to the centerpiece of a switch. It is what defines if a mechanical keyboard is linear, tactile, or clicky

3. Leaf

Leaf refers to 2 pieces of metals inside a switch. Before you press a key, The leaf (or leaves) are separated by the stem, but once you fully press the key, the two make contact which triggers the circuit board underneath

4. Spring

Depending on the type of spring, you can have a spring that progressively gets harder to push down, a spring that has low resistance, etc.

When looking for switches for your custom mechanical keyboard, you will encounter weights between 45g and 78g – this refers to how much force of grams you need to use to fully press a key.

Types of Keyboard Switches

As for the types of keyboard switches, there are mainly three:

1. Tactile

It’s the physical response that you feel when you press a key down – you will feel a slight bump that means the keypress is successfully registered. It’s perfect for beginners.

2. Linear

Linear is smooth, consistent feel throughout, and is quiet – almost silent and is often used in gaming where fast typing is needed – because you’ll just need to press the key caps slightly

3. Clicky

Mostly for typing, office work, those who want to have an audible clickety clack noise when working

Mechanical Keyboard Keycaps

When it comes to keycaps, of course there are also several profiles. These determine the general feel and design of the entire mechanical keyboard.

For example, sculpted keycaps mean there is a concave feel at the top of the cap, while uniform profiles are just flat, although they could be angled differently.

Mechanical keyboard profiles

(Image: /u/gtderEvan)

Keycap Profiles
  • OEM are tall and angled key tops, this is mostly seen on packaged workstations with free accessories (sorry!)
  • Cherry are similar to OEM with the angled key tops, but are shorter
  • DSA are shorter than OEM but are taller than Cherry, and have a round top
  • KAM is like DSA, but flatter and shorter
  • KAT is sculpted and has different angles and height for each row
  • MT3 has a deeper sculpted dish caps that you can feel on your fingertips
  • SA has a flat top, and is uniform throughout
Keycap Materials

Now, depending on the material used to mold the keycaps, you could have an entirely different experience with your keyboard.

There are only two major materials used:

  • Acrylonitrile Butadiene Styrene or ABS
  • Polybutylene Terephthalate or PBT

To make things simpler, ABS are cheap and they tend to shine or have a gloss over time. The more you use them, the more shiny the caps become, which gives a grimy feeling or a greasy look.

Meanwhile, PBT are more complicated to make, and are the go-to material of mechanical keyboard enthusiasts just because of the quality and texture.

Keycap Production Methods

But of course that’s not all. It’s not all about the material. It’s also about the production method. Here’s a quick list:

Mechanical keyboard molding

(Image: /u/Ripster)

  • Double Shot – as I mentioned above, Double Shot is the production method by which two separate molds are injected into one for the key cap and the legends
  • Dye-Sublimation – pretty much similar to Double Shot, except the legends are printed onto the keycap. Compared to others, Double Shot and Dye-Sublimation are more durable
  • Reverse Dye-Sublimation – like Dye-Sublimation, except the keycaps are dyed around the legends – imagine printing something on paper, except the words are white and the background is black
  • Pad Printing – the marks are printed on top of the keyboard, and are subject to wear and tear
  • Laser Etching – it’s just engraving the legends on the keycaps with laser, much like how many accessories have laser etchings on them
  • UV Printing – a type of digital printing that permanently prints legends on the keycaps. It’s a durable printing method that won’t wash or rub off the legends
  • Infilling simply means the keycap is already molded but the hole for the legend is filled with colorant, usually white.
Common abbreviations in keycap sets naming

Here are some terms that you might encounter when you do further research or when you hop on on Amazon to start shopping.

Some of these have been mentioned above, but I added a few more that you are most likely to see.

WoB White on Black. This means white legends on a black keycap.
BoW Black on White. This means black legends on a white keycap.
R2 Round 2. This means the keyset is being run a second time after a successful first run
ABS Acrylonitrile butadiene styrene, a type of polymer used to cast casings and keycaps. It is tough but softer than other materials.
PBT Polybutylene Terephthalate, a harder material that is used to mold keycaps. It is currently one of the most prevalent materials used for keycaps and is loved by many.
ISO and ANSI stand for International Organization for Standardization and American National Standards Institute respectively. They are organizations that set specific standards for several industries throughout the world.
POM Polyoxymethylene is another highly resistant material used in making keycaps. It’s not that common because of the high cost, but it resists a lot of wear and tear. Also known by the brand name “Derlin”.
PC Polycarbonate, usually used for translucent keycaps.
OEM Original Equipment Manufacturer
SA simply means Spherical All-rows
DSA DIN-compliant Spherical All-rows
DSS DIN-compliant Spherical Sculptured
DCS DIN-compliant Cylindrical Sculptured
KAT Keyreative is the name of a brand and All Touch is their first developed profile for mechanical keyboard, thus KAT stands for Keyreative All Touch
KAM KAM is a brand by Keyreative in collaboration with Zfrontier. I’m not entirely sure what KAM stands for, unlike with KAT.
MT3 MT3 is from Matt3o, which is Matteo Spinelli’s brand. Matteo is a custom mechanical keyboard maker who is a big figure on Reddit and other Mechanical Keyboard communities.
XDA can’t find any sources for what XDA stands for, but it’s a shorter and flatter version of SA and DSA.

Summary

Mechanical keyboards are expensive compared to the ones 99% of people are used to. The cheapest you can find will probably play around $75, and it could easily go to the upper thousands if you customize one yourself.

This is a craft to many mechanical keyboard enthusiasts, and to some it’s their livelihood too. But in either case, once you get your hands on one, you won’t be able to find satisfaction with non-mechanical keyboards anymore. Some even collect mechanical keyboards for fun and satisfaction.

I wonder which one you’ll be once you dip your fingers in this world?

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