Mechanical Keyboards 101, Part Two: Common Switches in Today’s Market

Posted: March 27, 2017 in keyboarding
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Last time, on Mechanical Keyboards 101, I talked about the differences between mechanical and rubber dome keyboards, the historical background of keyboard technology, and the reason why mechanicals are, by and large, the bee’s knees. If you missed that article, please read it HERE.

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Modern Day Mechanicals:

Let us now discuss the topic of the mechanical keyboard in the modern day.

Today, I’m going to go over the switch types you are likely to find for sale in the current market. I’ll talk about their general tendencies, their strengths, and their weaknesses. I will not be able to relay firsthand experience about every single type of switch available today, but I’ll give you an overview of most of them. There is a lot of information out there, and I can’t give you the ultimate, granular detail that a week or six of study would get you, but I’ll do what can be done in a human-readable article.

Key Switch Types: 

A few things to know about mechanical keyboards. They are typically described with these three adjectives. For reference, most rubber dome keyboards are theoretically tactile, though they often have weak or non-existent tactility, and because they engage at the very bottom of their travel, the tactile nature, if present, serves no real purpose.

1) Tactile: this means that, at some point in the travel of the switch, but before the switch reaches its full travel (bottoming out), there is a change in the level of resistance. Typically, the force curve goes up, then dives, then climbs again. This tactile bump is generally tuned to happen just after the place where the switch activates, which is usually prior to full travel. Typists often appreciate the tactile sensation of a switch, because they are able to “float” across the keys, rather than slamming them to their full travel every time (which is what you have to do with a rubber dome keyboard, because they only make contact with the switch and send the signal at full travel). Some tactile switches have greater swings in force curve, making the “bump” very noticeable, while others are fairly subtle.

2) Clicky: this adjective means that there is an element inside the switch that makes a clicking sound at or after the point of activation. Generally, this is either a normal component of the way the switch functions (like in a buckling spring switch), or it is a mechanical addition that creates the sound as an “extra”, such that it gives the auditory feedback when the switch is engaged. In this case, the click is not indicative of an element that the switch “needs” to function. The clicky-type key switches, as one would suspect, are louder in action than their non-clicky counterparts, but this is sometimes not as large a division as one might think. Depending upon the method of manufacture, and how loud the other feedback (such as the bottoming out sound, and the sound of the key returning to its fully extended position) is on a given board, the sonic character may be different, but the overall volume could be fairly simiar. There are, in some cases, non-clicky keyboards that are just as loud or louder than the ones that feature an innate click. The frequency and character of the sound has as much to do with the perceived loudness as anything. Some sounds are annoying, some less so.

3) Linear: when we describe a switch as linear, it means that the force curve of the switch is the same all the way down the travel. There is no “bump” at the activation point, nor any rise in the force as it gets closer to full travel. It should be noted that some switch types, despite being marketed as linear, do have changes in their force curve. Perhaps these are not intended to provide tactility, but are rather a characteristic of the design or the manufacturing technique. Linear switches are often considered to be more appropriate for keyboards used for gaming, as they can allow quick “tip in” when being used to navigate with. Tactile switches can sometimes interfere with a gamer’s quick movement, as the variability of the force can make it more difficult to control the inputs during navigation or attack sequences. Linear switches can sometimes feel smoother, as they present a flat or slowly-increasing force curve. Without the mechanical components to introduce a click or a tactile bump, they can be simpler, and theoretically have less friction inherent in the mechanism. This, as with all generalizations, is a hazardous assumption to make. There are smooth tactile switches and gritty linear ones. It depends upon the design and implementation.

Sometimes, they are more than one thing:

Key switches can evince more than one of the three basic adjectives. It is common to see switches that are clicky and tactile. These are often the switches that are built specifically for typing, rather than for a general mix of tasks. There are switches that are not clicky, but do have tactile feedback, as well. These are sometimes considered “all around” switches, such that they can be used for any purpose with relative success. Linear switches can obviously not be tactile, as they are two antithetical qualities. I am not aware of linear clicky switches at present, but some keyboards in the ancient past included a speaker that made a beep of some kind with each key press. These were typically part of some industrial computing system, and I don’t believe that they really ever caught on in a home setting. They would, from what I can imagine, be terribly annoying if you typed very long.

Some of them went extinct:

In the early days of home and small business computing, there were a fairly significant number of different manufacturers involved in creating keyboards. In addition, there were a number of different technologies afoot. Some of them were awesome. Many of them have sadly fallen by the wayside, since they were either too complex or too expensive, or both. Among these were the Hall Effect and capacitive buckling spring technologies. These key switches were made to contend with duty cycles that few people today can imagine, but their primary issue was that they would just be prohibitively expensive in today’s market.

Very few people would want to purchase a keyboard that cost on the order of $500 at this point. It’s possible that the whole computer they’re using doesn’t cost that much. It’s just a different world. The other issue, of course, is that some of these technologies are absurdly loud, at least by our standards today. Keep in mind that, until the late 90’s, people were fairly well inured to the noise of real typewriters (as well as daisy wheel printers, dot matrix printers, and other horrors of the past). Now, we don’t expect to be able to hear someone typing from several doors down. Note that some of us dearly love the busy clatter of a loud keyboard, and think of it as the sound of victory. We are in the minority, and even we realize that some of our keyboards are no good match for a shared work space.

The Survivors:

Of the still-available mechanical switches, those created by the company called Cherry are by far the easiest to find. Cherry key switches, and the various copies of their technology, probably make up something like 95% of the mechanical keyboards out there. Cherry switches are self contained devices that have a cross-shaped top that allows key caps to be removed and switched out. This allows many companies to create custom key sets.

Cherry Switches:

Cherry key switches are color coded to indicate what their qualities are. In the extensive Cherry range, the most common of the switch types are Blue, Brown, and Red switches.

The blue switches are moderate weight clicky, tactile switches.

The Browns are light, tactile switches,.

The Red are light, linear switches.

Beyond these, there are Black switches, which are heavy linear, Green, which are heavy, tactile, and clicky, and Clear, which are very heavy tactile switches. From time to time, a few other specialized switches will come up, like Super Black, which is very heavy, and rarely used for a full switch complement. Rather, it would be put under a rarely-used key, or one that is typically hit with a great deal of force.

Cherry key switches are copied by a few companies, like Gateron, Greetech, Otemu, Kailh, and Razer. Typically, these switches will have similar color schemes and operate in similar ways, mechanically. I have not used any of the knockoff switches, and so I cannot comment on how they compare. The keyboards that they are featured in often come in at a far lower price point than the Cherry-equipped models, so if you find one that works to your specifications, that model may be worth purchasing. It is fairly difficult to find a Cherry-equipped keyboard for under $100, but some can be had for as little as about $70, if you’re willing to look around and possibly wait for slow shipping. The knock-off switch boards can be had for as little as about $35 dollars. One can only imagine that some level of quality control and material cost has to be sacrificed at this price.

I have personally owned and tested Cherry Blue, Brown, and Black switches. In addition, I’ve had limited experience with almost all the other switch colors. Enough to have at least a vague impression. They each have their advantages. If asked to pick my favorite, I would say that the Browns are probably the fastest and lowest effort while typing.

The Blues, for me, take a bit of getting used to, and though they are clicky (something I typically like), I don’t find their sound to be altogether to my liking. It has a bit too much high frequency component, and comes off as “tinny” over the long haul. I remember when I first got them, however, that I thought it was amazing. It is possible that I’m just spoiled now.

The Black keys are the quietest of the three, and I find them to be the best for gaming, as they are linear. They aren’t bad for typing, but they are fairly heavy, and can be a bit tiresome if you’re typing for hours. The Black keys may be the best of the three, if you tend to type really hard, or need a keyboard that will not draw the ire of your nearby coworkers.

As with many things, people’s experiences are very personal in terms of what they prefer in a keyboard. What some think of as amazing, others will vehemently disagree with.

Some advantages about Cherry keys include their prevalence, their ability to be customized with different key caps, and the ability to get a keyboard that matches your expectation for shape, size, and function. If you want a full-tilt gaming keyboard, they’re available. If you want backlighting, it’s easy. Small, big, middle size? They’re all around.

Cherry switches, for the most part, also are fairly stable, in that they hold the key caps solidly. This means that the key feels well controlled beneath your fingers. They also are typically not a victim of a lot of friction if you don’t hit the key directly on the top. Keys binding up or significantly increasing in friction with an off-center press can be a problem for a lot of typists, as this issue will create dropped letters during your typing string.

Compared to a standard, and especially crappy rubber dome keyboard, the Cherry key switches are a whole different thing. You are still limited by your own technique, of course. The keyboards will not type for you, and are purely there to respond to your key presses. Warts and all. The main thing is that they will typically, once you’re acclimated to them, allow you to type to the best of your ability. For many people, this is as far as they will ever go, and ever need to go, in the world of mechanical keyboards. For others, it may just be the entry point.

ALPS Switches:

Historically, the ALPS brand manufactured switches for a variety of companies. Most notably, they created switches for IBM and Apple computers. Almost all the Apple models from the mid 80’s through the early 90’s used ALPS switches of one kind or another. The keyboards that are considered the all-time best in the history of the Apple line featured the ALPS switch. ALPS, as a maker of keyboard switches, is long gone now. That being said, there are a few companies still making versions of their design to this day. The most notable of these is Matias, who make both the “tactile” and the “quiet” key type. They have stayed with the basic mechanism of the ALPS “simplified” switch.

I have not had access to the quiet version of the switch, but I do own a keyboard that has the tactile switch. This is a fairly loud design, though the sound is of a lower pitch than say, the Cherry Blue. I would say that the sound of the Matias ALPS-style switch would be best described as “crunchy”.

The tactile sense is perhaps the most pronounced of any keyboard that I have (within the realm of tactility, as based upon my typical definition). I do like this switch, and perhaps my only concern with it is that it has a bit more key cap wiggle than I’d prefer. That tends to not have any real impact on the typing once you get started, but it can be mildly disconcerting when you first put hands to the ‘board, as you’re not sure how the keys will react when you address them.

Typing effort is moderate. I would say that the first millimeter of their travel seems a bit soft, with resistance going up at and after the tactile bump. Effort is not so high as to be a major concern, unless you prefer the absolute lightest keys. Sound level is higher than most non-home implementations would favor, but not as loud as the buckling spring keyboards, as I will soon discuss.

For some, especially those who are long-time Apple fans, this keyboard might bring back a lot of memories, and may be the perfect thing. Available in both Mac and PC layouts, the Matias is fairly expensive, but in what I’d term as the mid-priced bracket where mechanical keyboards are concerned, at $140 (American money, 2017).

I haven’t tried to game with the Matias board, but my sense is it would not be the best choice. I find that the Matias version of the ALPS switch is capable of good, quick, accurate typing, but it has its own feel, and if you’re just coming to it from a keyboard with a much different mechanics, you may find it to require a bit of patience. I will sometimes have to derp around for the first few minutes, but then things clear up, and I’m sailing along. This is not uncommon with mechanical keyboards, as they all have something of a brain-adjustment period.

Buckling Spring:

The mechanical switch that many people hold up as being the best of all is the buckling spring switch, invented by IBM and popularized in their Type F (using capacitive electrodes) and Type M (using membrane below the switch) keyboards. How do they work? Well, it’s very much as it sounds. As the key is pressed down, a coiled spring is biased, until the point at which it suddenly gives way (buckling).

Because of the way this mechanism works, it has a force curve that is built right in. With the way the spring gives way, there is a natural element of tactility. In addition, the spring, as it buckles, hits against the key chassis with a click. Thus, it is both tactile and clicky, giving a lot of feedback as the keys are pressed. This is all done with an elegance of design that few other keys can match. This key switch has fewer moving parts than all but a few designs. The downside? The parts it does have require precision manufacturing in order to work to their best advantage.

My sense is that most of the mechanical switches afoot today are designed to, in one way or another, emulate the typing experience of an old switch. If the switch clicks, it likely hopes to provide some element of the buckling sprint feel. In the same way, the buckling spring technology was designed to provide the typists of that era something familar to the typewriters they had learned on.

The IBM-branded keyboards made with this type of switch have long since become hotly traded items on the used market. It is possible to still get these switches in a new keyboard, however, as the company Unicomp still makes them with the original tooling, which they purchased from IBM many years ago.

The Unicomp keyboards are fairly plain in aspect. They are very sturdy, with no concessions to gaming or bling. That is not their purpose. They’re not a gaming keyboard, but are designed for the typist.

And they’re glorious.

Did I say that? Yes. It is a joyful clatter that arises from a buckling spring keyboard when you’re really moving along and creating words. I won’t kid you. They’re foolishly loud. They’re somewhat high effort. They take a certain level of committment to really get good at, and if you jump in from using a laptop keyboard it’ll take some time for you to get to the point of being totally comfortable. If you bring this into your office to type on, things could grow tense. You’re not going to be the most popular person in the cube farm, that’s for sure. Your nearby officemates may plot your demise.

With the caveats I provided above, the Unicomp buckling spring (I have the Ultra Classic) is a tremendous typing machine, and comes to you at a pretty reasonable price, being somewhere between $84 and a little more than $100 for most of their models. If you need a very tough keyboard, this is the ticket, as they probably weigh twice what most of their competitors do. You could likely fend off a mugger with a Unicomp, then go back to your typing.

Topre Switches:

Last, and possibly most divisive, is the Topre switch. Some people argue that the Topre switch should not be considered a mechanical at all, or perhaps be termed a semi-mechanical, as a rubber dome is used to provide some of the resistance.

Unlike the other switches mentioned, Topre is a somewhat newer entry to the market, not one that was present in the earliest days of home computing. The Topre switch is also not trying to emulate any other technology with its feel or sound.

How does it work?

It is a capacitive switch below a rubber dome, with a very light metal spring beneath the dome to provide more even response and a metallic element to allow for the capacitance to be measured as the key is depressed.

I believe that the switch is considered to be a tactile model, but because its feel is significantly different than any other mechanical switch, this is up for debate. Depending upon how you decide to think about it, the Topre switches are either the most tactile switch out there, or just an on/off mechanism that has no middle interval for a tactile”bump” like you would find on a different technology. I find that there’s no “float” where you can avoid fully bottoming out the switch, but rather that the whole stroke seems a bit shallower than some. That seeming shallowness is not, in point of fact, borne out by the numbers. It is just the way the keyboard feels. As to whether or not to consider these switches to be mechanical or not, I’ll leave that to those who have stronger feelings on this score. With Topre, you’re dealing with a bit of a Bermuda Triangle situation, where they are unique enought as to confound easy comparison or classification.

Topre switches are available on only a handful of keyboards. The most prevalent are the Happy Hacking Keyboards and the Realforce models. Leopold and Coolermaster have also created models using this switch. There may be a few other small-market manufacturers out there that I haven’t heard of.

There are three weights of switch. Namely, 35, 45, and 55 grams in actuation force. Some of the keyboards have a mix of 35 and 45 gram switches, arrayed in such a way as to be “ergonomic”. This means that the stronger fingers encounter the 45 gram, and the weaker ones are called upon to press the 35 gram switches. I don’t have any experience with that mix, so I can’t comment directly on whether or not that is a good idea. To my mind, I think I’d rather have all the keys be at the same weight. That said, I play the guitar and electric bass, and have good strength in my lesser digits.

The keyboard I have experience with, the Realforce 87U, has the 55 gram actuation force. I selected the higher force because I tend to be somewhat heavy handed. My experience with the switch is that it just gets out of the way and lets you type. It is not a very showy switch, and it doesn’t have a lot of the “feels” that one might imagine would come with a mechanical keyboard. Despite its generally unassuming manner, it is a heck of a keyboard. There will be a review.

What does it feel like?

Well, first of all, it feels very, very solid. The feel when the keys go to full travel is such that there isn’t any jarring or roughness. There is no sense of key wobble, no sense of friction ever being an issue. The sound that the keyboard makes is a soft, low frequency sound. It is sometimes called a “thock”, but that may be more noise than it really makes. I think of it as a mutter. It isn’t any louder than the average keyboard, and would not be a concern in a shared workspace.

I find that the more I use the Topre, the more it climbs the rankings of my favorite typing experiences. There is a certain surety with the way this switch type operates that is hard to easily quantify, but becomes something that adds to the joy of extended typing, and allows you to carry on when other technologies would hold you back. These are all simply my best assertions about this topic at this time. I could feel different tomorrow, or a year from now.

If you want a really nice keyboard, but you’re more used to the feel of a decent rubber dome, I think that you’d quickly feel at home with a Topre. It feels to me like what a rubber dome ‘board would be in the best of all possible worlds.

In terms of the weight, I think that you may want to consider your hand strength and the way you typically address the keyboard. If you tend to “type angry”, the 55 gram keys are probably for you. If you are more likely to have a light typing approach, maybe go with the 45 gram. I don’t know that I would recommend the 35 gram, as that is such a light amount of force that you will likely make a lot of unintended key strikes while you’re getting used to it. Even at 45 grams, that’s lighter action than the bulk of keyboards you’ll find out in the wild.

Now for the downside.

Topre keyboards are stupidly expensive.

Yes. Stupidly.

I understand that the inherant stumbling block with this technology is that it is expensive to implement, but damn, these things come at a dear price. This Realforce is far and away the most expensive ‘board I’ve ever purchased. By a factor of two. Keep in mind I’ve purchased a few models that most people would find far too pricey in my day as a keyboard snob. This thing is altogether more expensive than any of those.

Is it that much better?

That is a tough call. Without going into paroxysms of self analysis, I’ll say this. I want to say yes, but I sit and wonder if I really type that much more comfortably than on other keyboards. I have to, when looking at the economics, say it probably isn’t worth it for most people. There’s a trend of diminishing returns here, for sure. In most cases, a Cherry MX keyboard would likely suffice. If I wanted just that little bit more, there are ways to customize a Cherry switch to give it a bit softer feel, such as putting “O” rings on the key stems to mute the sound and provide shock absorbtion. (Note: I find that I’m not that fond of the feel of a Cherry keyboard with O-rings installed. I can cope with it, but it gives it sort of a dead feeling that isn’t entirely satisfying.)

I have no buyer’s remorse about the Realforce keyboard. It’s a great quality device, and will likely last long enough that I will have to have some form of secondary adapter to get it to work with whatever computers will be many years from now.

Just like the other mechanicals.

It will certainly treat my fingers well and allow me to type all day if I wish to do so. Its unassuming nature, while not needed in its current implementation, may end up being valuable to me if I decide to use it in a noise-sensitive environment. Most people would not notice any noise a Topre keyboard would make. It is a different timbre of sound than your average keyboard, but it doesn’t draw negative attention. I find that, the more I use the Realforce keyboard, the more I grow attached to the sound the Topre switches make. To me, they are worth the money, because I’m a keyboard snob, and they are awesome. I feel like I never type any better than I do with the Topre keyboard. There are several switches that I get 95% of the way there, but nothing dances quite as nicely as the Topre.

I hope that this, an admittedly long article, will help with your decision as you get into or broaden your understanding of mechanical keyboards.

In the next article, I’ll talk about key caps, form factor, and key layout, not necessarily in that order.

Happy Typing!

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