The State of Mechanical Keyboards, Spring 2017

Posted: April 8, 2017 in keyboarding
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This is a little guide to what to expect, and what to expect to pay, with the market being what it is right this moment.

1) Rock Bottom: At $20 to $30, you’re looking at keyboards that purport to offer “mechanical feel”. These are typically dome and slider designs. Essentially, these have a stabilized, separate top slider/plunger above the rubber dome. Yes, they type better than your average keyboard at this price range. Yes, they are louder. Yes, most of them are highly “gamer” in look. If this is all you have, in terms of capital, to throw at the project, this is going to give you a significant improvement over your garden variety ‘board. They all have some little annoyances.  Weird key layout. Lights and sirens. That sort of thing. These are quiet enough for most settings, and very light to type on, if you would prefer a soft typing feel. Expect a review of one. I’m typing on one right now. For GREAT SCIENCE.

2) Maximum Value Mechanical: At $30 to $60, you’ll find a significant number of keyboards from companies you’ll probably not recognize, coming straight from China. These will typically carry knock-off switches based upon the Cherry MX design. At the low end of the price range, you’ll find Outemu switches, with Kaihls, Zorros, and others just one step up in cost. At the upper end of the price range here, you’ll find Gateron switches. The good news here is that the knock-off switches are pretty darned good. They will sometimes have a bit more variation between batches than the legit Cherry switches, but they are quite serviceable. In some cases, the clone switches may actually be better (for a given taste) than the originals. The bad at this price range is that a lot of the ‘boards are pretty garish or gamer-centric. Some of them are as ugly as sin. If you’re willing to mod the ‘boards with different key caps, this can often be ameliorated. Except for some of the awful badging. For that, you might need a spray paint can and a dream. I’ll have some reviews coming on cheap ‘boards in this price range soon.

3) Mid Priced Mechanical: $65-$120. The bulk of these ‘boards have real Cherry key switches, and there are more tasteful designs available, if you have little interest in LED lights or gaming-specific design elements. Here you also see a few of the other key switches being available. Of note for the “seasoned” typists in your midst is the Unicomp line, which offers the same switch technology from the old IBM keyboards. These are available new, made in the U.S.A, and are built like tanks. They’re not the prettiest keyboards, but they will last you forever, and are a typist’s dream. If you don’t mind putting fort a bit of effort while typing, in any case. Pretty much any layout and form factor is available in this price range. Some, further up the price spectrum here, will feature premium key caps, often made of PBT plastic, which is the highest grade material for this purpose.

4) Premium Mechanicals: When you pay more than $120, you’re often, paradoxically, getting less, rather than more. Less light show tomfoolery. Less whiz-bang features. Less flashy stuff as a whole. Here, the rarest key switches make an appearance, such as Matias switches, and Topre switches. These ‘boards are, for the most part, aimed at the pure typist, though there are a few ultra-expensive, battle cruiser style gaming ‘boards afoot, mostly from Corsair, Coolermaster, and Razer. Please see my “key switch” article for full rundowns of all the switches that I mentioned here. I go into tiresome detail there, and you’ll be sick of me if you read it. I promise. It’s true.

The Short Course, for those TLDR folks: 

For the sake of not having to navigate to other articles, I’ll run things down a bit here at the end.

Switches with a light or soft feel:

1)”semi mechanical” dome and slider designs

2) “red” style switches, “brown” style switches.

3) Topre 35g switches

4) Matias silent switches.

Switches with a moderate resistance:

1)  “blue” switches from all manufacturers

2) Matias tactile and quiet tactile switches,

3) Topre 45g and 55g models

Switches with heavier resistance:

1) black, clear, and green switches from various manufacturers

2) Unicomp “buckling spring” switches.

Switches, from quiet to loud

Quiet:

Topre switches of all weights
(unconfirmed) Matias silent
(unconfirmed) Matias quiet tactile
Semi-mechanical switches

Kinda Quiet: 

Black switches
Brown switches
Red switches
Clear switches
<All above colors are similar in sound, and vary due to ‘board construction and back plate material. Also, all color-badged switches come from various manufacturers, and will vary a bit in sound, but not much.>

Kinda Loud: 

Blue switches
Green switches

Loud: 

Matias tactile
Unicomp buckling spring

All the loudest of the switch types have an innate click during the key travel that cannot be minimized with dampening mechanism or typing lightly. Some of the quieter key types will still make quite a racket if you type exceedingly hard. In a modern office setting, I would think very carefully before putting anything louder than the clear switch into a shared work space. It could cause distraction or contention with office mates. Certainly, people will poke their head around the cube divider to see what’s going on if you show up with a Unicomp.

Hope this helps you out, if you are considering the purchase of a mechanical keyboard.

Cheers, and happy typing!

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