Posts Tagged ‘keyboards’

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Opening Salvo:

In my adventures with mechanical keyboards, I have tried a lot of switch types. Most of them, I’d be bold enough to say. One common switch I’d failed to try out, though, was the Cherry MX Red switch. I’d played on ‘boards that had this switch here and there, but not long enough to really get much of a feel for them.

I knew that they were light. I knew that they were linear. I knew that they were purported to be the bee’s knees for gaming. In my recent round of acquisitions, though, I decided to make getting a red switch keyboard a priority.

One of the secondary missions of the buying spree (did I call it a buying spree? Sigh.) was to evaluate the Cherry MX-style switches from other companies. This lead me to the purchase of the Drevo Tyrfing ‘board.

It is a tenkey-less design of fairly normal proportions and feature set. Featuring a rather “quiet” design, it has a single color backlight (nominally white, though it has a bit of a blue component). Other than a somewhat “gamer” font on the key caps, it looks business-like.

The Tyrfing I purchased is in black, with Outemu red switches. In the current market, mechanical keyboards that feature the Cherry MX key switches, which are made in Germany, often come in at greater than $100 in cost. Because the patent has run out on that switch design, several other companies have begun to produce similar switches. One of those, Outemu, has switches featured on some of the most economical models. Some Outemu-equipped keyboards can be had for as little as $32 or so (Spring 2017, U.S. money).

In my early investigations of these switches, I’ve found them to feel and type much like the more expensive Cherry models, upon which they’re based. In some cases, they might diverge slightly, but that has not always proved to be a bad thing. The difference in cost is far more compelling than the difference in key feel or performance. The verdict on how they will perform over a long duty cycle has yet to be reached. The stated lifespan of the switches is fifty million key presses, just like the Cherry switches. This will be a hard assertion of reliability to test, as it would take lifetimes to input that many key presses for most usage cases.

So, then, in the short run, the Drevo keyboard’s use of the Outemu switch shouldn’t be a large mark against it. The configuration allowed me to pick up the keyboard for less than $40 on Amazon. The testing of a new switch type doesn’t come much cheaper than that, at present.

I would venture a guess that the current pricing is about as low as we’re likely to see. I wouldn’t be surprised if the prices will end up trending higher, if the overall user experience proves to be good over the next year or so. As people learn to trust the new switch manufacturers, they’ll be able to dial in a profit margin that still gives them a market share, but maintains their economic advantage over the competition. But that is all guess work. Let us go back to the main topic of the review.

External Overview:

The Tyrfing, like a lot of its counterparts, has an aluminum top plate, a “floating” key design and no bezel. Thus, it has a small footprint, being approximately the same width as a 15.4 inch laptop. Unlike a lot of its competition, the Tyrfing is blissfully free of badging. There is a small Drevo logo on the space bar’s vertical surface, but that’s it. Drevo’s logo is actually kind of neat, being a horse’s head coming out of a gear. Looks like something you’d see on a race car.

The LED backlighting can be turned off or made to operate in various flashy ways. I think that the best usage case is to have it solidly on. it isn’t distracting in this way, and provides the best legibility for the key legends. When the LED is turned off, the legends are deep gray on black, in effect. The key caps, while on the subject, are double-shot ABS, which is something of a surpise at this price point. This means that the legends can’t wear off, being made from a translucent plastic that is directly bonded to the black plastic outside cap. This is more or less the gold standard method for key cap manufacture. Sweet.

While we’re on the topic of thoughtful features, the Drevo has a red and black braided USB cable. It looks a lot like my favorite guitar cables, which gives me some tender feelings toward the ‘board. The cable can be routed in the midde or either side, using a cable routing channel built into the underside of the unit. Because of its understated looks, this keyboard could probably make it in an office setting without setting of any alarm bells for your boss.

Yes, it could be wished that the key caps had a slightly more legible and professional font, but it’s far from the worst or most garish thing I’ve seen lately. With the LEDs either off or in a non-flashing mode, it looks all right.

The construction of the keyboard is solid, and everything fits together as you’d expect. There are rubber feet at all four corners, and the flip-up feet also have rubber cladding, so that the grip upon the work surface is still good when the inclination is in place. That’s a nice touch, and is not always found, even on more expensive units.

In Use:

The red switch is a linear model, with no tactile bump or click function. Featuring light resistance, the listed weight required to create a key press is 45 grams for the “legit” Cherry MX switches, but 50 or 55 (depending on the literature) for the Outemu. This is the same amount as on the popular brown switch type, and a little lighter than the blue switch, which has been the switch of choice for a lot of typists.

In comparing the feel of the red switch to that of a brown switch keyboard (this one featuring actual Cherry MX brown switches), the weight seems about the same. Because of the lack of tactile bump, there is a smooth feel to the keystroke on the red switch. This is more noticable in pressing a single key than in the act of touch typing, but it is a palpable difference. It shows that, yes, both switch types are doing what they are intended to do.

I have found that linear switches tend to yield a fairly quiet typing result. This has been borne out by my Cherry MX Black keyboard, which is one of the the quietest of my mechanicals. The black switch and the red switch, in design, are essentially the same. The only real difference is that the red switch has a lighter actuation force. Other than the lighter spring tension, it should feel the same. And it does.

Outemu has done a nice job in making a smooth switch that is fairly low effort, but solid enough under the fingers to keep from having a lot of errant key presses. Whereas the black switch keyboard I have can become a bit tiresome after a period of typing, this one should be less taxing. It is a keyboard that you can “float” quite well, in that you don’t have to press very hard, and once you learn the activation point of the switches, you don’t have to really bottom out very often. I am not terribly good at this, but it is said to be the most ergonomic way to type. I tend to smash the keys to the stops most of the time.

It is nice to not have to type “hard” to get the characters sent. It minimizes missing characters in a string, and allows you to work in a way that isn’t too taxing. I have found that I like the feel of the red switches more than I thought I would. In point of fact, I find it to be nearly the equal of the brown switch type, in my ability to enjoy the typing experience. That had not been my forecast, and I’d steered clear of the switch for a few years becuase of this misapprehension. I often find that things we think are true would benefit from actual testing.

The red switch is primarly marketed toward the gaming market, as it is supposed to be a “fast” switch for doing first person shooter games. Many typists spurn its advances. I was among them. I have now learned better. The red is a better switch than I had given it credit for in this regard. That’s nice for me, becuase I’m not really gaming at this point. I am, however, typing like a mad bastard.

The sound of the Tyrfing keyboard is about as unobtrusive as you’ll find in a true mechanical that isn’t using special silencing methods. If you’re able to type without bottoming out the keys hard, you can further limit the noise. So long as you don’t work in an ultra noise- averse enviornment, you should be fine. The vigor with which you press the keys will, of course, have some impact on how loud the presentation will be. This is true, even with membrane keyboards. If you type angry, there will be some noise.

I have not felt that the volume of the keyboard is an impediment to nearby coworkers in an open office setting, and no one has complained. It’s louder than a normal rubber dome keyboard, but the quality of the sound doesn’t contain any unpleasant components. There is no ringing or other harmonic noise from the key presses. Just a kind of wood-block sound as the keys hit and reset. A mild, industrious sound, to my ears.

The typing dynamics are normal for this key layout, and I had no problem locating anything. I didn’t have to squint at my hands at any point. That’s a plus. Typing is positive and feels nice. I am able to type quickly and accurately. As with most mechanicals, the qualitative elements of the typing experience are night and day above a rubber dome or scissor switch. I have found that there is no real learning curve for the red switch. You simply put your hands on the home row and get to work. That’s what we hope for, and so I will call this a win for Drevo and Outemu.

Final Verdict:

For under $40, they have created a useful and (mostly) attractive keyboard. The switch and build quality have nothing to apologize for. I believe it provides a high-value entrance to the market, and one that should work for a variety of tasks and surroundings. Because it doesn’t draw attention to itself, it took me a little time to appreciate the Tyrfing, but it is a grower. The more that I use it, the better it works, and the faster I can type. That’s a good outcome.

We live in an interesting era. I feel that a great typing experience is much closer to hand and affordable that it was, even five years ago. Some of the keyboards in the $35 to $60 range are really good now. Amazingly good.

For the money that I paid for my first mechanical, one could easily get three or four different mechanicals at these prices, deciding what form factor and switch type they liked by the process of A/B testing. That’s pretty cool. I’m not saying the the average typist should get a whole cartload of keyboards and winnow them down after deciding, but if you want to do GREAT SCIENCE, I’m all in favor of that. As, I suppose, you knew I would be.

Cheers, and happy typing.

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It is my philosophy that life is too short to use a lousy keyboard. I will admit that, for most people, keyboards are not a large concern, and typically only enter their consciousness if they are either a) broken or b) astoundingly bad.

One does not have to go far, however, to find some astoundingly bad keyboards. They’re fairly common on the laptops you’ll find kicking around. Especially the business-class PCs that are often foisted upon us at work. Absurd key layouts, uneven actuation force, squeaky keys, friction-laden key travel, mushy feedback, flexing chassis, and more are to be found on the worst of the keyboards I’ll see in a day. Even on the better keyboards that might come with a modern computer, the chance is fairly slim that you’ll get one that really dances along with you when you start typing more than a few dozen words at a time.

If you are in the business of being at the computer and creating a lot of text, a keyboard you have to fight all the time can really be a drag. Your hands will get stiff if you’re having to hammer the keys to get the job done. If it’s too floppy, you’ll get a lot of errant key presses. Poor feedback can lead to a lot of mistakes, and generally slow you down at every turn. You’ll have to “gear down” just to get the words out. Not awesome.

Thus, we have mechanical keyboards. Not a new idea. In fact, it’s quite an old one. When the idea of keyboards to enter data into computers first arose, it was still very much the “analog era”. The theory was that, if you needed to send a signal, you had a mechanical switch. A keyboard, in essence, is just a large number of spring loaded switches. Even to this day, it is the same. They are all, if you want to get technical, mechanical devices. The differentiation is that we consider “true” mechanical switches to be individual, with their own mechanism under each key cap, rather than a gang of rubber domes beneath a bunch of scissor switches or plungers.

How it turns off and on: 

There are a great many ways to go about creating the switch mechanism for a keyboard, and an equal or greater number of ways to create the spring force that returns the switch to its original position and allows the typist to recognize when the key has been pressed.

One of the most reliable of the methods for creating a switch is to create a capacitive relay that opens and closes a circuit as the mechanism of the switch is enacted. Most mechanical switches use simpler and less expensive methods to accomplish their ends, typically having some device that presses a membrane at the bottom of the switch during the key’s travel. In the end, there’s still an actual “touch point”, a place where the circuit is cut or completed. Mechanical switches used in keyboards often have an expected life cycle of something like twenty to fifty million key presses. That’s scraping the bottom edge of eternity, for any normal person. Capacitive switches, because they don’t rely upon anything touching anything else, but rather a differential voltage, can last far, far longer. In theory, they can also accomplish their task with the very minimum of noise, vibration, and harshness introduced into the switch movement.

The capacitive switch is the type used in the Topre style key switch. This is the type of switch featured in the Realforce keyboard. This is one of the few implementations of this technology in keyboards today. Why? Expense, mostly. When a task can be more easily accomplished with a simpler, cheaper mechanism, that’s usually the way the industry goes.

Above the switch itself (insofar as the actual on/off mechanism is concerned), there is the device to create the resistance necessary to give us feedback and to return the key cap to its top position when we release tension. The norm in mechanical key switches is to use either a coiled or a leaf spring. Cherry MX switches and all their many copies, use a coiled spring, as do the IBM “buckling spring” switches. ALPS switches typically use a leaf spring.

As a reminder, the average keyboard uses a dome of thin rubber to provide the tactility and resistance. A plunger pushes down on this dome of rubber, which pops back when the key is released.

Topre: The Hybrid Switch

The Topre keys in the Realforce keyboard are, in many ways, a hybrid of rubber dome and spring-based resistance. Instead of using a large sheet of rubber domes on top of the circuit board, they use a discreet dome for each switch, with a light pressure spring encapsulated within the rubber dome. These are solidly mounted to the circuit board, with the key caps bearing upon them via a plunger from above. The deformation of the spring inside the mechanism enacts the capacitive switch. That is the more primary function, rather than to be a major source of resistance.

Some would argue that the Topre switches are not “true” mechanical switches, because they use rubber domes as part of their mechanism. I will leave that distincition to those who are more sanguine about long arguments than I am. For me, I’ll just say that they are an interesting and different design, both in theory and in practice.

Key Weighting: 

Topre key switches come in 35, 45, and 55 gram activation weights. Most of the keyboards feature the 45 gram switches, while some feature a mix of 35 and 45 gram switches, arrayed so that, at least in theory, the lighter switches are the ones under the fingers with less mechanical leverage upon the keys. The key switch that is featured on my keyboard is the 55 gram version.

I selected it because I have large hands, and I am known to type with a good amount of force. A slightly heavier actuation weight will sometimes serve to allow me to not have accidental key presses. It can also reduce the wear and tear on my hands from hard bottoming out on the keyboard under tray as much. I can’t compare and contrast the experience between this, the heaviest of the switches, and the lower weight ones at this time. I pretty much bottom the keys out all the time, regardless. That’s just how I’m used to typing.

Key Feel:

The Topre keyboard has a different feel that any other keyboard I’ve ever tried. It is very solid in feel, such that the key, when you begin pressing on it, is sort of any “all or nothing” actuation. Rather than some switches, like the Cherry MX series featuring tactility, they do not “roll in” or “bump”. Rather, you know, for sure, that the key is going to go down as soon as it “breaks” from its top position. I am on the fence about how best to describe them, in regard to tactility. Depending upon how you define “tactile”, they are either highly tactile switches, or they are completly front-loaded linear mechanisms, a simple on/off. I’m going with the former, I suppose.

Sound: 

The sound of the Topre switches has sometimes been described as a “thock”. I would say that, of the mechanical switches out there, they create the least noise. They should not annoy nearby coworkers, or get you in trouble with someone watching TV in the same room. Unless this person is super sensitive. Then, no keyboard will help you. The noise, to me, is a purposeful mutter. Primarily low-pitched in tone, the typing noise has no click or clack involved, though there is a characteristic sound. Probably more akin to a rubber dome keyboard, though with a somewhat more authoritative sound. It bespeaks a solidity of design and mounting, since there are no rattles, vibrations, and the like.

Keep in mind that a significant element of the sound of a keyboard is related to the keycaps and the harmonic resonance frequencies of the chassis. If you put the same set of keys in different keyboards, with different keycaps, there will be a good bit of change in the timbre of the switch noise. The Realforce 87U is built well, but it isn’t necessarily trying to emulate the massively overbuilt designs of yesteryear. It’s heavier than you might expect, but it isn’t going to allow you to fend off a brown bear attack (though those are somewhat uncommon in most cases). Thus, the chassis doesn’t create a lot of extraneous noise during the course of your typing.

Typing Dynamics: 

Let us, at last, get to the topic of typing dynamics. If I had a few adjectives to throw at this board, they would be fast and solid. The Topre switches are very positive in action, and it doesn’t take much time to get acclimated to them. After a few minutes, the keyboard sort of disappears, and you can just pay attention to what you’re typing. While this type of switch doesn’t provide the same mechanical hallmarks as some other technologies, it functions very, very well. I’ve typed for several hours on multiple occasions, and never found it to be overly tiring. If you tend to like a softer key feel and less mechanical effort, you may want to consider the lower weight versions of the switch. There is no real possibility of a partial keypress on the Topre. Do or do not. There is no try. As it were.

The Topre keys present as slightly higher tension than other switches that have the same measurable weight, because of their force curve. The solidity I mentioned comes from the very good keycap control (no key wiggle to speak of), and also from the fact that the switches return to their top position quickly, but without a lot of muttering. There is no friction, grit, or bind that I’ve been able to sense during the typing action.

What does all this lead to? Hmm. I find that I am able to type quite accurately with this keyboard, and that I do enjoy the typing experience. It lacks some of the joyous clatter that I’ve become used to, but the sound that it does create is quite purposeful and satisfying. If you want a really good keyboard, and sound level is an important consideration to you, this could be a great option. It is, however, the least “mechanical” feeling of the many switch types out there, in some ways. It feels good, but it is not trying to be anything that it is not. Think of it this way: Many of the clicky switch designs out there are trying, in their own way, to emulate the old IBM Model M keyboard. Unicomp is still basically making it. Those that are not going in that direction are basically trying to either a) give you some of that feel with les noise, or b) give you a linear switch that is far better for gaming than for typing.

Putting things into perspective: 

How, then, are we to classify the Topre switches, and the Realforce ‘board they are featured on? The Topre switch, perhaps, is better described as going altogether its own way, with no presumption of having to provide anything other than a quality typing experience. To me, they feel like the best of all possible rubber dome actions, in many ways. If rubber dome keyboards were like this, few would ever find reason to fault them.

Reasonable typing speed can be achieved with many keyboards. Some of them require a lot more practice and a lot more accuracy to achieve that speed without a ton of typographical errors (more than what you make simply because you can’t spell or fumble-finger stuff because your technique is iffy). Some limit your maximum speed because of oddities that will take you out of the typing momentum, or limit your total typing output because they are tiresome to use.

When I’m attuned to a good mechanical keyboard, I am able to type a little faster, a little longer, and with less frustration. In fact, on the best of them, I find reasons to type longer than I really need to. The Topre-equipped Realforce is one of those keyboards. I think that I probably type about as fast with this board as I can type with anything. It’s a very willing dance partner. Fatigue is minimal, and would be even less with 45g switches, I predict. Because of the inherent price of keyboards with Topre switches, I can’t in all good conscience and fiscal responsibility just buy up a large variety of different models to compare and contrast. Perhaps one day, I’ll get one with 45g switches, but it will almost certainly be in a different form factor. (Yes, you know I have one in mind already, and am simply biding my time!)

Does it have “the look”? 

The look of the keyboard is altogether conventional, but for the tenkey-less layout. It doesn’t have backlighting, fancy logos, weird fonts, or anything to draw attention to itself. It is not a showy ‘board. It is really the anti-gaming keyboard, not because it couldn’t acquit itself well in the realm of gaming (though it wouldn’t be my pick), but because it is, in all ways, understated. The average person would not look twice at this keyboard. In fact, they’d probably wonder why you had such an old-timey peripheral hooked up to your computer. I actually quite appreciate this. If you want to bling out your ‘board, I think that the Cherry key switches are the way to go. There are a million different options for replacement keycaps. There are wild RGB effects. There are all manner of other gizmos. I don’t think that’s the market for this keyboard at all, and I already have a gaming ‘board.

The intolerably long conclusion: 

So, conclusion time. This is a great keyboard. It’s a very expensive keyboard. If you are a hardcore typist who likes a very positive key feel, but doesn’t like loud clicking or a great deal of clatter, then this technology is something you want to look into. There are examples of the Topre switch in keyboards that cost significantly less than the Realforce, but I am given to understand that you do sacrifice some built quality with those models. If you like the idea of the switch type, but need a numeric keypad, there are full size keyboards that cost about the same as the 87U.

There is even a nominal gaming model. I don’t think the characteristics of this switch type really work to their best advantage in gaming, but some may disagree. In terms of key weighting, you must search yourself and decide if you prefer a somewhat stiff key feel, or if you would like one that you could use with minimum of effort. This same keyboard comes in 45g and 55g. The difference of ten grams doesn’t sound like very much, but it is certainly palpable, especially after long hours of typing.

In the end, this is a keyboard that will last a long time, one that will work best for a touch typist who enters thousands of words per day at the computer. Does the quality justify the price? I would say that it might be a stretch to say it does. There is, I think, a certain price that you’re paying for the “halo effect” of the switch type. The preference for key feel is also highly subjective, and what you’re accustomed to using will have a strong impact upon your initial experience. As I mentioned earlier, all keyboards take some level of familiarization to use them to best effect. The Topre, to my mind, has one of the easiest learning curves, as I was off to the races on the first night.

If noise level is not an issue, that opens up the field of contenders a bit, but the Topre still deserves consideration, if your budget will stretch that far. For me, I don’t believe that the Topre switch can quite match the typing pleasure of the buckling pring key switches on my Unicomp, but those switches are loud, even for people who like loud keyboards. They also require a determined hand. You need to get “over” the buckling spring keyboard. Jumping from a laptop keyboard to the big Unicomp is like you’re playing a different sport. It takes some getting used to. One more data point is that the Unicomp is about one third the cost, and it’s made in the USA.

Comparing the Topre to the Unicomp is not a terribly useful thing to do. They’re altogether different products, with different aims. The form factor question alone makes it questionable.

Who actually needs this? 

What is the market for these keyboards? Professional or dedicated typists who create hundreds of thousands of words per year, who have a more or less conventional touch typing form, and who need a solid, fast, but unobtrusive keyboard. Oh, and they’ll need to be willing to throw long green at the problem. Sound like you? Realforce sells through Amazon, and you can have one in a few short days.

Cheers, and happy typing.

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Back in the day…

Let us, for a moment, cast our minds back to the 1980’s. The hair was big. The shoulder pads were impressive. The rise of the home computer was upon the world. Well-heeled citizens were able to pay a great deal of money for the honor of having an “actual” computer in their homes or business offices.

A few years prior, computing was wholly the province of big business, the military, and research divisions at universities. It was the era of great specialization in computing. Every one of those massive mainframe computers was a custom thing, almost built to spec. They often had their own bespoke operating system. They required a staff of people to keep them running. They were expensive beyond conception.

A matter of cost:

When computers slowly filtered into businesses and homes, they were not exactly cheap. The early IBMs cost as much as a sports car. Their keyboards would, in today’s money, cost a thousand dollars or more. Yeah. Think on that for a moment, my friends.

The economics of the age were such that all the peripherals were given a lot of development time, and were allotted significant amounts of material cost. Thus, they were built like tanks, with little to no engineered obsolescence included. They would persist for tens of millions of key presses per switch.

The Old Classics:

IBM typically made their own hardware in house in the early days. They would only sub contract out if the economics of tooling just didn’t work. Their buckling spring keyboards were and are considered benchmarks for computer peripherals. People still create custom adapters so that they can use these vintage ‘boards with their new computers. That’s how good they are.

Apple computers had a less cohesive strategy with regard to how they approached their keyboards, but most of their famous early models utilized switches made by ALPS, which was a Japanese company who made a whole range of different electronic switches (I believe that the still make switches for some applications to this day). The ALPS range was probably the second most lauded key switch type, behind the IBM.

Between the two, they were used in the vast bulk of the keyboards on the vast number of desks through the early nineties. Unlike the buckling spring technology in the IBM keyboards, ALPS key switches could be created in linear, tactile, and clicky styles with fairly small differences in their design. In a lot of ways, it was more the ALPS switch that served as the archetype for the dominant key switch of today, the Cherry MX series. In more than a few cases, the color scheme’s indications are even shared in common. Thus, it would be difficult to overstate the importance of these switches.

The Apple Extended  Keyboard:

I will confess that I have never been an Apple guy. I’ve used them, of course. The first personal computer I ever got to use was the Apple IIc, I believe. Green monochrome monitor. That’s about all I remember. I have been told that, in the kingdom of Apple keyboards, the model called the Apple Extended keyboard was considered the greatest of their products. It utilized the ALPS switch, and had many great things to commend it. I remember its charactaristing typing sound. A busy, industrious sound, without any “ping” or unpleasantness. Unlike the old modem sound in my roommate’s Apple, which would cause grown men to weep and beg for mercy.

From then to now: 

Beyond the AEK, I am under the impression that the quality of Apple’s keyboards went on a downturn. This was not novel to Apple. In general, cost cutting measures took a great toll on the quality of keyboards throughout the computer industry. The technology of choice, starting in the 90s, was the rubber dome switch. While this technology can and has been implemented with good results, it is much less expensive and far less complex to assemble. It lends itself to lowest common denominator build quality.

At this point, fast forwarding to the modern day, it is quite difficult to find a keyboard included with a PC or Mac that is anything better than passable. A modern Mac is an expensive piece of equipment, but when I’ve been in a position to use their new keyboard, I was not overly impressed. At all. To me, the cheap keyboard included on the Chromebooks I’ve owned were just as good. So, then. Even on premium offerings, you’ll likely be on your own to get something that really takes care of you.

Can we just…have awesome again?

In the last several years, we are seeing a renewed interest in good quality keyboards. Many of these are built for PCs, rather than Macs, with the key layout and badging for the PC user. I should indicate that it is fairly easy to make a Mac work with a PC keyboard. You just have to make sure that the key mapping is such that the modifier keys do the appropriate thing for your OS.

Both the gaming style and the business style mechanical keyboards tend to reflect the aesthetic sensibilities of the PC side of computing. The Mac user who wants an awesome keyboard is somewhat limited in terms of what is available, and what has some “Apple” feel to it.

Here we find the Matias keyboard entering the arena. Available in both PC and Mac layouts, it tries to have the feel of the Apple Extended, while being modeled after the keyboard that was included in the 90s EMac (remember the tinted, transparent plastic on the case, so you could see inside?). At least, that is the impression that a non Apple person brings to it. I could be a bit off on exactly what style is evocative of what era. I’m trying, folks, but I’m vaguely out of my depth in some of the Apple history stuff.

Matias has developed a switch that is a slightly-modified version of the ALPS switch. They were forced to do this when ALPS got out of the keyboard switch game many years ago. While not identical to the ALPS switch in design, sound, or feel, they are quite similar. Essentially, they are a modernized, slightly redesigned version of the latter-day, simplified ALPS switch.

With a Matias keyboard, there are three types of switch. One is a “quiet” switch, which is tactile force curve without an obvious click. A “light action” or “silent” switch, which is also tactile, but with a very light resistance. Finally, there’s the tactile pro switch, which is both tactile and clicky. That’s what we’ve got here.

We are in click city, right where we want to be.

Upon first exploration: 

I have the PC version of the keyboard, as I have no Apple stuff of my own. Unboxing the keyboard, I find that it is a moderate version of the full size form factor. 108 keys, full number pad, navigation cluster. In the old days, this would be a “space saver” design. The different models in the Matias line come in pearl white, gloss black, and silver. The PC version is gloss black.

I have come to find that gloss black is not my favorite when it comes to anything where it can gather dust or be touched by my grubby little hands. It looks great and Darth Vader-like…for about a minute, then it is scratched and dusty for the rest of time. A new ‘board has to offer me something special to entice me to buy it, should it come in said glossy black.

The finish on the keyboard was known to me when I ordered it, so I have nothing that I can complain about. I would like a matte finish version with the PC layout, though. That would be my pretty awesome. Actually, if we’re thinking about what our ‘druthers might be, I’ll say that I’d prefer a full aluminum top plate, with a brushed finish. That is not an option, so I take what can be had.

When first putting hands to the keyboard, I had a moment of doubt and fear.

There is a particular feel to this keyboard that I find a bit disconcerting. Here is how it manifests. The key caps on all the 1×1 (normal) keys have a lot of mechanical play in them. Thus, if you put your finger on the key top, then wiggle it around, there is probably half a millimeter of travel in all directions. Hmm. Not awesome.

Cherry switches tend to control the key caps much better, and thus feel more solid upon first interface with your hands. Then there’s Topre-switch keyboards, which have a solidity that I have not seen in any modern switch of any kind. But let us not cloud the issue with talk of Topre, as they are a thing unto themselves, to be dealt with in other articles.

Typing Feel: 

When I started typing, I noticed right away that the Matias ALPS-style switches had a feel that was quite unlike anything else I had tried. They are quite loud, but not as loud as a buckling spring. They are heavier than most switches, but not quite as heavy as, again, the buckling spring. Their sound is authoritative, low, and consistent across the switches.

Unlike the Cherry MX Blue or Green, they do not have a lot of high frequency “tizz”. Rather, their click and their bottom-out sound are far more “genuine” to my ears. I find the sound quite compelling, and to give me all the “feels” that I expect when I use a clicky mechanical switch. When up and running at a good clip, it kind of makes the sound of a large bag of pistachio hulls being shaken together. It’s one of those sounds that, the more I hear it, the better I like it. I just want to type faster, so that the sound will keep happening.

Give unto us thy judgement: 

Ah, you want the important stuff. I see. All right. I’ll play your game. My initial concern about the slop in the key caps was proven to not be reflected in the typing feel. There was no key friction or stick if I didn’t hit each key perfectly on-center, nor was there a sense of being unable to find myself in space.

Really, the key movement was one of those things that seemed like it would be an impediment, but proved to fade into nothing when the typing happened. Which is great. I don’t have a lot of experience with ALPS boards, and it is possible that many of them had this sort of feel. I don’t know. I imagine that some of that comes down to the key caps.

Switch action is quite different from any other switch in my collection. The closest in most metrics would be the buckling spring design used in my Unicomp Ultra Classic. This makes complete sense, as both ‘boards are, to all intents and purposes, homage boards to the golden age of keyboarding at the computer.

The Matias tactile switch has just the slightest amount of give at the very top of its travel, then the tactile bump comes, and the key accelerates downward, making its joyful clatter. The amount of tactile response is right up there with the best of any switch I’ve used. Very communicative. Very satisfying. In a lot of ways, the act of typing on the Matias is getting almost everything right. Well weighted, without feeling too stiff. Tactile, without feeling odd or rough. As a final thought here, I will say that there is no sense of grit, friction, or pushback to be found here. Just the tactile feel and the wonderful sound.

The Caveats: 

But…there’s always a but. I think that, for a lot of typists, they might find the effort on this ‘board to be a bit higher than they’re used to. I will say that I have been typing on it using a setup that is not entirely perfect, and that a good bit of the typing experience can be attributed to the ergonomics of your desk/chair/posture combination.

Still, if you’re used to a soft key feel, this might take a bit of getting used to. I would say that it is only a bit more effort than a Cherry MX Blue. Not as heavy as a buckling spring keyboard, and due to the small amount of softness at the top, there’s a feeling like the keys let you ease into their travel.

I am also not in love with the key caps. I think the legends are a little weird, and that the key caps could be of better quality. I’d like to see thicker, denser caps, as well as a font that, to me, was a little more aesthetically pleasing. I should remember, though, that some of these choices were made with a different aesthetic sense in mind. The slightly thin font for the key legends is evocative of the Apple Extended, without actually being that awful italic font. The legends are on the lower left, rather than upper left or center of the key top. The font does have a bit of that vintage Apple vibe. None of which really keys into my subconscious.

One can replace ALPS key caps, though the number of possible replacement manufacturers is quite small, compared to the Cherry MX style switches. Other than the new market, there are a few old ‘boards, like the Dell ATT 101 series, that have good quality ALPS key caps you might harvest. I am afraid that there may be some specialized keys that they don’t adequately replace, though, so you might have to look for a few custom keys to fill out the set, or deal with a few off-theme keys remaining.

If you’re touch typing, the look of the keyboard isn’t very important, but there is an element of aesthetics involved in really digging on a piece of hardware. I am shallow that way. I like them just a little better when they’re pretty.

Most of my quibbles are fairly small and somewhat beside the point. I will admit this. To my hands, I think I would rather type on one of these Mattias boards than I would most other mechanicals, and all rubber domes/scissor switch low profiles/etc..

Does it climb the podium?

As clicky tactile switches, they put the MX Blues on the shelf in a moment, unless you’re simply unable to expend the extra effort they require. I would say that they’re second only to the buckling spring switches in my Unicomp in terms of feel and joy, but they are a bit easier to acclimate to, as the Unicomp demands that you be on your game and type like you mean it.

Speed? Well, again, it is hard to tell. I think that it’s possible that this is one of the faster ‘boards that I have. Not as “go ahead, dude, don’t let me slow you down” as the Topre switch, not as, “I am flying, flying without wings” as the MX Brown switches, but fast and fun and great sounding.

On the computer that is currently sporting this ‘board, I have more or less decided that it has kicked the DasKeyboard that I had before it to the curb. That’s saying a little, as the Das is not exactly chopped liver. Especially considering I just re-capped the ‘board with a set of sweet PBT key caps. I just find that the Matias has more of what I’m looking for right now. That could change with different implementation, different day, etc., but I don’t think it will. I really feel that there’s some magic in this particular switch, and that it does what it does about as well as anything available.

Usage case:

This is not a gaming board. At all. It is also no good for open offices where it’ll make your coworkers want to kill you. It’s going to be great for the person who types a lot, likes the clack of the keys, and has the space to let ’em roar without drawing aggro from nearby organisms. Bonus points if you’re an Apple fan.

A word on quality control and part failure:

I have heard that there are some quality control questions about the Matias keyboards, but I haven’t encountered anything like that myself. In my experience, electromechanical things tend to break at a couple different intervals through their use. Trust me, I work around tech all day, every day, and I know from whence I speak.

First, no matter how well a product is made, there will be a level of attrition right at the beginning of a product’s life. In the first few days, there will be a small percentage of things that just don’t work. From there, you’ll lose a part here or there to iffy build quaity or quality control. Things like poorly done solder points, parts that didn’t quite get machined or formed correctly, or your “weakest link in the chain” element of the device failing. From there on, it’s down to abuse taking the rest, right up until the mean time between failures threshold begins to be reached with the least robust components in the system.

My particular Matias has easily survived its maiden voyage, and nothing really concerns me about how it’s acted so far. I don’t plan on beating it like a rental car, nor do I expect to put it through harsh climatic trials. The switches are rated for a duty cycle that would take me a great long time to even begin approaching, even if I used this keyboard to the exclusion of all others. Hey, I like it, but I’m not married to it. I will freely admit to having a wandering eye and a curious mind. It’s allowed.

In any case, I would say that, if the possibility of getting a lemon is foremost in your mind, make sure that you review the return policy at the outlet where you purchase it, and keep the box until you know that things are copacetic.

Is it worth it?

That is always a difficult question. I think, for the right person, it is. If you are a typist who likes a very tactile feel, and a keyboard with wonderful audio feedback, this could be love. There are a lot of really good keyboards at lower prices out there. The Unicomp, for one. I see that as perhaps the most compelling alternate choice. That, of course, is a PC-sourced ‘board, through and through. Nothing could be less Apple than the keyboard that came on IBMs, made on the same tooling it was in the ’80s. Cherry MX switch keyboards abound, and are typically less expensive. The new generation of inexpensive Cherry-clone equipped keyboards are even cheaper. The Matias is many times the price of a ‘board using Chinese-made clone switches. (Spoilers, those are darned good ‘boards.)

I would say that the direct competition in that range of “real” switches would be the Cherry MX Green switch. It is stiffer and has a stronger click than the blue switch. I think the Matias switch is cooler, but for someone who doesn’t favor the style of the Matias, or wants to do a lot of hot-rodding in terms of custom key caps and the like, the switch might not be enough of an incentive.

As with all of these things, if you can get your hands on the ‘board for a day, or even a few hours, a lot of the unknowns that I can’t answer for you will quickly clarify. This is a mostly subjective game. All the ‘boards have keys that send letters to the computer. It’s just how you want it to feel and sound and look as it does so.

Cheers, and happy typing!

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!

We’ve talked about quite a few topics thus far in this series. The basics of mechanical keyboards, the switch technology, the shape, size and layout of the various options.

But…yes, you’re right to be afraid…there’s more. Just as important as the shape of the ‘board and the mechanics of the switch, arguably, is the key cap. It is, after all, the point of contact between the organism and the machine. It’s where the feel of the keyboard is determined.

Let’s dig into the topic.

Key Shapes:

Square and Conical: This is the most familiar shape with modern keyboards. There’s some variation among this key shape, which tapers from the completely square base to a somewhat rounded or chamfered top. This variation is how high the key cap sits above the switch, how much space between the key caps there is when they’re in place, and the amount of dishing for your fingers to get a tactile feel of being “home”.

A significant number of newer keyboards tend to be pretty flat on the top of the key caps. This can allow them to be a bit shorter, with a slightly larger area of engagement for the fingertips, but it doesn’t quite give the same level of feeling in terms of being right on the key, rather than off into a corner.

Older keyboards tend to have taller key caps, more dishing, and slightly greater space between the face of the key caps. This gives them the look of having smaller keys, although this is not really the case. In my experience, you can adapt to different key caps, just like any other dynamic of the keyboard, but you’ll probably have your favorite, after some A/B testing. This will probably have a lot to do with what you’re used to, though preferences can change over time. As with any device, it’s usually wise to give a new keyboard some time to grow on you. I’ve had a few that were not to my tasted at first, but ended up being a favorite in the fullness of time.

Most “full stroke” keyboards will have squared conical key caps. These are equally found on membrane and mechanical keyboards, as they have long been the standard. Due to the constraints of mechanical keyboard construction, you can’t get altogether away from a high loft on the key cap. If you see a very low profile key set that differs from what would be “normal”, it is likely a rubber dome model. (Note: this is changing, as a few manufacturers are working on low profile mechanical switches. It has yet to be proven that this technology will provide a good typing experience.)

Sperical: Unlike the square-ish keys we are familiar with, these switches are round or oblong in their shape, tapering to a squared-off lower section, where they interface with the switches. These types of key caps are more frequently seen on older keyboards, but there are a few models that use them to this day. A fairly small group of keyboards will feature this key shape, however.

This type of key cap is often deeply dished, so that your fingertips almost nestle down into them if they are at rest on the home row. I haven’t typed on this type of key type that often, but the typewriters I learned on back in the day had this type of key cap.

Spherical keys are often fairly tall above the switch, and the nature of the shape will often cause them to have more mass than their square counterparts. Because a more rounded shape can often have a slightly higher torsional strength than a squared shape of the same mass. Rounded shapes tend to have less vibrational resonance modes, such that they won’t be as likely to add an odd overtone or unpleasant noise to the typing experience.

Something you’ll often see on a sperical key cap is that they have fairly large legends on them. These are typically centered. I think that this is primarily due to the simple fact that, in a round shape, having something off to one side tends to look poorly done to the eye.

Here and there, you’ll see keyboards with altogether circular keys, but they are not common. I have a small bluetooth keyboard with this sort of keys, and though I was initially concerned with this being a major technical hurdle, it turned out to feel just fine. They keys were, strangely, just where they were supposed to be. Once again, I was proven to be a poor oracle. Perfectly round keys are rarely seen on normal keyboards, however, because trying to institute them to good effect with the height and spacing of said designs can encounter some technical hurdles, both from the design and utilization perspective. They do exist, however.

Flat Top: In this day and age, it’s not at all uncommon to see desktop keyboards with fully flat keys. Some of them are traditional, low profile key caps, while others are essentially disembodied laptop keyboards, with a scissor mechanism over the top of a membrane matrix. If you are adroit with a laptop keyboard, these may be fine. Their quality is greatly variable. Some are absolute trash, some are usable. They are not, however, mechanicals, and so they lack the wonderful magic that we’re looking for.

There are also faux-vintage keyboards that use key caps that mimic ancient manual typewriters. I have not had a chance to try one of these, as they are typically somewhat expensive. I wonder if, in order to cleave to a stylistic choice, they give up a little in terms of utility. I’m sure, however, that you can get used to the feeling. Let us be honest. More than a little of this is in the heart and in the spirit. Feels may be somewhat more important than reals, when it really comes down to it. I should also mention that these faux-vintage keyboards are often created with rounded or oblong keys, the better to appear old-timey.

Key Cap Material:

The material that key caps are made from will have some impact upon how they sound in use. The material will also dictate how the keys behave under stress. The thickness and accuracy of manufacture is a large consideration, as well. Thus, there is disparity between keys made with the same material. In almost all cases, more material tends to yield a better product, with higher durability and a more pleasing sound in use.

ABS: This is the most familiar type of plastic used in key caps. Acrylonitrile butadiene styrene is a flexible, easy to manipulate thermoplastic that is very sturdy. The vast number of full-stroke keyboards use this material. It is inexpensive, and has as much durability as most keyboards of today require.

Most keyboards, even expensive mechanicals, use ABS in the modern era. It can be imprinted with most of the methods I’ll discuss below, and is able to, with the correct methodology, keep its key legend through a vast amount of use.

ABS does have a few disadvantages, however. The first of these is that the material tends to create a fairly slick surface. It does not typically feature a tactile surface texture that some other key materials do. Thus, if you tend to feel like you’re sliding around and don’t have as much surety in engagement as you’d like, ABS can be less favorable for you.

The second issue with ABS is that it tends to “shine up”. It is likely that you’ve seen an old keyboard around an office that has keys that give a high shine, especially where someone’s thumb acted upon the space bar. This is a hallmark of ABS key caps. The material, though tough under impact stress, is not very hard at its surface. That means that, as it abrades, your fingers will almost have the effect of waxing down below the normal surface, creating the shallowest of swales in the plasic. This becomes embedded with skin oil, and you’ve got a shiny spot. It can be slightly improved with a wash and a scrub, but the shine will come right back. Once the plastic is shiny, it has a bit of wear. Because of that ablation of the surface, some types of printing will wear away faster on ABS. Unless your keyboard is used with a great vigor, however, the material will likely last you for many years before siginficant degradation will take place.

Finally, ABS is not natively very UV resistant. It will discolor in the sun. If you’ve seen an old piece of computer equipment, nominally having once all been one color, but now sporting multiple different shades of dirty beige, that means that there are plasics of different compositions being used for the different pieces. The ones that are seriously yellowed are probably ABS. The better grade of ABS will be treated with some manner of UV resistant coating.

PBT: Often considered the best material for key caps, Polybutylene terephthalate is a harder but more brittle material, when compared to ABS. Most of the storied keyboards from the old days used this material. Today, the swankiest of the mechanical keyboards you’ll find still use PBT. In addition, key cap sets of this material can be purchased for the dominant key switches of today.

What is it that makes PBT favorable over ABS?

First, PBT key caps will often be manufactured with a nice tactile texture on the key tops. It gives the keyboard a feel and confidence that a slippery key cap just doesn’t provide. Because it is a much harder material, the texture that is typically present (they can be smooth, if the manufacturer wishes) will typically survive a vast amount of use without wearing down.

PBT is also highly resistant to getting shiny in use, so that an old, well-used ‘board can look almost new after being cleaned up.

PBT is not photosensitive, so there is no concern about the key caps yellowing with age. I should mention that black or very dark-tinted plastic of any formulation tends to be pretty color-fast. This is very possibly the reason that black plastic became the norm in the industry as the 90’s wore on.

Finally, it should be mentioned that PBT is much more thermally stable than ABS. If one puts ABS into boiling water, the keys will partially melt and no longer fit properly afterward. PBT does not have this issue.

Because PBT is more brittle, many makers tend to engineer a slightly thicker key cap. This will often result in a more substantial feel, and a different sound when typing. A significant amount of the noise in a keyboard is that of the key hitting the base plate and then returning to the top of its travel. A very thin material can result in a “cheap” or unsatisfactory sound at times. There are a number of thick-molded ABS keys, so PBT does not hold a lock upon this market.

POM: Polyoxymethylene plastic can be used in key caps, but is quite uncommon. I don’t know of any keyboard manufacturers producing a key cap of this material at this time. There may be a few out there, but they are not well-known.

You’re more likely to see POM in things like guitar picks, electronics and various other machine parts. I gather it’s an exceedingly tough plastic, but it may not be the best for keyboards. The usage cycle of a key cap man not benefit from some of the things that POM does well.

Printing:

It is likely that you’ve owned or worked with keyboards that have had an issue with the print fading, darkening, or completely coming off of some of the keys. That, without being too facile, is not the outcome we’re hoping for.

There are a number of ways to create the legends on the keys. They all have their place, and their set of assests and liabilities.

Pad Printing: This is what it sounds like. The legends are printed on the keys with a flexible printing head. It’s sort of like printing something on a T-shirt. This type of printing, because it’s simply a deposit on top of the key, can wear off, either with chemical etching (because of that hand cream you like so much), or because of mechanical wear. Although we don’t think about them in this way, our fingertips can serve to put a significant amount of abrating force on a tool, when we have our hands upon said tool for hundreds of hours. Pad printing can be the victim of such a grinding force.

The upside, though, is that it’s cheap, easy, and can be done in any color you like, with any legend you can imagine.

Amost every keyboard you look at, if it is less than fifty bucks or so, will have pad printed keys. They’re okay, but you know that you’ll have the chance of the key legends fading or otherwise having an issue.

Laser Etching: Here, we step up to a whole different level of durability. The legend, in this case, is actually burned into the key cap. This can take one of two forms. The first variant is a thermal process, where the shape of the legend conforms to the “burn” of the laser, and the color portrayed by the legend is created by the natural discoloration process of the plastic format (darkening or lightening). The second methology possible is to actually create a small trough in the shape of the legend on the key, then “in-fill” a contrasting material into that space. I assume that the in-fill material is some kind of plastic or plastisol material, though that isn’t clear to me.

Laser Etching can, under extreme circumstances, become little bit indistinct around the edges, but it won’t wear off altogether.

Dye Sublimation: Rather than burning into the key cap, this method utilizes an energetic process that allows a dye to be infused directly into the key cap’s molecular structure. This is done in such a way and to a depth that assures that there is no way to have the key legend wear away. I mean, provided you’re not using your keyboard with a bench grinder, anyway. Dye Sub printing is considered to be right up there with the best you can get. The vast majority of PBT keycaps are printed in this way.

Double-Shot: This is the absolute most rugged of all methods for showing a legend on a key cap. Why? Because it’s not actually a printing method at all. Two seperate pieces of plastic are actually fused to portray this legend, then the finish work is done to make sure the cap is the right size and shape. Basically, you have one color of plastic as the “underside” part. This is the color that the legend is going to be. The key top plastic is a contrasting color to this. The two parts are mated together, such that the legend is actually the material of the underside material being shown through the key top.

Most of the time, double-shot methodology is only employed with ABS, as it is easy to work with, and this is by far the most reliable way to make a durable legend, given ABS’s qualities. A company called Tai Hao is currently making double-shot PBT caps, however, so it is technically feasible. A few other brands are doing this, as well. They vary greatly in price, and I haven’t seen any but the Tai Hao brand, so I can’t comment upon the relative qualities of these offerings.

Backlighting:

While having an LED backlight beneath a key is not specifically something that will have any impact on the performance of the ‘board, a significant number of mechanicals do feature this technology.

Traditionally the province of gaming keyboards, backlighting can help to find your way to the correct key when the ambient lighting of your room is low. While touch typists endeavor to keep from looking at their keyboards any more than necessary during the typing action, locating the home row can still be made easier if the legends of the key caps are brightly illuminated.

As I alluded to, the backlighting on keyboards is provided by LEDs, which is to say, light emitting diodes. Some of these are capable of only one color, while the RGB style backlights are able to produce millions of colors. Some are on/off, others can light specific keys, as you see fit, and the most complex of them have a small processor inside the keyboard that can give you any number of patterned or reactive lighting schemes.

I have, thus far, not had any real interest in a backlit keyboard, but I may procure one at some point, if only to see what it’s all about, as it were.

As you might imagine, the key legends have to be transluscent in order to the light to shine through. This means that the key caps have to be made with a more complex process. My impression is that the most common method to create the translucent key legends is to use the double-shot technique, with the underside plastic being the bit that lets the light through. It is possible to mold the whole cap from a translucent material, then paint it, but that’s really cheaping out, and asking for a bad result.

On older backlit ‘boards, you’ll sometimes see models that have a backlight, but it will shine around the outside of the key caps, rather than through them. This is probably less expensive, as it can be used with any key cap style.

It should be noted that LED backlighting is not a new thing. Older keyboard generations ofen had an LED that shined through a cutaway on a keys such as the num lock and the caps lock keys.

Summing Up:

In the current age of throw-away keyboards, most examples will be designed to simply be good enough. They will last a year or two, and then go away, to be replaced with the new thing, which will also be thrown away soon enough. If you like to have your keyboard be your stalwart friend, with you through the lean times and the flush, outliving computer after computer, the differences in keycap technology will begin to become important.

I recently replaced the key caps on all of my older mechanical keyboards. Being Cherry MX equipped devices, it was easy for me to find replacement sets. For one set, I ordered the whole set directly off of Amazon. For the other two, I designed custom color schemes and legends at a site called WASD keyboards. After pulling all the key caps off of my old ‘boards, cleaning them thoroughly, and installing the new caps, they are almost new. In some ways, better than new, because they have more “personality” than they had leaving the factory. This customizability, this ability to disassemble, service, and repair your fondly-held devices, is another great advantage of the mechanical switch keyboard. It doesn’t have to be throw-away. It can be a keeper, and you can hot rod it as you see fit.

Well, that wraps up my series of articles on mechanical keyboards in general. From here on, I’ll be posting some reviews, thoughts, and updates as I learn more and find elements of this hobby that I think you’ll enjoy knowing about.

Cheers, and happy typing.

In this episode, I’ll take you through some of the most common keyboard layouts, formats, and form factors. I’ll even do a bit of historical meandering, just because that can be fun and educational.

Let’s get to terms.

Layout: This refers to the placement, size, and shape of the keys you’ll find on the ‘board. The most frequently seen layout in the U.S. is the ANSI layout. It is easily recognized by the rectangular “Enter” key that is one one row wide, and just a shade longer than the backspace. With this layout, the “backslash and pipe” key is one and a half units wide, and the backspace key is more like two units wide.

In Europe and some other locales, they prefer the ISO layout, which has an “Enter” key that is taller, but narrower. This displaces a few keys, and makes jumping from one to another a bit of a learning process. Typically, an ISO keyboard changes the shape of the right shift key a bit, and will move the location of the “backslash and pipe” key around to make room for the tall enter key.

Other places around the world have a few other layouts they use. Japan, for instance, has its own standard, the JIS layout. These layouts are often based upon the ISO or ANSI, but modified to fit the intricacies of the language in question.

In the past, keyboards have featured the AT and the XT format. These were early precursors of the formats we see now, and lacked such modern amenities as the Windows key and the Menu key.  For a time in the 90’s there was a phenomenon that has been referred to some as the “Big Ass Enter Key”. This was just as it sounded, with a very large enter key that was as wide as an ANSI version, and as tall as an ISO. It was kinda huge. If you’re of a certain age, you probably remember them. They did often cause the misfortune of featuring a backspace key of normal 1×1 size, which tended to bother those of us who sometimes make typing errors, and want to easily hit the backspace, not some other nearby, random key. Lots of people created a lot of unanticipated plus signs during that era.

These above all assume a QWERTY key layout. However, it’s not a given. There are multiple other methods to layout the keys, and some maintain that they are far better than the familiar QWERTY.

The most common amonng these alternative layouts is Dvorak. There is also Colemak, and a few others I can’t readily name.

Quick story time: The reason that the QWERTY layout was adopted was that the typing hardware at the time consisted of a typewriter. In traditional typewriters, the keys were attached to pushrods that caused an arm to swing upward, striking the face of the key against a piece of paper. Because there were a whole lot of arms that had to swing unimpeded and hit the paper, it was sometimes possible to hit the keys so quickly, in such a way as to cause the machinery to jam up. Two or more arms would get hung up with each other, and all work had to be halted to remedy the situation.

The QWERTY layout put commonly used keys far enough apart that they wouldn’t hang up as often. It also served to slow the typing speed down a bit, because all the most common keys were not right under your fingers. You had to reach for some of them. It caught on, and long after that mechanical concern became lost in the sands of time, we’re still typing on the same format. This is a great example of institutional inertia. It’s the same reason that cars and trucks and trains and the like still use the same track width that they always have. Changing the conception of how wide they are would take too much work. It’s fine. Leave it. Never mind that it’s essentially the same measurement we’ve been using since it was the standard axle width of Roman wagons. <end story time>

Dvorak and other layouts probably have some technical advantages. The only downside is that you’re not always going to have access to the same layout, because it didn’t take hold and become widespread. It’s sort of like knowing a really cool language that no one speaks. It has merit, but isn’t as useful as knowing, say, Spanish.

One final layout to mention, for lack of a better place to put the concept, is the ortholinear key orientation. Most of the time, you’ll see that the keys are graduated in a diagonal, leaning gradually toward the left as you go up the alphanumeric cluster. Because typewriters. Again. Ortholinear layout has them go straight up and down. Less reaching, less movement away from the home row. But. But trying to rewire your brain after years or decades of typing on a graduated ‘board doesn’t happen overnight, and it’ll probably mess up your technique on a regular layout. So there’s that.

Format: In the past, when there were a great many different computing platforms, they all had their own specialized keyboard formats, featuring keys that did specific things in that environment. Especially in the era of terminal computing, where you had giants like WYSE and that ilk producing a lot of the equipment used at data terminals and points of sale, the keyboards were formatted and tuned to the particular set of tasks and shortcuts. This typically had a minimum of impact on the primary alphanumeric part of the ‘board, but everything beyond that was up for grabs. Today, there really aren’t very many formats still seen out in the wild.

PC Format: The most familiar to a lot of people is the PC format, wherein you have keys for control, alt, Windows, and menu. There’s typically a function button layer on top of the alphanumeric cluster, and a set of word processing navigation buttons above a nav cluster (arrow keys) to the right of that. But, I fear that I may have wandered into the territory of form factor now, as the actual complement and number of keys included is more a function of that design choice than any other. It should be noted that Linux computers are set up to run with this PC format, by default. You could remap a few keys if you wanted, but it isn’t required.

Mac: The other one that you’ll see is the Apple Mac format. This format has control, command, and alt…or something. I am not a Mac guy, so I have to wing it when forced to sit at one. Sorry, a little light on the lingo for this segment.

Chromebook: Another format that some might confront is the Chromebook format, though this is less common, and a normal keyboard will work fine with this OS. The Chromebook format does away with normal Function keys, and instead has a variety of keys along the top row that serve particular functions in the Chrome OS. They can work with PCs, to a great extent, though you might find a key or two that you will miss, if you use one long enough.

Form Factor: This refers to the size, shape, and number of keys included in a particular keyboard design. Through history, there have been a ton of different form factors, from nothing more than the alphanumeric cluster on a very compact ‘board, all the way up to keyboards with as many as 160-some odd keys. (yeah, think about it).

Full Sized: This is far and away the most common and familiar form factor for desktop keyboards. Typically, somewhere between 104 and 108 keys are included. Full function row, navigation cluster, and a ten-key are included. (A ten-key is the same as a numeric keypad.) Usually, ANSI layouts have 104, while ISO has 105. The other few keys are typically media shortcuts. Turning the volume up and down, for instance.

“Battleship”: This is a rarely-used format, and the only one larger than full sized that you can purchase new today. Only a few companies make this size ‘board, but they were fairly popular for a few years. Typically, they have around 122 keys. The extras are generally another twelve function keys, and a few other special keys that might be useful to you in some situations. Some gaming keyboards probably fit into this form factor, as they have configurable keys that can be given particular tasks in a gaming scenario. Equipping a weapon, carrying out an attack, looting the corpses. Whatever the game calls for.

Compact Full: This form factor has the same number of keys, but has either squeezed all the dead space out from between the various clusters, or has elected to make some of the keys smaller to save space. Or, perhaps, both things. You’ll see this form factor on laptop keyboards a lot. For instance, they’ll put small navigation cluster buttons below the rest, saving some width. Coolermaster has an interesting take on this form factor called the TK, which is quite similar to the “navless” covered below, but with some clever alterations of the keys that carry out the navigation, to make it a bit more ergonomic to use.

Navless: Quite popular in the days of the XT computers, these would do away with the whole nav cluster and the keys that typically reside above it, allowing toggling between these functions and the numerics with the Num Lock key. This yielded a narrower, more compact presentation. This was an implementation that actually made the Num Lock key matter. Rarely seen today, I think that there’s a lot to be said for this form factor, and I’d be interested in trying a modern iteration, should a company decide to design one.

TKL: This form factor does away with the whole numeric keypad. TKL stands for “ten-keyless”. Roughly the same width as the navless layout, if not just vaguely narrower, this is popular with gamers, as well as with people who don’t find any utility in having a ten-key. The advantage, for a right-handed person, is that it puts the mouse nearer the midline of the body, and cuts down a bit on the wear and tear on your wrist and elbow over long gaming sessions.  For someone who uses the mouse with his or her left hand, there is no real ergonomic upside. The freeing up of a bit of desk real estate is still a viable rationale for selecting one. This form factor is also called the 87% or 87 key size. Other than the omission of the keypad, no other changes are made to key spacing or content.

60% (or HHKB): Some people just want their keyboard to be…smaller. There could be a variety of reasons, but the main three are portability, aesthetic concerns, and possible efficiency gains. An early adopter to the 60% format was the Happy Hacking Keyboard. Along with moving a few keys around (omitting the caps lock in favor of having ctrl in its place), it did away with the function layer, the nav cluster, and the numeric keypad. Thus, you have a much smaller keyboard. It is really just the alphanumeric block and the standard modifiers.

How do you access all the other functions, you may ask. I will tell you. One or more keys are included to allow secondary layers of functionality for the keys still present. Function keys are included in the layout of the keys. Pressing them, much like shift does, allows access to another “layer” of output. This means that each key on the keyboard can output three or even four possible commands, depending upon what is used to modify the keystroke. Fans of this form factor indicate that once you are used to the intricacies, your fingers are never off the home row. You’re faster, better than before. You may, in fact, be a secret government project that brings test pilots back from the grave. Who knows. These ‘boards usually have 61 keys or so. There’s a middle ground between this and the TKL form factor that conforms to everything I’ve said above, except for the fact that the arrow keys are still there, shoehorned down into the corner of the alphanumeric block. These are typically called “67%” format.

40%: Now, we’re verging on the realm of the absurd, at least to my way of thinking. This format takes it as a mission to be as small as humanly possible. Even the normal number row has to go. Some common keys, like the question mark, have to use a function layer to be available. I should mention that all the key caps and spacing remain the same as on a full sized keyboard. The designers don’t actually shrink the size of the keys. There are typically only 47 or so keys on a keyboard of this type.

40% is an uncommon format, but you do see it around some. I haven’t tried one, but it sounds like there would be a big learning curve, and I can’t really see what the upside might be. My TKL keyboard is still pretty compact, at least for my needs. I do have a bluetooth keyboard that is roughly 60%, and it works fine. It isn’t mechanical, however, so I won’t spend a whole bunch of time on it. Likewise, I won’t linger on the oddball mini keyboards that use little keys, rubber tabs, and the like to make a keyboard wicked tiny. If you have to actually type on something like that, I’ll just say that I’m sorry.
There are a few other formats out there, but those are most of the ones that are available on more than one brand’s products. For most, the full sized or TKL layouts will serve to be as broad a choice as they require. With mechanical switch keyboards, one dimension that can’t really shrink very much is that of height off the desk surface. Mechanicals featuring the familiar switch types are almost always at least an inch tall. Most everything that manages to be space efficient in this dimension will be a membrane keyboard with a scissor switch above it. Some of these are okay, but many of them…kinda suck.

Next time, I’ll talk about key caps, including their interchangeability, material, and shape.

Cheers, and happy typing.

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!