I got a new mechanical keyboard, but why mechanical?

I got a new mechanical keyboard, but why mechanical?

Mechanical keyboard – A physical keyboard that uses an individual spring and switch for each key. Today, only premium keyboards are built with key switches; however, they were also used in the past…

PC Magazine Encyclopedia (https://www.pcmag.com/encyclopedia/term/46703/mechanical-keyboard)

This is a really fun definition, because if you’re not in the know, you might ask, “There are keyboards that don’t have a spring and switch for each key?” The answer is yes!

Not to detract from the shiny new keyboard, but it’s good to understand what makes mechanical keyboards special. To do this, I’m going to explain the differences between a mechanical keyboard, and another kind of keyboard called a membrane keyboard.

Membrane Keyboards

To explain what is happening inside a membrane keyboard, I’ll need to share with you what a membrane keyboard looks like without the keys on it.

A Printed Circuit Board (PCB) with Switch Membrane

As you can see and probably conclude, there are 3 primary parts to a membrane keyboard:

1. The printed circuit board (PCB). You can see above that the PCB board above has black patterns that line up with the dome shapes on the membrane. These black patterns are actually open switches. I’m going to call these Switch-Dots to avoid confusion. If you look at a Switch-Dot, you will notice that the traces (black lines) on one side of one of the Switch-Dot, never make contact with the traces on the other side.

2. The membrane. Above, the membrane is the rubbery looking sheet with the dents, or ‘domes’ in it. The black parts of these domes actually get pressed onto the PCB when a key is pressed, and the black parts of the domes close the switches on the PCB, by pressing a conductive pad onto the PCB to close the open switch.

3. The keys. Obviously you need the keys to have a keyboard. Often they will attach to the keyboard, and have a plunger that will push the dome.

Now, here is an animation of what a membrane key looks like in action:

A Classic Rubber Dome Membrane Switch (infoq.com)

Mechanical Keyboards

Functionally, we know that any keyboard will work, but why do people pay stupid amounts of money for mechanical keyboards? We’ll revisit this question once you know how they work! To do this, we’re going to start with an animation of some Cherry brand switches, because Cherry is without a doubt, the most popular choice for mechanical keyboard switches currently on the market. 

Cherry MX Switches (linustechtips.com)

Now, as you can see above, each key has a spring that sits in the center of the switch, and a switch to the left that consists of two metal pieces, that make contact when the key is pushed. The moving object that appears in multiple colors above is called the stem, and it’s the part of the switch that the key-cap actually attaches to. As you can see, when the switch is not pushed, a piece on the side of the stem holds the switch contacts apart. When the key is depressed, this same protrusion on the stem gets pushed down and out of the way, allowing the two switch contacts to touch, and thus, ‘push the key.’

Now, some of you may have noticed in the animation above that the stems, and their protrusions, are not all alike. The red one is really smooth and linear, the brown one has a bump on it, and, “Holy cow, what’s happening with the blue one?!” Cherry brand switches, as depicted in the animation, have numerous models, that each have a different feel and audible differences. I’m not going to go into detail, but you can see the descriptions in the animations above, and you can search YouTube for a Cherry Mx switch comparison video to see them in action and hear how they sound! 

Now, what everyone has been waiting for! The Vortex Race 3!

My Vortex Race 3, with Cherry MX Brown switches

This keyboard was one of those purchases where you see something somewhere, think it’s cool, then somehow you end up with one a month later. This keyboard has Cherry MX Brown switches, which have a medium actuating force, and a tactile feeling button without an audible click. They are a really popular flavor of Cherry MX switches, and probably my personal favorite. They feel very robust and comfortable, and they are not so loud that it makes the room sound like a battlefield.

The Race 3 is a 75% keyboard, meaning it has 75% of the keys that a normal keyboard does. Really, it’s just a keyboard that’s had the number pad removed, and the arrow keys and 6 modifiers immediately above it (Insert, PgUp, PgDn, End, Home, Delete) adapted into a smaller keyboard. Any function not available from a primary key-press can be achieved using the combination of a function key, and another key. Overall, its a great keyboard. Build quality is top notch, consisting of CNCed aluminum, a high quality PCB, Cherry MX brown switches, and PBT keycaps with dye sublimated legends. It feels like it will hold up for a long time. If you for some reason want or need a 75% keyboard, this one is prime. 

Frankly, I don’t know who the target audience is for reduced sized keyboards. I got one, because I thought it would be handy to have a keyboard that’s a little more portable, but I may have found myself a new daily driver! It’s a really comfortable keyboard, and it’s small enough to fit in a back pack (Yes, I’m looking at you Corsair and Das Keyboard!). 

But Why?

I know the question you’re probably still wondering is, “But why do people pay $150 for a keyboard that doesn’t even have a full 104 keys, when you can get a brand new keyboard from Walmart for 5 bucks,” and here’s the answer. Mechanical switches tend to have a more precise feel, and it makes for a more pleasant typing experience. Membranes in keyboards are a flexible rubber, which provides the “spring” for the key. This membrane deforming isn’t going to be as precise as a mechanical switch with a spring. Because it’s a more pleasant typing experience, it often leads to increased productivity for people who spend many hours a day in front of a computer. In reality, if mechanical keyboards were cheaper to produce than membrane keyboards, then there probably wouldn’t be any membrane keyboards. The truth is they’re so widely available and used because they are significantly cheaper and easier to mass produce.

I know this was quite long winded, but if you made it, thanks for hanging in there, and I hope you learned something! Thanks for reading, and if you haven’t, sign up and comment your thoughts!

This Post Has 4 Comments

  1. idapt

    Seems like every time I come back to your website you have a new interesting thing for me to read. How do you stay so motivated? Do you research all of these posts before posting?

    1. Aleks

      Thanks for the comment! This website is really just a place for me to post my hobbies and projects as I work on them. Everything I post here is what I enjoy in my free time. I do have to do research to learn some things, but that’s one of the most enjoyable parts of the learning experience.

  2. Melissa

    Hey, I’m a long time fan and reader of your blog, first time commenter. Just wanted to say this post really hit home with the stuff I’ve been looking into. Thanks!

    1. Aleks

      Thanks for the comment! I’m glad it was helpful!

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