A mechanical keyboard, as opposed to a traditional membrane keyboard, has each key paired with its own spring loaded switch. Most keyboards today are of the cheap membrane or scissor switch variety, but there was a time when almost every computer keyboard was outfitted with an individual mechanical switch beneath every key. However, those were costly to make, and manufactures shifted away from these in favor of producing keyboards that used printable membrane sheets and a single monoblock switch. These keyboards use an electrical circuit to detect keystrokes rather than a single sensor for each key. Most gamers agree that a mechanical gaming keyboard will give the user a competitive edge over users of membrane keyboards, due to the superior feedback each key press delivers.
What makes a mechanical keyboard? The switches used within the keys, the size and aesthetic design, and the extra features are three differentiating characteristics of any mechanical keyboard. While these typically come down to personal preference, they are some important factors to take into consideration before investing in a mechanical keyboard.
Table of Contents
Get to Know the Cherry Switch Family
The switch is the heart of what makes each mechanical keyboard have its feel. Cherry MX Switches are used by nearly all mechanical keyboard manufactures. They are made by Cherry Corporation, which was founded in 1953 making them the oldest keyboard manufacturer still around. They manufacture mechanical switches that perform differently and categorize them by color. There are five main types of Cherry MX switches:
- Brown: A tactile bump switch with medium resistance. Deemed the middle ground switch by many, it is good for typing and gaming.
- Red: A non-tactile, smooth linear switch with low resistance. Each keystroke is smooth with no bump, and is very responsive. Great switch for gaming.
- Blue: A low resistance switch that is highly tactile with a very loud click. The low resistance prevents fatigue from long typing sessions and the click gives audial feedback for each press. This switch is considered best for typists.
- Black: This switch has a firm feel combined with a smooth linear actuation. Like the red switch, it is a highly valued for gaming.
- Green: A newer switch on the market that has auditory feedback and is tactile. This switch met the demand of those who prefer high resistance keys but still desired a clicking sound.
So what’s the bottom line? Click or no click, bump or no bump, light or stiff is still a matter of personal preference. Some people will swear up and down in gaming forums that they have had the best performance with brown switches and others will claim the green switch is the best thing since sliced bread for gaming. Again, to each their own.
What we will say is that over the years more people have chosen red and black switches for gaming. This is for a few different reasons. Having a tactile bump is not very significant for gamers because you’re going to be bottoming out each key press anyway. The smooth feel of red and black switches is generally favored in a gaming environment of quick response times over a bumpy feel. The actuation and release points are positioned in the same place on black and red switches. This lends itself well to those games that require a lot of double tapping making it easier to double tap (or triple+ tap) than any other switch.
Reds are lighter and blacks are stiffer and both camps of users praise the respective quality. Both will serve the avid gamer well. If you’re a person who sometimes makes the mistake of hitting the wrong key while gaming, blacks are a solid choice as they require more force to actuate than reds. If you do a lot of typing (think will you be doing a lot of chatting, typing out docs, etc.), reds are much less likely to cause any finger fatigue that you may experience in a long gaming session. Reds will allow more subtle and quick key presses while blacks demand a more deliberate keystroke.
What switches really make for the best mechanical keyboard for gaming?
Well, that depends on the user. Take a look at what these gamers had to say about the different switch flavors.
Gamer shogrran from the keyboard enthusiast forums geekhack.org reports:
It’s a matter of personal preference my friend. I would prefer gaming in fps using mx reds. Why? Just because I like soft touch switches. It is just the way I play.
I am not a master of games but I just make it a point to train myself not to be frantic with the keyboard. I also train myself not to over press or slam on the keys. Remember… unless your keyboard is a motion sensing device, a key press is just a simple key press. It doesn’t matter how hard you slam the key. The key will register once the contact points inside it connects. It also doesn’t matter how hard you press the key down. With this reasoning in mind I practice not to press the keys so hard – this is beneficial since my fingers do not get tired as fast as if I will be pressing the keys harder. — mind you, you may not notice it but the muscles involved in moving your fingers can sustain multiple key presses… but they get tired really fast. Try typing at 90wpm for a prolonged period of time and you’ll notice you won’t be as accurate in the end as you were in the start.
With all that said, that is the reason why I’ll go for a softer keyboard than the tougher blacks. The blacks will tire my fingers faster. But who knows? Maybe you have bigger hands and fingers? Maybe the sheer weight of your finger resting on top of a red switch is enough to actuate it? It really depends upon you.
Gamer WiL11o6 chimes in:
If all you do is 100% FPS, this is the switch for you. The added pressure in each key press makes the game a little more enjoyable. It is hard to explain, but it feels nice to run around the map with the added pressure because it feels like each key stroke is crucial to your survival because you can feel every key stroke register with your character while you run around. For typing though, it’s another story. My fingers would get fatigue after typing a paragraph. I type at a steady 80wpm so my fingers get tired fairly quickly typing on the blacks.
This is a little bit too light for FPS in my book. It feels nice, but it’s so light sometimes I would be running in a straight line, suddenly start running sideways and I’m like, “Why am I running sideways?” I then notice I have my finger pressed down on “A”. I was just resting my finger on the key, but it’s so light I didn’t even know I was pressing down on it. Because it’s so light, typing was a much more pleasant experience because I get no finger fatigue. I play a little SC2 as well, and I would vote reds over blacks for RTS games since building with hotkeys are easier to press down on.
This was my first switch I ever bought. Did not like it. It has half the tactility of blues, and half linear so it just felt weird. I’d rather type and game on a rubber dome if I was forced to pay $100 for a brown switch. It felt mushy and I don’t know, weird. Again, this is my opinion.
This is my favorite of them all. It’s such a joy typing on this keyboard as the tactility gives me great feedback while I type whereas the reds were too boring for typing. If strictly FPS gaming, again 100%, I would get blacks because of the reasons stated above. But since blues have a nice tactile feeling, it feels nice while I play BF3 as well. I do 50% gaming and 50% web/chatting so this is my favorite keyboard. The only gripe is that this thing is pretty loud. If you are typing on it, you’d get used to it but if you have a wife or a significant other that uses your computer or is around you, they would get annoyed fairly quickly.
Clearly, if you’re looking at buying a mechanical keyboard, the type of switches it uses is one of the important decisions you will need to make. If one or more of your buddies has a mechanical keyboard it’s a good idea to try theirs out before making a final choice. Keep in mind, however, that nothing beats owning one and playing it over a longer period of time to really get an idea of difference it makes on your playing experience. Most gaming enthusiasts try a few different types over the years and find one they like best.
Advantages & Disadvantages of Mechanical Gaming Keyboards
Let’s take a gander at the main perks and dislikes gamers attach to owning a mechanical keyboard.
- Gaming-grade response. In general, mechanical keyboards have a greater tactile response than other types of keyboards (even the smooth linear ones). The value of having inherent tactility with each key press cannot be overlooked. Part of being the best at your chosen game is developing muscle memory for the optimal combos and the most used key commands. It is thought that mechanical key switches aid this development. Furthermore, most mechanical keyboards are have built-in anti-ghosting technology (keyboard ghosting is when one or more keystrokes are lost due to the inability to process simultaneous keystrokes) aiding fast-twitch gamers who need to execute multiple commands as quickly as possible and facilitates the ability to maintain a high APM for those RTS gamers out there.
- Longevity. Most mechanical keyboards last about 10 times longer than a normal keyboard. Cherry MX Switches are guaranteed to have a lifecycle of 50 million keystrokes. Dem WASD keys won’t be wearin’ out anytime soon! Heavy users will be pleased at how long these keyboards stand the test of time and use. Since the keys are mechanical, it is easy to pop on and off to clean or replace. A bent switch or lost key can replaced without having to purchase an entirely new keyboard.
- Satisfying experience. Many people instantly fall in love with the feel of a mechanical keyboard. They claim not only is the gaming better, typing just about anything becomes a more rewarding experience. The confirmation of each key being actuated is something a person must experience to fully appreciate. Furthermore, the typing process on a mechanical keyboard can minimize typos, particularly if you choose one of the switches that are favored by typists that we mentioned earlier. You won’t doubt yourself when it comes to whether or not you pressed a key, lessening those double typed characters. Hurray for less password reentries!
- Cost. There’s no two ways around this one. High-quality mechanical keyboards command a hefty price tag. The parts, labor, and marketing budget all factor into the cost of these finely tuned works of engineering.
- Not-so-satisfying experience. There are those out there that just prefer the feel of other keyboards over a mechanical one. Also, some people don’t do their research (unlike our saavy readers) and end up purchasing a mechanical keyboard with the wrong switches. Maybe they bought a board with clicky switches and piss off their S.O. (or whoever else is in the nearby vicinity) every time they go into a typing frenzy. Or maybe they do some heavy typing from time-to-time and accidentally got a keyboard with black switches.
- Non-portable. Mechanical keyboards are heavier and more solid than regular keyboards, and while it is nice to prevent your keyboard from slipping around during those particularly intense moments, folks that value portability may not enjoy this feature.
- Not spill resistant. This is one area where membrane keyboards beat out mechanical keyboards. It definitely is a big one for people that often have food and drinks in their gaming area and are accident prone. Mechanical keyboards do not have a sealed interface between the keys and mechanical switches and one good spill usually is the death of a well-serving, faithful mechanical keyboard.
Should you Buy a Gaming Mechanical Keyboard?
If you’re considering buying one for the family PC that doesn’t get too much use, or you’re a very light gamer who isn’t looking to invest a lot of money into a keyboard you don’t need to buy one. Neither is it an ideal keyboard to lug around with a tablet or laptop.
For the gamer that cares about their performance or just wants to level up their computing experience, you certainly can’t go wrong. Most mechanical keyboard converts are raving fans and never go back to their old ways. We have an extensive review article of some of the best gaming keyboards if you’re ready to take the plunge.