A love poem to the mechanical keyboard
Mechanical keyboards are great. Try one if you can.

30 May 2017

A few months back, I finally took the leap and bought my first mechanical keyboard. I thought this would be a good time to share my thoughts on it, and on mechanical keyboards in general.

What is a mechanical keyboard?

There are many ways of getting signals from a human into a computer. If you’re a programmer, then the one that you probably use the most is the keyboard. An array of about 104 buttons, which you hit at a furious pace to transmit thoughts from your memory to the computer’s memory.

Of course, any peripheral as ubiquitous as the keyboard is going to have a number of conflicting characteristics which engineers will try to design for. For the majority of computer users, price is the most important characteristic. If you spend your day at a computer, typing away, then it might be worth considering other characteristics when buying a keyboard.

The cheapest design to manufacture, and so most common keyboards you’ll find in the wild, are the dome switch keyboards. They have a polyurethane membrane, with a small dome pushing up under each key. It’s sort of like really thick bubble wrap. When you press the key, the dome is squashed flat, and that is sensed as a button press.

The mechanical keyboard fits into a more expensive bracket, but are generally considered nicer to use. Each key is an individually manfactured switch. Each switch has a spring which you’re compressing straight down, and which allows two metal contacts to touch at about the half way point. Depending on what type of keys you have, this may have an audible click so that you hear where this point is, or you may be able to feel a small bump. It makes contact at that point, rather than right at the bottom, so that you can avoid the impact of colliding the key against the base of the keyboard on every keystroke.

Both designs do a fantastic job of having a reliable tool for entering text into a computer. However, you’ll find that the mechanical keyboard is fairly popular in certain circles, despite its high cost. Why?

Having given examples of both a good try now, I can feel the difference, but I’m having trouble articulating that difference. I can understand the preference for the mechanical keyboards. Articles that describe the dome switch keyboards as feeling “mushy” are correct, but I feel it doesn’t quite capture the different feeling adequately.

Which one did I choose?

I chose to buy the CM Storm Quick Fire XT. Yes, they’re all named like they want to be the coolest in the toy shop.

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It appears to be common for the high end keyboards to be marketed at gamers. I actually play a large amount of computer games, but I find the “gamer” marketing strategies and branding to be annoying. I don’t identify with wanting to put fire stickers and flashing LEDs on everything.

I chose the Quick Fire XT because it had the features I wanted (good quality switches on a sturdy base) and opted out of the pointless features that the other ones had. While it is cool to play snake on your keyboard, I didn’t want to pay more money for it.

How it makes me feel

My new mechanical keyboard feels better to type on than my old dome one. I feel like my typing on the mechanical keyboard is faster and more precise, although I’ll be the first to admit that the difference there could be in my head.

I can parallel it with the feeling of picking up a high end musical instrument. You’re still doing the same things, and getting similar results, but everything is that little bit crisper and more refined. Whenever I sit down and start typing, I can’t help but think of Leroy Anderson’s “The Typewriter”.

Availability

I live in South Africa. There are many things that I love about living here, but unfortunately there is not an abundance of choice when it comes to niche technologies. I found that none of the PC shops I visited in person had mechanical keyboards on their shelves. Some of them had “gamer” keyboards, with the flashing lights and high price tag, but strangely none with mechanical switches that I could try.

I’ve found that with computer parts in general, you can get a much better selection if you buy online. For mechanical keyboards specifically, I found that PC Link Computers had the best selection.

Unfortunately, buying online means that you’re buying blind. You can read reviews, or if you’re lucky you’ll have a friend with a keyboard you can try, but these feel like weak solutions.

It’s not as noisy as you think

Open plan offices are common in my experience. An open plan office is where you take a large group of people and put them in one large room. Everybody gets their own desk, but nobody gets their own office. There are plus sides to this. It lowers the barrier to communication in a team, and fits more people into limited office space. Unfortunately, this is a double edged sword, and the inability to close your own office door makes you much more vulnerable to random distractions.

My top 3 list of open plan office distractions is

  1. That time someone thought it was ok to have a ping pong table in the office.
  2. The manager who refused to go to a meeting room for meetings and conference calls (everyone else just had to be quiet).
  3. That time the server room’s aircon was broken, so its door was open with as many fans going as possible.

These are all noise based, so I was worried that a mechanical keyboard would have the same problem as the ping pong table. Would the clickity clack of my keys as I type annoy the person sitting next to me?

I’ve recently joined a team where the developers on my left and right both use mechanical keyboards. Thankfully this has not been a problem for me. They do make more sound than a rubber dome keyboard, but as long as you don’t smash the keys it isn’t distractingly loud. It isn’t anywhere close to a ping pong table.

They are expensive

Undeniably, mechanical keyboards are expensive. If you don’t spend much time typing, then it probably isn’t worth getting one. If, however, you spend the majority of your day with a keyboard in front of you, then the value proposition is different.

If you type a lot, try one

If you’re not sure about if it’s a good idea to get a mechanical keyboard, I would suggest at least giving one a try to see if it works well for you. Find a friend, and do some pair programming at their machine. Personally, I feel it was money well spent.


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You can send me comments on this post at justin@worthe-it.co.za, or @JWorthe.


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