Mechanical keyboards have long been the gold standard, far superior to the mushy typing experience most of us have grown accustomed to with a normal, membrane desktop board or the quick-to-bottom-out scissor switched laptop varieties. The superior, tactile nature of an actual mechanical switch moving below your fingertips improves typing speed and helps reduce stress injuries. But, which one should you buy?
Several years ago, I set out to find the perfect keyboard — something that captured the joy of typing on the legendary IBM Model M to some extent, but with modern features and Mac-friendly keys. Not that long ago, finding a really good mechanical keyboard was a challenge, but now a days, there are countless combinations by companies well known and not-so-well known.
Once you decide to start sorting through the menagerie, I found it was almost inevitable that each board I’d consider would be oh-so-close, but not quite what I really wanted for my writing. Many of the boards are over-the-top, with tasteless designs meant to somehow appeal to gamers, others go for abnormal key layouts that toy with muscle memory in my fingers.
Oh, and while one would think a less common, but clearly superior keyboard seems like a perfect companion to a computer — a Mac — recognized as having the very same sorts of discerning characteristics, very few mechanical keyboards give more than lip service to Mac users. True, virtually any keyboard can be used with a Mac, but some keys end up in the wrong places physically for anyone already accustomed to typing on a Mac board, and — call it petty — but it really bothers me when my keyboard has a Windows logo staring at me.
In the reviews here, you’ll find boards considered for the build quality, typing quality, Mac friendliness and more. And, because I’m interested in finding a good keyboard for typing and not for blasting aliens, we will focus on ones that are not utter design nightmares.
Additional reviews of further Epomaker, Royal Kludge and LoFree boards will be published in the next few weeks.
When picking a keyboard, it is important to think of how it is made. After all, keyboards, as much as any part of a computer, are something you are going to physically touch a lot. Some boards look really great, but skimp on materials, opting, for example, to use the same ABS plastic found in the most generic $10 keyboard. Others sport the same PBT plastic found in the legendary keyboards of early computing (before ever-lowering-prices made PC manufacturers look for the cheapest keyboarding options they could find).
Most boards are encased in plastic, though the thickness and quality of it affects not just how well it will last, but the way it sounds and reacts to serious typing. More rarified boards opt for metal casing, but that comes at significantly increased cost.
If you ask typing enthusiasts about the keyboard, they will almost certainly refer to the IBM Model M with an impassioned zeal. Big Blue’s 1980’s classic, still manufactured today by Unicomp, uses an actual spring that “buckles” when you press keys, giving a report that is either the satisfying sound of the perfect typing experience or a machine gun-ish cacophony, depending on whom you ask. Great for typing, not so great for close quartered cubicles or typing around sleeping spouses.
Unicomp’s legendary option aside, the heart of a mechanical keyboard is a small, boxy switch under each key. While cheap keyboards use silicone membranes with, maybe, scissor switched plastic for sturdiness (think: laptop keyboard), the “mechanical” in mechanical keyboards comes from an actual mechanical switch that not only increases speed, but better absorbs the impact of your fingers — good for avoiding injuries too familiar to those who type a lot.
During the dark winter when mechanical keyboards were nearly forgotten, a German company named Cherry kept producing a line of switches that made the few boards available possible. Cherry’s switches have color coded mechanisms depending on the way they provide resistance and feedback to typing. After the company’s patent ended, and as mechanical keyboards returned to the conversation for typists and gamers alike, imitators such as Gateron appeared, many of which are now well received in their own right.
Whether you get a Cherry or some other type of switch in your keyboard, it will still likely have its switches referred to by the colors of those Cherry switches. Two the most common — and the ones in most of the boards we are testing at OFB Labs — are “Browns” (which are quieter and have resistance as the key registers, but no “click”) and “Blues” (which make a signature clicking sound and tactile response).
Low end boards (like their non-mechanical counterparts) use a wired connection to your computer. Step up to the middle tier of boards and you’ll find largely Bluetooth based boards; many of those support multiple devices, which is nice, for example, if you want to use the keyboard with both your laptop and tablet.
The boards we’ve been testing all sport a USB Type-C connection for either wired interfacing to the computer or for charging the internal battery (on wireless models).
Windows users have the widest selection of mechanical keyboard options. Those using a Mac will want to be a bit more discerning. While most keyboards will work on virtually any modern computer (or smartphone, for that matter) with the right adapters or Bluetooth, Mac friendly keyboards distinguish themselves by having a simple way to adjust for differences in layout. For example, the difference with Macs isn’t merely a difference in labeling “Alt” and “Windows” keys as “Option” and “Command;” the actual code sent by the keyboard for those keys is reversed. Use a keyboard that doesn’t have a Mac mode and it’ll play havoc with your muscle memory if you use keyboard shortcuts.
(This can be done with software on the computer instead, but that gets messier. What if you switch computers? And, loading another program in the background just uses RAM and slows things down. Do yourself a favor, Mac users: get a board that can correctly send keystrokes from the keyboard, rather than compensating.)
Speaking of sending keystrokes, some boards also support different layers of further customizability, switching out what a key sends to the computer — even sending multiple keystrokes with a single keypress. Again, this is the sort of thing that can be done internal to the computer, but saves resources when it can be internalized to the keyboard.