Mechanical keyboards come with many positives: They’re more satisfying to type on, more durable, and offer more room for personalization than standard keyboards. But there’s a lot more to them than that, and if you want to ensure you’re getting the best keyboard for you, there are some things you need to know first.
Let’s start with what’s arguably the most important part: the layout. This refers to the way keys are positioned on the board. You’re probably used to the standard, 104-key “Full” layout most keyboards use, but there are many morefrom which to choose.
Layouts tend to differ by what keys they do or don’t include, so let’s go over some general terms for the keys on your keyboard just to make things clear.
If we look at the Full layout (seen above), we can see various clusters of keys clearly separated by small gaps. Of course, the core section includes all the letters, backspace, escape, and punctuation keys. Right above that is the Number (1 – 9, -, and = keys) and Function rows (F1 – F12 keys), with clusters of navigation keys (PageUp, Home, and Delete, to name a few) to the right. This part also has the arrow keys, which you might be surprised to learn aren’t included on every layout, but we’ll get back to that. And finally, the number pad (or “numpad” as it’s often called), which is a separate cluster of keys for inputting numbers quicker on the right-most part of the keyboard.
Most alternative layouts focus on making the keyboard more compact, so they tend to remove many keys. This is done by making certain key functions accessed through key combinations instead of having dedicated keys. A common example of this is getting rid of the Function row and accessing those keys by combining the Function key (FN) with the corresponding number from the Number row (so for F4, you would input FN + 4). Every keyboard handles this a little bit differently, but generally speaking, if a keyboard uses a layout that removes keys, they’ll still be accessible somehow.
At the end of the day, the layout you use is completely preference based. While some layouts will save more space or include more keys, it’s up to you to decide which one is right for you. So, let’s go through the most common layouts on the market.
As I just said, this is the layout you’ll find on most keyboards. It includes the core section, navigation keys, the Function and Number rows, dedicated arrow keys, and the NumPad. This usually totals 104 keys, but some boards may include additional keys like media controls (such as Play/Pause, Skip Track, and volume controls).
This layout takes the majority of the keys found in the full layout (usually only removing some lesser-used navigation keys) and condenses them all to produce a smaller keyboard. This is done by “declustering” the keys; with the Full layout, the keys are separated into different groups with small gaps between them. It makes things look cleaner but causes the keyboard to eat up more space. A 96% keyboard eliminates those gaps, resulting in one massive cluster with every key (as you can see above).
This layout ultimately serves as a good middle-ground between the standard full layout and the more compact ones we’ll cover soon. Just be aware there aren’t a ton of keyboards that use this layout, so finding one you like with it can be difficult.
TKL is one of the most popular alternative layouts around, so you’ll have an easy time finding boards using it. This makes sense, as the layout concept is straightforward: Just take a Full keyboard, and chop off the part with the Numpad. Everything else is kept the same; it just eliminates the Numpad to save a lot of space. As long as you don’t find yourself using the Numpad often, this is the safest layout to go with besides Full.
Like the 96% layout, the 75% layout takes everything from a TKL board (the core section, Number Row, Function Row, navigation keys, and arrow keys) and removes the gaps to save even more space. If you don’t mind the cluttered look, it’s a good alternative but not as commonplace as TKL keyboards.
65% and 60%
These two layouts are often what people jump to when they’re looking for a small keyboard. The 65% layout removes the Function Row, most navigation keys, and the gaps, resulting in a much more compact keyboard than the Full layout we started with. It takes some getting used to, but it’s a good solution if you’re looking to save space.
If that’s not small enough for you, then the 60% layout (seen above) removes even more keys by getting rid of the remaining navigation and arrow keys. Basically, if you’re going to use either of these layouts, you’ll need to get used to using a lot of key combinations for different actions.
Both are fairly prevalent in the market, but 60% is ultimately the more popular layout.
This final section isn’t going to talk about a specific layout but rather an entire category. Ergonomic keyboards try to improve the position of your arms and wrists while typing to cause less harm than a normal keyboard, though the ways they go about this varies wildly. Some keyboards do this by curving the board’s body, so you don’t need to extend your fingers as much to reach certain keys. Other boards are split into two separate modules you can space out as much as you want to make your arms more comfortable.
If you find yourself having issues with carpal tunnel or other forms of RSI (repetitive strain injury), using an ergonomic keyboard can alleviate a lot of pain. Fair warning, though, these are often pretty expensive compared to normal mechanical keyboards.
Mechanical switches make mechanical keyboards special and why they’re more satisfying to type on than normal keyboards. Placed under each key, these determine a lot about what your keyboard will feel like to type on. Switches can vary in smoothness, depth, resistance, and noise levels, so choosing something that fits you is an important decision. Some people want their keyboard to sound like a typewriter, but others just want more feedback from every press. Regardless, most keyboards offer multiple switch types as different options.
Typically, the switches themselves feature a square, plastic housing for the internal mechanisms, small pins on the bottom for connecting to the keyboard, and the central “MX-style” cross-stem to attach the keycap (you can see it in the image below colored green). A lot of that becomes more important when we starting talking about keycaps and hot-swapping later on, but it’s useful to know the basics regardless.
Now, there are a lot of different switches out there, offering different things from different brands. The most common companies you see are dedicated switch manufacturers like Cherry, Kalih, and Gateron, but peripheral manufacturers like Razer and Logitech have also started producing their own switches.
The options presented with every keyboard will be very different, but let’s go over the general categories of switches you can expect to find and how they affect the typing experience. Switches are usually marked with different colors that express their unique characteristics, so we’ll broadly cover what colors usually fall into each category.
Tip: Something to look out for when considering keyboards is the terms “membrane mechanical” or “mechanical-feel.” This means the keyboard doesn’t have genuine mechanical switches and tries to replicate them with cheaper hardware. They don’t feel as good to type on, so if you want a mechanical keyboard, you should avoid them outright.
Tactile switches are characterized by having a noticeable tactile bump when the switch is pushed down. This adds more resistance and feedback to each keypress, but also requires more force to use. Different tactile switches will require different levels of force, which you’ll see measured in “grams of force” on the product page (although not every switch will detail this). If you’re solely focused on having some more tactile feedback while typing, this is the switch type you’ll want to go with.
Tactile switches are usually represented by brown and clear.
Clicky switches also have a tactile bump, but unlike tactile switches, they also produce an audible click when pushed down. This can make typing on your keyboard very loud, so it’s not recommended if you’re going to be around a lot of people. But if you want some audible feedback while typing, these are definitely the switches for you.
Clicky switches are usually represented by blue, green, and white.
Remove the tactility and clicking of other switches, and you’re left with a linear switch. These don’t have a tactile bump, don’t make much noise, and are also the easiest to type on. If you want something quiet and smooth, then that’s exactly what linear switches offer.
Linear switches are usually represented by red, yellow, and black.
These have become a lot more popular over the past few years. Optical switches can still fall under one of the three aforementioned categories, but they’re much thinner than standard mechanical switches. This means they require less force while typing, are less tactile, and can respond to inputs slightly quicker. If you’re used to scissor-switch keyboards, you’ll feel more at home with optical switches than standard mechanical ones. At the end of the day, these are just another option on the market for a different typing experience, so whether you want to go with them is up to you.
The only downside to optical switches is they usually have very different designs compared to normal switches. This means you can’t use standard keycap sets with them or install them on most hot-swap keyboards (but we’ll get back to both of those later).
Our final category is far more specialized than the others, as gaming switches focus on removing input delay as much as possible. This means they register inputs quicker, which can be especially useful in competitive gaming. Like optical switches, gaming switches can still fall under one of three main categories (tactile, clicky, or linear). However, the actual mechanisms inside the switch tend to be very different from your standard mechanical switch. If you want these types of switches, just look for gaming keyboards specifically—you’ll find plenty that offer switches of this caliber.
This is honestly a pretty simple one to figure out. While neither wireless nor wired connection is necessarily better than the other, they each have clear-cut pros and cons, which we’ll go over soon. Just one thing to keep in mind is that there aren’t as many options for wireless keyboards as there are wired ones. Besides that, let’s dive into each of these a bit deeper.
Wireless keyboards can either connect through Bluetooth or with a specific wireless adapter included with the board. The latter usually provides a more stable connection, but either will work. The upsides to wireless keyboards are obvious—it’s one fewer wire you need to worry about on your desk, and (at least for Bluetooth keyboards) you can usually switch the device you’re connected to with the push of a button. But when it comes to downsides, you have to worry about battery life, which can be annoying.
On top of that, wireless keyboards have latency while typing, which means there’s a small delay between you pressing down the key and the input being registered. This is largely unnoticeable for most people, but if you’re interested in competitive gaming, in particular, it can be an issue.
Wired keyboards are very straightforward, as are the pros and cons associated with them. You have to deal with a cable, but you never have to worry about latency or battery life. If you only use your keyboard with one device, the limits of a wired connection will likely never bother you. While wired keyboards are simple, sometimes that’s exactly what you want.
The only thing worth mentioning is the cables themselves. Most wired keyboards will plug into your PC with a USB-A cable, but some use USB-C. Braided cables are also a nice bonus as they’re more durable than standard wires, and they’re pretty common on mechanical keyboards.
Mechanical keyboards are expensive, at least compared to most non-mechanical keyboards. That’s largely due to the switches these keyboards use, but you still want to see that price tag reflected in the rest of the product as well. A mechanical keyboard should be a solid piece of hardware, capable of withstanding every keypress without bending or flexing under pressure.
The material of the body is the main thing to look for on the store page. Aluminum and plastic are the two most common materials, with the former being the more premium and durable option. But plastic keyboards, when done right, can still be surprisingly nice, given that the plastic has the right finish to it and is thick enough.
It’s hard to get a good grasp on anything else about the build quality without the keyboard in your hands, so this is definitely a time when reviews are your best friend.
Keycaps are the plastic shells placed on top of every switch and are what your fingers actually make contact with when typing. They have printed legends to tell you what the key does, to protect the switches, and to make the keyboard look better. But there are differences in keycaps, namely in the type of plastic they’re made out of and how the legends are printed on them.
There are two types of plastic used in keycap production: ABS and PBT. ABS is the cheaper and more common option; it’s not bad by any means, but it will start to shine from your hand oils after extended use. PBT never has that issue and is also more durable in general, which is why it’s more expensive. Regardless, PBT is more of a nice bonus than anything else—while ABS is cheaper, it’s still more than fine.
When it comes to the legends, what you really want to see is double-shotting. Standard keycaps just have the legends printed on, which can lead to fading over time. Double-shotting uses another piece of plastic inside the keycap to display the legend, so it can never fade. This is far better for longevity, and fortunately, most premium boards offer it nowadays.
While mechanical keyboards mainly gain their appeal from the satisfying typing experience they offer, the level of customization you can get out of them is also really cool. We won’t touch the super in-depth stuff to keep things simple, but if you look for it, you can find people who have customized their keyboards in some crazy ways (or even created them from scratch).
For normal use, there are some general customizations that most mechanical keyboards can offer. The biggest one is the keycaps—keycaps are largely standardized, so as long the switches on your board use the MX-style cross-stem we mentioned earlier (so no optical switches), you can install any set of keycaps you’d like. You can find alternative keycap sets all over the internet, so it’s an extremely simple way to personalize your keyboard.
But there’s more a keyboard can offer when it comes to personalization—let’s go over some of the most common ones.
Inside every keyboard is a Printed Circuit Board (PCB)—it’s the circuit board that registers the keyboard’s inputs. Switches are usually installed onto the PCB through soldering, which can make replacing switches a time-intensive effort. Hot-swapping aims to be an alternative to this, however.
Hot-swapping means there are tiny modules on the PCB that allow switches to be slotted into them. Actually taking out and installing the switches can still require a lot of force, mind you, but it’s far easier and more efficient than soldering. If you’re interested in experimenting with a ton of different switches on your board, you’ll definitely want this feature. Fortunately, hot-swapping is only becoming more commonplace as time goes on.
Note: Optical switches usually aren’t compatible with hot-swap keyboards. If you find a keyboard that boasts both optical switches and hot-swapping, that means the hot-swap modules only work with other optical switches.
RGB lighting is a very popular feature on keyboards, and it’s easy to see why. This is a simple way to make a keyboard look cool, and it also allows for some personalization on the user side of things. Most RGB keyboards will allow you to choose what colors the lights are and how they animate, and you can get really creative with it if you put the effort in. It’s worth noting that some keyboards have transparent keycaps and switches which allow the lights to shine through, which is definitely recommended if you’re into RGB.
The only downside to RGB is when using a wireless keyboard; RGB eats through the battery much quicker, but you can always turn down the lighting’s brightness level to lessen this.
Keyboard software is essential, and we’re not just talking about the standard drivers here. Many keyboard manufacturers develop companion pieces of software for their boards that allow their keyboards to be fully programmable—this is typically where you adjust RGB lighting, for example.
Keyboard software can also reprogram your keyboard’s keys to perform different actions and create macros that trigger multiple inputs with a single keypress. Not all software is created equal—some include less than this, some include more—so it’s definitely worth researching if a keyboard you’re interested in has software and what features it offers.
Mechanical keyboards are a lot more complex than meets the eye, but now you should better understand what to expect when looking at the store page. This is an industry where a lot of buzzwords are used, which can make it difficult to differentiate the good from the bad. But with the information provided here, you should have an easier parsing through the mechanical keyboard world and be on your way to picking up a board that’s right for you.