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Articles ❯ Mechanically superior keystrokes

  • Published: 2019-03-24 18:56 UTC
That old-time clack and roll

One of my earliest memories of computing is programming in BASIC on an Apple II. The grade school I attended in south Florida was extremely progressive for it's day. Along with a "wall-free" open floorplan, an advanced math program for kids in grades 3-5, and an "enrichment" program for gifted students that taught things like critical thinking and scientific exploration, the school also boasted a computer lab with 25 or more Apple computers - a pretty remarkable amenity for an elementary school in the early 1980s.

There were a couple computers in particular that were my favorite to work on, and I always ran to the front of the line when it was computer lab time to make sure I got one. Unlike the rest of the lab computers with their dull thunky keyboards, those few glorious machines had clicky-clacky keyboards that sang when you typed on them. Even as a child I had a deep appreciation for the audible and tactile feedback those springy keys provided as I typed. I would hammer the keys with confident strokes and they would proudly announce their compliance to my will and leap back to meet my finger, ready to execute my next command. As my typing speed progressed from hunt-and-peck to budding competence, the ratta-tatta-tat of my keyboard would turn the heads of teachers and students alike.

I was like the Pinball Wizard of computer lab.

Unfortunately, my family relocated a year or so later to North Carolina and I had to attend a much less progressive school system. Upon starting the 5th grade I remember asking a teacher "where's the computer lab?" She looked at me and smiled, "I'm sorry hon, but y'all don't do chemistry until the 6th grade."

Though I never owned one myself, some years later I would encounter the IBM Model M and once again fall in love with the wonderful clickety-clack of rapidly striking keys. It is a refrain with a musical quality - like a military drumline, or a John Bonham drum solo. It's almost hypnotic, but also inspiring.

I have always thought of the clack of a keyboard as the sound of thought, realized.

A keyboard is just a keyboard, right?

A common misconception among cretins and heretics is that one keyboard is much the same as the next. You push a button, it makes a character appear on the computer screen before you. Repeat as necessary to convey the word, thought, sentence, command, etc., that you intend. So simple, even a child or a politician can do it.

And in truth, all keyboards do work on the same simple principle. The user presses a key, the key press activates a switch, and an electrical circuit is closed. Each key has a unique circuit, that circuit corresponds to a given key code, and that key code is interpreted by the computer as representing a specific character. The computer displays the requested character, the user releases the key, the switch deactivates, and the electrical circuit is once again opened.

Where a "key" difference between various keyboards exists, is what happens between the time the user puts a finger on the key, and the time the user releases the key. Or more precisely, how the switch under the key does its job when it is pressed. There are two primary types of keyboard switches in use on PC keyboards today.

The most common type and the one that most people are familiar with (at least in practice) are dome switches. These switches use a rubber membrane with a molded dome under each key. Each dome contains a conductor, and when the key is pressed the conductor closes a connection on the circuit board beneath. When the key is released, the spongy rubber dome returns the key and the conductor to its normal position. Commonly used on laptop keyboards and most commercial desktop keyboards, dome switches provide very little if any tactile feedback that a key has been pressed, and little to no audible feedback. They sometimes have a inconsistent "mushy" or "drifty" feel and may leave the user wondering if the keystroke was properly received. They also frequently require that the key be fully depressed (or "bottomed out") in order for the keystroke to register.

The other switch type that is less common and generally only found in high-end gamer or programmer keyboards are mechanical switches. These modular, physical switches use a plastic housing, metal conductors, and a metal spring within the housing to return the key to its normal, open position when released. These switches usually feature a slotted stem, which allows for the replacement of the labeled keycaps installed on them. Depending upon the type of mechanical switch, a keypress can provide a range of different tactile and audible feedback modes. Mechanical switches can be linear (uniform resistance with no bump), tactile (bump, but no click), or clicky (bump and click). They can also have varying degrees of resistance, with some springs requiring more pressure to actuate than others.

The variance of mechanical switch types allows the user's typing experience to be highly personalized.

A menu of options to choose from

When I first started exploring the prospect of buying a mechanical keyboard, the depth of my knowledge was limited to the fact that there are different brands and "colors" of key switches. The most commonly encountered key switches are the MX series made by Cherry GmbH. These switches come in various types such as MX Red (tactile, light, no click), MX Black (linear, firm, no click), MX Blue (tactile, firm, click), and MX Brown (tactile, medium, no click) - just to name a few. There are silent versions, extra firm versions, etc. Essentially, whatever feel you prefer there is probably a mechanical key switch that provides it.

Pro Tip: If you don't know what switch type you prefer, before spending the big money on a mechanical keyboard invest in a key tester first. While not quite the same as having a full keyboard to play with, a tester will allow you to sample the different types of switches and will improve your chances of finding the switch that's right for you.

Once you pick your switch type, you're far from done. In fact, you're just getting started.

Which to pick?

I decided on the Cherry MX Blue switches, because I found them to be the closest to that classic keyboard feel I love. The next step was to find a keyboard manufacturer that made a keyboard using those switches. And it turns out that you will find no shortage of available options at various price points to fill your mechanical keyboard needs. In fact, the wide variety of available brands and models can be quite intimidating and can leave the first-time buyer uncertain about which make and model of keyboard to choose.

My general preference was for a basic, full-sized 104 key ANSI keyboard. I didn't want any additional media keys or application keys (which often don't work on a GNU/Linux desktop, anyway), and I didn't need things like fancy RGB backlighting. The Filco Majestouch 2 hit on all of those points. Filco was also well regarded by many keyboard aficionados on Reddit for solid manufacturing and the use of quality components such as Costar stabilizers (these are little wire brackets that support the wider keys like Space, Enter, and Shift). I placed my order and received my new keyboard in short order, eager to hear the refrain of clicking keys.

Custom is the name of the game

As it turns out, the key switch is really only half of the equation. The keycap (the molded plastic piece that sits on top of the switch) is just as important to the keyboard's feel as the switch itself. With most commercial dome switch keyboards (particularly laptop keyboards), what you get from the factory is largely what you are stuck with. If a key pops off, you might be able to replace it with one of the same kind. But you don't have many options for changing the keys or key layout on your laptop keyboard.

With mechanical keyboards, the keycaps are easily swapped and customized. Choosing the right keycaps opens up a whole new decision tree.

One of the first decisions is called key "profile." Most commercially available desktop keyboards come with what are referred to as "OEM profile" keys. These keycaps have different heights and angles depending upon the row into which they are installed. Most laptop keyboards have low, flat keycaps or "chiclet" style keys. Because they are so prolific you might think those are the only options. As it turns out, there are a wide range of key profiles to choose from.

One of the more common non-OEM key profiles is the "SP DSA" profile made by Signature Plastics. This profile is different from OEM in that all keycap heights and angles are "flat" - they are the same regardless of row. This allows keys to be moved around when using non-standard layouts such as Dvorak or Colemak without having uneven key heights in the same row. DSA is the profile I chose for my keycaps, for both the flexibility it offered as well as the simple fact that I've been using laptop keyboards for years and so I've gotten used to a flatter layout. When first using my Filco with its OEM profile keys I kept finding my fingers catching and dragging on the keys in raised rows. The keys just felt "too high."

The next decision point is keycap material. The most common material used for keycaps is ABS plastic. ABS keycaps tend to be inexpensive and readily available, but they are also thin and can become brittle with exposure to sunlight or chemical cleaning agents. ABS keys can also develop a slickness and shine to them after a period of use.

The alternative material is PBT plastic. PBT is thicker, longer lasting, and more durable against light and cleaning agents. However, they are also the less available and more expensive option. All things considered, I felt the benefits outweighed the added cost so PBT is the material I chose.

The last option is how the legends (lettering) are applied to the keycaps. Pad printing (printing directly onto the top of the key) is the most common method used in the industry, but is not very durable. Pad printed legends wear off quickly with use. Laser etching engraves the legend into the key surface making it resistant to wear. However, the etching is usually filled with ink or paint which can also wear off with use.

Doubleshot keys create a legend by layering two pieces of differently colored plastic. The outer layer is carved through with the legend, and the under layer is injected from below and fills the engraving. Doubleshot legends are the most durable, and provide the option to backlight the keycap by using a translucent or transparent fill layer. However, the legibility of the legend can suffer due to the constraints of the manufacturing process.

Lastly there are dye sublimation (or dye-sub) legends. Through this method, the legend is applied to the keycap using a dye which soaks into the keycap surface. This helps prevent the legend from wearing off with use, and allows for larger, more clearly printed legends. The only caveat with this method is that the dye used must be darker than the keycap material (it's not possible to dye-sub white legends on black keys, for example).

Because I wanted large print, durable legends and backlighting was not a requirement, I decided to go with dye-sub keycaps.

At this point, I knew I wanted DSA profile, PBT dye-sub keycaps. Now I just had to find the colors and style that I preferred. I started with a cheaper set found on Amazon to test whether DSA profile was right for me. Once I had used them enough to know that profile was definitely what I wanted, I began to supplement my keycaps with sets from Signature Plastics' Pimp My Keyboard online store.

I custom map a lot of keys on my keyboard, adding things like Hyper, Compose, Mode Switch, and AltGr. Because of this, the factory labels on keys often don't match what function the key actually performs. While I'm a touch typist and rarely look at the keys themselves, it does still tweak my OCD a bit that the Compose key says Ctrl. Because very few (or no) keycap sets have correctly printed labels for those admittedly non-standard functions, I thought that it might be a good idea to do away with English labels for modifier keys altogether. Instead, I decided that pictographs would do a better job of conveying key function.

My custom keyboard
My very personalized mechanical keyboard.

Luckily, the starter keycap set I had bought from Amazon went well with the Icon Modifiers in the PMK "Granite" set. So, I just replaced all of my modifier keys with iconic variants and saved some money by not having to purchase another set of common keys.

It's not a peripheral... it's an investment

If you've been keeping a running total as I've been going through this mechanical keyboard design process, you may have noticed the price tag of this venture creeping past US$300. It's important to remember that when you buy a mechanical keyboard it's an investment. Unlike the cheapo keyboards that come with PCs or that line the shelves of Walmart and Best Buy - you won't be throwing it out and buying another one next year. These keyboards are built to last. The key switches themselves are designed for 50 million key presses, and can be replaced with a little soldering. The bodies of these keyboards are heavy and often built like a tank. If the keycaps wear out, they can be easily replaced.

If well cared for, a good quality mechanical keyboard can stand up to years of use. If I added up all of the money I've spent on cheap keyboards over the last 25 years it's probably five to ten times what I've spent on this one mechanical keyboard that is totally custom and will outlast them all.

Also, keep in mind that mechanical keyboards are modular in nature. You don't have to buy everything up front. You can start with the basic foundation, and then add on options like custom keycaps over time.

Mechanical keyboards aren't for everyone. But if you're a writer or a programmer, a sysadmin, or just a serious typist - you owe it to yourself to take a look at what might be the best typing experience you will ever find.