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Monday, April 12, 2021

The Ultimate Guide to Mechanical Keyboards for Gaming (2021)

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All gamers swear by mechanical keyboards, but not all mechanical keyboards are the same. They come with different switch types, layouts, and keycap materials, making it difficult to home in on a particular kind unless you know what you’re looking for. In this guide, we discuss the different types of mechanical keyboards for gaming and the different types of switches that make them stand out from one another.

The Complete Guide to Mechanical Keyboards for Gaming

In this guide, we will not only discuss the different switch types that make up the majority of mechanical keyboards but their characteristics as well. However, before we take our deep dive into the world of mechanical keyboards for gaming (detailed guide), let’s look at some of the alternatives. It includes membrane keyboards and why they dominate the consumer keyboard landscape. So without further ado, here’s our detailed guide on mechanical keyboards for gaming in 2021.

Different Types of Keyboards

Computer keyboards can be largely classified by the switch technology they use. The most popular type is membrane keyboards, which use membrane switch technology in their composition. Other notable types of keyboards that are either in use today or have been in use earlier include mechanical keyboards, dome-switch keyboards, scissor-switch keyboards, capacitive keyboards, buckling spring keyboards, hall-effect keyboards, laser projection keyboards, chiclet keyboards, and more.

Membrane Keyboards

As is evident from their name, membrane keyboards use membrane switches, which are pressure pads printed on a flat and flexible surface. That’s unlike mechanical keyboards, which include separate, moving parts to actuate keystrokes. There are two types of membrane keyboards, i.e. flat-panel and full travel. While the former is common in appliances like microwave ovens and washing machines, the latter is the most widely-used computer keyboard technology.

Full-travel membrane keyboards work by electrical contact between the keytop/switch plungers and the underlying circuits when you press a key. They typically offer very little feedback and are nowhere near as pleasant to use as their mechanical counterparts. However, they account for the vast majority of consumer keyboards in use at homes, offices, educational institutions, and pretty much everywhere else.

HyperX Alloy HX-KB5ME2 Membrane Keyboard

Mechanical Keyboards

As for mechanical keyboards, they include separate mechanical switches under each keycap. Each switch comprises a housing, a spring, a stem, and sometimes other parts, such as a separate tactile leaf or a click bar. Mechanical switches come in three distinct types: Linear, Tactile, and Clicky.

When actuated, mechanical switches mostly offer you pleasant tactile feedback, enabling the user to know that their keystroke has been registered. Depending on the technology in use, the keystrokes can either produce a clicking noise or remain silent. Both of these types having their fair share of supporters and detractors.

Corsair K95 RGB Platinum XT
Corsair K95 RGB Platinum XT Mechanical Keyboard

Mechanical Keyboards vs. Membrane Keyboards: What’s the Difference?

The single biggest difference between mechanical and membrane keyboards is price. Membrane keyboards are cheap to produce and inexpensive to buy. That makes them an obvious choice for users who do not necessarily need the precision, speed, and tactile feedback that mechanical keyboards deliver. While a high-quality mechanical keyboard can cost close to $200, membrane keyboards (those that often come free with pre-built desktops) can cost as little as $10-$20 at retail.

Another key difference between mechanical and membrane keyboards is longevity. A typical mechanical keyboard can last for up to 50 million clicks per key, with Cherry claiming up to 100 million actuations for some of their switches. Membrane models, on the other hand, tend to top out around 10 million actuations. What’s more, mechanical keys can be replaced one at a time once they start wearing out, whereas cheap membrane keyboards are use-and-throw, which adds to the global e-waste problem that’s already spiraling out of control.

Mechanical Keyboard Switch Types

1. Linear switches come with consistent resistance, which means they feel the same from the time a user initiates a keypress until the moment it bottoms out. There is very little tactile feedback and no noise when you hit the actuation point.

2. Tactile switches, as you can tell by now, offer tactile feedback every time a keystroke is registered. The so-called ‘bump’ during a keypress is generally silent, making them great to use at offices and while working at night.

3. Clicky switches not only offer a clear bump on every valid keypress but offer an audible ‘click’ as well. The main advantage of clicky switches is that you don’t have to push the key all the way down and can release the key immediately on getting the feedback.

Mechanical Keyboard Switch Manufacturers

The world’s most iconic mechanical keyboard switch manufacturer is a German company called Cherry, which invented and popularized the modern mechanical keyboard switches back in the 1980s. Other companies, however, have since also introduced similar technology in their products following the expiration of Cherry’s patent on its keyboard switches.

Cherry MX switches for mechanical keyboards
Cherry MX switches for mechanical keyboards

Notable companies that use their own mechanical switch technologies for their keyboards include Razer, Logitech, Topre, etc. Meanwhile, companies like Greetech and Kailh make high-quality Cherry MX-style switches at a much lower cost and are extremely popular in low-cost mechanical keyboards.

Razer BlackWidow Chroma mechanical gaming keyboard
Razer BlackWidow Chroma mechanical gaming keyboard

Switches from Greetech and Kailh are also often used to replace original Cherry MX switches in keyboards. It’s because they look and feel identical to the originals. That said, Cherry MX switches remain the standard-bearer in the segment, with most pro-gamers swearing by them.

Different Types of Cherry MX Switches in Gaming Keyboards

In consumer keyboards, Cherry MX switches are often referenced by the color of the key stem. That makes it easier to discern the type and use-case. The company makes all three types of switches, including linear, tactile, and clicky. There’s a bewildering array of mechanical keyboard switches in the company’s portfolio, mostly named after the stem color. Here are the most common Cherry MX switches and we have even linked how most of them sound:

Linear

  1. Red – Possibly the most popular mechanical keyboard switches around, Cherry MX Red switches need 45cN of force to actuate and are great for both gaming and typing. Here is how the Cherry MX Red switch sounds.
  2. Silent Red – Regular MX Red switches are already relatively low on noise, but the Silent Red switches take silence to a whole new level, making them ideal for office environments.
  3. Speed Silver – Made specifically for gamers, Speed Silver switches have a very short travel of only 1.2mm, which means they allow for low reaction times and high switching frequencies. According to Cherry, MX Speed Silver switches are 40% faster than the standard Red switches, and this is how they sound.
  4. Nature White – The Cherry MX Nature White switches use the same 55cN actuation force as Cherry’s Brown switches, but without the clicky, tactile bump.
  5. Black – Cherry MX Blacks are very similar to Cherry MX Reds, but they require 60cN of operating force to actuate. Does that make any difference in sound, why don’t you find out for yourself?
  6. Silent Black – These are high-precision, high-resistance switches just like the regular blacks, but are more silent than their regular counterparts.
  7. Linear Grey – Also known as Cherry MX Dark Grey, this is a stiff, linear switch in the Cherry MX family. It is generally used for large keys, such as space bars, in keyboards with Cherry MX Black switches.

Tactile

  1. Brown – Cherry MX Brown switches are among the most popular switches used in gaming keyboards. MX Browns are tactile switches that need 55cN of operating force and are among the quietest tactile switches in the company’s portfolio.
  2. Clear – The MX Clear is similar to both the Brown and the Grey, and has an operating force of 65 cN.
  3. Tactile Grey – The Cherry MX Grey is a slightly modified version of the MX Brown. It offers more noticeable and noiseless feedback and requires an increased actuation force of 80cN compared to the brown variant.

Clicky

  1. Blue – The Cherry MX Blue switch offers noticeable tactile and audible feedback. It requires 60cN of operating force and makes a striking ‘click’ sound on every keystroke actuation.
  2. White – Cherry MX White is a medium-stiff, tactile, soft-click switch that originally came in a non-pigmented version called ‘Vintage Type A’ White.
  3. Green – The MX Green switch is a slightly modified version of the MX Blue. It is known for its tactile and audible switching characteristics. It also offers an increased actuation force compared to the blue variant. A keypress requires a whopping 80cN of operating force for actuation.
Different Types of Cherry MX Switches
Different Types of Cherry MX Switches

Most of these switches come in RGB variants as well, thus, making the total number of available options totally mind-boggling. Do note that the list is non-exhaustive, largely because of the sheer number and variants of products on offer, many of which cater to an extremely niche group of consumers. For more information on Cherry MX switches and how they differ from one another, check out the company’s official website.

Keyboard Layouts

Apart from the switches themselves, the main thing that distinguishes keyboards is their layout. While a typical full-size keyboard comes with function keys, a number pad, and an arrow cluster, various manufacturers also offer smaller keyboards with fewer keys for different purposes.

The smallest include a so-called 40% layout, where many of the keys serve dual-purposes. They typically need an additional key-press (like Shift or Ctrl) in most cases, making them relatively impractical for everyday use. There’s also a 60% keyboard offering that comes with a more regulation layout minus a dedicated arrow key cluster, home/ end/ page-up, and page-down or function keys. Finally, there’s a 75% layout that usually includes a distinct function row.

One of the most conventional small keyboard form-factors is TKL or ‘Ten Key-Less’ keyboard, which offers a standard keyboard layout but without the ten number keys on the right. TKL keyboard layout is a good choice for most gamers. There are also some non-standard variations, many of which are one-off or limited-edition designs from boutique manufacturers. There are many weird designs, including split keyboards, like the ErgoDox EZ featured below, all in the name of ergonomics.

ABS vs PBT Keycaps

One of the biggest advantages of mechanical keyboards is that they are far more customizable than all other keyboard types. The keycaps in mechanical keyboards are often hot-swappable. That means users can swap out the default keycaps for a different set based on their taste and textural preference. When you buy a new set of keycaps to replace the default ones in your keyboard, the only thing to watch out for is compatibility. Once that part checks out, the sky is the limit in terms of design, materials (ABS and PBT keycaps), key profiles, and the legend marking method.

Asus ROG Gaming 3D Metallic Keycaps
Asus ROG Gaming 3D Metallic Keycaps

Further, PBT (Polybutylene Terephthalate) and ABS (Acrylonitrile Butadiene Styrene) are the two common materials used for making keycaps. While ABS plastic keycaps are cheap and most commonly used in today’s mechanical keyboards, PBT keycaps are higher-quality and are usually more expensive. Also, the reason why PBT is gaining recognition is that they are rigid and wear less over time as compared to ABS keycaps.

Does this mean you should buy PBT over ABS keycaps at all times? Not at all. ABS is still one of the most commonly used materials for manufacturing keycaps. German company GMK electronic design is one of the largest keycap makers. Their thick and durable ABS keycaps are worth every penny, and you can buy them without any second thought.

Key Factors to Consider When Buying Mechanical Keyboards for Gaming

The most important things to consider when buying a mechanical keyboard for gaming are your tactile preference and primary usage. Other things to consider are the environment while using the keyboard and your hand size and typing style.

The most important thing here is that tactile preference, which means you’ll have to decide whether you like a smooth, seamless feeling while using a keyboard or want to feel a bump with every keypress. While the latter offers more feedback and accuracy, the former brings more speed, which matters a lot for pro gamers. Meanwhile, clicky switches are loud and are good only if you work alone with no one around. Most people might feel disturbed at the constant clatter of clicky switches.

Your hand size and typing style will also play a part in deciding what type of switches you opt for. Since people with larger hands might have more misclicks, it is advisable for such folks to use switches with high activation points (longer keystroke to register each press) and heavy operating force. These two factors would make it a little harder to actuate a keystroke, thereby helping you avoid misclicks.

There’s More to Your Gaming Keyboard Than Meets the Eye

Mechanical keyboards offer an enhanced level of feedback and performance, which is not possible with any other type of keyboards available on the market today. While they are more expensive than standard keyboards, you do get the best available technology for just about any use-case, provided you know what you want. Thanks to our detailed guide, you now know about the core technology behind the most expensive mechanical keyboards for gaming and other purposes. So tell us, which type of mechanical keyboard do you use? What is your favorite kind of switch?

Now that you have gone through our detailed guide on mechanical keyboards for gaming, you should check out our list of the best budget SSDs for gaming and the best gaming RAM you can buy right now. Also, check out how you can speed up your Windows 10 PC to give you that added edge when playing your favorite games. Finally, make sure that your PC is not running too hot so that you can avoid thermal throttling and improve your hardware’s reliability and longevity.

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