One of the main forms of user interface. You probably used one just now to get here!
Keyboards are a staple of any build and are often considered as a secondary peripheral not worth the hard-earned cash. This is not so. Keyboards sit between you and your computer; like any normal member of this society, you spend a significant amount of time at your keyboard. It only makes sense to make sure that you are typing on the most efficient, comfortable, and durable piece of equipment you can get your hands on as it will likely outlast any single build you own.
Comfort plays a key role in deciding the kind of keyboard one should purchase - it should not be something that people "grow into". Everyone has different requirements and tastes with regards to their typing experience. People with finger or joint problems may find it significantly uncomfortable to be typing on a keyboard with high force requirements, while others who type with the force of a jackhammer may find it painful over the long run to type on a keyboard with low force requirements.
What must also be considered is that if one picks a switch with much less actuation force than they should be going for, hitting the bottom of the switch, known as "bottoming out" in keyboard enthusiast parlance, will be a harder shock to their fingertips as the keystroke encounters less resistance within the actuation of the switch. If one picks a switch with much more actuation force than they should be going for, the registration of keystrokes may sometimes not even occur, or the user tires of typing faster than expected due to the higher actuation force they will have to exert in order to type the same words that they would have typed on a different keyboard.
To this end, keyboard switch testers are crucial for an individual figuring out the kind of feel and sound that they want from their switch. These testers are generally an array of many different switch types, and it falls upon the individual to consider their requirements while testing switches on a keyboard switch tester.
In this section we will be using a few keywords in particular, so it would do one well to be acquainted with the following:
- Keystroke - This is the standard down-and-up movement of a key, following the depress-and-release movement of the finger. To press the letter "F" on the keyboard one time, the movement required for that specific key to type the letter "F" is known as a keystroke.
- Actuation - This will refer to the standard process of movement of the key. A blanket term, actuation may include components such as the actuation force, switch movement, operating point, pressure point, and the reset point. Only actuation force and switch movement will be used extensively in this section.
- Actuation force - This refers to the amount of force or pressure one's finger must exert on a switch before the switch actuates and registers the keystroke.
Keyboards come in a variety of form factors, and one should choose the form factor that suits their needs. Beyond a certain point, smaller form factors may prove to be inconvenient for some uses and would generally only be considered for their aesthetic and minimalist value.
Otherwise known as the 100%, the standard form factor for modern keyboards consists of 104 keys, with an occasional difference of 2 either way. This form factor has every general-purpose function included but is often much too large for most people's personal uses.
Otherwise known as the 80%, TKL stands for "tenkeyless", which refers to the lack of the number pad cluster on the right side of the keyboard. A TKL form factor consists of 84 to 87 keys. The TKL form factor has become more popular over time as many have decided that the number pad cluster is surplus to their requirements.
A relatively unconventional form factor, the 75% form factor consists of 79-82 keys. This form factor reduces the dead space between the key clusters even more to achieve mostly zero dead space.
The 60% form factor consists of 60-64 keys, with common configurations involving 61 keys. This form factor removes the function, arrow, and navigational key clusters. Instead, most of the functionality provided by those key clusters are still achieved by having more sophisticated circuitry provide "layers" - in which these functions can be remapped to different key combinations. Most suitable for those looking for a more portable board without too many compromises.
Consisting of 47-48 keys generally, the 40% form factor is the smallest form factor a fair few would go for without slipping into the realm of the crazy. With the 40% form factor, you'll be hard pressed to get any more keys than just the standard letter keys and the most basic of modifiers, such as the shift key, space bar, Control, Alt, Backspace or Enter/Return keys. Even more of the functionality of a regular keyboard is now remapped into layers. Most of the boards you'll find here are community-made (although the Vortex Core is a notable exception).
Switches are the individual keys in a mechanical keyboard. They are usually individually packaged, making repairs generally straightforward if one stops working. All you need to swap most switches out is a bit of soldering equipment (unless you have a hot-swappable PCB) and finesse. Listed below are a range of switch manufacturers. Where switch manufacturers are unknown, the switch technology is named.
Cherry's MX series is by far the most popular switch range used by mechanical keyboard manufacturers. Made in Germany to rigorous testing standards, they are well known for their 50 million keystroke durability coming in a variety of colours and actuation to suit most needs. Actuation is achieved with a lubricated stem within the enclosure, propped up by a spring. When the stem is depressed, a small protruding component attached to the stem is also depressed alongside the stem which removes a forced gap between two leafs of a circuit, thus closing the circuit.
Originally known for making inferior-quality clones of Cherry switches, Gateron has gone on to innovate within the market and have started to make their own switches in an identical form factor to Cherry's MX series, and make themselves known as a strong competitor to Cherry with regards to switch quality and manufacturing standards, to the point that keyboard enthusiasts rate Gateron higher than Cherry in a fair few aspects.
Following in the footsteps of Gateron, Kailh were once only known for manufacturing Cherry clones. They have also gone on to innovate within the market to carve out a niche for themselves by offering a markedly different typing experience for keyboard enthusiasts, while also providing keyboard manufacturers like Razer with switches.
Topre switches are somewhat of an anomaly. They are generally considered to be mechanical switches, despite using a very different actuation mechanism to Cherry, Kailh and Gateron switches. Topre switches operate on the principle of capacitance, which means keystrokes are registered electrically without any physical circuit closure.
This is achieved by using a conical spring under a rubber cup, and actuation is achieved by the key pressing down on the rubber dome, which then depresses the conical spring under it, causing the keystroke to be registered.
Topre switches are controversial in this regard, however - as many computer enthusiasts have panned it as being glorified "rubber domes", à la cheap and unreliable membrane keyboards that sell for $5. A fair few, however, view Topre switches as their "end game".
These three have created another niche for themselves in the keyboard enthusiast market, IBM having pioneered switch technology for keyboards since the very beginning, and the latter two carrying on the former's legacy.
IBM engineered a form of switch known as a buckling-spring switch, in which the actuation of the switch forces a curved spring within the switch to be depressed and buckle under its depression. This buckling causes the spring to come into contact with the inner walls of the switch enclosure, completing a circuit and registering a keystroke. Not known specifically for their durability over the competition, enthusiasts gravitate towards buckling-spring switches for their unique aural and tactile feel.
Hall effect technology
For the longest time, switches utilising the Hall effect technology have been almost unicorn-esque in rarity, given their excessive cost of production. Switches using this technology take advantage of the Hall effect by incorporating a magnet and a Hall effect sensor. As a result, these switches do not require physical contact for actuation, which means that the reliability and durability of these switches are almost unparalleled.
To that effect, these keyboards are normally found in places with high reliance on reliable keyboards, such as nuclear power plants, aircraft cockpits, and critical industrial environments. Added advantages include waterproofing and dustproofing.
A significant game-changer with mechanical keyboards is that the force required to register a keystroke does not have to be the same across all keyboards. There are also different intricacies to the actuation of switches that fit the varying tastes of a myriad of people.
- A linear switch means that there is no "bump" within the keystroke - much like pressing a button on an arcade fighter, they go straight down and straight up and nothing more.
- A clicky switch means that there is a "bump" within the keystroke, and that a clicking noise is made upon the successful registration of a keystroke. This provides aural and tactile feedback to typists as to whether their typing has been registered - although this comes with the drawback that clicky switches are generally very noisy and unsuitable for use in office or lecture settings.
- A tactile switch means that there is a "bump" within the keystroke, but without the clicking noise. This provides tactile feedback only to typists as to whether their typing has been registered.
- Peak force refers to the maximum amount of force one would require to overcome the "bump" in a keystroke for clicky and tactile switches.
- In keyboard parlance, actuation force and peak force are measured in Centinewtons (cN) or grams (g), but more commonly grams.
Sorted by actuation force:
- Cherry MX Red, Linear Switch, 45 g
- Cherry MX Brown, Tactile Switch, 45 g (55 g peak force)
- Cherry MX Blue, Clicky Switch, 50 g (60 g peak force)
- Cherry MX Clear, Tactile Switch, 55 g (65 g peak force)
- Cherry MX White, Clicky Switch, 55 g (80 g peak force)
- Cherry MX Black, Linear Switch, 60 g
- Cherry MX Green, Clicky Switch, 80 g
Sorted by actuation force:
- Gateron Clear, Linear Switch, 35 g
- Gateron Red, Linear Switch, 45 g
- Gateron Yellow, Linear Switch, 50 g
- Gateron Brown, Tactile Switch, 50 g
- Gateron Blue, Clicky Switch, 55 g
- Gateron Black, Linear Switch, 65 g
- Gateron Green, Clicky Switch, 75 g
Razer Kailh switches are also considered under this category.
Sorted by actuation force:
- Kailh Red, Linear Switch, 45 g
- Razer Kailh Orange, Linear Switch, 45 g
- Kailh Brown, Tactile Switch, 50 g
- Kailh Blue, Clicky Switch, 55 g
- Razer Kailh Green, Clicky Switch, 55 g
- Kailh Black, Linear Switch, 65 g
Sorted by actuation force:
- Topre 45g, Tactile Switch, 45 g
- Topre 55g, Tactile Switch, 55 g
- IBM/Lexmark/Unicomp Buckling Spring, Tactile Switch, 60-80 g
ABS vs PBT
ABS and PBT are two different types of plastic. ABS keycaps tend to be cheaper and more lightweight than their PBT counterparts, which are generally more durable.
Thickness makes a difference to both the feel and durability of the keycaps. Thicker keycaps such as doubleshot PBT are more durable.