Guide to Mechanical Keyboards [Everything you need to know]

CG Director Author Petar Vukobratby Petar Vukobrat   /  Published 

Mechanical keyboards are all the rage these days.

They’re so popular, in fact, that it’s easy to feel like you’re missing out if you don’t have one. And, frankly, the most surprising thing isn’t that they’ve become so ubiquitous but rather the speed at which it all occurred.

Mechanical Keyboard Components

Image Credit: Glorious Gaming

They “spread” like wildfire.

Why, one might ask? The explanation is rather simple: they’re an incredible tool for one’s creative and professional endeavors and offer a far superior typing experience when compared to regular membrane keyboards.

It’s a night and day difference, especially if you take the time to perform certain modifications.

A mechanical keyboard is sort of a playground, a peripheral that can be both inspiring to look at and use. Their popularity, therefore, shouldn’t come as much of a surprise.

At first, this was nothing but a somewhat obscure niche, a well-kept secret “reserved” only for the most passionate among us. That, however, is no longer the case — mechanical keyboards are now used by people from all possible walks of life.

There is one problem, though: the market itself is incredibly saturated, and with so many options to choose from, picking the “right” keyboard can easily turn into a nightmarish experience.

There are so many buzzwords being thrown around: PCB this, keycap that, tape mods, screw-in stabs, various kinds of profiles and types of lube, plates, foams, and whatever else.

It’s all a mess to the uninitiated.

Fortunately, you don’t need to master all of this jargon to truly enjoy the splendors that mechanical keyboards bring to the table. You can learn these things over time should you so desire — it’s not a must by any stretch of the imagination.

The world of mechanical keyboards is a rabbit hole. The more you explore and research, the more you’re drawn in, beguiled by its peculiarity and allure.

The best way to go about it, therefore, is to take small, simple steps in your exploration and gradually, over time, become an aficionado (assuming that’s something you’re interested in).

But before we delve any deeper into the nitty-gritty, we first need to start off with a Public Service Announcements of sorts:

Don’t Buy Into the Hype

A mechanical keyboard won’t magically transform you into a better creative, architect, gamer, or whatever else.

It is a tool — nothing more, nothing less. It can, however, inspire you in a myriad of different ways and also speed up whatever workflow you might have.

That’s no small benefit.

Still, this luxury — no matter its allure — shouldn’t cost you an arm and a leg.

You can, by all means, get the “core experience” for around $100, and even have ample room to experiment, perform numerous mods, swap out switches, keycaps, and whatever else. That’s all one truly needs — a playground with seemingly limitless possibilities.

You can spend (a lot) more than that, but you’d be reaching the point of diminishing returns a lot sooner than you’d expect.

Mechanical Keyboards — Where Should You Start?

The first thing you need to ask yourself is: what kind of a switch do you want?

Linear, tactile, or clicky? They don’t have a lot in common, and that holds true for both their feel and sound signature.

Logitech GL Switches Comparison

Image Credit: Logitech

The nomenclature explains it all: linear switches don’t provide any concrete feedback when depressed. They require a consistent amount of force to actuate and are, as a result, incredibly smooth (especially when lubed).

Tactile switches, on the other hand, have a bump around their actuation point and, therefore, provide just the right kind of feedback to let you know when a keystroke has been registered.

Last but certainly not least, we have clicky switches — the most audible (and polarizing) of the bunch. They’re the kind you either adore with all your heart or, conversely, despise with utmost intensity.

So, what will it be? Your entire typing experience hinges on this one choice. It’s not the only thing that matters, but it does rank near the very top.

TIP: If you’ve never typed on any of these switches, the best course of action would be to simply visit your local IT/hardware shop and try out every keyboard that happens to be on display. That’ll give you a fairly solid (albeit still limited) sample size.

There are so many factors that play into how a keyboard sounds and feels. Too many, in fact.

It’s fun, don’t get us wrong, but it can, at times, get a bit overwhelming.

Fortunately, there are many phenomenal resources online (reviews, sound tests, comparisons, tutorials, etc.) so don’t fret — you can explore everything at your own leisure.

Are You a Fervent Gamer?

Generally speaking, one can type on any kind of mechanical switch and still have a fairly enjoyable experience. Gaming, on the other hand, has its own unique requirements.

Fast, linear switches are a must-have if you’re into competitive gaming. Your keys and switches need to react to your inputs at blazing-fast speed but not, ironically, be too sensitive.

It all takes a bit of training, but the sooner your switch can actuate and follow through on your command/input the faster your in-game character will respond. A fast switch shortens this time frame as much as possible.

Then the rest will be up to you.

Do note that fast mechanical switches aren’t going to make you a better gamer per se — they’re just the icing on the proverbial cake. Nothing more, nothing less.

If you’re incredibly talented, then they’ll only further empower your skills, but they cannot and will not compensate for an innate lack of talent.

The best switch for gaming probably won’t fit the bill for writing and vice versa, so that’s definitely something you need to keep in mind. Fortunately, finding a good middle ground shouldn’t be too hard.

Find the Right Form Factor

Mechanical keyboards come in various different form factors. Some people cannot live without a num pad on the side. Others don’t want anything to do with it.

Where do you lie on this spectrum?

If you need a num pad, then your journey ends here — as far as the form factor is concerned, at least. If, however, you don’t need one, then there’s a world of different options for you to choose from.

A full-sized keyboard is most often referred to as a 100% model. Smaller ones, on the other hand, range from 80% (TKL, tenkeyless) all the way down to 40%. The smaller the percentage the fewer the keys.

Most mainstream options range from 65%-80%. With a TKL keyboard, the only thing you’re losing out on is the num pad.

75% keyboards are even more compact than TKL ones (but retain the same functionality), with 65% models going for an even more austere set-up — they don’t have a dedicated function row.

This option is most popular with gamers as it takes up minimal desk space and yet provides all the core features one might want whilst competing and climbing the ranked ladder.

60% keyboards go a step further — they don’t even have dedicated arrow keys.

As such, they’re not that easy to recommend as there’s somewhat of a steep learning curve as some truly vital functions and features cannot be accessed quite as easily.

Still, they’re an interesting option that might be worth considering.

The Most Important Features

Picking the right switch type and form factor matters immensely, but there are also other hugely important things you need to keep in mind if you happen to be in the market for a new mechanical keyboard.

As always, try to think of the bigger picture: what will you be using this keyboard for and for how long? What’s your workflow like, what are your requirements? Do you game on the side? Do you tinker and tweak and tune your peripherals or, conversely, just want a pre-built option that’ll serve you for the months and years to come?

Give it some thought.

Hotswappable PCB — A Top Priority

There’s no shortage of different switches out there on the market.

Hot Swappable PCB

Image Credit: Glorious Gaming

Options both mainstream and obscure, cheap and obscenely expensive. This kind of diversity is in part what makes mechanical keyboards so darn alluring: they’re tools that can be adapted and tuned to one’s liking.

So, if you can, make sure to buy a model that has a hotswappable PCB (printed circuit board).

The PCB is what connects it all together and is, therefore, hugely important. It interprets all of your inputs and handles numerous other functions like wireless connectivity, RGB, and so on.

A hotswappable PCB will allow you to — simply and without much effort — replace your switches at will.

You might want, say, Cherry MX Red switches right now, but that might change further down the road. This is a simple and cost-effective way of breathing new life into your keyboard and testing out different set-ups and exploring this vast and quirky world.

There’s no soldering involved either — you just push each individual switch into its respective “slot” and that’s it.

Room for Modding

This is where things get a bit tricky. Pre-built mechanical keyboards often don’t allow for much modding.

That obviously varies from one model to the next but it’s still a fairly accurate generalization.

Custom keyboards, on the other hand, allow for, well, everything.

If you’re buying a pre-built model (one that is mass-produced and is pre-assembled), you shouldn’t think about this too much as it’s often outside of your control.

Find a keyboard you like, make the investment, and then — if you don’t like the way it sounds or the way typing on it feels (i.e. you see that there’s room for improvement) — do a bit of research and see what’s possible.

Connectivity

Mechanical keyboards come in two flavors: wired and/or wireless.

The former are obviously a fair bit more ubiquitous but are nowhere near as versatile. Wireless ones, on the other hand, can often connect to multiple devices (up to three, depending on the model) and are, therefore, sold at a premium.

If your budget can cover it — and you don’t like to be tethered to your computer or laptop — then definitely spring for a wireless model.

Having one or two wireless connectivity options can often elevate your set-up in ways you cannot even imagine.

Connecting through a 2.4Ghz dongle is obviously the superior option, but don’t knock on Bluetooth either. It can, by all means, be a life-saver if you have to connect to, say, a tablet or a mobile phone.

The only downside with a wireless keyboard is that its battery life tends to vary wildly depending on the model (and whether you connect through Bluetooth or Wi-Fi). You will have to charge your keyboard from time to time so just keep that in mind.

Fortunately, you’ll still be able to use it even while it’s charging so it’s not that big of a hassle.

Pre-Built Mechanical Keyboard Recommendations

Let’s go over a few concrete recommendations — pre-built, mass-produced keyboards that should by all means be good (and cheap) enough to fit both your needs and budget!

There’s no definitive “be-all and end-all” kind of list, though, so roll up your sleeves, do a bit of research, and see what’s out there!

Keychron V1

A deal so good it boggles the mind. For less than a hundred dollars you’re getting a pre-built, fully assembled mechanical keyboard — double-shot PBT keycaps and switches included. That’s an insanely good deal, all things considered.

Keychron V1

Image Credit: Keychron

It has RGB, supports both macOS and Windows, comes with QMK/VIA support, has a hotswappable PCB and even a programmable knob on the right- hand side. There’s really nothing to complain about whatsoever.

Keychron Q2 & Q3

This particular company has a myriad of amazing offerings; the Q2 and Q3 do stand out, though. They’re more premium than the aforementioned V1 but are still relatively affordable.

Keychron Q2

Image Credit: Keychron

They, too, come with all the nifty bells and whistles one could want in a pre-built and are more than worthy of being on this list.

GMMK Pro

Yet another wildly popular (if overpriced) option.

Glorious GMMK Pro

Image Credit: Glorious Gaming

It’s not as alluring from a value perspective, but there’s not a whole lot to criticize other than its ostentatious price tag.

NuPhy Halo65

A phenomenal pre-built option that costs just $120.

NuPhy Halo65

Image Credit: NuPhy

That’s an insanely good price and, frankly, there are very few (if any) omissions: hotswappable PCB, PBT keycaps, an aluminum frame, and both 2.4Ghz and Bluetooth connectivity options.

As with the V1, there’s nothing to single out as a negative or complain about.

Razer Huntsman Elite TKL V2

The only reason why we’re including this particular model is because of Razer’s wholly unique optical switches. The linear ones are especially interesting (and surprisingly quiet).

If you’re the kind of user who tends to bottom out when typing, these switches should definitely be on your radar! They’re great for gaming, too, because of their 0.2ms response time.

Razer Huntsman Elite TKL V2

Image Credit: Razer

The keyboard itself might not be anything special, but for some, those unique optical switches may well be worth the asking price.

One thing to note: other than the V1 and, perhaps, the Halo65, none of these keyboards come cheap.

There are many other, more affordable options out there, so don’t get discouraged — there’s a keyboard for every kind of user and budget, so just do a bit of digging and you’re guaranteed to find something that’ll fit the proverbial bill.

FAQ

Let’s go over a few potential questions you might have regarding this particular topic:

How Much Money Should I Spend on a Mechanical Keyboard?

That, as always, depends on your needs and budget. If you want the essential mechanical keyboard “package,” you really don’t need to spend more than a hundred dollars/euros.

The Keychron V1 is an incredible option and will give you not just a stellar typing experience but even ample room for experimentation as well.

Is Building a Custom Mechanical Keyboard Expensive?

It depends. Nowadays you don’t need to invest a ton of money to build a custom mechanical keyboard but it certainly won’t come cheap.

If you’re a beginner, start off with something like a KBD67 Lite.

KBD67 Lite R4 Mechanical Keyboard DIY Kit

Image Credit: KBDfans

For a bit over a hundred dollars (plus shipping), you’re getting a stellar DIY kit that has everything you need (sans switches and keycaps).

Once you add everything up, the entire build shouldn’t cost you more than, say, two hundred or two hundred and fifty dollars, depending on which switches and keycaps you end up going for.

That’s not a negligible investment, but it’s also a fair bit cheaper than it used to be just a few years back.

Are Mechanical Keyboards Worth It?

They absolutely are! Don’t think twice about it, especially if you can get one for a fair price.

Over to You

What kind of keyboard are you currently “sporting” and why? How has it affected your workflow and do you have any other model in your sights?

Let us know in the comment section down below and, in case you need any help, head over to our forum and ask away!

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Petar Vukobrat - post author

I first sat down in front of a Pentium II in 1999 and it feels like I’ve been sitting in front of a computer ever since.

And, well, until mankind comes up with something better and more entertaining, that’ll keep being the case.

If you have any questions — or just want to talk about all things PC and Apple — leave a comment down below!

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