A Hand Too Far

Over the years I've flip flopped quite a bit between different technologies. Windows versus Mac OSX, laptop versus desktop, Android versus iOS. I've developed quite a number of preferences over the years, but few of them remain unwavering. One such unwavering preference is for mechanical keyboards. Some of my fellow nerds will expound upon the response time, the force actuation, and any number of other things that won't effect people who aren't typing all day, or playing games at an elite level. For me, mechanical keyboards just feel better to type on.

So, what's the difference between mechanical keyboards and a 'normal' keyboard? It all boils down to what actually causes the keyboard to send the signal to the computer that a key was pressed. With a standard 'rubber dome' keyboard, a contact is made by a collapsing rubber dome. As you press down on the key, the bottom of the key presses down on a dome of rubber which deforms until it eventually collapses downward. As the top of the rubber dome comes into contact with the circuit board of the keyboard, a key press is registered

This type of keyboard is the cheapest to produce (which is why it comes bundled with many desktop computers), and is as quiet as you're going to get with an 'actuating' keyboard (one with moving keys). However, because of the way the rubber dome keyboard functions, it's always going to feel "spongy", and require 'bottoming out' the key with every press. For me, the former is much more annoying than the latter. I type like an angry ape; I bottom out the keys with varying levels of ferocity on almost every keystroke anyway.

With a mechanical keyboard, the method of 'actuation', the way the keyboard detects that a key has been pressed, is different. Exactly which way it's different depends on which type of mechanical switch is used in the keyboard. In all cases, the key press is registered prior to the key bottoming out, and the actuation is much more crisp (whether or not you can feel the point of actuation). Mechanical keyboards generally come with three different types of switches, though different manufacturers might call them different things. I'll describe them with the names used by Cherry MX switches, as they're the most common by a large margin. The main types of mechanical keyboard switches are blue, brown, and red.

Blue switches are very loud and clicky. They have a clear audible and tactile feedback. You know exactly when the key has actuated because you can feel it in your bones, and in the walls of your home as they quake from the sound waves emanating from each key stroke. Okay, they're not that bad, but they are quite loud. Roommates would not appreciate you staying up late using one to write the next great American novel.

If you aren't doing any late night writing, you may also want to consider your gaming habits. While it'll only really effect competitive gamers, blue switches aren't a good choice for gaming due to their reset point (the point at which the key is ready to be actuated again) being significantly above the point at which the key actuates. So, with blue switches, you have to allow the key to travel further back up than other switches before you can press it back down to register another key press.

The next switch type, brown switches, try to offer a good middle ground between the noise associated with the key actuation and the tactile feedback to let you know that you've pressed a key. The keys are noticeably quieter than their blue counterparts since the actuation of the key doesn't actually create any noise by itself. The price you pay for the quieter actuation is a slightly less crisp feel, and the tactile feedback potentially not being exactly in line with the actuation of the key. So, it's possible you get the tactile response indicating the key has been pressed without the key press having been registered. While this is technically possible, it's extraordinarily unlikely to effect you. I've, personally, never heard of anyone actually having this issue.

That leaves the last type of switch we'll talk about: red. Red switches don't provide any audible or tactile indication that they've been pressed. Without the key needing to provide this feedback, it can be designed to require a bit less force to press. Also, without feedback, the key actuation itself is literally silent; the only noise you hear is from the key bottoming out or slamming back into its default position after being pressed. Sadly, the noise of bottoming out or returning to the default position is the majority of the noise most people associate with mechanical keyboards.

However, those things aside, the primary draw of red switches is for gamers. The design of red switches allows the keys to respond ever-so-slightly faster. We're talking fractions of a second most of us have trouble detecting. However, for competitive gamers, these are the switches of choice. Every millisecond counts when it's frag or be fragged.

So, I know what you're thinking. "Justin, why are you telling us all this?" Well, because I want to tell you about my fancy new keyboard! I was using the Logitech G710+ for quite awhile. It's a good keyboard. I loved the analog sound adjuster-spinner-twirler-thing, the adjustable backlighting, and the general feel, but it was just too wide. With the programmable macro keys on one side (which I didn't use or care about), and the number pad on the other, I could never have my keyboard and mouse in a comfortable spot at the same time.

The number pad also caused the distance between where my mouse sits and where my right hand sits on the keyboard to be too far to be comfortable. It may sound a little silly, but as a programmer, I use my keyboard for more actions than the average user, and I still regularly use my mouse (I'm not one of those super cool programmers who renounces the mouse completely), so I'm moving my hand back and forth between the two peripherals often.

With my primary issue being the width of the keyboard preventing my input peripherals from both being in a comfortable place at the same time, I set out to find a nice mechanical keyboard that was exactly what I wanted. While I liked having the number pad and an extra enter key on the right, it wasn't worth the width, so I searched for a keyboard without the ten key number pad. You might be surprised to find out that one of the two primary terms for such a keyboard is a "tenkeyless keyboard". I can't say it isn't aptly named. Some also call it a 'compact' keyboard. In either case, I went about searching for a keyboard that was narrower, but still had pretty lights and volume controls on the keyboard.

What I found was the Corsair K63, a mechanical keyboard with Cherry MX Red switches. There's plenty to like about the K63, such as the relatively unique wireless and bluetooth connectivity. The bluetooth is especially nice, as it prevents yet another dongle hanging from my PC. It also has sound adjustment buttons at the top right (even if they aren't a sweet roller-spinner-twirler-thing like on the G710+), as well as stop, back, forward, and play buttons at the top left. It also has a nice useful button right on the keyboard for adjusting the brightness of the blue backlighting (which, for the record, the G710+ also had). Though it lacks any programmable macro keys, I never actually used them, so they were no loss to me.

While I have plenty to like about this keyboard, the internal battery only provides 2-3 days of charge for me before I have to recharge it (which I imagine would be noticeably longer if I disabled the backlighting, but we all know LEDs make everything more powerful). It only takes an hour or two to recharge, but during the last 20-30% of it's charging cycle it makes a super irritating high pitched whine (as do many other battery charging devices).

This means that, if I want a full charge and don't want to get a headache from the horrible high pitch assault, I need to charge it when I'm not using my PC (such as overnight, but who wants to remember to plug in their keyboard all the time?). With the short time between charges, I have a USB cable constantly plugged into my PC anyway, which negates the nice bluetooth aspect of the keyboard. All things considered, while it's a fair price, I would only recommend this keyboard to those who have a very specific need for a wireless keyboard for short periods of time (such as a casual LAN party or a home theater PC). While I don't regret my choice, I'd likely go with the keyboard I bought my wife if I were buying one now.

The Corsair K65 RGB has the same Cherry Red MX switches as the K63, but it adds a cord and 100% adjustable RGB backlighting. Your keyboard may not need its backligting to pulse and dance rhythmically, but let's just be honest: yes it does. With the exception of wireless connectivity, It has everything I like about the K63, including the volume buttons (though it does lack the stop, back, forward, and play buttons), the brightness adjustment button, and Cherry MX Red switches. In addition, though, it doesn't have a whiney battery charging cycle, and it has sweet programmable RGB backlighting.

So, which type of keyboard is right for you? That really depends. If rubber dome keyboards don't feel gross to type on, they're definitely a valid choice for a keyboard. They're delightfully quiet (in most cases), don't cost nearly as much as their mechanical counterparts, and have many more options on the market. If you can't handle the spongy rubber dome (or just want to be extra cool), then a mechanical keyboard may be for you, though the switch type mostly depends on preference. While I've described them above, you really need to experience them in person to truly get a feel for them. Your local Best Buy will generally have a display up for comparison, and they'll price match Amazon, Newegg, and a number of other big online retailers. If you've got some time and don't have a burning hatred for Best Buy, I'd suggest you head there to at least check out the sound and feel of the different switches.

Rubber Dome
Blue Switch
Brown Switch
Red Switch
Stealthyness (*)(*)(*)(*)
Wallet Friendliness
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I hope my explanation of the different keyboard types and mechanical switches was helpful to you, and I'll see you next time.