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Ergonomic Product Categories > Keyswitches > Mechanical Keyswitches
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Mechanical Keyboards - (Keyboards with Mechanical Keyswitches)

What is a Mechanical Keyboard?

Mechanical keyswitches are more intricate and of higher quality than other keyswitch types.  Each key has its own independent keyswitch mechanism that will register when a key is pressed.  For example on the mechanical keyswitch at right the keycap rests on top of the blue plunger mechanism which depresses into the unit. In most cases the key is actuated (that is the keystroke is generated and sent to the computer) halfway through the key travel distance. For example, the key may be capable of traveling 4 mm before hitting the bottom of the keywell, but the keystroke is generated after 2 mm. This means that when typing, there is no requirement to travel the full key travel distance.  This affords touch typists the luxury of not pressing keys fully down, reducing the constant jarring action on fingertips when 'bottoming out' and associated unnecessary muscle action. Most non-linear mechanical keyswitches offer increasing resistance after the keystroke is generated, encouraging the user to stop pressing down the keycap and instead move on to the next keystroke. Finally, keycaps snap back to the starting position (i.e. up) more quickly than other keyswitch types, facilitating faster typing speeds.

All these features culminate in multiple types of feedback while typing.  There are typically both audible (clicks) and an increased resistance (feel) when a keystroke is successfully actuated.  While this will greatly benefit an experienced touch typist, even those learning to touch type will find their speed and accuracy improved.  Of course, the time that is wasted looking at the screen to ensure that the correct characters are displaying will be regained.  About the only person that doesn't benefit from a mechanical keyboard is a hunt and peck typist (a person who hovers their fingers several inches above the keyboard and uses typically only the index finger on each hand to type).

IMPORTANT NOTE: As everyone is far more familiar with dome membrane keyboards, they will press the keys down too far on a mechanical keyswitch keyboards, 'bottoming out' on every keystroke, resulting in a loud clack in addition to the light click of the keyswitch which is generated half-way through the key travel distance. Once a user learns to not press the keys completely down
with every keystroke, the level of noise generated when typing on a mechanical keyswitch keyboard is substantially reduced.

What are the Different Types of Mechanical Keyswitches?

Linear Keyswitches: This type of mechanical keyswitch provides no indication of when the key is actuated (i.e. the keystroke generated) and provides constant force through the entire key travel distance. An example of a linear keyswitch is Cherry MX Red Stems.

Light Tactile Keyswitches: This type of mechanical keyswitch provides a small amount of click feedback (both audible and increased resistance) when the keystroke is generated.  This tactility is often so slight that some may mistake the keyswitch for a linear keyswitch. These light tactile keyswitches are considered by many to be more ergonomic as they provide tactile feedback without generating a sensation that one has to 'break through' when generating a keystroke. An example of a light tactile keyswitch is Cherry MX Brown Stems.

Quieter Tactile Keyswitches: This type of mechanical keyswitch provides a small amount of click feedback (minimal audible and increased resistance) when the keystroke is generated.  However, the design incorporates innovative sound dampening on both the downstroke and the upstroke and a click 'leaf' to provide tactile feedback.  These tactile keyswitches are very popular and a good alternative to the light tactile keyswitch as they provide tactile feedback and reduced audio feedback. An example of a quieter tactile keyswitch is the Matias Quiet Click Switch.

High Audible Tactile Keyswitches: This type of mechanical keyswitch provides a significant amount of click feedback (significantly higher audible and increased resistance) when the keystroke is generated.  This tactility is apparent to any user but is not significantly harder to press; however the sound can create a sense of increased force.  An example of a tactile keyswitch is the Cherry MX Blue Stems.

High Force / Audible Tactile Keyswitches: This type of mechanical keyswitch is for the most part no longer available in keyboards, but were popular in the early days of computing. IBM Model 'M' keyboards and some early Macintosh keyboards often weighed as much as 5 lbs and featured these type of keyswitches (a buckling spring design).  While some individuals still look for these dynamics, all the tactile benefits are present in the more modern keyswitches without the accompanying muscle fatigue that was often associated with these older style keyboards (similar in feel to the old IBM Selectric typewriter).

What are the Characteristics of a Mechanical Keyswitch?

Key Travel Distance: Most mechanical keyswitches can be described as 'full-travel' and typically have a key travel distance of 3.0 mm - 4.0 mm.  Given this travel distance, as long as there is an indication of when the keystroke is generated (audible, tactile, or both), it is usually possible to prevent regular 'bottoming out' when typing.

Noise Level: Mechanical keyswitches are noisier than any other type of keyswitch.  This is because there is not only a 'click' at the point of actuation (for tactile keyswitches), but also a clack at the end of the keystroke if the key 'bottoms out'. 
    Linear Keyswitches: There is no click at point of actuation, but there is almost always a clack due to the lack of indication.
    Light Tactile / Tactile Keyswitches: There is a click at point of actuation, but there often no clack due to the tactility.
    Quieter Tactile Keyswitches: The click at the point of actuation is quieter, as is the clack which often doesn't happen due to the tactility.
    High Audible Tactile Keyswitches: The click at the point of actuation is noisier, the clack is 'normal' and often doesn't happen due to the tactility.

Durability: Most mechanical keyswitches are rated at 50 million keystrokes.  They are relatively easy to clean when compared to dome membrane keyboards and it is very unlikely that debris can get in the keyswitch as the gaps in the mechanism are quite small. 

Key Activation Force: The rated actuation force varies widely, and can be as low as 45 grams or as high as 350 grams.  Most mechanical keyswitches are rated between 45 and 65 grams.  For example, Cherry MX Red Stem (45 grams), Cherry MX Brown Stems (55 grams), Matias Quiet Click Switch (60 grams), Cherry MX Blue Stems (60 grams), Buckling Spring Model M (80 grams or higher).  

Tactility ('Feel'): Most mechanical keyswitches have a crisper more tactile feel and action than membrane keyboards.  They also feel more solid as the movement of the keys are stabilized by the housing of the keyswitch, preventing twisting of the keycap during movement and associated non-tangential force when keying.



Last edited December 9th, 2013

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