Mechanical Keyboards 101: What is a Mechanical Keyboard?

Take a seat. Put away the syllabus. Class is now in session. 

The editorial team at Copper Rhino is putting together a series of articles to cover the basics of mechanical keyboards. If you have heard of mechanical keyboards but you aren’t sure how or why they are the superior input device for people who take things seriously, this is the place for you. 

“Your keyboard is the interface between your human brain and the computer.”

What is a mechanical keyboard?

Close your eyes (metaphorically, of course, since you have to read this). When you think of a mechanical keyboard, what do you think of? If you’ve heard of this style of keyboard at all, you probably imagine a black keyboard with lots of flashing RGB underlighting or a colorful keyboard with a non-traditional layout. This is a common vision because people who care about their keyboards tend to care about more than just the switch mechanism that sends a keypress to the computer. Mechanical keyboard enthusiasts tend to go down a rabbithole of endless customization options. This is easy to do and fun to show off. The thing that makes a mechanical keyboard mechanical, however, is simply the switch under the keycap. That’s it, but that’s not all. To understand more about what makes them special, let’s take a quick look at the competition.

A Tulip 9151B Rubber Dome Switch shown above the plastic membrane with circuit traces.

Most cheap, consumer keyboards are called “membrane keyboards.” Under the switches, a membrane keyboard consists of two layers of plastic membrane connected to the keyboard’s microcontroller. The board sends a signal to the computer when it detects two conductive parts of the membranes contacting each other through embedded conductive traces. Even popular low-profile keyboards like the Apple Magic Keyboard, Logitech MX Keys, and most laptop keyboards use variations of membrane keyboards (e.g., butterfly switches and scissor switches). Membrane keyboards are lightweight, quiet, and cheap to manufacture. This explains why they are so ubiquitous, but they also have a few major drawbacks.

Membranes have much wider tolerances in manufacturing and are thus less consistent in the actuation force required to make a key actuate (“actuate” is the technical term for when a switch sends a signal). To make things worse, membranes are made of plastic that wears down over time from consistent use, causing commonly pressed keys to become loose and actuate with less force than less commonly pressed keys.

Another problem with membrane keyboards is innate to their circuit design. Most membrane keyboards depend on one actuation at a time and are unable to determine which key the user is pressing when multiple keys are pressed simultaneously. This frustrates gamers who often need to be pressing multiple keys at once to control different aspects of their characters, like movement, attacks, and abilities. It can also be a limiting factor for very fast typists.

Enter the mechanical switch. 

Mechanical keyswitches aren’t exactly a technological improvement over membrane keyboards. In fact, the first computer keyboards were based on the explicitly mechanical typewriter. As personal computing became popular, there became a need for cheaper keyboards for the average consumer. 

Drawing from 1984 Cherry patent for mechanical keyswitch.

Many mechanical keyboard enthusiasts still consider some of the original mechanical keyboards, such as the IBM “Buckling Spring,” as the best. This is despite decades of innovation and creativity being thrown at creating the “perfect mechanical keyswitch.”

The modern keyswitch was born in the early 1980s: the patented Cherry MX. This switch has become the standard for mechanical keyboards, and most of the ecosystem revolves around the mechanisms in the MX switch as well as the physical structure of its components.

MX and MX-style switches consist of multiple components: a slider stem upon which a keycap sits snugly, a spring, a conductive leaf, and a contact for that leaf to hit when the stem is depressed. The leaf and contact are connected to two pins that come out of the bottom of the switch’s housing. Those two pins are soldered to the printed circuit board (PCB) of the keyboard. 

When the pins on a mechanical keyswitch are connected by the leaf touching the contact, the microcontroller detects the actuation and sends the appropriate signal to the microcontroller. Most mechanical keyboards are equipped with a powerful enough microcontroller to detect multiple simultaneous keypresses, solving one of the main problems for gamers and insanely fast typists (which explains why they are popular among computer engineers).

So, what do you get when you take the plunge and pick up a mechanical keyboard? 

In terms of durability, most mechanical keyswitches are rated on the order of tens of millions of keypresses, with some being tested up to hundreds of millions of keypresses (in lab conditions of course). You can sleep tight knowing that each key on your board can go the distance. For extra durability, look for keyboards with “Hot-Swappable Switch Sockets.” With this feature, if any single switch gets damaged or stops working perfectly you can change it out without replacing the entire board. 

Any mechanical keyboard boasting “N-Key Rollover” (NKRO) will be able to handle multiple simultaneous keypresses accurately. Some boards will be rated more specifically with something like “6-Key Rollover,” quantifying how many input signals the microcontroller can handle at once. 

Your keyboard is the interface between your human brain and the computer. In today’s digital economy, more and more people are touching keyboards all day. It makes perfect sense that you would want it to be perfectly suited to your style and preferences. In terms of customizability, the ever-growing community of mechanical keyboard enthusiasts has given rise to endless possibilities. There are an overwhelming number of choices at every budget for each aspect of your keyboard. 

Here’s a list of components that can be customized (and it’s not even exhaustive!):

  • Size/Layout

  • Switch Type

  • Keycaps

  • Case Material/Color/Form Factor

  • LED Lighting

  • Cable

  • Extra Input Mechanisms (Knobs, Sliders, Dip Switches, etc)

Now that you have scratched the surface on what is possible with mechanical keyboards, the choice is yours. With the rise in affordable yet effective mechanical keyboards (like one of our favorite budget options: the Keychron K2 Wireless Mechanical Keyboard), you don’t have to empty your wallet to get started.

Next in the course series, we take a deep dive into keyswitches. The question of which keyswitch you choose for your mechanical keyboard is likely the most consequential, so you don’t want to miss it. Until then, class dismissed.

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