Mechanical Keyboards

Contributed by e-Access staff member:

This is the second of the two-part series on my quest for a decent keyboard.

In the first blog of this two part series, I highlighted how some keyboard features were being omitted resulting in some otherwise very decent keyboards being completely inaccessible to blind and visually impaired users.

In this second and last blog, I will discuss some new and promising trends, not in the layout or looks of a keyboard, but in their basic build and particularly in the key-switches that are being used in some of the best, if somewhat pricy keyboards available today.

I will conclude by highlighting the keyboard I ultimately ended up purchasing and that I liked so much that I immediately bought another one for the family PC.

Where were we?

To summarize, I had purchased a laptop with which I was happy, but which unfortunately had a keyboard without indicator lights for the caps and num locks, which was a major issue for me as a visually impaired user.  I then bought a separate Microsoft keyboard but found this to have the same issue and after returning it, I found myself back to square one.

During my extensive research which had by now over taken my life, I found that there was another trend in the world of keyboards that had previously passed me by unnoticed.  This was the return of the mechanical key-switches.

Pure nostalgia

If you used computers prior to around 2000, then you will remember that keystrokes on certain keyboards, particularly on Macintosh, had a somewhat different and altogether more satisfying feel to them.

When keyboards first came out, in around the 80s, they used a different mechanism to what most keyboards use nowadays.  Those early keyboards had a high quality switch beneath the keys and these were typically made with springs. This is what is known as a ‘mechanical switch’.

From the 90s onwards, these mechanical switches started to be replaced by other cheaper designs.  The most common type of keyboard used today replaces the spring mechanism with a membrane beneath a metal dome.  When the keys are pressed down, the membrane collapses, bringing together two circuit traces underneath it.  This completes a circuit and a message is sent to the PC that the keystroke has occurred.  These type of switches are often referred to as the ‘Dome-Switches’.

While the dome-switch keyboard has an advantage of being more cost effective, it cannot quite replicate the crisp tactile strokes of a mechanical keyboard.  The keystroke of a dome-switch is rather mushy, less satisfying and requires stronger keystrokes for typing.  One Amazon reviewer likened it to typing on a wet sponge, and I fully agree.

Well now, the mechanical switches are making a big come back and mechanical keyboards are currently all the rage.  But they come at a premium.

You can easily end up spending in excess of £100 for a keyboard and this is just a basic keyboard.  Expect to pay much more for a gaming keyboard.

Continue reading this article and I will disclose the keyboard I purchased for around £50.  It’s a brilliant keyboard and well worth the money.  But before talking of my specific keyboards, a bit more explanation of mechanical keyboards would be useful.

 

Beyond the difference in the construct between a mechanical and a membrane keyboard, the main difference a user will notice is in the feel and sound of a mechanical keyboard when it comes to typing.

The keyboard spring

Not all mechanical key switches are alike.  They can be adjusted and customised to suit user preference.  The different type of mechanical key switches that are available are:

  • Tactile only – these provide a crisp satisfying tactile feedback when you are typing away.
  • Tactile and audible or what some refer to as ‘clicky’ due to the clicky clacky sound that they produce while typing.
  • Linear – provide less sound and tactile feel but just a very smooth typing experience.

Cherry MX

Cherry are the oldest keyboard manufacturers that are still in business today. Established in America in 1953, the company moved to Germany in 1967, from where they currently operate.  Cherry are the most popular and oldest manufacturers of mechanical switches for keyboards.

They produce mechanical switches under the Cherry MX range and their switches are used by most mechanical keyboard manufacturers in the world.

Cherry distinguishes its different type of MX range switches by different colours.  Each type of switch is known by the different colour in which it is manufactured.

  • Black: Linear and somewhat stiff switches, often used in video games to avoid accidental triggering of a switch and may be tiresome for regular typing.
  • Red: Linear but very light switches, developed for gaming keyboards to allow gamers more rapid response times.
  • Brown: Tactile but non audible keyboards, these are a good option for a keyboard which would be used for both typing and gaming.
  • Blue: Tactile and clicky, this is a good choice for typing but has somewhat more stiff switches than the brown and so can make them less popular for gaming.

There are a number of other colours available under the Cherry MX range but these are mostly a variation of the features of the above four basic types.

Decisions, decisions…

I decided to take the plunge into the world of mechanical keyboards.  Having taken into account all the issues mentioned in the previous article, my main specification requirements were to have a mechanical keyboard that had a simple and traditional layout without any whistles or bells.

I decided to go for a keyboard that is manufactured by Cherry themselves, given how most manufacturers use Cherry MX switches anyway.

The rebel in me wanted to go for a blue, tactile and ‘clicky’ keyboard, but given that my home office is tiny and I share it with my wife, I decided to not go for the clicky option as that was likely to be too distracting.

I decided on the Red option, based on customer reviews of a particular keyboard which was very reasonable at £55 and ticked all the right boxes for me.  So the keyboard I finally chose was a Cherry G80-3850LYB GB-2 MX 3.0 Keyboard.

I liked this keyboard so much that I have now bought another for the family PC. This decision was guided by the fact that I prefer to use the same keyboard on all my devices to avoid having to relearn layouts, etc.

This is a great keyboard and I’m sure it’s not just my imagination, but the mechanical switches have helped increase my typing speed and I have a much better and less tiring experience, even after lengthy sessions of typing.

One thing I have noticed is that the Cherry Red option is not as quiet as I thought it would be.  It gives me sufficient tactile feedback as well as clickyness, and so I am pleased I did not go for the Blue option.

If I had any criticism of this keyboard, it would be the design of the small feet at the back of the keyboard which are there to tilt the keyboard forward.  These feet are not very stable and also do not seem very robust in their construct.

This concludes my two articles relating to keyboards.  I hope this will be useful to readers but if you have any queries, either relating to keyboard accessibility or switch design then I would love to hear from you.

 

The keyboard I purchased and have mentioned above is:

Cherry G80-3850LYB GB-2 MX 3.0 Keyboard

https://www.amazon.co.uk/dp/B00CITN98G/ref=cm_sw_r_em_api_c_W0AHzbEMPCGPT

 

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