The Ars Technica Guide to Mechanical Keyboards

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Aurich Lawson

So you’ve heard about mechanical keyboards and you want to learn more.

Sure, a standard membrane keyboard will get the job done, but the durable keys and signature tactile responsiveness of mechanical keyboards provide a premium experience that many people swear by. If you’ve ever noticed with dismay that a keyboard has “fatigue”, a mechanical keyboard may be just what you need.

Each key in a mechanical keyboard has its own switch, and to register an input a plastic stem must be pushed down into the switch, with resistance provided by the spring of the switch. Membrane keyboards (also called rubber dome keyboards), on the other hand, use thin layers of plastic under the keys. Pressing a key sends a dome-shaped piece through a hole in the membrane, creating a circuit and sending an input to the PC. While membrane keyboards are typically thinner, quieter, spill-resistant, and cheaper to make, they can feel flat and make it hard to tell if you’ve pressed a key or not. Mechanical switches provide much more physical feedback.

That’s not surprising, given that mechanical keyboards are close descendants of typewriters, delivering a distinctive, affirmative tactility with every keystroke. IBM’s spring-loaded switch, patented in 1977, largely laid the foundation for today’s mechanical switches. And in the 1980s, the Cherry company patented its first mechanical switches, introducing different kinds of feel and travel that are still used, imitated and reinvented.

But buying a mechanical keyboard is not so easy. There are different sizes, switches, keycaps and functions. Not to mention the slang – what does half of these words even mean? It’s enough to make even the most determined shopper give up.

Whether you need an introduction, a refresher course, or a handy reference to show to interested newbies, we’re here to help. Below we explain what you need to know before buying a mechanical keyboard.

Let’s go clap.


Mechanical Keyboard Dimensions

The first thing to determine is what size keyboard you want.

You may want to consider a smaller keyboard if you’re short on desk space, want extra space for your mouse, need something portable, or just want a cleaner look. Some enthusiasts claim that a smaller keyboard makes for a more ergonomic fit, as you can keep your arms closer to your body while using all the keys.

Some keyboards take liberties with the traditional layouts. And you can find niche products among them, such as a ’50 percent keyboard’. When in doubt, check images to make sure a keyboard has the keys you need.

Here’s a quick rundown of the most common mechanical keyboard sizes.

The Asus ROG Claymore II is a full-size keyboard with a detachable number pad.

The Logitech G915 TKL is an 80% keyboard.

Glorious’ GMMK Pro is a 75% keyboard with a volume knob.

The Keychron Q2 has a 65% layout, plus a dial.

Sharon Harding

The Anne Pro 2 is a 60% keyboard.

Vortex’s Core 40% keyboard.

Full size: all keys, including the function row and number pad. Number crackers will want a numpad, but keep in mind that you can also buy a separate mechanical numpad or a mechanical keyboard with a detachable numpad. Tenkeyless / TKL / 80%: all keys except the numpad 75%: all keys except the numpad and part of the navigation cluster. Arrows are present. 65%: All keys except the numpad, part of the navigation cluster, and the function row. Arrows are present. 60%: All keys except the numpad, the entire navigation cluster, and the function row. No arrows. 40%: All keys except the number pad, navigation cluster, function row, number row, and some punctuation marks. They often have a split space bar, allowing that area to serve as two separate keys.

Some smaller keyboards with truncated layouts have keys that register a different input when you hold down another key (often Fn). You may need to remember these secondary, tertiary, and quaternary layers. Other keyboards facilitate access to these functions by printing smaller secondary legends on the bottom edge of the corresponding keys.

enlarge Cloud Nine ErgoFS split mechanical keyboard.

Pay attention to ergonomic options. Ergonomic keyboards, also known as split keyboards, split the keyboard in half, allowing you to keep one side closer to the natural position of each hand when sitting at your desk. Split keyboards have a learning curve and you can get them in different designs for comfort and different input.

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