For many people, the keyboard that comes with their computer or laptop is just about good enough. For a small subsection of users, however, nothing less than a mechanical keyboard will suffice. Often built like tanks and available with a range of different switch types offering various levels of tactility and responsiveness, mechanical keyboards are used by anyone from writers to gamers and public sector workers.
Founded in 1989, the Stroud, UK-based keyboard reseller The Keyboard Company has been around since the days of older mechanical models like the legendary IBM Model M. Bruce Whiting, the company's Managing Director, believes that there's a psychological aspect to mechanical keyboards that makes typing on them more pleasurable while requiring less effort - two important factors for people who spend up to 10 hours a day at a computer.
TechRadar visited the keyboard experts to find out what's key to a great mechanical keyboard.
TechRadar: How could a mechanical keyboard improve somebody's typing technique?
Bruce Whiting: A five-year-old mechanical keyboard will feel the same to type on as a brand new one. That's critical if you're touch-typing as there's a relationship between what your fingers feel and what your brain feels, which is all down to the feedback that you get from the keyboard's switches. When I was first given a lovely Filco keyboard, I immediately thought that I needed to learn to touch type to be able to understand the full joy of it, so I went away and learned.
TR: The tactile feedback response is very subtle, but it's there...
BW: Yes - it's almost subliminal - it's hard to put your finger on it. It's difficult to say to somebody that it's important without them looking at you as if you're mad, but mechanical keyboards are more satisfying to use and less wearing on the body - that's a key aspect to them. There are practical aspects too that most people won't see because mechanical keyboards are more expensive. But over the lifetime of a keyboard, you should get better value for money.
We don't get broken keyboards unless people have spilled or dropped them - and then we repair them. The Filco keyboard that I use every day I've now had for more than ten years. There's also an environment aspect to mechanical keyboards, which is nice to know.
TR: Where did mechanical keyboards come from? What's their history?
BW: It all goes back to the typewriter. Earlier computers came with keyboards that used mechanical switches, but as time went on it became more cost-effective to move to membrane. PC companies were pressing to make computers more affordable - you couldn't get one for less than a thousand pounds. To bring prices down they couldn't include a one-hundred-pound keyboard, so makers moved across to membrane.
I remember a time when we could buy from China containers full of membrane keyboards that cost a dollar each. It helped spread computing and made it affordable, but a lot of the mechanical keyboards we knew and loved fell by the wayside.
TR: What types of people benefit from a mechanical keyboard?
BW: Gamers are an obvious bunch due to the performance of mechanical keyboards, and the amount of time that they spend with them. Writers are a large presence in the community because they spend so much time typing. If you type for eight to ten hours a day, then you will notice the difference that they can make.
Funnily enough, one of the points that I realized the importance of mechanical was when Terry Pratchett phoned up and ordered two Fujitsu keyboards. He said he loved them and didn't want to risk running out so he ordered a spare – that was a lovely phone conversation to have. Mechanical keyboards are also popular with coders, financial traders and people who work in the public sector.
TR: What mechanical keyboard switches were popular when you started out at the company?
BW: When I started in 1999 we had Cherry MX switches, which haven't gone away. We also had a lovely Fujitsu FKB4725 – a beautiful keyboard – but they stopped making them. Chicony used to make nice mechanical keyboards that weren't expensive, but they disappeared.
TR: When did you realize that interest in mechanical keyboards was rising again?
BW: It must have been in 2004 or 2005 when people started asking if our keyboards were mechanical. We always did some surplus trade mainly with leftover OEM stock. When Walmart took over Asda, they brought lots of IT equipment together. We bought a palette of around two-hundred IBM Model M keyboards that cost us a pound each. We liked them but weren't sure if there was a market for them. Each worked perfectly, which says a lot about that keyboard. For a while none sold, but suddenly they all moved. Somebody on Geekhack found out that we had them, and that was when we realized that something was happening and the resurgence went from there.
TR: Which switches are popular with your customers today?
BW: Cherry is the big one. We're also finding that Alps switches are becoming increasingly popular. They were a bit crude, in a way, but the Canadian company Mathias who makes them has worked hard on smoothing them out and quietening them. It's a very good switch now. There's also buckling spring, which Unicomp uses in their keyboards.
They're the ones that resonate with IBM keyboard users from the 70s and 80s. And now we're seeing lots of interesting Topre boards that use a capacitive technology, which is in essence contactless and uses a cone-shaped spring that presses down to break capacitance.
The other interesting thing about Topre is that under each spring is a rubber dome, as used in lots of membranes. Similar to how buckling spring reminds people of keyboards from the 70s, for younger guys, Topre has a close feeling to the membrane keyboards they used when they were young.
TR: People who buy more expensive keyboards tend to be more vocal about them online. For example, the fifty-five gram weighted Realforce 87u is just £10 more than the forty-five gram version, and even that small price difference causes owners of the latter board to swear it's superior.
BW: You're hitting on the psychology of pricing, which is a really interesting area. If we tried to be the cheapest keyboard seller, then we wouldn't be here now. We've always had to think long and hard about pricing, as our customers do – nobody wants to waste their money.
But there's an element of Emperor's New Clothes with this too – if you put a really high price tag on something then sometimes it's possible to build sales that way. Coming away from keyboards for a second, imagine you've just bought a pair of thousand pound running shoes – you wouldn't shout out loud that they were killing your feet at the end of a race. And you wouldn't have spent that money unless you truly knew you were getting the best shoes.
China manufactures keyboards cheaply, whereas Topre Realforce boards are constructed in Tokyo where costs are sky-high which adds to their cost. But then they are more durable than other keyboards, so it's swings and roundabouts. Everybody needs to spend money at levels that they're comfortable with.
TR: After buying an initial mechanical keyboard, users tend to go on a "journey of discovery," buying model after model to experience different switch types. Do you recognize this in your customers?
BW: Very much so – it is a journey and some people will bang straight to the top. These days, I don't easily conceptualize a better keyboard than a Realforce or a Filco. But as a company we tend to think like that and then another one comes along. People go on to mod their keyboards and get different colored keys and change cables, etc, which opens up a whole new journey. For the most part it's probably never-ending.
TR: What do you think is coming up next in terms of mechanical keyboard evolution?
BW: Silencing is the real issue that's always been there and to some extent always will be. Personally, I like a loud keyboard, but others working in open-plan offices might not appreciate a guy banging away on his keyboard with Cherry blue switches in it.
By their very nature, mechanical keyboards are noisy as there's metal clanging together inside of them. Topre keyboards are popular because they're quiet, and silenced Alps are even quieter. There's always advances that can be made, but I don't think it will improve the feel that much. Because when it's right, it's right.