In the beginning was the mechanical keyboard, and the mechanical keyboard was with God, and the mechanical keyboard was God. It was with God in the beginning. Through it all things were made; without it nothing was made that has been made. In it was life, and that life was the light of all mankind. The light shines through silicon membranes, and the silicon has not overcome it.
Blasphemy aside, many of you who know me will be all too aware that I have a certain, admittedly rather niche, interest in mechanical keyboards. In fact, since March 2016 I've spent somewhere in the region of £4000 on keyboards and their constituent parts. Now there are a several reasons one may want to destroy their credit score, and an even larger set of ways to do it, but generally "I imported a keyboard from Malaysia" isn't on that list. So why I do it? That's a question I, my friends, my family, and almost everyone I speak to asks me, often in raised voices with crazed tone, and in all honesty, it's a difficult question to answer. One the one hand, there are health benefits - this is often the go to answer to shut someone up - but I'd be lying if I said that was at all on my radar, I hear carpal tunnels are all the rage these days. Then there's the aesthetic value, they simply look good, and add a certain uniqueness to an otherwise boring Ikea desk. And after that, there's the community behind the hobby, which I think is often the driver in most niche hobbies, the mechanical keyboard community is global, split across multiple sites, but has seen an ever-increasing interest (We looked at the data) in its objectively harmless & interesting subject matter.
Below I'm going to talk about my keyboards, the whole lot of them, from minuscule to massive, the pros, the hand contorting cons, and everything in between. I hope that ultimately someone who's never considered something beyond the basic Dell 'board they got from their IT department, happens upon this post, and just takes fifteen minutes to explore something they'll otherwise never encounter. So, without further ado...
Full Size / 100% / Standard
Starting from the top we have full size keyboards, this is the most common type of keyboard outside of the community, it's the default one that you get with pretty much every desktop computer and every office job. Generally, this provides everything you could ever need, I mean, it's got all the buttons, the whole function row, the numpad, that weird set of keys above the arrows that no one understands, everything.
I have two full size keyboards, a Logitech G710+ and a Just Systems Realforce 108U HiPro. First off, the Realforce (pictured below) - this is the keyboard that got a mention in the opening diatribe, it was imported from Malaysia, as this particular variant (the Just Systems Japanese 108U) isn't sold in the western hemisphere.
Just Systems RealForce 108U HiPro
What sets this keyboard apart from the swathes of full size keyboards is its keycaps, they're in the HiPro profile, by many regarded as the better version of SA (a community favourite).
The other major differentiator here is the key switch (more on the different types later) which is Topre. Topre is a switch on a knife edge, is it a rubber dome fit for subhumans, or an electro capacitive gift from the gods which all should aspire to? The truth is both, it is a rubber dome, it is electro capacitive, and it is a beautiful switch that's a joy to use, it has ruined me for all other switches.
Like pushing nipples down into the breast
- reddit user /u/clasicks on how topre feels
Who's this keyboard for? Someone without family or significant financial commitments with a desire to burn money and claim "I'm investing it in assets".
Why should you buy it? If you need all those extra keys, and can't comprehend the idea of smaller keyboards, this is, in my opinion, the best of the best in terms of full size boards, everything about it is ideal.
What's the cost? It cost me in the region of $300 USD - but that includes some import fees, there's no reason you can't pick one up for cheaper.
Why did I buy it? For another project! I only bought this for the HiPro key caps, I fully intend to remove them and put them on another keyboard - so if anyone wants to buy the remainder when I'm done, drop me a line.
This was my first mechanical keyboard, a Christmas gift two years ago, it served me well then, and it serves me well now. You might be wondering, if you're not one of the enlightened, what the extra buttons on the right do, they're programmable keys. In particular, they're keys which change the combinations (a combination of multiple keypresses - e.g, ctrl + alt + del) that are available to you in an instant, change what function an individual key performs, and so on. The purpose of this is aimed at gaming. Certain games, particularly MMO's and RPG's often require you to press an immense amount of keys in quick succession to achieve certain goals, or they may just require generally quite repetitive key presses, buy programming a function, or macro, to a single key press, you can really save a lot of time ("We're about precision, about shaving yoctoseconds off latency at every layer in the keyboard") and energy.
I imagine some sports enthusiast somewhere just had an Obi Wan moment and felt a disturbance when I mentioned saving energy in the context of typing. But finger fatigue is real, sometimes you won't even notice it, or you'll attribute it to something else, but those aches in your knuckles and wrists, they're not good for you, and they slow your working down, one of the many benefits of a mechanical keyboard is that it helps to combat this.
I do in fact use this keyboard as my primary gaming keyboard, it's got MX brown switches and comes fitter with O rings - O rings are used to silence keys, it removes some of the rattle often emitted when plastic hits plastic. It's a great board, but, as with all full size keyboards, a little too big for me. The programmable switches are also a little lost on me, after all I only really play League of Legends, a game that can essentially be played with only 6 keys.
There's no reason a gaming keyboard with macro buttons can't be used for none gaming purpose, it could just as easily be setup to orchestrate functions for any purpose. The big caveat with gaming mechanical keyboards however is that you often pay more for what you're getting, sure, some of them are quite reasonably priced, but more often that not you're paying an inflated price for something you and no one else needs, I can think of a number of keyboards that have huge glaring LCD screens built into them purely for the purpose of telling you what song is playing. Sad!
Who's this keyboard for? Computer gamers who want a nice gaming keyboard and aren't too bothered about RGB lighting and 10,000 macro keys.
Why should you buy it? It is a genuinely good keyboard, and the price isn't overkill at all, as gaming keyboards go, it's excellent value.
What's the cost? $129.99 USD.
Why did I buy it? I didn't, it was a gift, but given the choice I certainly would have.
Tenkeyless - Compact / 75% - 60% / Non-Standard
I don't have a Tenkeyless board, but I do have a selection of 65% - 60% boards, so I'm well aware of the benefits. As I mentioned above, a full size board has everything,, but sometimes you don't need everything. The extra keys are often rarely used, if they're used at all, the more keyboard savvy readers here are probably contorting their faces and readying their pitchforks as they read this, but having working in an IT support role, I can quite confidently say that the less tech literate - which is a high proportion of computer users, if not the majority, don't use keys like Home, End, and they certainly don't use Scroll Lock, Pause, Break, or anything of that ilk.
Now none of those keys are found on the number pad, which is what you lose when you move from a full size keyboard to a tenkeyless, the clue is in the name "ten key less". This is a type of keyboard that consists only of alphanumeric keys, function row, arrow cluster, and those weird buttons above the arrows. Often the motivation for moving to a tenkeyless is that the person doesn't really use the number pad - they just default to the number row - or they want more desk space on the right hand side, which is for most people where the mouse is. So what happens to the keys that were on the numpad? Function layer. Tenkeyless and below make use of multi layer key layouts better than any other board I've ever used, probably because without them they'd be almost useless.
Layering, if you're not familiar, is a means of changing the purpose of the keys, from changing the function that one key performs, to all of them. Often this takes the shape of "hold this key and press this one", this would be a toggle/temporary layer, however it's possible to change the layer to another until you intentionally change it back. This will become clearer when you see a smaller keyboard, but an out of context example I often think of is Rachel's trifle on Friends - it's a standard trifle, you start with the top layer and get what you expect, sweet sweet cream, but a forkful later and the entire context of the desert has changed, it's now a savoury meal of mince and peas, it's performing a different purpose entirely, fulfilling entirely distinct dietary purposes to what it would appear to at first glance, but then another forkful goes down, and you're back to what you see when you first looked at it, sweet sweet cream. Rachel's desert performed two functions, it just wasn't (at least to Ross and Joey) immediately apparent.
I don't have any tenkeyless keyboards, but I do have two 65%'s, the first, the el classico, the cheap and cheerful...
MagicForce 68 (Qisan)This keyboard is honestly an excellent buy, it's value for money is a credit to Chinese imports. You can get it with a range of "knock off" Cherry MX switches, I got mine with blue's (Outemu blue's to be precise), and I say knock off in quotes because I honestly believe they're better than Cherry's own product, they're more clicky.
The Magicforce can be bought with various extras for different prices, back lighting, RGB, different colours etc. but if you just want a cheap mechanical keyboard to see what all the fuss is about, this is the one for you. It's cheap enough not to break the bank, and good enough that you'll never look back.
The keyboard itself is light, and thus a great option if you travel a lot but don't like typing on a laptop keyboard, and it still has the arrow cluster and a set of useful buttons above them. The only possible complaint you could have about this keyboard is the caps, they're very thin plastic which can make it feel a little cheaper, that said, I don't think it's noticeable until you use something of higher quality, such as the thicc PBT keycaps you can get from EnjoyPBT and Originative Co. It has no extra special features, no funny function layer to learn how to program, it's just a nice, simple entry level keyboard.
Who's this keyboard for? People who aren't yet hooked and have a desire to be.
Why should you buy it? You can't get a good mechanical keyboard for this kind of money anywhere else.
What's the cost? £29.99
Why did I buy it? Every time I drop £50 on a single key cap I ask myself, why did I buy the Magicforce, why did I do this to myself, neither me nor my imaginary therapist can answer that one.
RedScarf RSII+ (RS68)
This is my current daily driver. I love Topre, with all my heart, but this is the keyboard that keeps my fingers happy when the Realforce ain't looking. Let's just ignore the keycaps for a moment, the keyboard itself is fully programmable, it has an arrow cluster, but it doesn't have the waffle off to the right - the benefit? My mouse has more room, I'm not stretching my arm to use it and I can have my keyboard perfectly centered in font of me, it's not offset, I'm not typing like I'm in some low budget remake of Thriller.
I've also lost the function row (F1-F12) in this setup, I'm a developer, I need that row, just like I need my home button, insert, end, break, and all the stuff I said was generally superfluous. So what do I do? See my original note on layering, this keyboard has two layers. By pressing the key marked 'Lower' on the bottom row of the keyboard, every other key changes its function, the number row becomes and F row, h, j, k and l become arrow keys - a homage to Vim users, backspace becomes delete, I becomes insert, the right arrow becomes home, the left becomes end, you get the idea. Equally, the 'Raise' button performs a similar layer toggle. It's often faster to strike a function combination, e.g, "Raise + i" to toggle insert, than it is to slide your hand across to insert, and for just £2 per month you too can save yourself from this travesty (in around 70 months). Not everything hangs on the function buttons, I do have 4 extra buttons at my disposable, they are, in the picture, Hyper, Super, PgUp, PgDn, currently they perform Home, End, Page Up and Page Down respectively, but the key thing is, as I said, it's fully programmable, they can perform - as can any key should you be that way inclined (see alternate key layouts) with very little effort.
The other lovely little extra to this keyboard is the under glow, it has a full set of RGB lights underneath it, which in the dark add a nice little but of aesthetic. I don't have a picture of it myself, but here's one the /u/will_26 who sold me the base board took:
Now I've mentioned aesthetic, we might as well talk about those key caps. The profile is XDA, and the language is J.R.R. Tolkein's Elvish. First, the profile, XDA is up there with the best, it feels lovely, the slightly inset spherical tops are make it, in my opinion, like a flat profile HiPro, which is ideal for me, and people who like the spherical tops but feel that HiPro/SA are too high up.
As for the key caps themselves, well, this is a trend of the keyboard community, you've got your mechanical keyboard, it works great, it feels good, your wrists are thankful, but that's not going to score you any points on reddit is it? You need to differentiate; you need to add your own flare and make your colleagues question your sanity. You can get key sets, which come in all shapes, sizes, colours, font sizes and languages, and you can get artisan keys, which are often handmade, released in limited quantity, visually appealing and/or subject to other interests - once you are good at typing and/or heavily invested in the hobby, you no longer need characters on your keys, so why not mix it up? I cannot possibly reel off every keyset and artisan keycap, it'd be like a dissertation, I can only suggest that you take a look at the following to get even just a taster.
- MechMarket - Private keyboard/cap selling on reddit
- KeyClack - run by /u/jchan94, where I got my XDA set from, and probably my favourite key set seller.
- Originative Co
Who's this keyboard for? People who want a more efficient layout but want to keep their arrow keys.
Why should you buy it? It's a great board, highly configurable, it's of high build quality (aluminum base) and provides the core functionality that covers the extent of what most users do.
What's the cost? Unsure, I bought it via MechMarket for £140.
Why did I buy it? Efficient layout, has the arrows, and I'm a sucker for RGB's.
Custom Build 60%'s
All of the keyboards so far (and in the sections below this) are keyboards that you can buy, but what many like myself choose to do is build them. It's often the case that you can see what you want, but it's not quite right, and you know what they say, "If you want it doing right, do it yourself". With a 60%, you lose the arrow cluster and those funny keys, and often the function row too, this keyboard is much more reliant on function layers.
I've written before about building mechanical keyboards, the parts involved, and why you'd want to do it at all, so rather than repeating myself, if you want a deeper dive on the matter go take a look at my other post on the matter. Instead, I'm just going to share a couple of pictures below and give a general run down of the parts.
This was my first custom build, it features a solid aluminum base and plate (the plate sits between the PCB and the switch tops) and three different types of switch, Cherry MX greens for the modifiers (ctrl, shift, etc.), Cherry Mx blues for alphanumeric keys, and a Cherry MX red for the space bar. They keys are standard DSA blanks (mostly) supplied by Signature Plastics which are excellent both in quality and price. The keyboard also has a Gon Nerd60 PCB, which is a PCB that does all. It's impressively easy to program functions and macros, and it supports both in switch and SMB LED's, has an array of lighting displays, and has variants which support blue tooth connectivity (mine does not.) I was so impressed with this particular PCB that I used it again in another custom build.
This keyboard had a little more money thrown at it, in fact, substantially more. The casing is a Royal Glam Solid Oak case, the switches are 78g Zealiostotles - one of the frankenstinien nightmares I mentioned earlier, a zealiostotle is a Zealio switch, but with the stem of an Aristotle switch - which has been lubed to reduce rattle, there are transparent gold plated stabilisers, the PCB is a limited edition European version of Gon's Nerd60 and the switches are a thick PBT set from Originative Co which cost around $200 USD with an additional £30 import tax. Oh, and it has a golden orange under glow too.
It's fair to say this had the works thrown at it, but that's the whole point of building your own, even now I can think of changes I would make, or different routes to take if I did it again. Of course it's a money investment, and a time sink assembling and soldering and even just procuring the parts, but in the end it's worth it, you'll have something special, bespoke, unique, you'll have a talking point and a piece of kit that's a joy to use, you lose the respect of your family, but you gain reddit karma - it's a no brainer.
Who's this keyboard for? Someone who wants a really deep dive, or, who is like me, and just enjoys doing something hands on themselves.
Why should you buy it? For fun, for interest, if you're down at this level you either want something very bespoke or you want to get very hands on, this is the only realistic way of doing so.
What's the cost? For me it was between £400 and £800, I haven't calculated it and lord knows I don't wanna, but there's no reason it couldn't be done cheaper, especially in the US.
Why did I buy it? I wanted something more bespoke, and I wanted to learn to solder.
A 58%? The Joy of Happy Hacking Keyboard
The Happy Hacking Keyboard is the pinnacle of keyboards, there's a common view that there are those that love the keyboard and those that have never used one. I am the former, I have this keyboard, I love this keyboard, and I'm currently in the process of buying a second one.
There are some people who dislike it, and it's times like this that we have to remember it's okay to be wrong sometimes. The keyboard comes from PFU, a child company of Fujitsu, it has a couple of variants, the key ones being the JP (Japanese layout), the Type-S (silent) and the Bluetooth variant (wireless). The keyboard has a bit of a different layout to most. Whilst the standard QWERTY is present, a couple of they keys - ctrl and backspace being among the most noticeable, as you can see in the below key map:
Aside from the fact that it's ultra light and has an amazing feel (it's Topre, but somehow better), the layout is what makes this keyboard great. The location of control is much more intuitive, the arrow cluster - accessed by the the function key - is extremely more efficient as you don't have to move your hands away from the alphanumeric keys to user them, the function keys are expertly located, there's no acrobatics required to press them. Even the key profile is dreamy.
The only thing I could criticise about this here 'board is that when it comes to modifying it, you can run up a bill. Topre artisans are rarer than their MX counter parts, which leads to a proportional price increase. Common modifications to the board, such as increasing the weight of the Topre domes, could end up costing you the price of another keyboard, which you're only going to use for one of it's parts. The artisans and blanks on the board above took a chunk out of my savings, and that's not even all of them.
On the note about buying whole keyboards for parts, this is something I'm currently doing. The Realforce 108U (top of this article) was bought purely for it's keycaps and nothing else, my intention is to buy a HHKB JP and replace it's keys with the HiPro's, much like the one here owned by the community's meme maestro /u/chucklingkumquat. This will ultimately cost me upwards of £600.
Who's this keyboard for? The enlightened.
Why should you buy it? IT's extremely portable and a joy to type on.
What's the cost? You can pick one up on MechMarket for around £250 depending on your locale and which version you go for. You can also order them by proxy from Japan using sites such as ZenMarket.
Why did I buy it? To ascend.
40% / Hand Cramp & Pure Pain
This is a type of keyboard I never could truly get used to using, much like I think a full size keyboard is too big, for me, 40% and below is too small. I can see the benefits, very small, very portable, and for people who can remember 3000 functions per key they're great. They are, indisbutably, very pretty, and they look great on a minimal desk, if you're in this for the street cred, you can't go wrong with a keyboard that makes people question the size of your hands (CC: Donald), and if you have the capacity to remember lots of functions and layers, or are willing to (it's almost a necessity) program your own, then this is where you want to be. Personally, I can't remember much more than two layers and still type effectively, and I've not the time to learn, no matter how much I'd like to. The simple fact is, I can't type fast on these keyboards, and more oft than not I end up with cramp or finger fatigue.
OLKB PlanckThe [Planck](https://olkb.com/) aims to do two things, provide an efficient multi layer, multi function, keyboard, and change the alignment of the keys to be very much in line with each other vertically - thus the name, Ortholinear Keyboards.
The former it achieves by providing two layer toggle buttons either side of the space bar, one is 'raise' the other is 'lower', which move the currently active layer up or down, enabling access to other keys.
So in the above case, pressing Q would give you a Q, pressing lower + q would give you ! and pressing raise + Q would give you 1. I can see why this has the potential to be efficient, I'm not in any way suggesting it isn't or cannot be, I'm saying there's a high learning curve that I, to date, haven't been able to overcome.
The learning curve, for me, was worsened by the vertical alignment of the keys, the aim here as far as I'm aware is to speed up typing and reduce the symptoms of RSI. I cannot pass judgement on whether it achieves that or not, but the chorus from the community certainly suggests it does. In my case, trying to use the keyboard only gave me hand cramp, I felt I was bending my fingers in the same way a Russian ballerina bends her legs, and then switching back to a staggered layout keyboard lead to further pain as my fingers reverted back. This is more likely an issue with my inability to touch type, and lack of time to commit to really giving this keyboard a solid chance.
This particular board has Gateron greens, which give a nice firm click with a good weight, they are a switch I highly recommend. The keycaps are a random selection from a grab bag, I did have at a time actual letters on this keyboard - in an effort to help me learn to use it - but since I don't use it at all now, I have it on the corner of my desk looking like a modern art nightmare, it's sole purpose is to serve as a segway to keyboards when someone walks over and wildly harks "what are those!"
Who's this keyboard for? Someone with the time to commit to get the most out of it.
Why should you buy it? You travel a lot, you think it would relieve the symptoms of RSI, or just think it looks cool
What's the cost? They come up on MassDrop from time to time, but you can pick one up on Massdrop for around £250.
Why did I buy it? Hype.
This keyboard is produced by The Van Keyboards, and can generally be picked up either assembled or as a self assembly kit from MassDrop or via /r/mechmarket. It has many of the same selling points of the Planck, it's light, it's portable, it's pretty. This keyboard keeps the staggered layout, and it's that which made me buy it after I couldn't get used to the Planck. It did solve my problem to a great extent - this is a keyboard I can actually type on, which is a bonus.
They keyboard provides the same immense programmability as the Planck and a custom build would, you can make any key do anything, you can have temporary or permanent layers, chords, anything you like as long as you remember how many keys you have to press to get to where you want, and in what order your fingers have to strike the keys. This ended up being the problem for me, there are too many keys I need fast access to, the function row, and all of the symbols, and sure I could fit them all onto a second layer, but it's still faster, at least for me, to have the majority of them readily available.
Would I rate this as better than a Planck? Yes. But only because I can type on it at at a semi reasonable speed, I certainly can't code on it. I typed this section of my post on it, and it took me about as long as it took me to type the past two sections. This, as with the Planck, is not an issue with the board itself, but rather an issue with my lack of patience.
I have 65g linear Zeals on this keyboard, and that was another mistake on my part. I'm not going to knock the switch, they're just not my preference, I like a nice click or thock. I also like, on my clicky switches, more weight. I can't deny these feel very smooth, but they're not going to give my desk buddy a headache.
Who's this keyboard for? An enthusiast or someone who wants to buy a kit to put together.
Why should you buy it? If you travel a lot, or can make good use of multiple layers and functions, you'll never need another keyboard (until you open up Reddit tomorrow).
What's the cost? This one set me back about $250 USD on MassDrop, you can pick it up for similar on MechMarket.
Why did I buy it? For traveling with.
Finally, number pads. There isn't too much to say about them, they can be picked up fairly cheaply on Amazon, and if you're wondering why you'd want one it's very very simple. You've upgraded to a tenkeyless or a 60%, your keyboard is now centrally aligned and your mouse has all the freedom in the world, but you do a lot of data entry, the number pad was the lifeblood of your 'better than yours' spreadsheet, so why not buy one... and put it on the ,left hand side of your keyboard? You still get all the benefits of the smaller board, and you get to keep your number pad. You also get to move it around, what's not to love?
This one I'm using for something extra curricular, I'm using it as a mechanical pin entry system with a Raspberry Pi, because you can never have too many clickies.
I hope that this has been interesting for someone, else it's been a 6000 word dirge. My aim at the start was to try and give a glimpse of what sort of keyboards are out there beyond the basic, using my own experience, it's important to stress here that there are thousands more keyboards, switches, keys, and personalities out there, and I highly suggest you mosey on over to /r/MechanicalKeyboards. The community is second to none, they're an immensely welcoming, positive and constructive group of people.
Any questions, comments, or statements of how wrong I am to say the HHKB is the best keyboard ever to grace my lowly subhuman fingers, please, feel free, I'd welcome it.