As a gamer, you know how important your peripherals are to your gaming experience. And you most likely know that having the right keyboard can actually make or break that experience. You may not be aware, however, that you actually have more of a choice in the matter.
Keyboards are classified by the types of switch technology that they use, and they’re separated broadly into two principal groups: mechanical keyboards and membrane keyboards. Read on to learn more about each.
What is a mechanical keyboard?
Mechanical keyboards are the keyboards that most people picture when they think about keyboards; they’re the classic-looking, sturdy keyboards from the 1980s. A more proper definition is that mechanical keyboards are made with high-quality plastic key switches underneath each of the keycaps.
These keyboard switches are comprised of:
- Keycap: the top cap with the letter/number
- Stem: the part underneath the keycap that moves down when pressed
- Housing: the case holding together all the components
Typing on a mechanical keyboard means pressing down on a keycap, which activates an actual physical switch underneath that’s spring-loaded. So when you press the key, you feel it and you’ll hear a “clicking” sound to let you know that you’ve pressed the key hard enough to register (and that you haven’t missed a letter or number).
Linear vs. tactile
Most mechanical keyboard switches are either linear or tactile. Linear switches need to be pushed all the way down, while tactile switches only need to be pushed about halfway down to activate, so you can move to the next key more quickly and easily.
Cherry MX switches
In the early 1980s, a company called Cherry used to exclusively develop and manufacture plastic key switches called Cherry MX switches, which are often referenced by key stem color . Now there are several PC keyboard manufacturers who are developing these switches including Razer, Logitech, Corsair, and others.
Each switch varies depending on several characteristics, including auditory and tactile nature of the switch, the amount of force needed to actuate it, and the keyboard's application or user preference.
The most common Cherry MX switches are:
- Cherry Blue - typing switch with tactile, audible (loudest) feedback; the switch works even when depressed halfway; great for serious typists but maybe not ideal for games that require fast-loading weapons battles, for instance.
- Cherry Green - slightly stiffer
- Cherry Red - gaming switch/linear switch, smoother clicking and light touch; great for many games as the switch goes all the way down. The HP Pavilion Gaming Keyboard 500, for example, offers smooth keystrokes that enable you to take rapid action in silence.
- Cherry Black - slightly stiffer; excellent for games requiring precision and for which you don’t want to accidentally hit a key, such as real-time strategy (RTS) games or role-playing (RPG) games.
- Cherry Brown - halfway, middle-ground switch/tactile switch; it’s smooth like the red, but with a tactile bump; good for needing to switch between work tasks and serious gaming.
- Cherry Silver - linear switches; great for games that require heavier pounding of the keys due to constantly refreshing skills.
Besides replacing switches, you can customize mechanical keyboards in other ways. There are specialized gaming keypads that offer anywhere from 10 to 20 programmable keys. These provide similar customization and ergonomic designs found in other peripherals such as gaming mice and apply them to keyboard gaming functions.
You can also get backlit keycaps that allow LED light to pass through the keycap, illuminating the legend. With the HP OMEN 1100 Mechanical Keyboard, for instance, each key glows a deep red with its own dedicated LED.
Another option is replacing keycaps with certain materials, such as durable plastics or molded sculpting, so that lettering is less likely to wear away. Others want to make their keyboard ultra-personalized by customizing keycaps with specific designs, colors, names, shapes, or logos.
What is a membrane keyboard?
Membrane or rubber dome keyboards are the most commonly used keyboards today; they include most of the modern, low-budget keyboards used in laptops, handheld controllers, mobile phones, and more.
Membrane or rubber dome keyboards
The membrane or rubber dome keyboards rely on rubber domes to provide feedback, unlike the spring and metal contacts in a mechanical keyboard. They have a simple structure consisting of a rubber dome that, once pressed, completes the circuit on the keyboard’s printed circuit board (PCB) below. That simplicity enables them to be manufactured at lower costs than mechanical keyboards, making them ideal for budget-conscious gamers.
There are two types of membrane keyboards: flat-panel membrane keyboards and full-travel membrane keyboards. The former can be found in appliances like copiers, refrigerators, and microwave ovens. The latter are what you’ll find on today’s most common computer keyboards.
They feature a key assembly that’s mounted above a three-layer membrane. When the key is pressed, the top layer is pushed through a hole in the middle layer so that top-layer conductive material contacts bottom-layer conductive material, creating a circuit and registering the keystroke.
Dome-switch keyboards are a hybrid of flat-panel membrane and mechanical-switch keyboards. This technology is also sometimes referred to as membrane switch or rubber dome as there are a few varieties of design.
Most of the low-budget keyboards today use dome-switch technology, which registers a keystroke when you type and push down a silicone dome that joins two circuit-board traces to complete the connection.
The scissor-switch keyboard is a type of rubber dome keyboard that’s normally used in laptops and other low-profile keyboards, some of which are in gaming laptops as well as desktops.
While they use rubber domes, scissor-switch keyboards attach the keys to the keyboard through two plastic pieces that interlock much like scissors do. This scissor-type mechanism enables a shorter travel time and distance (also called “actuation distance,” see below) than that of traditional rubber dome keyboards.
Although these switches operate mechanically, they aren’t considered to be part of mechanical keyboards since they don’t have spring-loaded switches and don’t support the customization of keycaps.
Scissor-switch keyboards are typically tougher to clean than other membrane keyboards, but at the same time they are less likely to fill up with debris because of the smaller key size and gaps between keys.
Optical or photo-optical keyboards
Optical or photo-optical keyboards are also known as light-responsive keyboards or photo-electric keyboards. This type of keyboard uses light-emitting diodes (LED) and photo sensors to optically detect when keys are activated, and they’re fast.
The HP OMEN Sequencer Mechanical Keyboard enables a 0.2 ms response time, which is 10 times faster than traditional mechanical switches. Optical keyboards are durable in that they’re usually dust- and waterproof.
Choosing the right mechanical gaming keyboard
Choosing the right mechanical keyboard for your gaming needs is a personal experience. Most gamers prefer mechanical keyboards because they’re more tactile, durable, and faster. At the same time, some gamers appreciate the smaller footprint, portability, and lower price points of the membrane keyboards. Still others want the best of both in a hybrid.
Here are a few characteristics to think about when selecting your mechanical keyboard.
Actuation force is the force required to press the key on the keyboard. It’s the key travel distance where the key is actually recognized by the keyboard. In other words, it measures how hard you need to press the key so that it’s recognized by the keyboard.
Actuation force varies widely and can range from 35 grams to as high as 350 grams. Most mechanical keyboards range from 45 to 60 grams.
The actuation distance is the distance which the switch needs to depress to register as an input. It’s measured from the top of the keycap. An average rating for most mechanical keyboards is 2 mm, though there are some as low as 1 mm.
Shorter actuation distance doesn’t automatically make you a better gamer; you may make more keyboard mistakes, for instance, because of the lighter feel.
Tactility refers to the feedback and resistance that you receive when typing. It’s associated with the position that the key travels to when generating a keystroke. The feedback can be audible through a clicking sound, for instance, as well as visual in that you’re watching your fingers press the keys, which spring back and raise the keycap.
Mechanical keyboards tend to be more tactile. Conversely, many membrane keyboards are not tactile and feel somewhat softened after normal wear and tear thanks to their design. While membrane keyboards can be engineered to provide some tactility, they usually lack the more durable feel of the keys in mechanical keyboards or even scissor-switch keyboards.
Noise and sound levels on keyboards can be important depending on the type of application you’re using or the game that you’re playing, and where you’re playing it. Mechanical keyboards, for instance, are noisier than any other type of keyboards because there are clicks at both the beginning and end of keystrokes.
On the other hand, membrane keyboards have the quietest switches because they have rubber or silicone cushioning that mechanical keyboards lack for the most part. Scissor-switch membrane switches are noisier than regular membrane switches since they have less rubber cushioning.
Measuring durability takes into account things like how many keystrokes a particular mechanical keyboard is rated for over its lifespan. Consider that an average keystrokes per hour (KPH) is approximately 8,000 KPH, and then multiply this by the number of hours that gamers tend to play over the course of just a few weeks and you can see how exponentially those numbers increase.
Mechanical keyboards are much more durable than membrane or rubber dome keyboards. For example, Cherry MX switches are rated to a lifespan 20 to 50 million keystrokes depending on the type of switch .
The HP OMEN Sequencer Mechanical Keyboard, for example, offers a 70 million-click lifespan. Membrane/rubber dome keyboards are, on average, rated to last approximately 5 million keystrokes.
Mechanical keyboards range from as low as $60 or so to upwards of $200. And if you’re ok with an older model, you’ll pay even less. There are also pricing differentials between well-known and generic brands, as well as between full-size keyboards, with and without RGB lighting.
Pros and cons of mechanical keyboards
Here are a few pros and cons of mechanical keyboards:
- They last longer than membrane keyboards
- They’re faster and easier to type on
- They’re more responsive to keystrokes
- They provide stronger feedback while typing
- They’re more precise
- They’re more comfortable
- They’re more expensive than membrane or rubber dome keyboards
- They’re heavier than membrane keyboards
- They’re louder than membrane keyboards
- They’re harder to clean as the keys are taller with bigger gaps between each
- They can be more easily damaged with spills from liquids and food particles
- There is a huge selection so choosing the right one can be an overwhelming experience
 Deskthority.net; Cherry MX Switches
 CherryAmericas.com; Cherry MX Series 2 Switches