A lot of us take our keyboard for granted. After all, it’s just a tool that you use to input text, what’s the big deal? Well, the big deal is that we spend potentially thousands of hours interacting with keyboards, and a lot of keyboard enthusiasts insist on a very specific, high-end typing experience. While there are many, many different kinds of keyboards we’ll be looking at the two largest categories and breaking down the differences.
If you happen to choose a mechanical keyboard there are several other deciding factors that you should take into consideration, such as keyswitch type, frame material, keycap material, and much more. For membrane keyboards they’re generally all created pretty equally, so style is generally the largest deciding factor.
What is a mechanical keyboard?
Put simply, a mechanical keyboard is a keyboard that uses physical switches to actuate keys. That is to say that there’s some sort of mechanical movement under the keycap, activated by you pressing the button—this presses down and causes the key to actuate. Once the mechanical switch has been actuated it sends the signal to your computer that the key has been pressed. If it sounds broad that’s because it is! There are dozens of different types and manufacturers of keyswitches, with Cherry and their Cherry MX line of switches being the premier brand.
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What is a membrane keyboard?
Membrane keyboards come in two types: flat and dome. Flat membrane keyboards are the kind you’d find on the front of a microwave or other appliance, while dome membranes are the type you’ll find in your average keyboard. Dome membrane keyboards achieve key actuation with a rubber or silicone dome that has a small capacitive pad underneath. When the dome is pushed down by pressing the key on the keyboard it makes contact with the circuit and sends your keypress along to the computer. Then the tension of the rubber or silicone being shaped like a dome causes it to pop back up. It’s also the same type of technology employed in most video game controller buttons.
What’s the difference?
The first difference that you’ll probably notice is price. Membrane keyboards are tremendously cheaper to produce, so you’ll often see them listed for just a few dollars or even included with a new PC that you purchase for free. Mechanical keyboards will vary from the reasonable to the astronomical in price depending on the exact model.
The other big difference is how it feels to type on, which can be a bit hard to quantify if you haven’t experienced both types of keyboards. Mechanical keyswitches are rated across several different factors including loudness, actuation force (how hard or easy they are to press), and what type of physical feedback they provide when pressed. These different factors will determine exactly how each different type of brand of keyswitch that you may find in a mechanical keyboard behaves, but across the board they all have a much more tactile feel compared to membrane keyboards. Most typists describe mechanical keyboards as feeling more satisfying to type on, and that the feeling of actuating a physical switch with each keypress is noticeably more enjoyable.
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Mechanical keyboards also offer significantly more consistency and reliability, since each individual key has its own dedicated switch. Membrane keyboards generally use one large sheet of silicone across all keys, which can cause speed and reliability issues.
The major drawback to mechanical keyboards is noise, since pressing physical keyswitches is significantly louder than pressing a membrane down. Even mechanical keyboards rated as silent will still generally make more noise than a membrane keyboard.
Keyboards can get confusing quickly, but as a general rule of thumb a mechanical keyboard is going to be more enjoyable to use, if a bit louder. These days mechanical keyboards come in a slew of different configurations, price points, and feature sets using many different brands of internal hardware. Some people even go so far as to customize individual keys on their mechanical keyboards with artisan keycaps and specialty switches. A high end mechanical keyboard will potentially last many, many years so it’s not uncommon to see people making an entire hobby out of buying and customizing theirs.
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