“Ah, I see you’re a man of culture too,” Raj Das, Assistant Editor (Branded Content) at The Quint says to me when I utter the words “the joys of using a mechanical keyboard” in a casual conversation between two tech lovers. That phrase precisely sums up a certain sense of pride among the community of mechanical keyboard enthusiasts around the world. For the past few days, I have been typing away on Logitech’s MX Mechanical Mini keyboard, which just launched in India (there's a full-size variant as well). Every word of this article has been typed on the MX Mechanical Mini — and I can say that using a mechanical keyboard has a distinct feel to it. Whether you want to give it a loud bang, or just a soft but full press, the MX Mechanical Mini will register each stroke of the finger with ease.
The clickity-clack sound that comes with each keypress is ever so satisfying, reminding one of the typewriters of yore, memorialized in cinema and in the older generation’s minds. It’s like how automobile enthusiasts will always go back to muscle cars and racing behemoths that make a loud roar every time the engine is revved up. “For me, it’s the sound. The feel of the keypress comes a closed second,” says one tech enthusiast. “The tactile feel and clicky sound,” says another, talking about why he loves using his mechanical keyboard.
What exactly are mechanical keyboards?
Let me back up for a minute as some of you may be wondering what exactly mechanical keyboards are. There are essentially two types of keyboards: membrane and mechanical. Membrane keyboards have a rubber dome beneath each key, which when pressed down make a connection with the wires. Mechanical keyboards are defined by their raised and separated caps that are underlit by LEDs. They have a plastic switch under each key. Mechanical keyboards have two types of switches: tactile and linear. Linear switches need not be pressed all the way down for an action to happen, unlike tactile switches.
While I’ve been using mechanical keyboards off and on for about five years now, and I can definitely see the appeal. To top it all, the battery life on this wireless keyboard is pretty good. It’s rated for 15 days worth of use with the backlight on. After many days of clickity-clack, the battery life stands just under 50%.
Getting hooked to mechanical keyboards
It was in the early 2000s when Das first heard about mechanical keyboards. “Probably in some computer magazine, which friends would share among each other, due to those free demo game CDs,” he says. It wasn’t until 2020 that Das would purchase his first mechanical keyboard. The same goes for Shreyas Ochani, features writer at TechPP. He got into PCs in 2008 when his father bought one for business but only heard about mechanical keyboards around two years back. “I never cared to check out keyboards,” Ochani says.
Aditya Nath Jha, tech enthusiast, was a late convert as well. In 2017, Jha bought the Redragon Kumara K551 but quickly switched to a TVS Gold Bharat within a few months. The cheapest of the TVS Gold Bharat models came first with Cherry MX Blue switches, then Cherry MX Red, and now with Chinese Longhua switches. Jha lucked out. “ I got a Cherry MX red one in Nehru Place for ₹1,700 in 2017,” he says. He’s used it every day since. “Works like butter and no issues yet. Cleaned it 2-3 times in this period”.
Jha adds that the TVS Gold Bharat keyboards are “still the most affordable mechanical keyboards in India” and that“almost every government office has these”.
Since using them a few years ago, Das, Ochani and Jha have been hooked.
Hardik Singh, Technical Product Manager at ASUS India, got his first PC when he was in class 8 in the early 2000s. It was back in the days when the “Internet used to make sounds before connecting”. Singh was first introduced to the world of mechanical keyboards when a friend introduced him “to a nice magazine” called CHIP. The magazine, Singh continues, “introduced us to a world of gadgets which were out of our reach”.
Another tech enthusiast, Datta (he prefers to use only one name), on the other hand, was introduced to the TVS Gold (an instant classic in the world of mechanical keyboards) at a friend's place back in 2006. Since then, he’s never looked back. “Don’t think I can ever go back to non-mechanical now,” says Datta. Having owned many mechanical keyboards in the past, Datta has now settled on two Corsair K95 RGBs, which costs around ₹16,000.
Just like Datta, Singh’s first experience with a mechanical keyboard was the TVS Gold keyboard. Singh never owned one though. “At that point for a regular boy growing up in India and with access to computers, it was the best you could get. That said, I never owned one, I did use it in school though,” Singh says.
Mechanical keyboards are more of a niche product and hence very expensive, even in today’s world. Despite the cost, Singh is one of those who likes collecting and tinkering with mechanical keyboards. “Mechanical keyboards until very recently were expensive, hence I was never able to own one when I was a kid. It did not help my case that for most of my life I was not living in a big metro city which has more availability of these things. I got a Razer BlackWidow TKL keyboard on my first visit abroad. I still have that keyboard in working condition back home at my parents. Since then, I have owned about half a dozen keyboards in less than a decade and it is not like they went bad, but I always wanted to try something new,” Singh continues.
For the past two years, Das’ typing experience has vastly improved. “It’s been great. My work involves a lot of typing, and when I’m not working, I’m mostly playing games. Point is, I use the keyboard A LOT. Thanks to working from home over the past 2 years, I’ve had the luxury of using my gaming rig to do most of my work. Only recently I bought a new laptop because now I need to work on the road or from the office at times. But even for that, my main on was the typing experience,” Das says.
For Ochani, it’s all about the experience. “I type on it all day long and the tractile feel gives an excellent experience”. To cap the noise, Ochani switched to brown key switches. Not all mechanical keyboards are built the same.
Buying mechanical keyboards just to show off
Singh and Das agree that a lot of people buy mechanical keyboards just so that they can show off. “A lot of people I have known over the years buy XYZ brand because ABC YouTuber or website said this is the best. I feel this started with the sudden surge in PC gaming and with the fact that a lot of contenders started making their own switches which meant cheaper parts and hence cheaper keyboards for price sensitive market like ours, Singh says.
Echoing Singh, Das says that most gamers have the “intrinsic need to brag about their rig.” Das continues, “Could have a lot to do with the popularity of gaming YouTubers. Then there are also people like me, who like the idea of their gaming set up looking a certain way, aesthetically speaking. I’m somewhere in the middle of this group and the one that loves the functionality of mechanical keywords.”
The whacky world of mechanical keyboards
Back in 2019, there was a keyboard meetup in San Jose, California. Marcin Wichary, a writer on all things keyboards, was there at the event. Just from the photos, one can see how diverse and innovative the world of mechanical keyboards is. It truly is the exact opposite of the “one size fits all” mantra.
Had fun at the keyboard meetup in San Jose today! pic.twitter.com/KiJSDt9HPJ— Marcin Wichary (@mwichary) November 10, 2019
As you can see in the tweet above, it’s not a one size fits all product. Blue, red and brown are the most common key switches.
Blue switches are also known as tactile or “clicky” switches as they give off the most satisfying click one can imagine. When a blue switch is pressed down and registered, a click will be heard along with a tactile bump. Blue switches come with both tactile and auditory feedback. They’re best for jobs that require long writing sessions.
The main advantage of blue switches is that, since you'll get both tactile and auditive feedback when a keystroke is registered, you don't need to press keys down all the way, making your hands less tired during long writing sessions. They're also great for touch typing, the practice of writing without looking at your keyboard.
Red switches are mainly preferred by gamers. Red switches are basically known as linear switches. They are practically silent as they don’t have auditory or tactile feedback. The upside with the red keys is that you don’t have to press the keys all the way down to register a keystroke. They respond faster than the blue switches.
Brown switches have the tactile feedback of the blue switches but without the satisfying “click”. It can be felt not heard. It’s a blue switch that is silent like a red one.
The Cherry MX Red switches are best for gaming, while blue switches are good for typing. Jha prefers the former because of the actuation sound. Jha likes to press his keys all the way in and also game a lot.
Singh tells me about his current setup and plans for the future of mechanical keyboards in his life. (Hint: He wants to build his own mechanical keyboard!)
“Currently, I have a Ducky One Two SF mini which is a tiny keyboard at 60% size. That connects to my ROG laptop and monitor. However, I am looking on getting something newer and wireless. I have always wanted 65% keyboard and this time I plan to make my own. It is expensive and not ideal, but this is a “want” rather than a “need” at this point,” Singh says. “Anyway, if you are looking into keyboards, you can follow brands like ROG, KBD, Ducky, Glorious, Meletrix, qwerty keys, keychron, Varmilo, etc.”
Now, the typing experience
Having the satisfying “click” each time I bang my fingers on a key makes me less worried about having missed a keystroke here and there. Sometimes, after typing a whole article on a traditional keyboard, I’ll find many words underlined with red. The reason for that, you might ask? Certain letters in some words were missing. Maybe it was because I was typing too fast but maybe it was because I didn’t press down hard enough every time I typed out a word.
The r/MechanicalKeyboards subreddit is 1.1 million users strong. The world of mechanical keyboards and their users is huge and diverse. Looking through the posts and one can see that a lot of consumers of these keyboards have increased both their words-per-minute (WPM) and accuracy. The users on the subreddit also have two other things in common. They all agree that typing on a mechanical keyboard is extremely satisfying and that they just like the look.
I’ve always thought of buying one every time I use one, but I just haven't ever been able to justify the cost to myself. Everyone echoes this. When asked about what can be improved with respect to mechanical keyboards, most people talked about costs. “Lower the costs maybe?” says Datta. “They need to be more affordable. They are cheaper ones, but the good ones are often priced on the slightly higher side,” Das says. Jha agrees here. Jha says that the cheap mechanical keyboards aren’t any good and that it all boils down to the switches one gets.
Ochani was swayed by the lifespan of a mechanical keyboard as its much better than traditional keyboards. “They do catch dust under keycaps quite easily though. Also, with mechanical you can easily swap keycaps as and when needed”. The biggest reason for getting a mechanical keyboard for Ochani was so that he could “press the key to the extreme bottom. Doing so on a traditional keyboard would have damaged it”. Ochani does have a valid point but is it enough to justify the money being spent?
Singh tries to convince me by saying that gamers and typists both benefit from mechanical keyboards. “Absolutely, I still do about 1-2 hours of gaming in a day and my mechanical keyboard has improved my gaming experience for sure. However, I can’t say with utmost certainty that it has made me a better gamer. But, just like touch typists, gamers with their headphones on and fully immersed in the virtual world, do benefit from the longer and mostly tactile key travel in keyboards,” Singh says.
Furthermore, Singh responds with a resounding yes when asked about if it improved histyping experience. “That is a resounding Yes. I have typed for most of my living life now, thanks to my work. Since I jumped on the mechanical bandwagon, it has changed my typing speeds drastically and I can still see the difference on a day-to-day basis when I use my work laptop and use my keyboard.”
The only downside, according to Singh, is the recyclability. “As for the recyclability part, most keyboards still use plastic mostly which is not recyclable and with the growing demand for recyclable products, that is something keyboard makers should be looking into.”
It’s kind of like the Apple ecosystem. Once you get hooked and are embedded in that world, there’s just no going back. For me, the hardest part was to take that first step and make that first purchase. Since most of my work involves travel or working from cafes, carrying another accessory just feels like something unnecessary. With the new “mini” mechanical keyboards, I’ve been more and more tempted, to be honest. Maybe, writing this article, and using the Logitech MX Mechanical Keyboard, might spur me on to making a purchase very soon!