I had no idea what I was doing when I bought my first mechanical keyboard in 2015. I bought a large Rosewill Apollo keyboard without conducting any study because I lusted after the clacky sound and wonderful key travel of mechanical switches. It turned out to be a bad fit for me, and I ended up selling it on eBay a few years later.
It wasn’t until later that I realized how deep the mechanical keyboard rabbit hole goes, and how many granular options there are for getting exactly the typing or PC gaming experience you want. I understood there was no going back to lesser keyboards with soft rubber membranes and blandly utilitarian designs after purchasing my first tiny mechanical keyboard—then another, and another.
If you’re thinking about getting a mechanical keyboard, don’t make the same mistakes I did. Here’s everything I wish I’d known before purchasing my first model car.
Is it really necessary to have 104 keys?
While certain gamers and Excel whizzes may insist on a number pad, mechanical keyboards available in a variety of sizes that do not use the typical 104-key layout. You can achieve an 87-key layout by removing the number pad (as seen on the HyperX Alloy FPS Pro), or go even smaller with an 84-key layout that eliminates dedicated Insert, Scroll Lock, and Number Lock keys.
The smaller you go, the more keys you’ll need to access by holding down the Function button. The entire F-key row, as well as the Print Screen, Pause, and Scroll Lock keys, are missing from my Qisan keyboard, and the arrow keys are missing from my semi-portable Anne Pro 2. Some keyboards even go so far as to remove the number keys from the equation. Having a definite size in mind will greatly reduce your possibilities.
Take a look at a key switch tester.
Different types of switches are used in different mechanical keyboards, and they all have an impact on how typing feels and sounds. There are differences in stiffness and feedback even within the broad categories of clicky, tactile, and linear switches.
For example, clicky “Blue” key switches feel light under your fingers and create a loud click as you press partway down, but “White” keys have a similar sound but are stiffer. Although tactile “Brown” switches aren’t as loud, they nevertheless generate a small bump under your fingers when you press them. Linear “Black” and “Red” switches press straight down, with the former being stiffer than the latter. While some keyboards are “hot-swappable,” allowing you to replace switch types without soldering, most require soldering skills if you change your mind.
If all of this seems intimidating, a $12 switch tester is a fantastic place to start. You’ll be able to feel (and hear) all of the major switch types, and it’s far superior to any fidget spinner for stress reduction.
Don’t scrimp on quality when it comes to switches.
When it comes to mechanical keyboards, the key switch brand is arguably more essential than the keyboard’s manufacturer. After purchasing a keyboard with generic “Blue” switches and seeing that it occasionally failed to pick up every keystroke, I instantly returned it and replaced it with a keyboard with name-brand Cherry MX Blue switches.
Certain Cherry competitors—primarily Gateron and Kailh—are favored by some, and some major keyboard manufacturers, such as Logitech, have their own proprietary switches. Avoid keyboards that merely list a switch color without a brand name, and be wary of jargon like “Cherry Red comparable.”
Know the different varieties of keycaps.
With a vast number of styles and profiles to pick from, keycap types are a rabbit hole within a rabbit hole. If you’re new to mechanical keyboards, keep an eye out for the acronyms ABS and PBT, as your keyboard is likely to come with one or the other. The former is shinier and smoother, but its key symbols fade with time and are more likely to reveal oil from your fingertips. The latter has a rougher texture that hides dirt and grime better.
Make a style plan ahead of time.
Of course, buying your own aftermarket keycaps to customize the look and feel of your mechanical keyboard is part of the fun. Keycap sets may be found for as cheap as $20 on sites like Banggood and AliExpress, or you can splurge on designer sets on sites like TheKey.Company and Drop.
If you’re going this way, make sure the keyboard’s body color and backlighting match the look you’re going for. You don’t want your favorite keycaps to clash with the keyboard you just bought.
Think about the connections.
For mechanical keyboards, wired USB communication is still the standard. While there are cordless Bluetooth options—the Anne Pro 2 and Keychron K2 are two famous examples—you’ll be limited in size and aesthetics if you go that path. If you’re not intending on taking your mechanical keyboard on the road, skipping the Bluetooth connection might be a better option.
A USB passthrough connector is available on some wired mechanical keyboards for connecting a mouse, game controller, or other peripherals. (There are two of them in the Das Keyboard 4 Ultimate.) If your computer’s port selection is limited, this can be a great addition.
What’s the point?
From the outside, it may appear weird to put so much effort into a keyboard, especially if you aren’t a fan of mechanical keyboards for gaming. If you perform any considerable amount of writing on a computer, though, you will be constantly engaging with your keyboard. Purchasing a mechanical keyboard is similar to purchasing a high-quality, long-lasting item that you will be proud to use.
The aforementioned rabbit hole—purchasing many keyboards in various sizes, each with its own switch kinds and keycap colors—is perhaps a little more insane. But don’t be surprised if the thought occurs to you once everything falls into place.
A version of this article first appeared in Jared’s weekly tech advice email, Advisorator (and his mechanical keyboard obsession has only worsened since then). Sign up to get weekly tech advice delivered to your email.