Buying a mechanical keyboard? Consider these 6 points of caution

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When I bought my first mechanical keyboard in 2015, I had no idea what I was doing. Coveting the clackety sound and glorious key travel of mechanical switches, I sprung for a hefty Rosewill Apollo keyboard without doing much research. It ended up being a poor fit for me, and I sold it on eBay a few years later.

Only later did I realize the depth of the mechanical keyboard rabbit hole, and how many granular options exist to get exactly the typing or PC gaming experience you want. After buying my first compact mechanical keyboard—then another, and another—I realized there was no going back to cheaper keyboards with mushy rubber membranes and blandly utilitarian aesthetics.

If you’re considering a mechanical keyboard yourself, don’t make the same mistakes I made. Here’s everything I wish that I’d done before buying my very first model.

Do you really need 104 keys?

While some gamers and Excel wizards might consider a number pad non-negotiable, mechanical keyboards come in all kinds of sizes that eschew the standard 104-key format. You can lop off the number pad for an 87-key layout (as seen on the HyperX Alloy FPS Pro), or you can get even more compact with an 84-key layout that omits dedicated Insert, Scroll Lock, and Number Lock keys.

The smaller you go from there, the more keys will require holding a Function button to access. My Qisan keyboard omits the entire F-key row along with the Print Screen, Pause, and Scroll Lock keys, while my semi-portable Anne Pro 2 comes without arrow keys. Some keyboards even take those constraints to the extreme by dropping the number keys. Having a specific size in mind will narrow down your options significantly.

magicforce Jared Newman / IDG

Qisan’s MagicForce keyboard has just 68 keys, so it doesn’t take up much desk space.

Consider a key switch tester

Different mechanical keyboards use different kinds of switches, and all have a big impact on how typing feels and sounds. Even within the broad categories of clicky, tactile, or linear switches, you’ll find variations in stiffness and feedback.

Clicky “Blue” key switches, for instance, feel light under your fingers and make a loud click as you press partway down, while “White” keys have a similar sound with more stiffness. Tactile “Brown” switches aren’t nearly as noisy, but they still make a little bump under your fingers as you press them. Linear “Black” and “Red” switches press straight down with no interference, with the former being stiffer than the latter. And while some keyboards are “hot-swappable” so you can easily move to a different switch type, most require soldering skills if you change your mind.

If all this seems overwhelming, an inexpensive $12 switch tester is a great investment. You’ll get to see what all the major switch types feel (and sound like), and it’s way better than any fidget spinner for stress relief.



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