Mechanical Keyboard Guide

David Murphy

Mechanical, membrane, and all the Cherry switches explained

So you want to buy a mechanical keyboard, eh?  Why is that?  Perhaps you’ve heard that they’re the growing rage among gamers and PC enthusiasts – assuming that’s still a “cool” phrase to use.  Maybe you’ve gotten your hands on one and, while you’re not quite 100% sure what exactly makes them different from the keyboards you’ve been using, you nevertheless have fallen in love with the mechanical experience.  Maybe you have no idea what a mechanical keyboard really is or why it rocks, but you’re interested to find out.

Well, as luck might have it, we’re here to tell you.

In a nutshell, the keyboard world is divided into two (not quite so) warring factions: synthetic keyboards and mechanical keyboards.  Without getting into the super-technical nuances of each just yet, the key difference between the two – pardon the pun – is in how the keystrokes themselves are registered by the devices.

Synthetic/Membrane Keyboard Design

The typical design of a synthetic keyboards usually features some kind of membrane or dome switch running overtop a non-conductive gap in a lower layer of circuitry.  Depending on the specific design of the keyboard, pressing down on the physical key on your keyboard mashes the layer (or layers) of membrane down, where the lowest layer – a conductive material – completes the circuit below it.  A dome switch can achieve a similar effect, only instead of pushing down on layers of membrane, you’re pushing down on a small cylindrical-like object that has a connective material on the bottom.  Once the bottom of the dome bridges the gap between the circuitry underneath, your system registers your action as a keystroke.

Examining a synthetic keyboard's membrane layers (image from Wikipedia)

Got it?  Synthetic keyboards, while practical, still retain a “squishier” feel versus their mechanical counterparts.  It’s one of the more obvious distinctions to anyone who has ever run their fingers across each kind of keyboard, but the differences aren’t restricted to mere tactile sensations.  We hate to generalize too much, but synthetic keyboards also tend to have a lower N-Key Rollover (the ability for a keyboard to handle several simultaneous keystrokes accurately) than their mechanical counterparts – or at least, you’ll likely have a tougher time finding a membrane keyboard with a high N-Key Rollover when compared to a mechanical keyboard.

N-Key Rollover

What’s an N-Key Rollover?

In short, it represents the number of keys that your keyboard can simultaneously register.  Mash your left hand on the home keys on a keyboard with a 3-key Rollover and your system will only be able to register three of those key presses – the “A,” “S,” and “D,” for example.  Any other keys will be ignored.  If you’ll allow this writer to get personal for a moment, I can hold down six keys on my six-key rollover synthetic keyboard and all will appear depressed within Microsoft’s official “ Keyboard Ghosting Demonstration ” app.  Hitting a seventh key anywhere on the keyboard while I’m holding down six, however, does absolutely nothing.

Try out your keyboard on Microsoft's Keyboard Ghosting Demo

Of course, there’s also a general six-key limit (regular keys, not modifiers like CTRL, or Shift, et cetera) for keyboards connected via USB, but keyboard manufacturers tend to come up with creative workarounds for that issue.

Mechanical Keyboards

Back to definitions!  A mechanical keyboard, in contrast, throws out the concept of membranes and replaces those squishy bits of rubber with raw, physical switches underneath each key.  But not each switch is the same – different mechanical keyboards use different switches, which can change up the raw tactile sensation you feel when pressing the key, the physical noise made when you mash the key, and the sheer amount you have to push down before your system registers your input as a keystroke.

As you might have guessed, mechanical keyboards – by their construction – tend to be a wee bit more durable than their synthetic counterparts.  At least, it’s a bit more difficult to break a physical switch than it is to kill a membrane, and mechanical keyboards are typically rated for many, many more keystrokes – up to 50 million, claims popular manufacturer Das Keyboard , versus the ten million or so keystrokes that synthetic keyboards can typically handle sans failure.

The Gigabyte Osmium Aivia uses Cherry MX Red switches which are quieter than their Blue and Brown counterparts.

A manufacturer named ZF Electronics tends to make a significant chunk of the various switches found underneath the keys of today’s mechanical keyboards, marketed under the “Cherry” line.  Thankfully, for those interested in knowing a bit more about the keys in their mechanical keyboard, the various Cherry MX switches are color-coded to match particular parameters, which we’ll briefly explain below as we go over some of the switch characteristics.

Spoiler: There aren’t many.

One way to separate out the different the Cherry MX switches in a mechanical keyboard is to do so by the tactile sensation they offer – which is to say, the little bit of a bump you feel as the keystroke registers.  Linear switches, or switches that offer a smoother press and release (non-tactile), can be found on MX Cherry Red and Cherry Black switches (which, as mentioned, are conveniently color-coded to fit their names).

Cherry Red switches come with a lower actuation force requirement than Cherry Black (Gifs via Daskeyboard)

The key difference between the Red and Black switches is the force required to depress the key in order to register a keystroke: Cherry Red switches come with a lower actuation force requirement than Cherry Black switches, to the tune of 45 cN to 65 cN (centinewtons).  There’s no general school of thought as to which switch is better for gaming per se – that’s a matter of personal preference.  However, these switches might be a little tougher for typing due to the lesser feedback present when pressing; in general, they feel less responsive than their tactile-heavy, clicking counterparts.

The brown , blue and clear switches all offer a bit of a bump when you press them, with the blue being the loudest

The other four Cherry switches – Brown , Blue , Clear , and White – might offer a bit of a bump to register when a key has been pressed, but only two make an audible clicking noise when the key reaches this point (followed by a “clack” as the key ultimately bottoms out).  Like before, the noisier Cherry Blue switch comes with a bit less of an actuation force requirement – the amount you need to press down before a keystroke happens – than its Cherry White counterpart.  Also, Cherry Blue switches are far, far more commonly used than Cherry White switches, though you can likely still order the latter from individual component retailers.

That leaves us with two switches to compare: Cherry Brown and Cherry Clear .  They offer the tactile bump when the keypress is registered, just not the (occasionally annoying) clicking noise. Cherry Brown switches require slightly less force for a keystroke to register than Cherry Clear switches and, as before, are much more commonly found in keyboards than their colorless counterparts.

Do you want or have a mechanical keyboard yourself? Let us know in the comments below.

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