Ars Technica Guide to Keyboards: Mechanical, Membrane and Buckling Springs

Arich Lawson

Your keyboard is the thread that connects you to your computer. The way a keyboard feels—from pressing down on each key and resetting to the frame of the board's chassis—has a direct impact on your typing experience, affecting accuracy, speed, and fatigue.

We've dug into the joys of quality keyboards and the thrill of customization before here at Ars Technica. But what really makes one type of keyboard feel better than another? People say membrane keyboards are soft, but why? What about cult following keyboards? Which is better, decades-old IBM keyboards or expensive Topres?

In this guide, we'll look at how some of the most popular keyboard types work and how their differences affect typing.

Mechanical keyboards

Mechanical keyboards are considered by many to be the king of keyboards. Mechanical keyboards are generally more tactile because their keys provide distinct feedback for each press. With customization options that affect the feel, look, and sound, mechanical keyboards are ideal for users who want to change individual parts to get the exact feel they're looking for.

So why do they feel so good to type? Bye.

The switch under each mechanical keyboard key has more components, moving parts, and travel compared to a membrane keyboard, making pressing the buttons more substantial. Depressing the mechanical switch sends its plastic shaft downward, while the spring provides resistance. As the plastic shaft moves downward, it allows the switch's two metal leaves to make physical contact, closing a circuit and sending a signal to the keyboard's printed circuit board, or PCB. (Check This article from Kinetic Labs for an overview of the basics of mechanical keyboard PCBs). Depending on the design of the shaft, the keypress may go down smoothly (in linear switches), with a visible bump along the way (tactile switches), or with a bump and a click sound (clicky switches).

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When the button is released, the spring creates feedback that resets the switch, during which the plastic slider rises vertically and separates the metal leaves of the switch again.

Mechanical switches usually work this way, but some modern examples modify the formula, such as optical switches (which operate depending on the shaft of the switch traveling through a light beam). Hall effect switches. In addition, Vermilo makes switches that work like a standard mechanical switch, but instead of touching the metal contact points, the metal points come very close to each other during key presses. This changes the electrostatic capacitance of the electric field between the two contacts, resulting in the input (these electrostatic capacitance switches work differently from topresses, which we'll get to later).

Vermilow's illustration of a static mechanical switch in action (left) and one of its electrostatic capacitive switches in action (right).
Zoom in / Vermilow's illustration of a static mechanical switch in action (left) and one of its electrostatic capacitive switches in action (right).

Mechanical keyboards also offer customization options that make the typing experience easier. Mechanical keyboard customization options include switch type, keycap sizes, shapes, and material; A variety of cases, gaskets and plate mounting styles; and applications of foam, lube and stabilizers. Conventional membrane keyboards don't allow this kind of customization.

Some also find that the feedback and travel of the mechanical keys helps with this Physical discomfort Related to frequent typing. While companies often market the short key travel of scissor switches as a way to type faster, mechanical switches help with speed and accuracy due to their unique keys and tactile feel. (Let's look at scissor switch keyboards for a bit.) Also, some mechanical switches require a small key and/or travel to operate, which also helps with speed and the amount of energy exerted when typing.

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