So, you’ve seen or heard about mechanical keyboards and now you want to get one, but you don’t know where to start.
I was in your shoes around this time last year, and all the information I was seeing got a bit overwhelming.
“I need at least a 65%, I can’t work without arrow keys.”
“Linear is good for gaming.”
“The group buy for that is still ongoing.”
Sure, people who have been into mechanical keyboards for while will probably understand these terms in an instant, but for a newbie in the hobby? It sounds like a foreign language.
A year later, I’d like to believe I learned a few things which I hope can help fellow newbies.
Here are three things to consider when getting your first mechanical keyboard:
1 – Layout
As I was researching for my first mechanical keyboard, I was wondering what the “best” layout is. I later found out there is no such thing. It depends on which keys you are using, and which ones you can live without.
Here’s a quick summary of the common ones:
- Full-sized Keyboard / 100% – Probably the layout we are most used to. It has the “main part”, the arrow keys, and the number pad.
- TKL (Ten Key Less) – Same layout as a full-sized keyboard, but without the number pad on the right side.
- 75% – Almost the same keys as a TKL, but layout is more compressed resulting to a smaller keyboard.
- 65% – The 75% but without the function keys on top.
- 60% – The smallest of the common layouts, this is basically just the “main part” (letters, numbers, basic symbols, and the modifier keys).
There are a few more layouts available (like the 96%, which is like a more compressed full-sized keyboard) but the five above should represent the most common options in terms of what keys are present and missing.
So, which one should you get?
It depends. Observing your current keyboard use can help you in deciding.
Do you really need the number pad? Do you use the Function Keys at all? Can you live without the dedicated arrow keys?
For me, I’m okay without the Function Keys and the Number Pad, but I have a hard time without dedicated arrow keys. This led me into getting a 65% for my first mechanical keyboard.
2 – Switches
Aside from the layout, switches are the next big decision you have to make when buying your first mechanical keyboard. For some, it might even be a bigger decision than the layout.
But what exactly are switches?
One of the thing that differentiates mechanical keyboards from “the other kind” (which are called membrane keyboards) are the switches. These are the “keys” of the keyboard, and will dictate a big part of your experience.
Switches are generally grouped into three categories:
- Clicky. These are the loudest of the three and are generally preferred for typing (hopefully in a place where the sound won’t annoy the people around you). This is the “blue” switch in the basic options.
- Tactile. These are not as loud as the Clicky ones, although it will still be heard. People say this is the more versatile option, or the compromise, depending on how you look at it. This is the “brown” switch in the basic options.
- Linear. These are the most quiet of the three. They are also smoother to press, and is usually preferred for gaming. This is the “red” switch in the basic options.
Does that mean you can’t type on red switches, or you can’t play games on the blue ones?
Not necessarily. Similar to layout, this is also very dependent on personal preference. The categories just gives you an idea of the basic properties of the switch.
There are a lot more variations with differences in both the feeling when they’re pressed as well as the sound they make. They still generally fall into one of the three categories though.
Even though I’m not into PC games, I was warned that the clicky blues might be too loud for my liking so I went with tactile browns for my first mechanical keyboard.
3 – Features
Unlike the layout and switches, these next few considerations are a bit more straight forward. They however will still be depend on your preference. Your choice will probably also affect the price.
Wired or Wireless
A wired keyboard means you don’t have to worry about charging and response time (the difference is not that noticeable in typing, but I imagine it might make a difference when gaming).
A wireless one makes for neater desk. It can either be via a 2.4Ghz dongle or Bluetooth. Some keyboards offer both options.
One that connects via Bluetooth allows you to easily switch between devices (including when using the keyboard to type in your mobile phone and/or tablet). Most of the wireless ones I’ve seen can also be used with a wire.
RGB or Non-RGB Light
The keyboard’s light helps to read the keys when your light are off, especially if you’re using shine through keycaps. Some prefer RGB lights for the added effect, while other prefer non-RGB ones. The RGB ones can often be programed to show a just one color (as well as other lighting effects).
Hot Swappable or Non-Hot Swappable
This one refers to how easy or difficult it is to change switches. With Hot Swappable ones, you can easily pull switches out and change them; as easy as changing keycaps.
For Non-Hot Swappable ones, you can still change the switches but you’ll have to desolder them and solder in the new ones. If you know how to solder (and you enjoy doing it), the non-hot swappable ones are the less expensive option. This is also a good option for someone who already found the “perfect” switch since you probably won’t be replacing switches that much, if at all.
If you’re still looking for the perfect switch for you, or if you’re the type who’d want to try new switches from time to time, then the Hot Swappable option might be better.
My preference were wireless, Non-RGB and Hot Swappable, although I couldn’t find a non-RGB version of the keyboard I liked so I ended up getting an RGB one.
There are a lot more factors to consider when choosing keyboards, such as case material, keycap material and profile, as well as software compatibility. Several types of custom modifications can also be done to personalize your keyboard further. But I think it’s easier to learn about those after getting your first keyboard.
As with most hobbies, it will also be helpful if you set your budget. Getting into Mechanical Keyboards can be a rabbit hole, so setting your budget early can and will definitely help.
Aside from the the cost of the keyboard itself, remember to set aside some buffer in case you want to buy a different set of keycaps and other accessories.
Disclaimer: I’m still relatively new to mechanical keyboards so I may have missed some things. If ever I did, or if I got something incorrect, I’d appreciate if you can tell me so I can make corrections. Thank you.
// By Francis Abad