Mechanical Keyboard Showdown

The keyboard is a computer peripheral that many people take for granted. The average user will likely stick with the $5 keyboard that came with their OEM computer until the keyboard dies or they replace the entire computer itself. Looking past the cheap bundled keyboards opens up a wide selection of different brands, designs, and features that a ‘normal’ keyboard can not offer. In this article I will be providing a rundown of some of the higher-end keyboards available on the market — the mechanical keyboards.

Epic Keyboard

Epic Keyboard

You may ask: “What makes a keyboard ‘mechanical’? Aren’t all keyboards ‘mechanical’?” To answer those questions we must look at how different keyboards operate. Most keyboards on the market today use a membrane or rubber-dome actuation device to capture the signal that is given by the user and relay it electronically to the PC. When a user fully depresses a key on a rubber-dome or membrane keyboard, a contact point is pushed onto a convex piece of silicon which makes contact with a PCB and closes a circuit, sending the information to the computer. These keyboards tend to have a ‘spongy’ feeling to them due to the rubber dome and generally have a shorter life-span of 1M to 10 Million keystrokes.

A Rubber Dome on a PCB

A Rubber Dome on a PCB

A mechanical keyboard is different because it uses individual springs and switches underneath each key, rather than a solid membrane. There are two major benefits of any mechanical keyboard: The keys do not need to be fully depressed (bottomed out) to send the signal and the average lifespan is approximately 50 million keystrokes. These keyboards also come in varying designs and switch types that allow the user to choose the key action that is best for them.

The most popular brand of switches are made by Cherry and are called ‘Cherry MX Switches’. Cherry makes several different types of switches, each with its own properties and they are color coded for convenience: Brown, Blue, Black, and Red are the most common.

There are other companies who also make mechanical keyboard switches such as Topre and Unicomp; Unicomp’s switch design is called the ‘Buckling Spring’.

The switches are designated by their action: Linear – a smooth key press from top to bottom; Tactile – a small bump is felt halfway through the key press; and Clicky – means there is an audible noise (click/clack) during the key press but before it bottoms out. The graph below states the major differences between the switch types as well as a few graphics to show how they operate differently:

Name Switch Type Clicky Force Required Distance to Actuation Distance to Bottom Main Purpose
MX Black Linear No 60g 2mm 4mm Gaming
MX Red Linear No 45g 2mm 4mm Gaming
MX Blue Tactile Yes 50g 2mm 4mm Typing
MX Brown Tactile No 45g 2mm 4mm Gaming and Typing
Buckling Spring Tactile Yes 65g 2.3mm 3.7mm Typing
Membrane Varies No ~55-60g Requires full Distance Varies by Model Gaming and Typing

Below is the official datasheet created by Cherry with the specifications for their switches including graphs for the actuation, release, and tactile points.

Cherry MX Datasheet

Below is a YouTube video created by YouTube user undarken showing the sound differences of the 4 major Cherry switches. Below that is a video by YouTube user studiosushi showing the typing sound and action of a Buckling Spring keyboard – the Unicomp Customizer which we will be looking at this article.

The Switches

Cherry MX Black

Cherry MX Black - Source: Overclock.net

The MX Black is a relatively silent linear switch that is made for gaming. There is no tactile bump while pressing the key and it has a very quick response upon release of the key allowing the user to double tap at a faster rate. These keyboards can be used for typing, but because the MX Blacks require a bit more actuation force than the others (65g vs 50g (Blue) and 45g (Brown and Red)) and there is no tactile bump to alert the user the key has been sufficiently pressed to register the keystroke. It is possible to develop some finger fatigue after prolonged use until you get acclimated with it. Two keyboards in this showdown utilize the MX Black switches: The Steelseries 7G and the Ozone Strike.

Cherry MX Red

Cherry MX Red - Source: Overclock.net

The Cherry MX Red switch is the little brother of the MX Black. The only real difference between these two switches is that the Red requires only 45g to actuate instead of the 65g for the MX Black. Unfortunately, we didn’t receive any test models with Red switches for this showdown, but a few available models are: Rosewill RK-9000RE, the Corsair K60, and the Corsair K90. I hope to receive one of these in the future to be able to update this review with my MX Red switch experience.

Cherry MX Blue

Cherry MX Blue - Source: Overclock.net

Cherry MX Blue - Source: Overclock.net

The Cherry MX Blue switch is made for typing and its features are opposite of the MX Black, with a relatively light 50g of actuation force and two forms of feedback – both the tactile bump and the click/clack noise when a key is about half-way depressed. During about a month of testing this switch-type I can say that it is my favorite of the lot for typing, as the MX Blue keys provide the best responsiveness and feedback (both audibly and physically). During gaming sessions with this keyboard I never felt at a disadvantage, although the tactile bump and clicky noise were unnecessary (and potentially annoying) while playing games. One important note about these keys is that they are quite loud; if you are in a room with other people (that are easily bothered or distracted by noise) a model with these switches may not be your best choice. There are two keyboards in the showdown that use the MX Blue switches: The dasKeyboard Model S Ultimate and the Cherry G80-3000 MX.

Cherry MX Brown

Cherry MX Brown - Source: Overclock.net

Cherry MX Brown - Source: Overclock.net

The MX Brown switch combines the best of both the Black/Red switches and the Blue switches into one. I found that it was easily used for both typing and gaming due to the low actuation force required for key press and the tactile bump for typing, while being relatively silent (unless bottoming out the keys). Also, because the release and actuation points are very close the action feels smooth. There is one keyboard in this review with the MX Brown switches: The Rosewill RK-9000BR.

Buckling Spring

Buckling Spring - Source: Overclock.net

Buckling Spring - Source: Overclock.net

The Buckling Spring actuator is one of the oldest designs for the mechanical keyboards. Those familiar with the old IBM Model-M keyboards will feel nostalgic when typing on a keyboard that features the Buckling Spring technology. Similar to the MX Blues, these switches make a noise when they are depressed but, instead of a click, it is a slightly lower pitch tick/tack almost as if you are typing on a typewriter (please refer to the YouTube videos posted above to listen to the action of the keys). This switch type is solely made for typing as it has strong tactile and audible feedback and a further travel distance than the Cherry switches. The typing on this keyboard feels very precise and each key press feels purposeful. I have one keyboard in the showdown that utilizes Buckling Springs: The Unicomp Customizer.

The Keyboards

Steelseries 7G

 

Steelseries 7G

Steelseries 7G

Feature List:

  • Price: $170 (Newegg.com)
  • Gold-plated Cherry MX Black mechanical switches
  • Weight: 3.5 lbs
  • Braided Cables (USB, PS/2, Audio, and USB Hub)
  • 6key rollover via USB and NKRO over PS/2
  • Media Controls via Shortcut key
  • USB and Audio Hub
  • Metal Plate-mounted keys
  • White LEDs
  • Large slide-over-top wrist-rest


The Steelseris 7G uses the Cherry MX Black switches (described in above section) and is one large keyboard, especially when the the included wrist-rest is attached.  The sleek black unit itself feels very heavy and comes with a host of nice features: Braided cabling (with both PS/2 and USB cables), a 2 port USB hub, headphone+microphone hub, media center controls, and a Windows-key replacement to avoid those accidental game-minimizing moments (which is used as the shortcut key for the media controls).  One keyboard design choice that I do not understand is a larger enter key, which forces the the backslash key to be squeezed into the upper row and creates a smaller backspace key.  For gaming that is not much of an issue (how much are you really typing while you are fragging?), but as a network admin – when going to network shares that all begin with \ it definitely took some time to get used to the placement of the key(s).  Beyond that, I have no real issues with the keyboard—typing over an extended period of time became comfortable as I got used to the extra actuation force required to depress the keys.

Ozone Strike

Ozone Strike

Ozone Strike

Close-up of Strike MX Black switches

Up-close view of Strike MX Black Switches

Feature List:

  • Price: $110 (Newegg.com)
  • Gold-plated Cherry MX Black mechanical switches
  • Weight: 2.5 lbs
  • Braided Cables (USB,  Audio, and USB Hub)
  • 6key rollover via USB and NKRO with USB->PS/2 Adapter
  • Media Controls via Shortcut key
  • USB and Audio Hub
  • Clip-on attachable wrist-rest
  • Red LEDs
  • Red-lettered replaceable WASD keys

The Ozone Strike also uses the Cherry MX Black switches and comes with a long braided USB cable and also includes a microphone jack, headset jack, and an extra USB cable for the USB hub. It includes a removable wrist-rest, media control shortcuts (one key replacing the left Windows key), and replaceable WASD keys with red lettering. A couple small issues that I had with the Strike were that the spacebar felt like it was rubbing a tiny bit on the casing and, after about 2 weeks of use, the left shift key started squeaking a little when the key was pressed. These are likely nitpick issues with just the unit I was testing, but I felt they were worth mentioning. When comparing this keyboard versus the Steelseries 7G they are nearly identical in features, with the following exceptions: The Ozone Strike’s keyboard utilizes the normal-sized enter key (thus keeping all of the keys in their place), the Strike requires the use of an adapter to utilize PS/2 ports, and the Ozone model sells for between $40-$60 less depending on the retailer.

dasKeyboard Model S Ultimate

dasKeyboard Model S Ultimate

dasKeyboard Model S Ultimate

Up-close view of dasKeyboard MX Blue Switches

Close-up of dasKeyboard MX Blue Switches

Feature List:

  • Price: $145 (Newegg.com)
  • Gold-plated Cherry MX Blue mechanical switches
  • 3.0 lbs
  • No key cap inscriptions
  • 6key rollover via USB and NKRO with PS/2 adapter
  • Glossy enclosure case
  • Two-port USB Hub
The award for the most unique-looking keyboard in this showdown goes to the dasKeyboard Model S Ultimate. Featuring Cherry MX Blue switches with a sleek black shiny body and matte black unlabeled keys this peripheral is sure to earn some geek-cred from gamers and IT professionals while likely baffling those who hunt and peck to type. This sturdy unit has a very aesthetically pleasing design, with the aforementioned all-black composition and brilliant blue LEDs for the notifiers. A 2-port USB hub is also a nice feature for your mouse, thumb drives, etc. The only real “issue” that I had with the keyboard was when I needed to be precise when typing passwords for myself and other users (as I create or modify user accounts for work). Because of the lack of visual feedback (due to hidden password letters) I had to put my faith in my muscle memory that I was typing correctly, or by counting letters/numbers over to make sure I was not making a mistake. This would not be an issue with the other models from dasKeyboard (as all the rest have letters on the keys), but something noteworthy regarding this particular model.

Cherry G80-3000 MX

Cherry G80-3000 MX

Cherry G80-3000 MX

Feature List:

  • Price: $87 (Amazon.com)
  • Gold-plated Cherry MX Blue mechanical switches
  • Weight: 1 lb
  • USB interface and PS/2 via adapter

Another keyboard that uses the MX Blue switches is manufactured by the same company that makes the switches —  the Cherry G80-3000 MX. This device is relatively bare-bones with no bells and whistles, just a standard keyboard with a relatively vintage aesthetic design. One fault with the keyboard is that it does feel relatively weak and flimsy – the casing flexes very easily when lifted and is substantially lighter than any of the other keyboards in this showdown. This would be fine for a terminal keyboard for typing in commands/orders/etc, but it feels a bit cheap to be used constantly and to justify the $85+ price tag.

Rosewill RK-9000BR

Rosewill RK-9000BR

Rosewill RK-9000BR

Closer view of Rosewill MX Brown Switches

Closer view of Rosewill MX Brown Switches

Feature List:

  • Price: $110 (Newegg.com)
  • Gold-plated Cherry MX Brown mechanical switches
  • Weight: 2.5 lbs
  • Modular cable design for both USB and PS/2 cables
  • Braided and gold-plated USB and PS/2 cables
  • 6key Rollover via USB and Full NKRO via PS/2
  • Red metal inner chassis and Blue notifier LEDs
Rosewill’s mechanical keyboard offering is the RK-9000BR that includes Cherry MX Brown switches and has a relatively basic feature set: There are no macro keys, no USB hub, and no media controls, but the build quality feels sturdy (firm and decently heavy). One nice feature with the keyboard is that it uses a modular cable design, allowing the user to choose if they want to use a PS/2 or USB connection (to prevent usage of the PS/2 USB adapter dongles). Despite having a relatively plain design, the blue LEDs and the red metal backing behind the keys give it some aesthetic flare. Overall the keyboard is a joy to use, it is very comfortable and responsive to my typing and gaming commands and because of the low actuation force required I have not felt any finger fatigue in the weeks that I used the keyboard.

Unicomp Model-M Customizer

Unicomp Model-M Customizer

Unicomp Model-M Customizer

Up-close view of Unicomp Buckling Springs

Up-close view of Unicomp Buckling Springs

Feature List:

  • Price: $80 (pckeyboard.com)
  • Patented Buckling Spring actuator technology
  • Weight: 3.5 lbs
  • USB interface
The Unicomp Customizer is the only mechanical keyboard in this rundown that does not utilize Cherry MX switches, but uses Buckling Spring actuators instead. This unit has a very old-school, vintage look to it based entirely on the IBM Model M design. If you are unfamiliar with the old Model M keyboards, they have been widely considered one of the best typing keyboards of all time, which is why Unicomp purchased this patented technology from Lexmark/IBM and still continue to make them today. While this keyboard is pretty much only made for typing, it is truly excellent at what it does. This heavy peripheral may not be the prettiest or have many special features, but for a precise and enjoyable typing experience this device delivers.

Conclusion

Mechanical keyboards come in a variety of shapes, sizes, and ‘colors’, and with a varying number of features. I feel that each of the switch types are designed to fulfill a main purpose–some are better for gaming and some are better for typing.

For mostly gaming I would select a keyboard that uses the MX Black or Red switches, and if I had to pick a gaming keyboard model out of this showdown I would choose the Ozone Strike because it has almost the same feature-set as the Steelseries 7G but costs significantly less.

If you will only be typing, a keyboard with either MX Blue or Buckling Spring technology would be an excellent choice; overall, my best typing experience came from the Unicomp Customizer.  However, when choosing a strictly typing keyboard (Blues or Bucking Springs) it is important to consider your surroundings due to the noise that each key press makes.

Lastly, if you are looking for a keyboard that fits the need to be both a gaming keyboard and a typing keyboard, I would choose the Rosewill RK-9000BR with Cherry MX Brown switches because it provides a nice balance of a relatively smooth key press and a small tactile bump that is near silent in comparison to the MX Blue and Buckling Spring keyboards.

With the information that I have presented in this article, including facts about the types of switches as well as a handful of keyboard options, I hope that you have gained some insight into which keyboard and switch type would best fit your needs. But, before you decide on a keyboard, I must recommend going to a computer store and trying out the various keyboard switch types for yourself, as what may be comfortable to one person could be annoying to another. Find the keyboard that fits your budget, feature-list, and comfort level, and enjoy a whole new typing experience.

- Don  Fisher (Janus67)

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Discussion
  1. perfect, exactly what i needed! Thank you Janus!! That one bamboo keyboard looks sick tho. please tell me it comes with cherry mx brown switches.....
    Thanks!! Found it

    http://www.ebay.com/itm/Sony-Vaio-PCG-FRV27-PCG-FR130-PCG-NV100-Laptop-Keyboard-1-478-086-22-NEW-/130749744249?pt=PCA_Mice_Trackballs&hash=item1e714ac479

    but the price seems kinda steep for such an old but new part.

    Probably have to tear the thing completly apart to get it out huh?
    I've replaced numerous in dell laptops from stuff that people have spilled, etc. You will just have to find a keyboard for that model. May want to watch eBay.
    Knufire
    Every laptop I've taken apart was relatively easy to replace the keyboard. Sourcing a replacement part is probably harder. It's usually a separate part and connected to the motherboard through a connector. I doubt youll find mechanical replacement though.


    I know mechanical is out of the question, and nothing short of an exact match would work, but finding one supplier of such type of keyboards I have not managed to locate, but will keep on searching.
    PolePosition
    I wonder if it is possible to replace a laptop keyboard? My Sony model NV-100 I purchased in 2002 and more than likely has rubber domed keys has keys which no longer work, such as the "A" key and while I use a USB external keyboard at present, it is a pain to tote along on the road. Most (shops) say throw the laptop in the garbage, but I happen to like and still use it.


    Every laptop I've taken apart was relatively easy to replace the keyboard. Sourcing a replacement part is probably harder. It's usually a separate part and connected to the motherboard through a connector. I doubt youll find mechanical replacement though.
    I wonder if it is possible to replace a laptop keyboard? My Sony model NV-100 I purchased in 2002 and more than likely has rubber domed keys has keys which no longer work, such as the "A" key and while I use a USB external keyboard at present, it is a pain to tote along on the road. Most (shops) say throw the laptop in the garbage, but I happen to like and still use it.
    Yep sounds a lot like (or more specifically) is the same as the unicomp keyboard. Definitely one heavy keyboard but it feels great to type on.

    A few of the keyboards in the review are available for purchase in the classifieds. ;)

    @pole

    I would love to get in some more keyboards for review, but it is a matter of having a company send them over as I don't have a budget to buy hardware just for review. Some are easier to work with than others :)
    Great writing & thank you ! :thup:

    Here mine, a really proud owner of this mother of all mechanical keyboard, the IBM M series weapon grade keyboard that I'm currently using at my main desktop, and have been been using it since early '90, oh yeah, its made in USA. ;)

    This is an old pic when it was dirty. :eh?:



    PS : Really, no kidding, I called it a weapon grade cause its even heavier than today common household inkjet printer :sly:, since the main chassis inside is made from a big piece of thick steel plate.

    .
    Nice informative review Janus, and really helped me decide the type of keyboard I will eventually purchase. I'm still using the one that came with my Sony PCV-E203 Desktop in 1998, but is this color that is between purple and grey, and doesn't look exactly good with my all new black setup. I definitely want lighted keys with easy to read keycaps even though I rarely look at the keyboard to type, but sometimes look for special characters/commands that I don't often use and are hard to find. PS/2 is a must.

    It appears though that certain features (like media keys, USB ports, headset input,etc) have to be sacrificed in order to get the other more important features such as those with the Rosewill Rk-9000BR.

    It would be good to also include some other brands in this review such as Ducky, Deck, Razer to name a few instead of just he Editor's choices, but I guess every review has its limited as to how much content can be included in a review, and you certainly covered the major points about mechanical keyboards, which was the purpose of the review.

    I thought this looked quite different and unique, made of bamboo

    I've recently converted to a mechanical keyboard (Corsair K90). At first it felt really weird, but after a week or so it felt really good. Now when I'm using my kb at work, it feels awkward. If you are thinking about upgrading your keyboard, spend the extra money, it's worth it.
    bcsizemo
    I can't stand clicky keyboards....probably something to do with having classes in high school with nothing but IBM's. The sound of 20+ keyboards going at once has scarred me for life.

    My favorite keyboard is the old Gateway Anykey. Onboard programmability, remap, and repeat speeds; not to mention an entire extra set of function keys and diagonal arrow keys. The only down side is the fact it's huge...



    A lot of these newer mech boards aren't really that noisy. Especially when you don't bottom the key out.
    Very well done and thank you. I use a M$ 4000 ergonomic and look forward to more mechanical key options. The one I like best so far is from Kinesis but $300...as much as a good CPU processor. :)
    I can't stand clicky keyboards....probably something to do with having classes in high school with nothing but IBM's. The sound of 20+ keyboards going at once has scarred me for life.

    My favorite keyboard is the old Gateway Anykey. Onboard programmability, remap, and repeat speeds; not to mention an entire extra set of function keys and diagonal arrow keys. The only down side is the fact it's huge...



    Those keyboards are so weird to me. But I'd love to try typing on one!

    I'm glad you like the keyboard. It was actually my favorite of the bunch for being so well rounded for both typing and gaming.
    Been loving my new Rosewill. I've been doing a ton of typing an Diablo 3 since I got it and although it is taking a bit of time to half press each key, my typing speed is getting faster and faster, its actually fun to use. D3 is great for when I start spamming a key, like Space to skip dialog, very quick. I highly recommend this KB to everyone.

    Thanks Janus.

    And if you want ergonomic check out this Maltron shown on ocnet

    I think it looks somewhat ergo. If you look at the benefits page the way that the keys angle in somewhat it can do it. And with that it actually has a similar split to the M$ Natural or logitech wave