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Mechanical vs Membrane

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Having already discussed some of the early things to consider in the world of mechanical keyboards, it seems appropriate to take a step back and answer the obvious question - why should I even care about mechanical keyboards in the first place? This might be a solved problem to some of us, but if you’re stumbling across this early in your discovery of the mech keys hobby, you’ve come to the right place.  Why should I care so much about my keyboard? Back when I first joined the hobby, the prevailing sales pitch for mechanical keyboards was “why would you spend $1,000 on a custom PC build only to use a $10 cheapo keyboard as your main physical interface with the computer?” While this argument has become a bit of a cliche and fallen out of favor, there is still some truth to the argument. And once you’ve decided to upgrade your keyboard from the pack-in/freebie model, you’re faced with a decision about what to move to. Do you get a nicer (probably ‘gamer’) membrane keyboard? Or do you make the leap to the world of mechanical keyboards?  Membrane Dominating the keyboard market by the early-to-mid-90s, membrane keyboards (specifically ‘rubber dome over membrane’ keyboards) supplanted older mechanical keyboard designs due to their significantly lower cost to manufacture. Consumers came to expect keyboards and mice as free add-ons to their computer purchase, meaning manufacturers needed to cut costs and deliver a minimum viable product. 
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Image Credit: Daniel Beardsmore on deskthority These membrane keyboards use a rubber sheet filled with a grid of domes with hard pads on the bottom as their “switch” mechanism. Below the rubber sheet is a sandwich of “membrane” layers (hard plastic sheets - hence ‘rubber dome over membrane’). When a key is pressed down, the pad pushes the top membrane layer into the bottom layer at that key position, bridging a path between membrane layers. This bridging completes a circuit that the keyboard controller detects, subsequently sending a key press signal to the computer. Cheap materials and the membrane design result in an incredibly mushy and terrible typing experience. It gets the job done, but we can do better.  Mechanical Keyboards
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Image Credit: @holdingback

Mechanical keyboards used to just be called ‘keyboards’. They are the original keyboard category, replaced by membrane keyboards as described above. Of course, over the years the variety of what is called a ‘mechanical keyboard’ has grown, so there are a few different types. From the old IBM buckling spring keyboards to modern Cherry MX keyboards, you’ll find all sorts of niches in between to satiate your every fantasy. We’re not going to dive into the deep end today though. Instead we’ll focus on the main reasons to go mechanical - broadly speaking. Spoiler alert: most of them revolve around customizationBenefits of mechanical keyboards
  • Repairability
  • Feel
  • Sound
  • Layout
  • Programmability
  • Aesthetics

Repairability
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Image Credit: @lolcatz270 If something goes wrong with your membrane keyboard, you’re probably going to toss it out and get a new one. But wouldn’t it be nice if you could instead take it apart and replace a faulty component to return it to its full working glory? Nearly every type of mechanical keyboard has some sort of discrete component to it - be it discrete key switches used in Cherry MX, Alps, hall effect, and even Space Invader keyboards; or the barrels, springs, and hammers used in buckling spring keyboards. Regardless of what goes wrong or needs to be replaced, chances are you can find parts or disassemble far enough to clean a dirty component.  Feel
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Image Credit: Drop.com The possibilities for modifying the feel of a mechanical keyboard are nearly endless. At the most basic, you have the three different types of MX switches to consider. Beyond that, however, are near-infinite variations on these tried-and-true designs that tweak spring weight, slider geometry and material, degrees of lubrication, and so on. In addition to switches, there are case design considerations as well; you can use a keyboard implementing a unique mounting method or materials to impact how it feels as well. And this isn’t even considering everything non-MX (yeah, I need to mention buckling spring again - or even its big brother, beamspring).  Sound Sound is very similar to feel in that there is a lot of focus on customizing it in this hobby. Most of the things that are changed to impact feel will also impact sound in some way, and on top of that the materials will affect sound to a further degree. So while you can get a pretty good idea of how a keyboard will feel by combining various components together, the way that all those pieces affect the sound of the keyboard can be a little more difficult to predict. Metal cases are well known to add a “ping” characteristic to the sound profile, and dampening materials can make everything sound lower pitched and more “thock”y. Suffice to say that there are loads of opinions on sound out there and it’s not exactly a standardized vocabulary, so reading about sound can be quite tricky. Sound test videos are a good starting point but keep in mind the effect that room acoustics and recording setup will have on those.  Layout
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Image Credit: @HoffmanMyster Layout can take one of three directions: physical keyboard layout (size), physical key layout (within a given size/shape), and specific key position layout (what I would consider to fall under “Programmability”, below). Simply put, there are (again) tons more options for all of these factors with mechanical keyboards. Do you want a tenkeyless layout omitting the numberpad, do you want only the bare minimum required to type in order to maximize desk space and hope to improve your ergonomics, or do you just want to try something crazy and wacky (insert keyboard in the shape of a butcher knife)? You can do all of these and more with mechanical keyboards. And once you’ve got your shape and size determined, you can move the position of switches within that shape to tweak things to your liking; make the alpha cluster ortholinear, split larger keys into smaller sized keys to add more functionality, or even add rotary encoder knobs. See the swiss cheese PCBs above for an example of how many different layouts these keyboards can support in a single design.  Programmability
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Image Credit: Drop.com While you can do some level of reprogramming the functionality of a given key with a non-mechanical keyboard, these solutions are usually limited and dependent on running an application on the computer you’re using. Those programming changes wouldn’t carry over to another computer, and certainly wouldn’t make a difference if you used the keyboard with an iPad, for example. This is where on-board reprogramming comes in. Most non-introductory mechanical keyboards will allow you to customize the specific key layout using software like QMK, VIA, or Vial (among others). These changes to the layout are then flashed to the keyboard itself, effectively hardcoding those modifications to travel with the keyboard. Such changes can include alternate layouts (Dvorak, Colemak, or international), moving left Ctrl to the Caps Lock position, changing \| to Backspace and making better use of the backspace position with a split-backspace configuration (see layout customization above ;) ), and Function layers to switch between various setups or temporarily give access to an assortment of custom macros or other keys. Again - nearly endless possibilities.  Aesthetics
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Image Credit: @alexku85 The customization theme continues… mechanical keyboards allow for - you guessed it - near endless aesthetic customizations. From the material and color of the keyboard itself to the switches (visible if using a low-profile case) and keycaps on top, the world is your oyster. As the hobby has exploded in the last few years, so have the options available to us. You can surely find a keycap set themed around something you’re interested in, or featuring a colorway (set of colors) that piques your interest. There’s really so much to aesthetics that I can’t possibly do it justice in this short article, so please do yourself a favor and browse the mech keys subreddit or instagram to see what people have already put together.  What grabbed your interest in mechanical keyboards?
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Nebur
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Nov 23, 2022
"Cheap materials and the membrane design result in an incredibly mushy and terrible typing experience." Stopped reading after that one.
Gotta say, one of the most under appreciated parts of the hobby is the is the ergo community creating and sharing designs that can't effectively be mass produced reasonably due to lack of interest. But even if you aren't going the weird ergo route, So many of us are typing for work all day that building a kit that feels good is well worth it. IMO sound is the worst part about mechanicals. I've built great sounding boards that are a joy to use at home but I can't seem to build a board that feels as great to me and is quiet enough that I don't think twice about bringing it into an office setting.
I mostly use tactiles and have been disappointed with most options I've tried like the Boba U4s for producing a high pitched ping. I should give linear switches a try, but I actually just got a set of Haimu Whisper silent tactile switches this past weekend and put them in the sense75. They might technically be the least silent "silent" switches I've tried but they don't have the annoying spring ping. My current office is small and quiet much of the time with most people just typing on laptop and hybrid wfh schedules meaning not many are ever in at the same time. At my last job I never thought twice about keyboard sounds because, short of using clickey switches, you weren't going to producer enough noise for anyone to notice.
sietaiI tend to have the same experience with tactiles, and AFAIK the best (only?) solution is to lube the springs. Tedious and maybe not worth it for you, but something to consider.
Real nice write up!!! I have to admit… I went through a phase where I loved membrane keyboards. When I built my first custom PC, selecting every part (and spending about $700 in 2013), I spent $12 on a Roswell keyboard 😅 I’m not saying I loved THAT keyboard… I was working in fast food, and my limited budget was going towards good “permanent” parts while I skimped out on things I thought I could upgrade to be really nice better, and that included my keyboard. Literally, painful junk 😂 Like most people, I believe, I got used to membrane keyboards when laptops became powerful enough to be your primary or only computer. And I was living in an alternate universe called “Macintosh.” Here’s where the positives were: short travel key presses, low profile caps with broad “faces” that didn’t matter if you pressed off-center, quiet, safer from small spills and easy to clean, essentially great laptop companions. Apple refined their membrane keyboards to the point where it was weird to try anything else… the Apple’s “Magic Keyboard” is still my wife’s favorite, and that is a $100 membrane keyboard! However, the broad scope of membrane keyboard examples leave much to be desired. Many require a firmer press, all require the keycap to be pressed the full way down to bottoming out, two factors which require a more deliberate typing style lest you miss some letters. My fingers tire faster when typing more than briefly. My wife’s Compaq and Toshiba laptop keyboards from college just felt yucky! It was as if they stuck to the membrane a bit when I released pressure; if my $12 membrane board felt like tapping my finders directly on a table, these other membrane boards felt like tapping on chewing gum! The one membrane keyboard I tried that actually had a longer key travel distance was Apple’s acrylic “Pro” keyboard… they attempted to use membranes there to emulate a full-size mechanical keyboard with a full-size 100% key and number pad layout, full-size key caps, full-length keypress travel… but it has the absolute heaviest actuation force that I’ve ever experienced, has mushier and mushier feedback along the way down, and a soft rebound accompanied by a sound that is no thocc and all slapped-mashed-potatoes. Apologies to anyone that loves this unique keyboard, but for me it ranks as the absolute worst! I’ve been enjoying a few forays into Mechanical keyboards. I have a Gateron Yellow ENTR and Halo True ENTR (https://drop.com/talk/62256/keys-to-success), plus a wireless keyboard I’ve been using to explore “silent” tactile switches. Long story short, I agree with the Hoff here, but my favorite part so far has been the springy, bouncy feel that doesn’t necessarily require a bottomed-out press. It just feels nicer with long writing tasks!
(Edited)
The Cube was art… I was kind of giddy when Apple released the Cylinder (err, the previous Mac Pro form factor), and sad while working at Apple to see that I had to take receipts and trash out of the top air vents from our demo unit on display almost every day. Computers, Keyboards, work spaces in general… people understand that function is important, but aesthetics are all too easy to overlook, and then they miss out on the welcoming satisfaction of sitting down to work at a “sorted out” and inspirational space. …. which reminds me, I need to clear and organize my desk 😂
EvshrugSo true. And speaking of organizing desks... I need to get on that too. Every time I think I've got it under control, some project forces me to litter my desk with stuff and it takes ages to clean it back up.
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