Massdrop 101: Intro to Mechanical Keyboards

Why would I want a mechanical keyboard?
They’re more ergonomic, more durable, and more customizable than modern membrane keyboards. Plus, they’re a whole lot of fun! The question is, why wouldn’t you want a mechanical keyboard?
But what is a mechanical keyboard?
Most keyboards manufactured today are not mechanical. Whereas mechanical keyboards utilize a physical switch mechanism beneath each key, most modern keyboards are fitted with a rubber membrane beneath the keypad. It’s composed of collapsible rubber domes that connect circuits each time a key is pressed, requiring users to push the membrane down completely to activate the circuit. The result: greater finger strain, slower typing speeds, and a “mushy” typing experience. Rubber membranes are also quick to deteriorate, which means a shorter lifespan for your keyboard.
OK, so how are mechanical keyboards different?
The physical switch mechanisms positioned beneath each key of a mechanical keyboard are composed of a plastic stem, two metal contacts, and a spring. Once a key is pressed, the stem pushes the spring, allowing the metal contacts to touch and register an actuation. Unlike rubber dome keyboards, mechanical switches require that you press the key only slightly. The result: less finger strain, faster typing speeds. Plus, most mechanical switches boast a lifespan of 50 million actuations, which means they’ll last decades with normal use.
How many different types of switches could there be?
Cherry, Matias, Gateron—there are several companies that manufacture switches, and the switches themselves fall into three main categories, plus a few subcategories. Some switches cater to gamers, others to typists.
Linear: Linear switches require an even amount of force—typically between 35 and 65 grams—to actuate a keystroke. Unlike other types of switches, linear switches are not made to provide the audible or tactile feedback that lets you know when you’ve hit the actuation point. With linear switches, the only way to know a keystroke has gone through is to see the letter, number, or symbol appear on your screen. The most common linear switches are Red and Black, both of which are desirable for gaming, as they allow for rapid key presses.
Tactile Clicky: Tactile clicky switches provide feedback in the form of a tactile bump and audible click every time a switch is actuated. This is useful for touch-typing, as the click alerts you that the keystroke has registered. These switches have given mechanical keyboards a reputation for being considerably louder than their rubbery counterparts. Many manufacturers add a tiny O-ring to the bottom of a keycap to prevent it from bottoming out, which provides a more comfortable typing experience as well as muffles the click.
Tactile Non-Clicky: Cherry, one of the most popular switch manufacturers, makes switches that provide a tactile feedback, known as a “bump,” without the noise of tactile clicky switches. Clears and Browns are immensely popular among the Massdrop community. They provide a satisfying typing experience, have an easily identifiable actuation point, and are quiet for use in offices and shared spaces.

Cool. So what about the fun part?
Mechanical keyboards allow you to customize the look of your keyboard in a variety of ways, the most common of which is done by modifying the keycaps. These are the things you hit with your fingers when typing. They can be made with any color of the rainbow, or printed with any font imaginable (or no font at all!). And with the help of 3D printers, keycaps can be made into shapes, abstract designs, and even recognizable faces.
And then there’s backlighting. Many mechanical keyboards are equipped with a full spectrum of LEDs, situated beneath the keys, that light up at different intervals according to the keyboard's pre-programmed modes. Reactive mode, for example, will illuminate only the key that has been pressed. Ripple mode, on the other hand, creates an LED wave that spreads outward from the key that has been pressed. Many of these keyboards even allow users to program the backlighting modes themselves.
What are the keycaps made of?
Most keycaps are made from injection-molding thermoplastic, which is the process of melting plastic using heat and injecting it under pressure into a steel mold. The most common types of plastic are ABS and PBT.
ABS plastic, short for "acrylonitrile butadiene styrene," is the most commonly used plastic, mainly because the material is less expensive.
PBT plastic, short for "polybutylene terephthalate," is one of the community’s most desired materials for keycaps. Hard and durable, it lasts decades. In fact, a PBT keycap from the ‘80s looks much the same today that it did when it was first used. PBT’s durability comes from its resiliency to heat. However, this resiliency also makes it difficult to mold, which increases manufacturing costs.

OK, I want to get my first mechanical keyboard. Where do I start?
That all depends on your desired experience. If you're using the keyboard primarily for typing, you might check out the Realforce, a highly respected keyboard made by a Japanese company called Topre. The board is fitted with the company's proprietary switches, which are designed to provide a slight snap when the key has been actuated, and to actuate long before the key has bottomed out. The result is a super-tactile, super-durable board.
What if I’m more into gaming?
Among many others, the Corsair K70 is a good bet. Its tough aluminum body can take a beating, while its highly customizable layout allows users to assign macro keys and program lighting modes. Plus, it comes with N-key rollover, which means that each key pressed will be detected, even when several keys are actuated at once. What's more, this sleek keyboard is equipped with dedicated multimedia controls for volume, pause/play, skip, and more.
How about other options?
Those are just two examples of the many, many mechanical keyboards out there. And each one brings something different to the table. Half the fun of the hobby is getting your hands dirty—experimenting with different switches, keycaps, backlighting, and functionality. After all, the community is founded on the idea that mechanical keyboards offer a better, more tactile hands-on experience. And isn't that the very essence of using a keyboard?

Any questions?
Leave ‘em in the comment section below, and someone from the community will be happy to help. Have personal recommendations or a cool keyboard setup to share? We’d love to hear about them—and see pictures, too!
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May 25, 2016
Has anyone tried the Epic Gear Defiant keyboard? I recently got mine and can say it's quite a unique customizable experience.
May 25, 2016
Pretty cool guys good work :)
May 21, 2016
Where do I start? - 200$ Topre Realforce
I usually recommend ~30€ used Cherry G80 from Ebay as a start. Pick a good looking one and see if you like it. Oh yeah put the keycaps through the dish washer before you use it.
May 21, 2016
LOL, I thought Topre was a weird starter board recommendation too. I can't really criticize though... I started with a $250 box of parts to build my ErgoDox Infinity.
May 20, 2016
I have found the ergodox layout to be really easy to get in to and have replaced most of my keyboards atm. For me, if you go MX, go zealios and ergodox. Full, tkl and 70% go topre all the way.
May 13, 2016
We seriously need a Topre custom keyset. When can we get one of you brave designers to launch one. GMK, SP, I don't care, this needs to happen.
Has to be Topre that makes them as well, GMK, SP have no Topre stems :( Though that would be siiiiiccckkkkkkkk.
May 13, 2016
Well, then I say we send Yanbo on a collaboration project with a fake EK badge and while there, hijack the molds.
May 13, 2016
Topre proprietary switches? I think I'll stick with my Open Source Switches
I like that jukebox set ;) When in doubt remember, Topre is the way.
May 13, 2016
1976 nice :P
It does have the craziest cult following of any set, makes sense to see it twice =P