Richard Kim, Writer
As Covid-19 has forced people indoors, many bored people have dove into niche hobbies to pass the time. The Custom Mechanical Keyboard hobby, a once small hobby, has exploded in popularity as people found themselves stuck working inside their homes, raising the importance of desk space and work environment.
Mechanical keyboards have allowed people to save more space, type faster, and make long typing sessions much more enjoyable. These factors combined have allowed mechanical keyboards to rise in popularity exceptionally, reaching their peak popularity around June 2020.
The hype around mechanical keyboards stems from how a physical switch is used. This is different from the switches commonly found on Microsoft and Apple keyboards that use a rubber dome assisting with the up and down movement. Mechanical switches provide a very distinct keypress that contrasts with the mushy feeling from rubber dome switches.
Contrasting from rubber dome switches which only actuate (pressing till the key produces an input) towards the end of the keypress, mechanical switches often actuate in the middle of the keypress. This allows for faster and less tiring typing. Another perk of mechanical switches is that users can choose the feeling of the switches: from clicky to smooth linear switches.
Due to the thousands of choices within the mechanical keyboard hobby, ranging from switch type to plate mounting option. Many looking-to-be-enthusiasts have flocked to Reddit and YouTube for help; since the boost in popularity, the r/mechanicalkeyboards subreddit has nearly reached 1 million members. YouTube has also boosted the popularity of the hobby with content creators teaching beginners how to find, buy, and mod their future keyboards.
This article similarly serves to educate and help anyone interested in the mechanical keyboard hobby to select and buy their first mechanical keyboard, to help select a keyboard size, case, PCB (Printed Circuit Board), plate, switches, and keycaps.
Readers should keep in mind that while buying the different parts of the keyboard, it is incredibly important to make sure all parts are compatible in size. Even more important, readers should realize that attaining the different parts of their keyboard can take months to possibly years due to the limited groupbuys. Groupbuys are a limited first-come, first-serve purchasing system, making it difficult to get ahold of popular limited keyboard parts.
Most importantly, anyone interested in entering the hobby should be prepared to drop hundreds to, possibly, a thousand dollars to buy a mid-tier to high-end keyboard.
The first factor many interested enthusiasts look for is the size and layout of their keyboard. Custom keyboards often use custom layouts that have added or removed keys.
Many enthusiasts run into an issue where their deskspace cannot compensate for the space taken by the numpad and arrow keys. So instead, they opt for a 65% layout, losing their function keys, numpad, and condensing some areas of the board to fit the arrow keys.
An advantage of mechanical keyboards is that despite losing keys, many mechanical keyboards have access to software that allows lost keys to be accessed by using simple key binds. For example, the function 1 key can be accessed on the 65% keyboard by pressing function + 1. This keyboard is incredibly comfortable for productivity as the arrow keys are located closer than where they would be in the 100% layout.
Another essential part of the keyboard is its case, as it affects both the visual aesthetics and the acoustics of the keyboard. Cases have a wide range of prices due to the different materials and shapes keyboard cases have.
Plastic cases are the cheapest option, providing the most hollow and inconsistent sound from the three materials. Plastic cases are incredibly rare as they are typically avoided for custom keyboard builds.
Wood and acrylic cases are the next cheapest option, providing a deeper yet poppy-like sound signature. However, the aesthetics of each case are complete opposites; wood provides a smooth finish that does not allow light to shine through. Acrylic on the other hand is transparent, allowing light to shine through the case, allowing for bright RGB lighting within the board.
The most expensive choice of all materials is aluminum cases; these cases are hefty in weight and provide a clean, metallic finish, producing a high-pitched ping-like sound. Plates also determine the mounting style of the keyboard, a very large and confusing task this article will not discuss.
The PCB of the keyboard is the brain of the keyboard; where all the switches are mounted to.
The most common PCB-type are solderable. This means that the switches of the keyboard must be soldered in to fuse the switches to the PCB. This often entails stressful work due to having to work with small solder joints and the possibility of breaking the PCB. However, many people argue that soldering is fairly easy and is not something to worry about.
However, with the rise of the mechanical keyboard hobby, hot-swap boards have become more accessible to enthusiasts. Hotswap boards negate the need to solder the keyboard switches, instead, the user only needs to push the switch into the hot-swap socket.
Other neat and less practical features of some PCBs include the choice of underglow lighting and Bluetooth connectivity. Features like this can be changed by using the software/firmware provided with the keyboard.
On top of the PCB is the plate, and the plate serves the purpose to ensure that switches firmly stay in place once entered into the PCB. This stops switches from rubbing against the PCB as well, increasing the longevity of the PCB. However, it should be known that not all keyboards feature a plate due to the mounting style. With a large collection of different materials, this article serves to quickly summarize the general feel and acoustics of the three most common plate materials.
- Aluminum – A hard, sturdy surface that does not flex, offering a high-pitched sound profile.
- Brass – Similar to Aluminum’s physical traits, however, brass offers a deeper, more solid, and full sound profile.
- Polycarbonate – A more flexible material that offers a much softer, yet poppier sound profile.
Arguably the most important component of the keyboard, key switches largely dictate the feel and acoustics of a keyboard. As the number of unique switches has exponentially increased, it would be impossible to write a review on every single one. Therefore, this article will only focus on the three main categories of mechanical switches.
- Clicky – Like in the name, clicky switches are clicky, featuring a very sharp bump while actuating the switch. The sound is high-pitched and reminiscent of the sound produced by flipping a light switch.
- Linear – Linear switches require a consistent amount of force to actuate, allowing for a very smooth experience. Linear switches do not have a very distinct sound profile.
- Tactile – Tactile switches are smooth but at some part of their actuation, there is a “bump” that requires extra force to actuate.
Switch preference is entirely up to the user and it is wise for an interested enthusiast to try out these three switch types before selecting a switch to buy. However, avid gamers should opt for linear switches as linear switches allow for smoother, more precise keystrokes.
Part of the mechanical switches are stabilizers; these ensure that larger keys, such as the shift and spacebar, evenly travel down when actuated. Many enthusiasts lean towards the Durock V2 Stabilizers due to their great performance and relatively “low” price.
Enthusiasts should most certainly consider modding their switches and stabilizers to improve the feel and sound. The most common mod is to add lubricant to selective parts of the switches and stabilizers to smoothen out the travel of each part. Enthusiasts should research the process before attempting the mod as there is a small risk of damaging a switch or stabilizer.
Keycaps are the most aesthetically pleasing and a surprisingly significant factor in the sound profile of any keyboard. The two most common keycap materials are ABS (Acrylonitrile Butadiene Styrene) and PBT (Polybutylene Terephthalate). Both keycap materials are fairly common however ABS is the most popularly used material. Both materials have different advantages, however, most keyboard enthusiasts do not have to worry about this.
More importantly, enthusiasts should pay attention to the profile of the keycaps before purchasing. The profile of a keycap set is how they are shaped, changing the angle one’s hand is placed.
From the SA profile which hosts a smooth, curved shape to the KAM profile which is simply flat; keycap profiles are entirely based on personal preferences.
(image from keyboard.university)
With a basic understanding of the parts of a keyboard, future enthusiasts reading this should now be able to buy and build their own custom keyboard. The hobby is incredibly fun; but, any enthusiast should understand the importance of budgeting and patience as parts are expensive and take ages to arrive.
Limited groupbuys make it impossible to purchase older keyboards, leading the keyboard aftermarket to mark up prices by double to triple the original price. This has caused enthusiasts to stay away from the hobby as a whole.
Any enthusiast should quickly realize that once they fall into the mechanical keyboard hobbyist hole, there’s no going back.