Why Programmers Should Buy Mechanical Keyboards

Five years ago I bought my first mechanical keyboard. I was using a generic low end Logitech keyboard for a while. One day, one of the feet broke. A couple days later some of the keys stopped working. Given that I type a lot, I also noticed that some keys felt a bit worn or “flat” when pressed as compared to the others. It was time to invest in a good keyboard. I ended up getting a Corsair K90 mechanical keyboard without knowing much about what I was getting into.

Fast forward to the present and I can’t stand typing on normal membrane keyboards. The best way I can describe using a normal keyboard is by imaging yourself running in ankle deep mud. You’re trying to get to somewhere fast, but the ground is just slowing you down. It’s frustrating, kills motivation and makes you wish you were doing something else after a while. 

That also goes for those overpriced Apple keyboards as well – they’re still membrane.

What is a Mechanical Keyboard?

Simply put, a mechanical keyboard uses individual switches for each key rather than a rubber membrane dome layer on top of a circuit board. There are a variety switches available on the market for modern mechanical keyboards, with the most popular produced by Cherry. Different types of switches offer a different tactile feedback for the user. Some switches are linear – which means there is no resistance when the key is pressed. Others offer a tactile bump or click when pressed. This gives the user a form of sensory feedback when he is typing. Types of switches are usually graded by color, with some popular ones being Cherry MX Blues, Reds, and Browns. We will get into the difference between these in a bit.

So why are Mechanical Keyboards a great investment?

Programmers, Software Developers, IT professionals all spend a lot of time behind a computer. The amount of actual typing time may vary by profession, industry and position. Personally, I can estimate anywhere from 2-4 hours of hand-to-keyboard contact per day. This includes everything from coding, writing emails, chatting with my team on Slack, writing documents, and searching the web. On average this is about 60 to 80 hours per month that your hands are pressing buttons.

Taking this into consideration, wouldn’t it be best to ensure comfortable and efficient typing? As a writer would invest in a great pen, or an artist would invest in a good set of oil paints, why not invest in a great keyboard? As far fetched as it may seem, typing on a nice mechanical keyboard can be motivational.

Advantages of a Mechanical Keyboard

It just feels really good to type on

That clicky and satisfyingly tactile feel just cannot be felt on normal membrane keyboards. It makes typing fun and addictive. There’s something oddly fantastic about hitting a key that is purely mechanical and simultaneously hearing and feeling the mechanism working together.

Mechanical keyboards last longer

While there’s a lot more moving components involved, quality mechanical keyboards with great build quality and reputable switches can last a lifetime when properly maintained. Switches made by Cherry are guaranteed to be fine for 50 million keystrokes. There really is no comparison to a thin film of formed rubber over a circuit board. 

Customization!

After getting into mechanical keyboards, I discovered an entire community and market of keycaps. Mechanical keyboards allows replacing the keycap with aftermarket sets. These come in a variety of colors and designs. Keycaps are usually molded in different choice of plastics, each offering a different feel. Additionally, keycaps come in different profile shapes. There are even kits available to build your own mechanical keyboard.

Custom keycaps on my Cooler Master Rapid Fire I

Different Layouts

QWERTY is the most popular layout everyone uses. When Christopher Sholes invented the typewriter in 1868, legend has it that he designed the QWERTY layout to slow down typists. This was to prevent his machine from jamming.

There are other keyboard layouts that are designed for typing and not for the mechanisms of a typewriter. A mechanical keyboard allows you to try different layouts as you can easily swap around the keycaps, or by having blank keycaps. There are a lot of keyboard layouts available with various studies done on the effect they have on typing speed. 

Image Source: Google Images

Interest factor

It’s nice to demonstrate a mechanical keyboard to people and see their reactions. I also like seeing the eye opening look on someone’s face when they type on a mechanical keyboard for the first time.

Disadvantages of a Mechanical Keyboard

As with anything there are certainly some disadvantages. I can think up the following that may stop someone from getting a mechanical keyboard.

Cost

A good mechanical keyboard is a solid investment that may cost a lot more than a regular run of the mill membrane keyboard. While cost is certainly a consideration, durability should be as well. A mechanical keyboard with solid build quality and Cherry MX switches (guaranteed 50 million typing strokes) should outlast a couple low end membrane keyboards. With that in mind, a mechanical keyboard can be considered an investment that pays off. 

Weight

Lets face it. Mechanical keyboards are heavy. Good ones weigh 2 pounds. Most mechanical keyboards contain a metal plate beneath the switches, with a fairly good durable outer casing. In this regard, weight is co-related to durability and may not be such a bad thing. A good hefty mechanical keyboard feels premium to me. 

Noise

This is subjective and can depend on the type of switch on the keyboard. I’m currently using one with Cherry MX Browns at work and no one is complaining. My Cherry MX Blue keyboard, however, is another kettle of fish. Because blues are both tactile and clicky, it will be heard across the room in an office.

Bluetooth

While they exist, Bluetooth enabled mechanical keyboards are rare. Why is this? My reasoning is that mechanical keyboards are already a very niche market. Bluetooth mechanical keyboards will be a niche market within a niche market – something with companies may not care about pursuing.

Wait, which type of switch should I choose?

Cherry MX switches are graded by color. Similarly, other brands of switches such as Gateron and Outemu follow this same color grading scheme.  A clicky tactile Cherry MX Blue for example, is comparable to a Gateron Blue or an Outemu Blue. 

In 2016, Go Mechanical Keyboard conducted a mechanical keyboard survey with roughly 1000 respondents. From this, Cherry MX Blue switches are preferred for typing purposes, while Cherry MX Browns are great for all purpose use. Both Cherry MX Reds and Browns are also the best choice when it comes to gaming. Personally owning three mechanical keyboards with Reds, Blues and Browns, its not hard to see why linear switches are good for gaming. Their smooth, bump-less feel offers the fastest response during intensive gaming. While I tend to make more typos when using Red switches, typing on Blues is quite the treat. 

Interested in buying a new mechanical keyboard? The iKBC CD108 is a cheap solid choice with great build quality and original Cherry MX switches. Go read my review on it here.