I thought I’d do something different from my usual stuff and write a blog post about choosing my first ever mechanical keyboard. As some of you may know, I recently came to the end of a long, long road: I passed my final medical specialty exam. I thought I’d reward myself by splurging on something I’d been eyeing for months.
Why a mechanical keyboard? I know it’s an indulgence. I wouldn’t say I’m a typically a spender. In fact, I try to be conscious of how and why I spend my money (…except in bookstores. I’ve been witnessed to go wild in bookstores). I have two personal rules.
1. If it’s something I’m quite sure I’ll use on a daily basis, I’ll splurge.
2. Otherwise, I do a quick ‘pay per use’ calculation in my head. If the pair of jeans costs $80, they need to be a pair that I’ll wear at least 80 times.
I’ve pondered a mechanical keyboard for a long time because I spend a lot of time writing at my computer, and I also have a big thing for sensory feedback–I find tactile and, to a lesser extent, auditory feedback, incredibly satisfying.
So, as someone completely new to the world of mechanical keyboards, I figured a fun little summary of my journey of researching and selecting my first mechanical keyboard might help anyone out there who is also pondering a clicky clacky purchase.
The main things I needed to figure out were:
A. Do I really want a mechanical keyboard versus a low profile keyboard?
B. What type of switches do I want?
C. What size keyboard do I want?
1. Saying Goodbye To Low Profile Keyboards
Some people love low profile keyboards. The Logitech MX Keys, for example, has decent reviews online. You can achieve fast typing speeds on it. It has illuminated backlighting, wireless Bluetooth connectivity, and it looks streamlined. In fact, B bought it for me for Christmas. I felt terrible deciding that I didn’t want it, after all, and returning it! [Sorry, B! x]
My previous keyboard was also a low profile keyboard, the Logitech K380 Multi-Device Keyboard. I like this keyboard too. It’s portable, cute, light, and easy to type on. The thing I like most about it is its size. At less than 28cm across, it frees up so much valuable desk space.
The downsides of mechanical keyboards that you might want to consider are: they can be noisy, depending on the type of switch you choose, they are more difficult to clean, and they may be wired (although there are more wireless models emerging now).
2. Getting an Overview of Switches and Brands
The first thing I did was browse the Mechanical Keyboards Subreddit for a general overview. I didn’t spend too long on this. I found the buying guide helpful in orientating me to the types of switches, the most popular brands, and the general price range. The downside was that I think the subreddit wiki is geared towards a US audience, so when I searched online I found that many of the brands didn’t ship to Australia, or shipping to Australia was pricey.
I knew I just wanted something reliable, good quality, and not too fancy. The subreddit helped me decide that I probably wanted Cherry MX switches–a solid and popular choice, available in many brands of keyboards. But I had to decide whether I wanted Cherry MX Blue (clicky and tactile), Brown (tactile), or Red (linear) switches.
Other brands of switches have different names, but they all generally fall under the three subtypes: clicky and tactile, tactile only, or linear.
Buying Guide: https://www.reddit.com/r/MechanicalKeyboards/wiki/buying_guide
Mechanical KB Subreddit: https://www.reddit.com/r/MechanicalKeyboards/wiki/index
3. Trying Before Buying
I went into two or three different stores to try out the mechanical keyboards. They usually had a couple of brands on display, like Razer and Corsair gaming keyboards. They tended to be large, full-sized keyboards, whereas I was leaning towards getting a smaller keyboard like a tenkeyless (TKL). But it was great to compare the feel of a mechanical keyboard versus a low profile keyboard.
I was even luckier when one staff member brought out a switch sampler (a bit like the image above) so I could experience the feel of clicky and tactile, tactile only, and linear switches. I was definitely leaning towards clicky and tactile, as the auditory and touch feedback felt satisfying. Tactile switches provide a ‘bump’ when you depress the key, but without a crisp click sound. Linear keys have no ‘bump’ or click–when you press on them, they go straight down at an even resistance until the actuation point (the point at which the keyboard registers a keystroke), which comes before hitting the base of the keyboard.
I was lucky enough to have a friend lend me a Corsair K68 Gaming Mechanical Keyboard with Cherry MX Red keys. I typed on it for a week, using it to work on my novel edits. It took me a couple of hours to get used to the high profile of the keys, but after the initial adjustment period, it was very nice to type on. I wasn’t such a huge fan of the no-feedback, smooth up-and-down of the linear keys, however–I felt like something was missing.
4. Diving into a Youtube Black Hole
Finally, I spent a rather excessive amount of time on YouTube, watching people type on their incredibly pretty keyboards. There are some droolworthy, colourful, seriously hipsterified keyboards out there.
I have to give a shoutout to the Switch and Click channel. I found their videos thorough, straightforward, and incredibly helpful. The videos are timestamped with the different keyboards reviewed throughout, so you can skip to the ones you’re interested in. They typically also end with typing tests of various keyboards.
One of my favourite videos was Best 65% Mechanical Keyboards of 2020. This video pretty much made me settle on a 65% keyboard rather than a TKL.
There are lots of keyboard sizes (this video has an overview), but here’s how my decision-making went:
Full-size: Not for me. I don’t need a numpad as I don’t do much data entry. I’d rather have the extra desk space than the marginal convenience of being able to input numbers more rapidly. Don’t underestimate the value of extra desk space!!!
Tenkeyless (TKL): Was initially going to get this, until I realised how little I actually use the Page Up/Down, Ins/Del keys, etc. Bye bye.
75%: Hey, do I reeeeeally need that row of function keys?
40% or 60%: Too small for me. I don’t want to give up my arrow keys. (They are typically layered as a second function.)
65%: The sweet spot!!!
So, after all that suspense, which keyboard did I actually buy?
In the end, it came down to the wire. The Ducky x Varmilo MIYA Pro or the Ducky One 2 Mini SF (a clunky name, but the SF stands for Sixty Five). Both are 65% keyboards, with slightly different arrangements of the arrow keys and PgUp/PgDn/Ins/Del keys. The MIYA Pro is also available in some gorgeous designs. For a few days there, I was seriously yearning to get a MIYA Pro Panda or Koi keyboard. I mean, look at them:
But here’s what I finally bought:
So far, I have no regrets about my purchase! It took me a few days to get used to the feel of the keyboard, but now I think I’m typing just as fast as I did on the low profile keyboards, or even faster. The Cherry MX Blue clicky switches are not as loud as I’d expected (although you probably don’t want this keyboard if you do a lot of videoconferencing and don’t want to annoy the heck out of your colleagues) and I find the clicking soothing. In the end, it’s very much a personal preference.
And that’s it! I hope you enjoyed hearing about my first foray into the world of mechanical keyboards. As mentioned above, the most important things for me were figuring out what type of switches I wanted, and what size keyboard suited my workflow. The best decision for me was relinquishing unnecessary keys and downsizing to a 65% keyboard. Both of these are highly individual preferences, but your choice can make a big difference to your study and work environment.