The past decade has seen mechanical keyboards completely take over the PC gaming scene, with a major shift in the type of keyboards that peripheral manufacturers are producing. Mechanical keyboards have of course been around for decades in various forms but became a much more niche product with the rise of rubber dome membrane keyboards. These are much cheaper to produce but lack the quality and customization of mechanical keyboards.
There are several different kinds of mechanical keyboard (opens in new tab), of course, but they all have one thing in common: tactility.
Have you ever bought a keyboard and wished for more color choices? A more stiff feel with each key press? Or maybe even a little steam logo where the escape key belongs? There's a reason why mechanicals are the best gaming keyboards (opens in new tab), and it's not just that they're quick, responsive, and feel good to type/game on.
The options for customization are unmatched in the keyboard world—custom keycaps being the most obvious. Any color or text imaginable is available with vendors offering individual caps, full sets, or even completely custom sets. Caps are available in different materials as well. The cheaper sets are usually made of ABS while thicker PBT caps are more expensive but much more durable, avoiding the eventual shine you get with cheaper material. The disadvantage to PBT is that most vendors, such as WASD, only offer fully customizable keycap sets in ABS. However, there are lots of PBT cap sets on the market that provide a unique look without doing a fully customized set and losing the quality that PBT offers.
Keycap customization goes even deeper than color and text; many artisans produce a plethora of handcrafted caps ranging from raised textures that look like mummy wrapping to full blown characters that you know and love. The options are essentially endless—where would we be without our treasured artisan keycaps (opens in new tab)?
Ultimately, a good keyboard is an investment. So it’s important to have switches that respond how you expect them to while providing comfort for those long gaming sessions. The mechanical keyboard's greatest strength is in typing feel. They tend to have more tactile key travel and response than membrane keyboards. Originally clicky and loud, switch manufacturers have come up with various ways to reduce co-worker/spousal annoyance by coming out with quieter mechanical switches, and quicker ones, but the essence remains the same.
If you want to know who's who in the mechanical switch world, check out our guide to mechanical switches for gaming (opens in new tab).
While switches are generally soldered to the board and therefore can’t be swapped easily, most manufacturers offer various switch options for each keyboard model. The benefit of course being that chances are, if you like the look of a keyboard, you can find the same model with the switches you prefer. Cherry switches come in many different “flavors”, from loud and clicky, to silent and smooth.
You can, however, find keyboards with hot-swappable key switches, meaning you can pick and choose your switches at a board, and even per-key, level.
Several vendors sell o-rings for the purpose of keeping things quiet, too, though they aren’t exactly cheap. It may be tempting to save some cash and head to Ebay but keep in mind that many of the cheaper options ship from China which can take months. There are alternatives to o-rings: small foam pads can be placed on the base of each switch that dampen sound just as well. These will cost you about as much unless you buy a full sheet of foam and cut them yourself. But I’d like to think my time is worth more than a couple lattes.
Despite being one of the most customizable aspects of your PC setup, mechanical keyboards are often thought of the least. We spend a lot of time with them and the right mechanical keyboard will provide a comfortable, unique, and competitive input for your PC for years to come.