A Quick, Explain It Like I'm 5 Guide To Picking Keys For Your Mechanical Keyboard

TL;DR

I made this post as short as I can. Though, it's not what I'd call short. There's a lot to cover.

If you'd rather get straight to the point, this is my take:

You're not gonna know what you like until you've tried something1. Start with Kailh Speed Gold2 key switches. They make the standard mechanical keyboard clicky sound. They also require less force than other options. That's important to me from an RSI perspective. I'm no doctor, but I can tell you when I switched to lighter press keys my hands stopped tingling.

Read on if you'd like the full tour.


53 OPTIONS (AND COUNTING)

Dip your toes into The Realm Of Mechanical Keyboards and you'll discover it's as much about the keys as the keyboard itself. The options are vast. And, they're all random colors for some reason? Feeling overwhelmed is natural.

Here's where to start.

THE PART UNDER THE LETTER

You can think of the keys on your keyboard as having two parts:

  1. Keycaps - which are what your fingers touch

  2. Key Switches - the hidden part under the Keycaps that move up and down

Deciding on caps and switches is the hero's journey of mechanical keyboards. Fraught, exciting, sometimes painful, but ultimately rewarding if you stick with it.

KEYCAPS

Keycaps (the part you see on top) are an aesthetic choice. There's as many styles as you can imagine. You can even get custom shapes like, say, a corgi butt.

You're not limited to one set either. You can pull the keycaps off the switches and replace them. Change them out for the holidays? Sure, why not?

KEY SWITCHES

This is the more critical decision3. As the mechanism that does the movement, key switches determine the physical nature of your keyboard. Both what it feels like and what it sounds like. The start of that discussion begins with the three categories of key switches:

  • Linear
  • Tactile
  • Clicky

You can find hours of reading, videos, and debate on the different types. Boiled down, you get to this:

Linear Switches

  • Smooth when you press them
  • A little louder than non-mechanical keyboards, but not much

Tactile Switches

  • These have a little bump feeling in them before the key goes all the way down
  • That bump is when the keyboard registers the key press. If you practice you can keep from "bottoming out"4 the keys
  • They also make a decently loud click when you hit the bump

Clicky Switches

  • Basically the same as Tactile, but louder and with a more pronounced bump
  • And, like, non-trivially louder. If you're in an office and Noel doesn't like you, they're gonna complain to HR

Describing loudness is tough. Best thing I can think of is to watch some twitch coders who have good mics and ask what they're using.

THREE OF A KIND

Like everything with options, folks have strong opinions about the three types of switches. Discussions rage about which ones are better. But, it's not about better or worse, it's about personal preference. As far as the switches go, the computer can't tell the difference. As long as the keys send the signal, they're doing their job.

That's not to knock personal preference. I just draw the line at classifying tools as better or worse when they do the same job the same way.

UNDER PRESSURE

There is one measurement I put forward as a legitimate rating for better or worse: force require to press the key

After mashing keys for couple decades I've started to think about the next few. RSI is a real concern. I've had tingling in my hands before. It's not something I want again. It's certainly not something I want to have get worse.

I don't know what order of magnitude the number of key strokes in my future will be, but it's gonna be a lot. Reducing the cumulative pressure seems like a good idea.

It's a sample size of one, but there is some qualitative data pointing in that direction. When I switched to lighter keys, the tingling in my hands went away. I tried heavier keys again a while later and the tingles came back.

WHAT TO DO

My criteria for picking keys was this:

  1. Do I want Linear, Tactile, or Clicky?
  2. Based on #1 which of the various color options requires the least amount of force

I found this table with the details I was looking for to figure that out.

I used clicky keys before. I liked them, but I'm all about experimenting. So, I went with linear.

At the time, Kailh Speed Silver has the least operating force at 40cN5. I got a set but discovered the "activation point" mattered more than I expected. I take lithium which causes minor tremors in my hands and which caused me to accidentally trigger keys. I switched to Kailh BOX Reds and have been happy ever since.

I used the clicky Kailh Speed Golds for a while. They also have an operating force of 40cN. Ultimately, I decided I liked liner better, but that's just personal preference.

If I was going to go tactile, my first stop would be Kailh Box Browns.

NO, REALLY WHAT SHOULD I DO?

This stuff can be a rabbit hole. That's fun when you're enjoying the ride, but ultimately keys are a physical experience and you're not going to know what you like until you try. I'd start the a clicky key since that's a big draw.

Picking the one that requires the least force we end up with a nice starting point:

Kailh Speed Golds

JUDGMENT

Once you've got keys, how will you know if they're good?

I advise against snap judgments. Moving to a mechanical keyboard is a big change.

My criteria is to see if I notice it after a week. If I find myself thinking anything other than 'yeah, I'm glad I got this' it gives me pause. If I'm still noticing it in a month, that's when I'd try a different set of switches.

But seriously, you've got to start somewhere. Get those Speed Golds. You'll probably be just fine.

FOOTNOTES

  1. Those little keyswith trial pads with one of each type of key on them didn't work for. It wasn't until I could type "the quick brown fox jumps over the lazy dog" that I could start getting a sense of what I liked

  2. Make sure you're getting the right number of keys for your keyboard along with the type of switch you want

  3. I say picking the key switches is critical. It is, but you probably don't have to get it exactly right the first time. Lots of keyboards let you change out the key switches. I've used that feature on my keyboard and won't get another keyboard that doesn't offer the option

  4. Bottoming out meaning you push the key down all the way until it hits the physical end of it's range and can't go any farther. I've never been able to use tactile keys in a way where I didn't bottom them out even though some folks can which can lead to faster typing speeds

  5. I forget what cN means. But, lower numbers means less force.