A beginner's guide to mechanical keyboards - how they work and how they can improve your typing

A beginner's guide to mechanical keyboards - how they work and how they can improve your typing
Mechanical keyboards have become a popular computer accessory.PC Gamer Magazine/Getty Images
  • Mechanical keyboards are computer keyboards that have switches under each key, rather than the rubber membranes used in most common keyboards.
  • Physical switches give mechanical keyboards a less "mushy" feel — every keypress can be clearly felt, making them perfect for precise and accurate typing.
  • Mechanical keyboards are incredibly popular among touch typists, programmers, gamers, and others that rely on keyboards for their work.
  • Here's everything you need to know about how mechanical keyboards work, what they're used for, and their pros and cons compared to other keyboards.

Most computer keyboards look the same - three rows of letters, a row or two of numbers, and a lot of punctuation and function keys. But although they look similar, keyboards can vary wildly when it comes to how they work on the inside.

Most people today use one of two kinds of keyboards: membrane and mechanical keyboards.

Membrane keyboards, the more common type, feature some sort of rubber dome under each key. When you press a key, the rubber is compressed, and the key makes an electrical connection with the keyboard's wires.

Mechanical keyboards are very different - instead of rubber, they have a plastic switch under the key that makes the connection go through.

This might not sound that different, but the style of key has a huge impact on how you type.


How a mechanical keyboard works

In principle, a keyboard switch is a simple device. It's composed of a stem that attaches to the keycap, held up by a spring. When you push down on the keycap, that forces the stem to go down, allowing two electrical contacts to touch.

But mechanical keyboards have a very different feel than membrane keyboards, because the keys make a spring-loaded switch go off, and once pressed down, you'll feel or hear a distinctive click. This means you'll always know when a key's been pressed - there's no second-guessing about whether a press actually went through.

In comparison, membrane keyboards tend to feel "mushy" because they're applying pressure to a rubber dome, and there's no definitive click of triggering a switch. Typing quickly on membrane keyboards means you're more likely to make errors.

Even so, not all mechanical keyboards work alike. The switches in mechanical keyboards are generally classified as either tactile or linear. A linear switch needs to be pressed down all the way, while tactile switches activate about halfway down, which means they activate more quickly, with less typing effort.

In either case, the principal is the same: mechanical keyboards help you type faster by marking each keypress with a click that you can feel and usually hear.


Uses for mechanical keyboards

Membrane keyboards are more common in large part because they're less expensive than mechanical keyboards - they're also quieter than mechanical keyboards, which can be quite loud.

Still, many people prefer mechanical keyboards, particularly programmers and gamers. Both groups appreciate the precise control and feedback that mechanical keyboards provide.

A beginner's guide to mechanical keyboards - how they work and how they can improve your typing
Mechanical keyboards can make typing easier, especially if you have issues typing accurately.SolStock/Getty Images

Unlike most membrane keyboards, the sounds, feel, and feedback from mechanical keyboards let typists type faster and more accurately, and let gamers control their in-game movement more precisely.

Pros and cons of mechanical keyboards

In addition to precision, mechanical keyboards also have a significantly longer lifespan. Many mechanical keyboards are rated to last anywhere from 20 million to 100 million keypresses, while it's typical for a membrane keyboard to only be rated for 5 million to 10 million.

Mechanical keyboards also offer special features that are of interest to gamers, such as "rollover." Rollover ensures that every keypress is sensed, even if keys are pressed simultaneously. Mechanical keyboards can do this easily, while membrane keyboards aren't especially good at it, and will often cancel simultaneous presses.


If a key or switch on your mechanical keyboard breaks, you can almost always replace them. Keycaps can be removed with a key puller, a simple tong-like tool that will likely be included with the keyboard.

Many gamers replace their keycaps as they age, or replace them with custom keycaps (such as special WASD keys). And because keycaps can be easily removed, it's also easy to clean a mechanical keyboard.

A beginner's guide to mechanical keyboards - how they work and how they can improve your typing
Keycaps and sensors can be cleaned easily on mechanical keyboards.Antonio Villas-Boas/Business Insider

Not everyone appreciates mechanical keyboards, though. As mentioned, they can be loud, which is distracting if you're sharing a room with other people. In general, they're also more expensive than membrane keyboards, though there are exceptions.

That said, if you're looking to improve your typing speed or accuracy, you might want to check out a mechanical keyboard.

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