Choosing the right mechanical keyboard

Mechanical keyboards can be a considerable investment; choose one that suits you. There are many things to consider including: size, backlight (if any), keycap material and of course, the switches.

Size matters

Mechanical keyboards generally come in three sizes: full, tenkeyless and 60%. For most users, this should be the first consideration when choosing a new keyboard. The primary difference is the number of keys available, but it also affects the spacing between keys and other aspects as well. Let’s go over the sizes, and the advantages and disadvantages they each offer.

Full-size

A full-size keyboard key is 15.5 x 15 mm, with key spacing between 3.3 and 3.8 mm. Full-size keyboards have alphanumeric keys, punctuation symbol keys and number keys. They often include keys for volume, power, internet, etc. The most notable difference of full-size versus the others is the inclusion of a numeric pad on the right side of the keyboard.

Pros
  • Full featured
  • Full function row
  • Multimedia keys
Cons
  • Takes up more room
  • Increased weight

Tenkeyless (TKL)

Tenkeyless keyboards retain the same key size and spacing as full-size keyboards; the main difference is the lack of a numeric pad. Tenkeyless keyboards include arrow keys and function keys, but may lack multimedia keys.

Tenkeyless keyboard layout diagram 001
Pros
  • Smaller than full-size
  • Includes arrow keys
  • Includes function keys
Cons
  • Takes up more room than 60%
  • Weighs more than 60%

60%

The smallest size available, these are very compact keyboards. The keys are smaller than normal keys (15 x 15 mm) and key spacing is less than 3.3 mm. They also forego function keys and arrow keys; you won’t find a numeric pad here. If portability or space constraints are your primary concerns, this might be the keyboard for you.

Pros
  • Extreme portability
  • Smallest size
  • Lightweight
Cons
  • Can feel cramped to type on
  • No function or arrow keys
  • Keys smaller than normal

Backlight

Another consideration in a keyboard is backlighting. Opinions vary widely here; some love it, others can’t stand it. If you fall in the former category, there are several options, including full RGB and single colour.

Full RGB: RGB backlighting (red, green, blue) offer the full spectrum of colours. How it displays the different colours depends on the keyboard. Some offer preset modes only, while some offer further customisation, usually through software. Some common lighting modes include rainbow, zone lighting and of course, single colour.

Dual colour: Less common than full RGB and single colour, these keyboards offer two colour lighting. Red and blue, blue and white are probably the most common, although other combinations are also available.

Single colour: Simpler and usually a bit cheaper than full RGB is single colour lighting. The colours available vary, with white and blue being the most common, but other colours, like purple and red are sometimes available.

One last factor to consider in backlighting is primary and control lighting. Primary lighting is the lighting behind the keys; this is the most common type of LED lighting. However, there is a second type of lighting, often referred to as ‘control lighting’. This type of light illuminates not the keys, but around the base of the keyboard.

Shown below, the left image shows a keyboard with RGB primary lighting, no control. The centre and right images show keyboards with white primary lighting and RGB control.

Keycap material

A feature often overlooked by first time buyers is keycap material and printing. Higher quality keycaps not only feel better when typing, but will also last longer. Different printing methods also last longer. If you find a keyboard you love, but don’t love the keycaps, you can easily change them. There are many companies offering high quality, full keysets in a wide variety of styles, materials and colours.

ABS: ABS is the more affordable option, and can last over 100,000 keystrokes. ABS keycaps offer decent feel and life, but can noticeably wear with constant typing or gaming.

PBT: PBT offers significantly better wear resistance, but may not always be an option. PBT is more expensive than ABS, and some keys may not be offered in PBT at all.

Printing methods

There are numerous printing methods available, each with their own advantages and disavantages. Years of constant typing can cause legends to fade; some printing methods are more resistant to fade, and some are fade-proof.

Doubleshot: Doubleshot is one of the most popular printing methods today, although ‘print’ is a bit of a misnomer. Doubleshot keycaps are created from two separate moulds, with one mould actually being the legend. This creates an extremely durable key, with clear, vibrant lettering. The legends will never fade, since the legends are actually made of plastic and not printed on.

Dye sublimation: Dye sublimation used to be very popular, but is not nearly as common now with the advent of black keyboards. However, it can provide even better results than doubleshot. Dye sub printing uses heat to impregnate the key with dye. Since the dye becomes part of the plastic it cannot wear off.

The biggest drawback to dye sub printing is that the print colour must be darker than the material being dyed. This means that black legends on white keys is possible, but white legends on black keys is not. Full colour printing is possible with dye sub, something that laser printing and doubleshot cannot do.

Laser etching: Laser etching or engraving uses high-powered lasers to cut the legends from the keys. The result is very crisp and clear lettering. Laser etched keys are most commonly used for backlighting, since the legend cutout allows the keyboard lighting to shine through.

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Other considerations

There are other factors to consider in a keyboard as well. Most keyboards offer some sort of USB rollover, which allows for simultaneous keypresses. Full USB rollover means an unlimited number of keys can be pressed simulataneously and they will all register. Some are limited to 5 or 6, which could be an issue for people who play MOBA type games. Most mechanical keyboards come with detachable USB cables; many use the newer USB-C, but some still use the older micro-USB.

We hope we’ve answered some of the questions you may have had about mechanical keyboards. If you would like more information, please contact us. One of our sales representatives will be happy to answer all of your questions.