Basics of keyboard switches — Know what’s under the hood!

Have you ever sat down to type an email on a friend’s comp, or wandered across the office to a different workstation, only to get a confused message from your brain saying “This isn’t my keyboard!  Where am I?!”  It’s kind of like getting behind the wheel in someone else’s car for the first time:  same, but different.

That difference you immediately register is mostly due to the type of keyswitches that are used beneath the actual keys, or to put that another way, how much moola companies are willing to spend on their keyswitches.  Spend a few minutes familiarizing yourself with the keyswitch options that manufacturers are using today and you’ll be able to immediately tell if you’re getting your money’s worth, or if they’re pulling one over on you.

IBM model M buckling spring keyboardGround zero for keyboards is 1984 when the IBM Model M was released.  It was the first keyboard of it’s kind, using a buckling spring mechanism underneath each key cap to register each keystroke.  Durable, user friendly, but expensive.  So companies found a way to do it cheaper.


rubber dome switch membrane keyboardMembrane keyboards use layered membranes squishing into each other to trigger keystrokes.  Think about how the buttons on your microwave feel and you’ve got the starting point for these keyboards.  Now add a rubber dome keyswitch pressing into the membrane layers and you’ve got 90 percent of today’s keyboards, built for less than $2 each.  Want to guess how durable a $2 keyboard is?

Then came scissor switches to accommodate increasingly thinner laptops.  These are hybrid switches that use a plastic scissor-shaped mechanism placed on top of the rubber dome membranes.  This reduces the key depth and gives an abrupt, slightly mushy feel to these keyboards.  These are easily the most common type of key switch on laptops today and are frequently referred to as chiclet keys.

So technology got to a point where the computer manufacturers were very happy with the cost of their keyboards, but are the users happy?

cherry mx blue keyswitches mechanical keyboardEnter mechanical keyboards that have gone back to using individual key switches underneath each keycap, no membrane layers needed.  It’s almost like today’s mechanical keyboards are taking the best attributes from the Model M and delivering it in a modern package.  And users are increasingly willing to pay for the benefits.  Touch typists believe the more responsive keyswitches lead to increases in typing speed and accuracy.  And gamers flock to them for their reliability and speed in registering quick successions of keystrokes.

So think of it in terms of cost.  The manufacturers will always spend the least amount of capital to build their products right?  Membrane keyboards are shoddy quality (rated for less than 5 million keystrokes), require a full press to actuate the keystroke, and they deteriorate over time.  But they’re cheap!  Mechanical key switches are rated for 50 million keystrokes, they require less force to actuate, and they offer increased typing efficiency.  Want to guess which keyboards are being over-manufactured and sold to the masses?

If you didn’t know a few minutes ago, you’ve probably got a pretty good idea what type of keyboard you’re using on your current setup.  If it shipped with a desktop system it’s most likely a membrane keyboard.  If you have a laptop or a portable keyboard you probably have scissor switches.  And if  are using a mechanical keyboard, well, you would already know it.

Yes, guilty as charged, we are partial to mechanical keyboards because their responsiveness and reliability help create a superior work (or play) environment.  If you want more details on today’s top choices check here.

If mobility is your primary concern then you are usually limited to chiclet style keys.  There are a number of good options here to explore.

Please keep all of this mind before plunking down your hard-earned cash on a keyboard.  Manufacturers are cutting corners at every stage so by knowing the essentials you can usually stay one step ahead of them.


“Unicomp space saver Model M” photo courtesy of Amir Yalon CC 2.0 flickr
“Keyboard Construction Button Press” (rubber dome switch) photo courtesy of Asiir CC 2.5 Wikimedia
“Cherry MX Blue Switches” photo courtesy of Cherrymxblue CC 3.0 Wikimedia