If you like to watch streamers, or you’ve ever considered investing in a larger keyboard for gaming, you might have seen mechanical keyboards out in the wild before. They’re big. The keys are heavy. They make a lot of noise. They’re clunky. They can cost quite a bit as a hobby. And yet, they’re growing in popularity. What’s the deal?
Perhaps it was rebellion against the difficult-to-clean and unsatisfactorily quiet keyboards of the laptops we started to see in the late 2010s. Especially Apple, which kept getting slimmer and slimmer until dropping it between the edge of your desk and the wall was a real concern.
Many of the portable, detachable keyboards designed to help solve this problem are not much better, designed to fit alongside a touchscreen device or laptop in the laptop’s bag. Slim, aluminum keyboards are designed for travel first and durability second, and this problem has become more apparent than ever when everybody has stopped travelling. Why sacrifice the convenience of a larger, easier-to-clean keyboard when you’re not going to get the benefits of that sacrifice?
In an article about Apple’s butterfly keyboards (cited below), the author discussed the sensation of trying to type on them. They were nearly flat, they were unfortunately delicate, and the key itself barely moved when pressed. It felt like typing on a touchscreen device, tapping your fingers onto solid aluminum and plastic over and over and over again with 100% resistance and no audible tell that you’d hit the key right. That’s fine for some – it was not fine for the people who’d grown up on clunky, solid, inch-thick Best Buy discount keyboards, those who were used to haptic input when typing.
Mechanical keyboards, on the other hand, offer a wide array of sensory input. You can get them nearly silent, or you can simulate the sound of typing on a typewriter; you can get thin or thick keys; you can change how much resistance your keyboard gives you; you can even get keys that light up when you type, so if you type like me and your eyes drift between the screen and the keyboard, you’ll still be getting input even if you go for a quiet option.
They come in a number of colors and with a number of accessories, too, so you can get weird with your accent and functional keys. Notable examples include a tiny three dimensional cow for the tilde key, a Japanese-style pagoda, and many more – often hand-sculpted and easily searchable on Etsy.
It’s a Good Time
Someone on TikTok has been steadily sculpting smaller and smaller magnetic Kirbys for their keyboard’s ‘K’ key. Another has sculpted every key on the board into food using a combination of polymer clay and acrylic paint. As mentioned before, you can get a keyboard that lights up with your inputs, and you can get keys in a number of colors – any color you want, if you’re good at mixing and applying plastics paint. Really, the sky’s the limit. If you want it to feel like you’re sinking your fingers into butter every time you hit the keys on the left side of your keyboard, but you need to work the right side out because you need to build up picking strength for guitar or whatever, you can do that! Many mechanical keyboard bases are set up to accept the standard scissor switch keys that everybody but Apple from the years of 2014 to 2020 uses, so you could in theory even strip the keys from the Best Buy discount keyboard and slap them into a new frame, given it’s big enough to prevent crowding. Even that’s not really a concern – size standardization benefits everyone, so most sold-separately keys fit most bases.
Shapes and Sizes
Mechanical keyboards are also available in a wide range of shapes and sizes. If you need a small keyboard that only has certain characters? You can buy it, and customize the keys with separate parts (not included usually) when it comes in the mail. If you need a split keyboard, that’s on the market. If your needs are hyperspecific, a mechanical keyboard might just be the keyboard for you.
They also tend to be much easier to clean, as many of them are designed to be easy to take apart for customization – being able to strip the board down to the contacts means you can remove every crumb of anything that could get in, and the tools to do so are generally cheap now that the hobby’s hit the big time. Apple’s weird butterfly switches were incredibly easy to break and very difficult to replace, meaning a damaged switch could kill a laptop, but many other name-brand laptops have keys too small to get tools under. If you eat at your desk, a mechanical keyboard may be a welcome break from flipping the laptop over and still not getting the ‘G’ key free from whatever’s gotten under it.