As I'm writing this, I'm worried I'm waking up the neighbors. I'm typing these sentences on a mechanical keyboard, one of the odder and more endearing hardware trends in the tech world right now. It's the kind of keyboard everyone used 20 years ago, and that can still be found in some old-school offices that haven't upgraded their IT in a while. You know the keyboards—the ones that have tall keys and emit a sharp, high-pitched click-clack with every keypress.
Most tech nostalgia is misplaced. As much as we pretend to pine for the gadgets of the past, you wouldn't actually want to trade in your iPhone 6 for a Nokia, or sub your Chromebook out for a Commodore 64. But these days, a dedicated group of keyboard connoisseurs is trying to resurrect the mechanical keyboard. There are now a handful of dedicated mechanical keyboard manufacturers, like Code and Rosewill, and an active subreddit exists for mechanical keyboard fans to exchange tips and reviews.
After using one for a week, I finally understand the hobbyist hype. Mechanical keyboards are loud, expensive, clunky, and cool as hell.
What makes a keyboard "mechanical" is that it's built with individual switches beneath each key. These switches contain tiny electric circuits. When you press a key, a spring-loaded plunger beneath the key forces two pieces of metal to touch, which completes the circuit, and sends a signal to your computer, telling it which key you've pressed. The operation of the Cherry MX key, the most popular mechanical key switch, looks roughly like this:
Today, your keys probably don't look anything like this. Instead, if you use a modern desktop or laptop, you almost certainly have what's known as a "membrane" or "chiclet" keyboard. These keyboards don't have individual switches; instead, they're made of two layers of conductive material, separated by a layer of plastic with holes cut out where the keys are. When you press a key, a small rubber dome attached to the bottom of the key pushes the top layer through the hole in the non-conductive middle layer and onto the bottom layer, completing the circuit. Here's what it looks like:
Until the mid-1990s, lots of keyboards were mechanical. But around that time, computer manufacturers began packaging their machines with membrane keyboards instead. Membrane keyboards didn't have the feel or the accuracy of mechanical keyboards, but they were cheaper to build, more resistant to spills and dirt, and quieter, which led to a more office-friendly typing experience. Since that time, manufacturers have improved on the tiny details of the membrane keyboard—Apple, for example, began using what was called a scissor-switch mechanism, and has recently switched to a redesigned "butterfly" mechanism that requires less effort per keystroke—but the basic operation of the keyboards hasn't changed much.
My mechanical keyboard is made by Das Keyboard, an Austin, Texas-based company. Das Keyboard actually sent me two keyboards: one with MX brown switches beneath the key caps, and the other with MX blue switches. The brown model ($179) is designed to have a "soft, tactile bump" midway through the keypress, which gives it a slightly lower volume level than the blue one ($175), which is built for maximum "clickiness." (Naturally, I'm using the louder blue model—YOLO.) These keyboards have all kinds of bells and whistles, including two USB ports on the back and a dial on the upper right-hand corner that allows you to control your computer's volume, but their main features are the keys themselves. They're deep, heavy, and loud. I love them.
The best thing about typing on a mechanical keyboard, by far, is the sound. The click-clack-click-clack is so familiar, and so soothing, that the ASMR community has used the sound of mechanical keyboards as a way to provoke a relaxing, tingling sensation.
As for the non-acoustic factors: yes, you have to type differently on a mechanical keyboard, and at first, your fingers can get sore after a few minutes of heavy keystroking. But after I got used to the Das Keyboard, I noticed that my typing speed was faster and my typo frequency was lower than it had been. And more importantly, typing on a mechanical keyboard felt physical, in a way that typing on my smooth, quiet MacBook keyboard never did. Producing noise when you write is deeply satisfying. Like a carpenter seeing dust fly off his band saw, it's a reminder that you're making something. Using a mechanical keyboard makes writing on a computer feel like a noble act of composition, not a slog. You're Hemingway, even if you're just responding to e-mails.
Despite their advantages, mechanical keyboards could well remain a niche product for gamers and heavy typists. Aside from the noise concerns and the expense of production, their hardware is too thick to be used in today's ever-thinner laptops. And eventually, the desire for thin keyboards may push computer manufacturers away from real keyboards altogether: already, Apple has filed a patent for a keyboard that would have no physical keys at all—just a solid trackpad that would give haptic feedback when you pressed it.
The cheap-keyboard movement is a shame, because real, mechanical keys are a delight to press. I haven't tried other mechanical keyboards, so I'm not sure how my Das Keyboard 4 stacks up against the competition. (For what it's worth: many mechanical keyboard enthusiasts swear by the antique IBM Model M, and Polygon has a round-up of some of the most popular new models.) But if you can spare the extra expense, it's worth trying one. If you're someone who types most of the day, a mechanical keyboard could help reduce your error rate and give you a speed boost. If you're a more occasional typist, you'll appreciate the nostalgic sound effects and responsive feel. For me, at least, going back to my MacBook's silent membrane keyboard after a session on a mechanical keyboard feels like reverting from a stick-shift to an automatic transmission—it's easier, certainly, but you lose the feelings of control and power.
There is one caveat to my full-throated endorsement: you may not want to get a mechanical keyboard if you work in an open-plan office, a shared co-working space, or anywhere else where people might be annoyed by your incessant clacking of keys. Because it cannot be overstated: these things are loud.
Ideally, every mechanical keyboard would come with a few pairs of foam earplugs, to hand out to everyone within earshot. But in the absence of that, you might just want to use it at home, and make sure to close the windows.