How to Choose the Best Mechanical Keyboard in 2021

Good luck buying a new GPU right now, but there are other ways to improve your computing experience. There’s an oft-forgotten upgrade that can change the experience drastically for the better: a mechanical keyboard. I make no secret of my obsession with mechanical keyboards as both a hobby and a tool of my profession. Naturally, I spend a lot of money on them. You don’t need to, though. Mechanical keyboards have never been cheaper or better, and it’s an upgrade you’ll benefit from greatly. But…which board should you get? And what’s all this about switches? Should you build a keyboard? We’re here to help. 

What Makes a Keyboard Mechanical and Why You Should Have One

The keyboards that come with desktop computers are usually some version of the rubber dome design. You push the key all the way down, and the contact on the dome triggers a press. The downside is that the rubber membranes are mushy, inconsistent, and you have to push all the way down every time. Laptops aren’t much better with their scissor switches. They offer a little tactility, but the low travel and mushiness are still grating over time.

A mechanical keyboard can best be described as any board with switches that actuate before the point of bottoming out. For example, Cherry-style metal contact switches. When you press the key down, a stem moves into the housing and allows metal contacts to touch. This is what fires off each letter. Other types of switches are considered mechanical but have entirely different mechanisms. Topre switches are popular but rather expensive. These switches have a stiff rubber dome and a conical spring. Here, the actuation is triggered by a change in capacitance of the spring as you press, and the tactile bump comes from the dome collapsing. There are also Alps-style metal contacts, buckling springs, and Hall effect switches. These are all fairly uncommon in modern boards, though.

gat brown

Using a mechanical keyboard can make you a much more effective typist thanks to the precise and consistent feel of the keys. Many switches also have high tactility that helps you estimate when a press will register, allowing you to release and move on to the next key without bottoming out. For gaming, you can use switches that are much smoother and faster to actuate than the keys on cheap membrane boards. The sound of a clicky switch can also be fun, provided you don’t have nearby coworkers to annoy. 

Mechanical boards are also built to last. Each switch is good for millions of presses. Even with heavy use, a good mechanical keyboard can last many years. Enthusiasts actually harvest switches from decades-old keyboards with bad electronics to use in newly built custom boards.

Choosing a Form Factor

The first step in choosing the right keyboard is deciding what layout you want. The traditional full-size board is still the most common, but you might want to use your mechanical transition to change it up. A full-size board has all the keys you need to operate a computer without worrying about any function layers. There’s a full number pad as well. The main drawback of this size is that it’s rather large and inefficient. You have to move your hands rather far to reach everything and the number pad means your mouse will be pushed farther away from your main typing area. This is why I don’t like full-size boards personally.

full size

The next step down is tenkeyless (TKL), sometimes known as 80 percent keyboards. These boards still don’t rely on function layers for basic features, but there’s no number pad. There’s still a number row, of course. If this sounds stressful to you, just give it some thought. How often do you really need a dedicated number pad? Unless you’re doing data entry, you can probably do just fine without one. This makes the board much smaller and brings the mouse in closer.

The next step down in mainstream boards is 60 percent, which has become popular in the last few years. A 60 percent board just has the alphas, number row, and modifiers. There are no dedicated arrow keys, no F-row, and no number pad. All those features are there, but they’re in the function layer. So, you hold function and press a different key. For example, the arrows are usually Fn+WASD or Fn+JIKL. The main advantage of the 60 percent form factor is that it’s compact and efficient once you get used to the function layer.

If none of those do it for you, there are some more exotic layouts that are just catching on. The 65 percent size is smaller than a TKL, but you get arrow keys and a few more keys like delete, page up/down, and so on. This is a good middle ground that I’m personally very into. They don’t take up too much space, but they reduce your dependence on function layers. Add a function row to a 65, and you’ve got a 75 percent. 

There’s also the super-small 40 percent category. These boards have just alpha keys and a few modifiers. They’re essentially pocket size and usually have at least two function-key layers to get all the basic keyboard commands covered. If you get good with a 40 percent board, you can be extremely efficient as everything is so close together.

Choosing a Switch

So, you know what size board you want, but what do you want typing to feel like? Cherry’s main mechanical switch patents expired a few years ago, so there are a ton of clone switches that are Cherry-compatible. The vast majority of boards use Cherry and Cherry clone switches, so let’s go over those.

switches

The first order of business should be to get a switch tester. You can get one for under $20 on Amazon that has all the major Cherry variants: blue, green, brown, clear, red, and black. These switches come in three different varieties: clicky (blue and green), tactile (brown and clear), and linear (black and red). Each of those categories is split into a heavier and lighter version. Here’s a chart with the weights of each. Note: the “color codes” of clone switches are usually the same for switches with the same properties.

switches

I can’t tell you which switches you will prefer, but I’ll note that heavy typists tend to use tactile and clicky switches, but blacks are a common choice as well. Don’t make a final decision yet, though. Your goal should be to figure out how what general type of switch you like and what weight feels best. Cherry is not the only game in town anymore, so you might be able to mix and match some of these properties to find the perfect switch.

Some of the most popular Cherry-compatible switches come from Gateron and Kailh, but even smaller manufacturers have popped up doing innovative things lately. As long as the switches in question are being offered by a reputable retailer, you should be fine. Even cheap mechanical switches will work better than a crummy membrane keyboard.

Kailh x Novelkeys Box Pale Blue switch.

If you find you like tactile switches, you may consider trying a Topre board. There are very few switch testers with Topre domes, so you might need to jump in with a real keyboard like the HHKB2. Keep in mind, if you fall in love with Topre, that limits your choice of boards and keycaps. It also means you’ll spend a lot more on the keyboard.

Picking a Board

Now you know what pieces you want, so the challenge is finding the right board. I will say off the bat that I think you should steer clear of “gaming-oriented” boards. They try to lure you in with flashy lights and brands you know, but they require annoying, buggy desktop software and often use poorer quality components. Likewise, you can just search “mechanical keyboard” on Amazon and find plenty of cheap devices that will definitely input text. They just won’t sound or look very good while doing it. Presumably, if you’ve read a thousand words about keyboards to get to this point, you’re at least a little discerning. So, let’s talk about what you should consider buying. 

A Drop Alt with Carbon SA keycaps.

A good starting point is Drop, formerly Massdrop. They offer an array of semi-custom keyboards like the 65 percent Alt and the tenkeyless Ctrl. Drop even has a little 60 percent board called the Carina. Unlike other high-end boards, you can usually just order one of these and have it on your doorstep a week later. These boards cost between $100 and $200 as a barebones kit, but there’s no soldering involved — they’re what’s known as hot swap. Drop will sell you switches that plug into the PCB, or you can get your own from other retailers. 

GMMK is one of the more mainstream names in mechanical keyboards, but the company has moved away from its purely gaming roots to offer some surprisingly high-end features for mech enthusiasts. The GMMK Pro is a 75 percent keyboard with a rotary knob, gasket mounting, and hot swap support. If you want something pre-built for the minimum hassle, there are well-regarded options like the Anne Pro 2 and Das Keyboard 4.

Fancy custom switches known as Holy Pandas.

If you want your typing experience to be something special, there’s almost no limit to how far you can go — a popular Twitch streamer made news in 2020 by spending $3,500 on a custom build. But why would you want to build a keyboard? With a custom board, you can choose switches, materials, colors, and features along the way to create your ideal typing experience. Plus, most of the cool, innovative switches in the keyboard world aren’t used in retail keyboards. 

The aforementioned Zealio switches are popular and come in many variants. There are also numerous Kailh switches that offer additional spring weights and click designs that don’t have a Cherry equivalent—check out the selection at retailers like NovelKeys. What about the parts and keyboard kits themselves? NovelKeys has a few of those, but there are many other reputable custom board retailers like Omnikey, CannonKeys, TheKeyCompany, and KBDfans. These sites all have a handful of things ready to ship but to get the best hardware, you’re going to have to get in line.

A custom-painted CA66 with DSA Galaxy Class.

Group buys are a necessary evil in the keyboard space. Because these are niche devices, it’s not viable to produce them constantly. A group buy is a bit like a pre-order where everyone pays in advance, and then the product is manufactured and sent out. The main difference is that the money you pay to the retailer actually goes to pay for production. It’s buyers (you) who take on the risk. If the people running the group buy screw up, you could be left with something that doesn’t work as you expected. Some of the best keyboards you can get are also what I’d consider fully custom. That means you need to know how to solder in order to assemble them. It’s not as hard as you’d think, but you will need to invest in some extra equipment and supplies.

If you do decide to build a custom board, be prepared to spend at least a few hundred dollars on the kit. These keyboards are in high enough demand to command high prices, but not enough to be in mass production. So, you can easily spend $500 or more before you even get to keycaps or switches. The Zephyr below was a $600 kit that included a PCB, plate, and case. A more modest custom kit might cost $250-300, and the wait on these is usually shorter. RAMA is another popular keyboard designer at the high-end. The RAMA M65-B is one of my favorite boards, but the only way to get one now is waiting for someone to sell theirs and paying a premium on top of the already high price. I’ve seen rare kits like the M65 go for over $1,000.

The Zeal Zephyr with GMK Nautilus keycaps.

If you don’t want to jump right into custom boards, you can still jazz up your mechanical keyboard with some custom keysets. Just make sure you get a board with a mostly standard layout. You can look at the bottom row to get a good idea of whether or not a board is standard. It should have 1.25-unit modifiers and a 6.25-unit space bar. Anything else and custom keysets get more expensive and rare.   

Most keysets are sold in group buys (similar to high-end keyboards), which you have to join prior to production, then wait for the set to be produced. This can take many months and gets pretty confusing. The easiest way is to join buys organized by a retailer you know and trust. You can also buy some custom sets straight-up from companies like Pimp My Keyboard and Originative. Almost every custom keyset is MX-only. If you get a Topre (or the rarer Alps), you’re out of luck here.

Expect to pay at least $60-70 for a basic set and well over $100 for a high-end custom set. You get what you pay for, though. Keycaps made from PBT or thick double-shot ABS are more durable and pleasant to type on than the caps that come with keyboards. Even the nicer mechanical keyboards don’t go all out on the keycaps. I guess they assume you’ll buy something fancy if you care that much.

The KBDfans Maja uses a less common split layout (seen here with GMK Pulse caps).

I’m going to close by mentioning something that sounds absolutely bananas to people who aren’t into the hobby, but you’ll get a kick out of it, I assume. For additional customization, there are “artisan keycaps.” They’re hand-sculpted and cast single keycaps that are meant to be used as decoration on keyboards (see below). They are mostly made in small batches and sold in raffles, as well as the occasional group buy on Drop. They’re expensive, and you’ll pay even more if you miss the sale and have to buy second-hand from someone in the community. Maybe this guide will be your first step along the way to that kind of incoherent madness. I’m sorry.

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