Mechanical keyboards, sometimes calld keebs, come up from time to time as a bit of a meme. “Oh, you’ve got one of those loud keyboards.” or “Why on earth did you spend $500 ona a keyboard that does the same thing as the $5 one I got from Office Depot?”.
I’ll say that, for the really cheap end of the spectrum with mechanical keyboards, this really is a meme that holds up. A cheap mechanical keyboard is really not going to be a huge difference from whatever you got with your prebuilt machine. Somewhat depressingly, however, I’ll note that “cheap” here really means a budget of under $200 USD…
This is largely going to be talking about split keyboards, too. While there are very nice traditional layout (108 key, TKL, 65%, whatever) mechanical keyboard builds, I think the real value is with a split setup if you spend any considerable amount of time typing.
Why you should care
“Yeah, yeah, yeah I’m not some 1337 h4x0r, why would I care about my keyboard?” you may ask… Well, neither am I. In fact, I spend a significant majority of my time writing - documentation, bug reports, general communication, etc… Working remotely, typing as a form of communication is pretty easily 6+ hours of my day on any given day.
I’m betting that if you work at a computer, that number is probably similar for you as well. Are you shitposting on Slack or Discord? Are you writng emails? Are you building out team plans? There’s a good chance that a bulk of your time is spent typing if you’re doing those things. Certainly, if you’re coding for a living you’ll also fall under this umbrella.
So, do yourself a favour here. Take note of your current posture. I’ll bet that if your hands are on your keyboard that you’re slouched over a bit, wrists are at a somewhat weird angle, and if your setup isn’t otherwise ergonomically sound you probably have a fair bit of weight on your forearms or elbows. Now, take your keyboard and move it so that the home row for your left hand (e.g. ASDF on a QWERTY layout) is positioned such that your arms is positioned for shoulder width - your upper arm is in line with your body, and your forearm makes a 90 degree angle off of that. No more pressure on your arms, no more awkward wrist angle, no more hunch… Magical, huh?
This is where a split keyboard comes into the mix.
Going down the rabbit hole
I’ve gone through many keyboards over the past couple of decades, of many types… and mostly crap. I used a cheap Logitech keyboard/mouse combo for quite a while until I learned about NKRO, at which point I moved to.. another crappy Logitech keyboard (a G15) which I thought was the bee’s knees. From there, I got into mechanical keyboards with a Steelseries 7g and at that time I was blown away - great NKRO, responsive switches, a nice noise, and no gummy feel. I was hooked!
The downside of the 7g, at that time, was that it was using MX Black switches which have very heavy springs. While this is a huge benefit for FPS gaming, to avoid misclicks, it is exhausting on the fingers for long bouts of typing, or in any game where you’re mashing keys for a long period of time (e.g. MMOs). At this time, I was also really into Starcraft, and that’s when I stumbled across a popular streamer (at the time) who made use of a keyboard with MX Blue switches. I had found my next love.
Well, I picked up a cheap Coolermaster Quickfire board that used MX Blue switches and I loved it. I used it all the time, but my SO at the time was highly offended by the noise so I had to find something new. That lead me to another Coolermaster Quickfire using MX Red switches - these are linear, so no clickyness. Another great experience, and the MX Red switches reminded me a lot of the MX Blacks in my 7g, but without anywhere near as much force required for key activation.
I missed my noisy, clicky, switches though. I wound up buying yet another Coolermaster board with the thought of “well these have both been great so far, let’s get another from the same brand”, but this time with MX Brown switches (yes, I know… but I still like them). That keyboard had a few keys flat out die within a few months, so I got another, same deal.. Ugh. I guess quality control isnt' Coolermaster’s strong suit. I wound up fixing both of these keyboards years later thanks to some expanded electronics knowledge (some of the traces had broken and needed to be bridged).
Welp, I still wanted mechanical, I wanted clicky, I wanted quiet… MX Browns were still the logical choice in my mind, so I bought a Das Keyboard 4C. This company has since fallen from grace a bit, but at the time it was a popular brand. I loved this keyboard, still have it, and it still works, but it also got me used to the idea of spending a lot more money on an input device. The build quality was light years beyond the Coolermaster boards - it was heavy, it was quiet, it felt good.
This wound up pushing me even further down the rabbit hole and I started seeing “weird” keyboards like the Ergodox pop up from time to time, or even more strangely keyboards like the Dactyl Manuform. These looked too weird to be used by a human, but they were also weird enough to be of interest and occupied my mind.
Fast forward another 4 years. I’m getting older. Working with shitty ergonomics is taking its toll on my shoulders, wrists, and elbows. It’s time for a change. I’ve got the standing desk, I’ve got the ergnomic chair, I’m at a 90/90/90 position, but I still can’t shake this shoulder and wrist pain. It was time to try one of those “weird” split keyboards. I bought a ZSA Moonlander.
HOLY SHIT! It was a fucking epiphany. My life was forever changed.
I can type in a comfortable position? I can remap any key I want? I can have the same key do different things that I choose depending on how I use it? Mind = Blown. Granted, the functionality is thanks to the QMK firmware that’s used, which is also available for non-split keyboards, but the combination of that and the ergonomic changes of being able to keep my arms straight out at shoulder width as well as tenting the keyboard to reduce wrist/forearm strain was huge.
Here I am about 6 months into ownership of my Moonlander, nd I’m already eying up my next build, though it’ll be one for travel purposes as I’m very happy with the Moonlander. It’ll probably be a Gergo or an Iris (have fun googling those), but I’m totally undecided on switches. This journey also lead me to discove r that there are switches other than the Cherry MX line… Gateron, Holy Pandas, Zeal, Kailh, etc… Lots to explore, and depending on who you ask, they’re all better than anything that Cherry puts out. Oh, and people lube their switches for quieter/cleaner operation - something I didn’t know I needed, but now am reasonably sure I can’t live without.
- Normal keyboards have awful ergnomics. Look at a split keyboard.
- Membrane keyboards feel awful. Get mechanical switches. Even if it’s a cheap board, it’ll be a big difference.
- The ergnomic and productivity benefits of having a keyboard that uses QMK (or another similar firmware) are huge. Put your keys wherever you want, change their behaviour however you want. Does thinking about taking a screenshot with Command + Option + Shift + 4 make your wrist hurt? Map it to a single key without the need for any additional software on your computer.
- Prepare your wallet…