Keys to the Kingdom: The Rise of the Mechanical Gaming Keyboard

Keys to the Kingdom: The Rise of the Mechanical Gaming Keyboard

Why an old technology is getting a new lease on life.

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Many of you are reading this article on a PC. Your hands are resting on the QWERTY-style keyboard, the left resting in the section containing the keys Q, W, E, A, S, D, and the right resting somewhere in-between the dedicated arrow keys and Enter. If you're at work, perhaps your boss will come by and you'll be forced Alt-Tab to a more productive-looking window. If you're at home preparing to game, your fingers slide over to the familiar WASD keys.

Alt-Tab. The boss is coming. [Image via]

The keyboard is one-half of our primary PC input scheme, with the other half being the mouse. The thing is, neither of these devices were made for gaming. They were were designed for office productivity and our community adapted them for the purposes of gaming. Certain companies like Razer, Logitech, Steelseries, and Corsair have filled that design gap, making specialized input devices for gamers.

Over the past few years, one of the more interesting developments in the PC gaming peripheral space is the rise of the mechanical keyboard. Based around individual mechanical switches for each key, this expensive technology ruled the late 80's. The tech passed from wider use in the early 90's in favor of mass-producible rubberdome and membrane keyboard technology. Just under a decade ago, the mechanical keyboard began to make a comeback as a piece of premium gaming equipment. Many people still use rubberdome keyboards, but those that are serious about their PCs generally turn towards a mechanical keyboard for their gaming input device.

Why did this old technology experience a revitalization? Was there a need for the tech or is it just a factor of popularity? I spoke with representatives of three major PC peripheral manufacturers - Razer vice president and general manager of peripherals Ruben Mookerjee, SteelSeries director of products Jeff Malhmeister, and Logitech director of gaming Vincent Tucker - to find out why the mechanical keyboard has made a comeback and where gaming keyboard technology is heading in the future.

People still love this keyboard. [Image via ClickyKeyBoards]

Looking Back into History

To understand why mechanical keyboard came back, you need to know about the keyboard that would never die: the IBM Model M.

Back before IBM was into software and hardware for big business, it was into personal computers. Before that, it was one of the leading typewriter manufacturers in the 50's and 60's. Those decades of typewriter development informed IBM's work on its first personal computer, the IBM Personal Computer XT, launched 1983. Alongside the XT came the original 83-key Model F, which was as close to a typewriter as IBM could get. The Model F used mechanical keys with buckling springs - the springs themselves would bend as you pressed the key down - that depressed nodes on a capacitive printed circuit board (PCB). It was loud and tactile, providing solid feedback as you pressed each key.

The buckling spring in action. [Images via Here]

IBM followed up the Model F with the IBM Model M in 1984, which was designed to be more durable and cost-effective than the earlier model. Instead of a PCB, the 101-key Model M sported the same buckling-spring switches over a plastic membrane. With the switches, the Model M kept the distinct faux-typewriter feel: on each press, the keys actually provide strong resistance until activating. The caps to each key were also removeable on the Model M, allowing for easier cleaning.

"What's old is new again," said Logitech's director of gaming Vincent Tucker. "When people think back to mechanical keyboards, they think about the old IBM Model M, which had the [metal frame] system. Way back in the day, when I was first using computers, that was one of the first computer keyboards I had. Though loud, it was very effective."

The Model M was a solid monster of a keyboard, weighing over 4 lbs. It was also durable as hell. The Model M could take some of the toughest punishment and keep working, which made sense as many were used for commercial environments. Did it have issues? Yes, it was loud as hell in an office environment, the weight meant you wouldn't want to move it all that much, and if you dropped any liquid in the early models, the enclosed design meant it just pooled there. Despite those issues, for certain groups - especially typists, IT personnel, and programmers - the Model M was a keyboard that was never outdone.

Other manufacturers like Cherry, Omron, and Alps continued to make mechanical switches, but they were used in primarily in commercial applications, not mass-market keyboards. So you had a tight knit group of hardcore enthusiasts who never let it go. People who used the same keyboard for 20 years and when it died for whatever reason, they'd go hunting for a replacement at pawn shops, close-outs, and online auctions.

Anyone up for bringing back the IBM XT?

"Mechanical keyboards were primarily designed for industrial applications," Razer VP Ruben Mookerjee told me. "If you go back to the IBM XT, then you have the original buckling spring mechanical keyboard that IBM had. The Cherry-type switches were designed for industrial and corporate use, which is why you still see them on things like airline check-ins. They are quite expensive."

While these enthusiasts were keeping the mechanical keyboard alive for personal use, the mainstream had successfully transitioned to rubberdome keyboards. That technology allowed manufacturers to build smaller, lighter, and quieter keyboards, which was preferred by most users and applications.

"Rubberdome technology evolved very rapidly, first with the Japanese, Taiwanese, and Chinese," Mookerjee continued. "That allows you to mass-produce easily and gives you more flexibility on the form-factor of the keyboard, making it smaller, deeper, or so on. We use a keyboard differently. As gamers, we use them for typing, but when you're actually in the game, you use it more like an input device. Like a joystick or mouse instead of a typewriter."

And so, the mechanical keyboard was a relic, traded and maintained by a small, but fervent community. Then things changed.

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Mike Williams

Reviews Editor

M.H. Williams is new to the journalism game, but he's been a gamer since the NES first graced American shores. Third-person action-adventure games are his personal poison: Uncharted, Infamous, and Assassin's Creed just to name a few. If you see him around a convention, he's not hard to spot: Black guy, glasses, and a tie.

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