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

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

Editorial by Mike Williams, .

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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Comments 14

  • Avatar for VotesForCows #1 VotesForCows 2 years ago
    Hey Mike, this was a fantastic read.
    It was a real shame when mechanical keyboards were phased out - there's nothing quite like the feeling of hitting those switches, and I've struggled to play games on a keyboard ever since!
    I actually didn't realise you could still get mechanical keyboards, so I must look into this.
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  • Avatar for themblan #2 themblan 2 years ago
    Deleted August 2015 by themblan
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  • Avatar for Aleanil #3 Aleanil 2 years ago
    A good read! It's been great to see a resurgence in these keyboards in a modern layout (A Windows key! A context menu key!) that I was finally able to replace my old Alps keyboard a couple of years ago.
    @williamkoo76 I can partially agree with your sentiment, though I have to differ; a mechanical keyboard actually *can* make a tangible difference. If not for gaming, at the very least for typing. On a rubber dome keyboard, I can hit ~90wpm easily. On a mechanical (either my cherry red or brown) I can hit 110+wpm. Fingers don't fatigue as easily either, and it feels more natural / smooth to type on.Edited 3 times. Last edited August 2015 by Aleanil
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  • Avatar for sleazefrenzy #4 sleazefrenzy 2 years ago
    I switched from an Apple keyboard to a Filco Majestouch 2 with cherry browns and I can't imagine going back. Not even a PC gamer but it still makes everything feel nicer.

    For anyone who wants to know literally everything about buying mechanical keyboards check this page out:
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  • Avatar for MHWilliams #5 MHWilliams 2 years ago
    @nimzy That is correct, especially in Asian players with insane actions per minute. But that covers pro players, and the article is about the rest of us. The interviews indicated that wasn't really a driver of the recent sales boom.

    EDIT: Actually, after thinking about it, I added a line to the story about pro players' reason for the preference. Thanks!Edited 2 times. Last edited August 2015 by MHWilliams
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  • Avatar for Lord-Bob-Bree #6 Lord-Bob-Bree 2 years ago
    I don't know much about keyboards, but I do know I like the clicking sound when I type.

    I also like footstep sounds in games, so maybe I'm just weird.
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  • Avatar for unoclay #7 unoclay 2 years ago
    You guys do amazing journalism. This extensive piece is awesome, especially since its on a topic i know nothing about.
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  • Avatar for SatelliteOfLove #8 SatelliteOfLove 2 years ago
    Excellent article sourced from your current affliction for PC upgrading and building! haha

    Also learned a little about how the market is changing for hardware.
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  • Avatar for Thad #9 Thad 2 years ago
    I've still got my trusty Model M. (A high school buddy and I rearranged the keys on it, because you could pop the keycaps off and move them around. Coincidentally -- because we did not know at the time it was called the Model M -- we had a plan to replace every key with the letter "M". We got about a third of the way through before the model got scarce and we quit running across new ones to steal keys from.)

    I prefer an ergonomic keyboard, though, and that's what I use most of the time. (I'm sure there are keyboards that are ergonomic and mechanical, and I'm equally sure they're out of my price range.)
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  • Avatar for VotesForCows #10 VotesForCows 2 years ago
    @Lord-Bob-Bree Me too! Bloodborne has particularly good footsteps.
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  • Avatar for Phalanx- #11 Phalanx- 2 years ago
    Great Read! I remember getting my first Ducky around 3 years ago, about six months after that the market seemed to explode and now you can find Mechanical Keyboards at Best Buy.
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  • Avatar for UnskippableCutscene #12 UnskippableCutscene 2 years ago
    Good work.

    I've always wanted one, but they're too expensive. I know some of this is because I'm addicted to the idea of lights. :/
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  • Avatar for phenom_x8 #13 phenom_x8 2 years ago
    Fantastic article, mike
    For far more technical side of mechanical keyboard, PC Gamer made the complete guide recently that will ease us to choose more appropriate type of mechanical keyboard:
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  • Avatar for superberg #14 superberg 2 years ago
    Thanks for this! I love mechanical keyboards. I just got a Bluetooth TKL with Cherry Green switches. It's not ideal for gaming, but as a typist I love the extra resistance and feedback as I hammer away at the keys.

    My roommate, not so much.
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  • Avatar for superberg #15 superberg 2 years ago
    @nimzy That's just a design limitation, though. Ghosting occurs because of cost-cutting measures(using fewer parts, keeping size small). One could design a chicklet keyboard that would register every key press -- it's just that the mainstream market may not bear the likely increased size and extra cost it would bring.
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