The Lay of the Land
Today, the mechanical keyboard is major part of a new gaming PC build. Mookerjee also finds that consumers pick up Razer's mechanical keyboards for their gaming laptops. "These last couple of years, people have started to use laptops more. If you've got a laptop, you need to add a gaming keyboard; it makes a huge difference to the usability," he explained. The key is that most people will use their current keyboards for a long time; if it works, why change it? Upgrading to a new system is where new keyboard sales are coming from.
While mechanical keyboards have grown in market size, rubberdome gaming keyboards still have a place. Mechanical keyboards still have a rather fixed form factor and size, while rubberdome keyboards can be utilized in smaller, slimmer keyboards, like SteelSeries' entry-level Apex RAW. Rubberdome also allows manufacturers to play around with other features, like Razer's Deathstalker, which integrates an additional LCD track-panel for dynamic buttons. For some gamers, there's even a stated preference for rubberdome.
"We got a lot of interest right now in mechanical because we just announced the M800 this year. Roughly, it's around 50/50, but it ebbs and flows based on what we're bringing to market," replied Malhmeister when asked about which keyboard types SteelSeries sees customers buying. "It's been a little bit of both. I feel there's a ceiling on the rubberdome. You can get a $50 or $60 gaming keyboard that is of great gaming quality; we spent a lot of time with our Apex and Apex RAW line trying to get a good tactile feeling. There is a subset of people that actually prefer rubberdome. Mass-market consumers seem to go more price- and feature-driven. That kind of consumer might not even know the difference between mechanical and rubberdome."
We're also starting to see some differentiation in the types of switches manufacturers use. For the longest time, Cherry's line of color-coded MX switches were the trusted products in the market. For the keyboard neophyte picking up a mechanical gaming keyboard, a Cherry switch is a safe, easy choice.
"To me, there are three world-class manufacturers of these mechanical switches," said Logitech's Tucker. "There's Cherry, who everybody knows and loves. Logitech integrates Cherry, because historically that's been the gold standard. They've been around a long time. Their products are used in all sorts of applications. The second company that we think of is Omron. Omron switches are used in the vast majority of gaming mice. The third company that I think of is Alps. Another Japanese company. Alps hasn't made much penetration into the gaming market from a mechanical key switch perspective."
Mookerjee explained that Cherry won its coveted place as "the" switchmaker by simply staying around when others left what they felt was a niche market. "The thing about Cherry is they stuck with it when other companies stopped making mechanical keyboards." He also mentioned Japanese companies like Omron and Topre as reliable switch vendors.
Every vendor has a different way to approach its line of mechanical keyboards. Logitech offers an entire line of keyboards with Cherry switches, but it also worked with Omron to create its gaming focused Romer-G switch for the flagship G910+ Orion Spark keyboard.
"When we were looking at the market and thinking about how people are using these products for a gaming application, those Cherry switches, although incredibly popular, were created 30 years ago," said Tucker. "They were created for typing. So Logitech took steps towards working with Omron to develop a gaming-focused mechanical key switch."
SteelSeries offers its "steady workhorse" 6GV2 keyboard with Cherry MX Black or Red switches, which Malhmeister said has enjoyed "strong sales" for the last four to five years. Outside of that single offering, SteelSeries top-of-the-line keyboard, the Apex M800, also has a custom switch solution. SteelSeries has a limited product lineup because that's what the company can manage while keeping quality high.
"The truth is keyboards are really complex to make," he told me. "If you compare them to headsets and mice, and then you have all the different languages around the world, it takes a long time to develop with a lot of stuff to manage. What we strive for today is being able to hit some gamer needs. We're trying to solve something with the QS1 in the M800. On the pro-player side, our teams exclusively prefer Red switches. The QS1 emulates a Red feel. We really wanted to try to optimize that low actuation point for them, so they would feel like they didn't have a lot of travel. We tried to make a slimmer looking mechanical keyboard. Those two needs married themselves into the QS1 idea."
"Yes, there are competitors who give you a palette of options, letting you pick Red, Blue or Brown switches, but for us, a lot of it is just managing products," Malhmeister added.
Finally, Razer outright developed its own switch specifications: Razer Green and Razer Orange. Prior to the launch of its switches, Razer used Cherry's MX offerings like everyone else. The switches were designed to handle a business need as much as a gaming one.
"We have several manufacturers that make switches for us," said Razer's Ruben Mookerjee. "That's partly why we developed the Razer switch, so we have a consistency and our own specification. We want a consistent feel for every Razer product you buy. We were getting to the point where we had to sort through keys ourselves. By having our own specifications and having switches made for a Razer design, it gives us more consistency."
"The Razer switch is the result of lots of feedback, not only for the eSports athletes, but also the general public. After we'd been manufacturing mechanical keyboards for 4 or 5 years, we had quite a bit of experience, which is what we rolled into the Green and the Orange keys."