For those with the money, desk space and a desire for mechanical keyboards, it would make sense to get seperate keyboards for gaming and regular typing. For the rest of us, we have to compromise on a keyboard that will give us solid performance in both.
Why switched keyboards are awesome
Firstly, I’m not a gamer in anything but the Siracusian “I play some casual games, therefore I’m a gamer” definition. I don’t need a keyboard that allows me to rapidly hit the same key multiple times, or do any complex combinations. I don’t play FPS games, and I don’t use Emacs (oh, snap)!
To understand what’s best for gamers and Emacs users who require this, you need to know the steps involved in typing something:
You press a key
As you move the key down, the computer registers the key was pressed. This is the actuation point.
If you keep moving down till the key can’t travel further, you’ve bottomed out the key.
As you lift your finger back up, the key should snap back up as quickly as possible, ready for the next keystroke.
If you’ve only used cheap keyboards, steps 2 and 3 may seem the same. In which case, you’re in for a surprise :).
Membrane keyboards and most laptop scissor keyboards require you press keys all the way down for the keystroke to be registered, and have a greater delay between when a key is pressed and when it returns back up. Good quality, mechanical keyboards will register the keystroke even if you’ve only pressed the key someway down.
Why is this important? For gamers, it allows for more rapid keystrokes by reducing the distance. It also greatly reduces strain compared to bottoming out keys, as the springs absorb the impact of your keystrokes instead of your fingers.
Mechanical keyboard types
There are dozens of types, but the following are the most common.
Buckling spring keyboards are noisy as all outdoors, but they have a loyal following. My home workhorse is a Unicomp Spacesaver, made from the same machines thht made the original IBM Model M. They feel amazing for typing, but the force required to actuate wouldn’t make them great for gaming.
Alps make black and white switches, for clicky and bumpy keyboards respectively. The original Apple Extended keyboard used these, and people like Gruber swear by them. Unfortunately, they’re hard to find, and I’ve read that their quality has dipped of late.
Topre make luxury (in feel and price) keyboards that are a strange hybrid of spring and rubber dome, which I’ve since blogged about. My aim in life is to own one, but they’re hard to recommend the budget conscious.
Cherry MX switches power most high end keyboards today. They come in a wide variety of styles, and are relatively affordable. For the best mix of price and feel, I’d get one.
The Cherry MX keyboard line
Which gets us to picking keyboards. Cherry MX’s come in several varieties, most commonly being Green, Blue, Brown, Black and Red. We’ll use Cherry’s excellent diagrams below to demonstrate:
Greens and Blues are “tactile clicky”, in that you can feel and hear the actuation point. They’re perfectly suited for touch typing, but conventional wisdom says they get in the way of rapid fire keypresses for gaming.
Reds and Blacks also have actuation points before bottoming out, but they have no tactile or audible feedback when you hit that point. This is great for gaming, but less so for touch typing.
Browns are “tactile bump”, meaning they provide a little tactile feedback, but no audible. In a way, they’re a hybrid of the Blue/Green and Red/Black.
In the end, I went with a Vortex KBT ONE Mechanical Keyboard with Cherry MX Brown switches for work, mostly for noise reasons. My Unicomp IBM Model M clone is still my favourite keyboard of all time, but I think an MX Brown would be an excellent choice for those looking for a gaming and typing keyboard, given its softer tactile bump when it reaches its actuation point.
MechKB has a very good range of MX Browns if you’re in Australia, otherwise you can still use their site to get an idea of what’s available. If you have more money to splurge, you can even build a custom one yourself with whichever key layout and colour scheme you want, including Japanese, German and bright orange!