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Technology Trends: Mechanical Keyboards
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Technology Trends: Mechanical Keyboards - Executive Leadership Articles

Technology Trends: Mechanical Keyboards

Executive Leadership Articles

Technology Trends: Mechanical Keyboards

Recently, a crowd-funded keyboard on Kickstarter attracted more than 11,000 backers pledging more than a million dollars, making it the most-funded keyboard in Kickstarter’s history. It was a wireless, Bluetooth-enabled device with colorful LEDs beneath each key, but was that the draw, or is something else going on here?

Mechanical keyboards such as the Kickstarter project have been something of a niche fad for several years, ‘though mechanical keyboards themselves have been around since typewriter days, and they are a darling of two geeky cultures: gamers and writers. More than retro nostalgia or hipster irony, although these certainly play a part, the keyboards are attractive to people who spend lots of time typing, for many reasons.

First, it helps to know the difference between a mechanical keyboard the “membrane keyboard” that most of us use. When you strike a key on a membrane keyboard, the key presses down on a thin sheet of silicone (or in some cases rubber), allowing the key and the electronic board beneath the membrane to contact, sending a signal to the computer.

On a mechanical keyboard, each key is its own mechanical switch, sending its own signal to the computer. The difference might sound negligible, but it results in multiple favorable qualities. First, mechanical keys are little mechanical systems, and like most good systems, they allow for variables in how they’re put together. Some switches provide a little more resistance for those with an aggressive typing style, while others are more sensitive for typers with a lighter touch. There are difference in “travel distance,” or how much actual distance the keys travel before bottoming out, and even “clickiness,” a useful feature for those who like the audible feedback a good keystroke can provide or those who work in close company with others and would rather not distract officemates with the sounds of their productivity.

Since mechanical keyboards register their input midway through the keystroke, bottoming out isn’t necessary, the way it is on a membrane keyboard, making typing easier on the fingers. Devotees of mechanical keyboards say the increased travel distance means you’re less likely to make a typo by accidentally grazing unintended keys. It’s hard to describe, but with a mechanical keyboard, you have a better sense of when you’ve actually typed a letter and when you haven’t, making fast typing a lot more accurate: you’re not going back to see if you’ve made a typo; your fingers actually know whether you have or haven’t.

For touch-typists spending hours actually banging the keys, over time this can make a big difference in fatigue.

Mechanical keyboards also last a lot longer than membrane keyboards, although since they are a more complicated piece of manufacturing, they cost more as well. Many consider the tradeoff worth it: pay more for a device that lasts longer and you come out ahead, they say.

Besides the increased price, the most obvious drawback with a mechanical keyboard is obvious as soon as you see one in person: they’re not nearly as slim and streamlined as most keyboards today. If you’re of a certain age, they’ll take you back to days in front of a terminal attached to a mainframe. The retro factor is very real: these things look old because even when they’re modernized with Bluetooth and multi-colored LEDs, they’re still the same technology that earlier generations grew up with. In fact, Cherry, the leading manufacturer of physical keyboard switches has been in business since 1953 because at its heart, the physical keyboard isn’t very different from the keyboards of yore.

Still, with more and more of us spending our working days actually typing on keys (one writer points out that we spend more time with our hands on keyboards than we do with hands on steering wheels), it makes sense to explore the possibilities with mechanical keyboards. Writers and gamers aren’t the only ones who can benefit from a more pleasant, productive experience.


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