Few debates can get gamers riled up the way that the keyboard and mouse combo does. Many PC gamers swear by the superiority of the mouse and keyboard, especially for first-person shooters and real-time strategy games.

However, not all keyboards are made equal. The keyboard was never meant to be a gaming device. It was really more a case of necessity and convenience. While few computers shipped with a joystick or gamepad, they all needed keyboards.

The keyboard has evolved much since it first saw the light of day. These days you can get ones that are wireless, have special gaming key layouts, and light up.

There is one type of keyboard that is a very hot topic among gamers – the mechanical keyboard. Just what exactly is a mechanical keyboard and, if you like gaming on PC, should you get one?

What Makes a Mechanical Keyboard Different

The word “mechanical” refers to the type of switch that each key uses to register a keystroke. Typical keyboards, even some pretty high-end ones, use a rubber dome and membrane setup. When you push down on the key you collapse the dome, which closes the contact. When you lift your finger, the dome pops back into shape, ready for the next keystroke. This is a pretty good design and, perhaps most importantly, very cost effective.

Mechanical keyboards use an entirely different approach. Each key has a sophisticated mechanical switch. When you press a key, the switch lets it move down to close the contact and then pushes it back quickly when you release.

Thanks to the nature of the switch, it provides a completely different form of feedback and performance. Many people are of the opinion that these keyboards are inherently superior, but before you simply make the jump to mechanical gaming keyboards, you should understand just exactly what you’ll get for your money.

Switch Types and Feel

While “mechanical keyboard” refers to all of the keyboards that have mechanical switches, there are many different designs. These different switch designs have a big effect on how the keyboard feels and acts.

Switches differ along the lines of a number of attributes. They have different actuation points, which is how far the key has to go before the stroke is registered. There’s also the reset point, which is how far the key has to go before the switch is reset. The total travel is what you expect as well. The unique combinations of these attributes make these switches distinct.

Which switch is “best” is hard to say, and different gamers swear by different switches. The most popular switches are the Cherry MX designs. Most keyboards you see will be labeled as having Cherry MX “Brown” or “Red” and so on. There’s not enough space go over all the switches, not even just the Cherry MX ones, but there are a few everyone should know.

Cherry MX Red switches are great for gaming, but not great for typing, since they lack a tactile “bump”. If you only game and rarely type, these can be a good choice. MX Black switches are less light than Reds and work well for games where you have to mash one key quickly. Blues are clicky and good for typing but not gaming. The MX Brown switches are widely considered to be the best middle-road choice. Good for gaming and typing, but not the best at either.

It’s a good idea to do some independent research on the various mechanical switch types, to see which might suit your needs.

With the technical stuff out of the way, we have to talk about “feel”. The thing is, there’s no objective way to say whether one type of keyboard is better than the other. I would strongly recommend that you try a friend’s keyboard or head down to a shop that has some units on display to feel what it’s like for yourself. There is no substitute for qualitative assessment here. The good news is that if you’ve experienced a particular switch type once, you more or less know what you’ll get when you buy a keyboard that uses the same switch design.

Noise

There’s no way to get around the fact that mechanical keyboards are much more noisy than dome switch ones. This was one of the reasons dome switch devices became popular. You can imagine dozens of typists using clicky-clacky keyboards would be incredibly loud. It’s still an issue today, and if you share space with someone else your mechanical keyboard could really be a nuisance. It could even be an issue for you. Many gamers use headsets these days, but if you’re rocking speakers the noise from your keyboard could be an issue – especially if you also use that keyboard for non-gaming uses, such as typing reports or essays.

Of course, one of the main reasons people love mechanical keyboards is how they feel when you type on them, and most people are going to be typing in an office environment. Take into account that you’ll be creating clacky noises when switching to this type of keyboard.

keychron k2

Cost

There’s no real way around this, but mechanical keyboards are significantly more costly than dome membrane keyboards. Prices have been coming down as the keyboards become more popular, but there’s no way to lower the base cost.

There have been some decent Chinese clones of the Cherry MX switches. They don’t always have the longevity, but do have the same feel. Even at half the durability, you’re unlikely to ever wear the cheaper Chinese versions out, so if you only care about the feel of specific switches, then it’s a viable option.

In the end, you have to decide whether the differences between mechanical keyboards and dome-switch ones is worth the price difference. After all, what’s “expensive” really depends on your budget.

Durability

On paper, a mechanical keyboard is far more durable than a dome membrane one. Of course, not all mechanical keyboards are created equal and some will have their switches break due to poor construction, but assuming that its a keyboard from a reputable brand, it will last for millions and millions of keystrokes.

Sounds good, right? Well, dome switch keyboards aren’t exactly bad when it comes to durability. These keyboards will give you years and years of use, before giving any sort of trouble. So for 99% of gamers, I don’t think durability is a selling point for these keyboards. If you are a writer or a coder typing furiously for hours a day, then maybe it’s a good feature, but for gaming? Not so much.

Should You Go Mechanical?

So this is the big question: to go mechanical or not?

If your budget allows for it, mechanical keyboards do represent a generally superior technology. If you find a switch that feels right for you, then you have nothing holding you back from taking the plunge.

However, you should ask yourself whether there is anything wrong with your dome switch membrane keyboard when it comes to gaming. Personally, I actually prefer shallow, chiclet-style membrane keyboards. I can type much faster on them than with mechanical keyboards, and I make a living as a writer. So I type a LOT.

In gaming, I have also not experienced anything that detracts from the experience. Then again, I’m not a hardcore online twitch FPS player or MOBA god spamming hundreds of key commands a minute. Mechanical keyboards feel solid, with clicky feedback and a quality feel, but dome switch keyboards have improved by leaps and bounds.

We also now have hybrid mechanical membrane keyboards, which combine the reduced cost of the one technology with the feedback of the other. The bottom line is that those who are absolutely serious about their gaming, and don’t care about cost or noise, should definitely consider getting a mechanical keyboard. For the rest of us, especially those who mainly use a gamepad on PC, that money is better spent elsewhere.