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Types of Keyboards and Their Differences

Updated on April 27, 2016

Look down at your keyboard, more likely than not you see keys that appear flat and when you press them they have almost a mushy feel. The majority of keyboards today are what you would call a membrane keyboard, these keyboards work by the key pressing a small rubber dome into the PCB of the keyboard completing the circuit and sending the proper signal to the computer. When pressing the keys there is usually little to no sound and no real feel of when the key sends the signal, it's just when the key is fully compressed. There are pros to this style of keyboard as they can usually be more compact than previous versions of keyboards, like the buckling spring. Membrane keyboards can also be more readily water-proofed and can usually handle a bit more wear and tear than most other keyboards. Since the membranes are simply rubber it is also easier to create custom layouts for different styles. Ergonomic keyboards where they're separated in the middle are much cheaper as membrane style compared to their mechanical switch counterparts. Membrane keyboards are also the cheapest options on the market by a wide margin most of the time. Because the membrane has all of the rubber domes for a keyboard as one piece each "switch" does not have to be individually constructed which saves in manufacturing costs. The body of most membrane switches is also usually made from simple plastic as manufacturers do not often try to market this type of keyboard as a premium model.

Now with the most common type of keyboard, the membrane, explained we can move on to what this blog is truly about, mechanical keyboards. Mechanical keyboards are not nearly as common as their cheaper membrane counterpart and it would be surprising if your casual computer user even knew of their existence. With a mechanical keyboard each key has its own separate, complete switch unlike the conjoined membrane "switches." All of the switches have three main parts which are the base, the spring, and the stem. The base is very self-explanatory since it is just the housing for the other two parts. The spring then is what decides how easy or hard it is to press the key. The stem of a switch plays an important role in how the key sounds when it's pressed and how far a key has to be pressed before a signal is sent. The actual key itself is simply just a cap over the stem of the switch and since the majority of stems are the same size and shape it allows for custom keycaps to be produced and adds another layer of customization for the customer. Since each key has its own individual switch mechanical keyboards tend to be a bit more expensive than other styles of keyboards. Many mechanical keyboards are produced with higher quality materials like metal back plates or custom metal cases. Along with the higher prices comes a higher quality product. The leading switch manufacturer, Cherry, guarantees their switches 50 million operations in their lifetime. This is a lot more mileage than your average plastic membrane keyboard will promise.

In some of my previous posts I've mentioned a type of keyboard that has topre switches. Topre switches are even more uncommon than mechanical switches and are not very popular over here in the United States at all. Where they do seem to be very popular is over in eastern Asian countries like Japan and Taiwan. So what is a topre switch? A topre switch is almost a combination of a membrane switch and a mechanical switch. There is a housing over a rubber dome and then under that rubber dome is a conical coiled spring which sits on top of the printed circuit board. When pressing the key it is the rubber dome that gives most of the resistance and tactile feel to the press. But the conical spring of course does provide some resistance as well. Because of its weird combination of rubber domes but also springs some have a hard time placing it in a category. While the majority of users call it a mechanical switch because of the feel some purist mechanical keyboard users put them in a category of their own. Topre keyboards are much more expensive than even their mechanical keyboard counterparts because of number of work and parts that has to go into each keys. They can also be incredibly hard to find in the US even online. Here is a site that is well known for its sale of topre keyboards in the US. There is also a company in the US that made their own topre board called the NovaTouch which you can learn more about by clicking that link.


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