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Jan 29 2015

On Mechanical Keyboards

Observations on the weird world of Mechanical Keyboards and the esoteric Internet at large.


Update August 10, 2015: I've still got the bug for mechanical keyboards. Mere months after my Poker II came, the Pok3r was released, bringing with it additional function layers and a stock aluminum casing. I adore it and can't type on anything else. My Poker II sits constantly in my travel bag for when I'm on the run.


Update February 2, 2015: Since publishing this article I recieved my Poker II keyboard with Brown switches. I love the 60% layout, the programming layer (which lets me bind FN+HJKL movement as arrow keys) and the thickness and weight of the build. It was worth the wait and concludes my search for the perfect coding keyboard... for now.


Eyes blinded by my monitor past midnight with at least twenty tabs open I remembered it all. I'd fed this hunger before, I'd swallowed this same vocabulary, binged on its adjectives. It was time for bed but I needed to read one more page of excited forum posts. It didn't stop there. It never does.

This was the world of Mechanical Keyboards. My latest hobby that reminded me oh so much of the world of Audiophile Headphones I'd escaped (with a lighter wallet) years before. Just typing out such hobbies commands respect. Capitalize the words, for this is the stuff you can't buy on Amazon.

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My new ten-keyless (TKL) with a towel as a ping reducer.

Everyone has something similar they follow. A niche hobby or collection of items that only you and maybe tens of thousands share on what I like to call the Esoteric Internet. Obsessions where the virtual side of information retrieval is more interesting than the purchases they facilitate. The communities around them are defined by the following base attributes.

  1. A high price for individual products that are functionally the same, but have differences in minutia that can be measured.
  2. A bevy of craft merchants who sell directly or through a small number of poorly designed online boutique shops.
  3. A gray market of secondary sales and trading between addicts.
  4. One or two central forums for subjective opinion.
  5. A technical vocabulary or jargon that requires deep research to understand.
  6. A protracted window between purchase and delivery of the product.
  7. A DIY mod scene post-purchase that focuses on customization.

I'm sure you belong to one of these. Really it's the jargon that pulls me in. I've always been interested by small groups that use existing words and fork them into a new glossary of discovery. Scieontologists are somewhat famous for this. Clear. Auditing. Beingness. Case gains. The fun difference for Internet Esoterics is that their words are usually sensatory in nature. It stems from the need of explaining the physical world through text. The audiophiles at Head-Fi for example have a glossary for describing sound.

Lush (2) - A "lush" sound has a sense of warmth and fullness. Notes are more authoritative and have a sense of life about them. It is a sound free of any sibilance or brightness. It does not mean colored, however. It is an open and inviting sound enveloping the listener into its soundstage. (source: unknown headfier)

Similar magnification exists in the Mechanical Keyboard community. The key switches are sold by color (brown, blue, green, white, red, black) and all have a different sound and feeling. "Clicky" Blues are "tactile" and have a different sound then the subtle Browns which only have the "Clack" that all keys make when "bottoming out". If you haven't guessed by now bottoming out is bad. You should press the key to its actuation point (normally half-way down) and no more.

After learning about all this I don't know why I was surprised to find that the vast majority of YouTube videos about these expensive keyboards focus on just the sound of typing. It's such a focal point that you'll regularly see commenters complain about the quality and position of the microphones used. To be fair, there is an odd satisfaction to listening to someone type.

But not everyone revels in this auditory hypnotism. There is a large aftermarket and mod scene focused on nothing but muffling as much of that sound as possible, usually though the addition of soft plastic between the key and the board. These acolytes are the conscious clickers of the Mechanical Keyboard world. They perform these mods for the benefit of their coworkers who would otherwise be distracted by the new hire's noisy keyboard. For them, it's the "feels" that count more. Others in the community, especially the professional coders, see no harm in the loud sound. They are paid to code and will use whatever tools are the most efficient. As the saying goes "the trick is to become their boss".

These keyboards also differ in size. There are full-sized, ten-keyless (also known as 75%) and 60% boards. These percentages don't measure the key-size themselves, but the number of total keys on the board. A ten-keyless keyboard is missing the numpad. 60% configurations are more drastic and remove the function layer, arrow keys and page-up / page-down keys. These boards add a function layer that requires a combo (like function+WASD for movement) to fill in the gaps.

It's fascinating stuff. I bought into the culture pretty quick. After all, who would dedicate so much time to learn all this stuff if it didn't make you more efficient. Funnily enough most of the scene seems to use a QWERTY layout, which compared to Dvorak or Colemak seems like the greatest opportunity for improvement in ones typing. Instead, the larger focus is on cosmetics. LED lights, custom key-caps and named color schemes like Granite or Miami. Everything can be changed, from the actual board base (Aluminum is preferred) to the actual cord that connects it to your USB supply. It is not unheard of for people to spend five times the amount of the original keyboard in customizations.

But just how many people do this? Certainly enough keep the message boards fresh, but not large enough to create a substansial market. Outside of a handful of primary players like WASD and Das Keyboard, the scene is filled with group-based promise purchasing and Asian proxies to deliver goods. Both require somewhat amazing leaps of faith with your wallet. Want to pay for something today that you won't see for three months? This isn't Amazon.

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Don't worry, he takes Paypal.

This, combined with high pricing, is the reason you need glossaries, because you are so tied to the observations of others for your decisions. They own not only what I don't have, but what I can not even try out if I wanted to. Want to try a 60% keyboard like the Poker 2? Good luck, maybe you have a friend. Otherwise you're looking at three weeks of waiting for a proxy to deliver you one. In those three weeks the hunger doesn't fade and you're just waiting for that moment. The problem is that during the wait someone's written so perfect a summary of a competing product that you're feeling a tinge of regret. If only you could try them out side by side. If only you had a bigger budget. You should have just bought the more expensive one to begin with.

And that's the rub. The communities are fascinating, but they are always more interesting than the reality of the product when it arrives. If you stick around long enough you'll taste some snake oil and recognize the pitch. My advice? The recommendations from these communities as a whole are usually sound and there is a valid point to buying quality if it's something you use every day. But only make that one purchase and no more. Pick something in the middle and make sure it is managable within your budget. The improvement between products lesson the higher you go. Once you've made that big purchase close your browser and forget you ever learned all that new vocabulary. You'll be better off for it.


Author's note: This all began when my Logitech chiclet keyboard started repeating keys. I'd bought the same keyboard the year before for a different problem and decided enough was enough. As a Mac user, the mechanical keyboard world simply had more options towards the high end. I'd say I'm still in the middle or relearning how to type on them, but I'll admit that there is definitely a feeling of substance when I type on them.

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The blue things are O-rings. Only $20 a pack!

I ended up buying a WASD Code keyboard with Clear keycaps. Some blue o-rings and a dampening pad (aka towel) serve as my only modifications. I may or may not have proxied a Poker 2 with Browns from China, just to try it out, but it's not here yet. I'll sell whichever one I end up liking less. Seriously, I swear. I code for a living, that's my excuse. I'm not addicted.

I also own Sennheiser HD650's with a Meier Audio DAC/AMP. That combo I've owned for over six years. I've stayed away from Head-Fi ever since and as far as I know nothing better exists. Don't tell me otherwise.


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