One of the great things about writing, when compared to other artistic pursuits, is that it doesn’t cost much. As I said a while back, anyone with a half decent computer has everything they need to write a book. Compare that to the cost of working in the visual arts, music, or film, and writing looks like a pretty sweet deal. (I should know–I’ve spent an embarrassing amount of money on music equipment over the years.)
However, in my experience, there are definitely two things a writer can buy to make writing easier and just … nicer. One is an outstanding software product called Scrivener. There are plenty of blogs out there already singing its praises, so I’ll just say that it’s wonderful, and that I’ll never, ever, ever go back to writing in That Blue Application Which Shall Not Be Named. Today, I’ll focus on the other great writing tool I’ve bought: my CM Storm Quickfire TK mechanical keyboard. It’s wonderful, and I’ll never, ever, ever go back to typing on cheap, squishy keys.
Okay, I’ll bite, Matt: What’s a mechanical keyboard?
The simple explanation: it’s a fancy keyboard for people who type a lot, or people who demand a high degree of accuracy from a keyboard. Writers fit both those categories, especially the typing a lot one.
You can also think of it this way: it’s a high-end keyboard for people who aren’t satisfied with the mushy feel, imprecise action, and slow speed of your typical came-with-the-computer slab. Said people might even remember when keyboards were somehow intangibly better, and yearn for those days. Those people aren’t just crotchety old nutjobs–they’re actually on to something. (Seriously though, you should probably get off their lawns before they throw their canes at you.)
You see, many years ago, every computer keyboard was mechanical. They were much more durable, and noticeably more pleasant to type on. Today’s keyboards are–and I’m not exaggerating in the slightest here–utter garbage in comparison. In fact, I’ll go so far as to say the keyboard is the only piece of computer hardware that has gotten demonstrably worse since it was invented.
So what happened?
Once upon a time, keys had a noticeable click. That click we used to hear–and feel–was the actuation point of an electro-mechanical switch. Each key had such a switch underneath the keycap (the plastic part of the key you can see and touch).
But then, an eeeeeevil new keyboard technology began to appear in the 1990’s: the nefarious Rubber Dome Keyboard. AAAAHHHHHHHH!!! *thunder.wav*
Okay, maybe “evil” is a bit much, but the rubber dome was definitely a radical change. Instead of a discrete switch for each key, manufacturers were able to produce a single rubber sheet impregnated with dozens of dome-shaped contact points. This sheet replaces all those mechanical switches with one simple, inexpensive component.
Rubber dome switches (also sometimes called “membrane switches”) are much thinner and lighter than their mechanical peers, which is a big win for portable devices. They’re also much cheaper–an obvious win for the manufacturers. In every other way, they’re worse. Instead of that accurate, satisfying click, you get an indistinct, squishy feeling when you press a key. (I bet the Germans have a word for “indistinct squishy feeling.”) There’s also the fact that rubber hardens as it ages, making the keys stiffer and more prone to failure over time.
Today, a keyboard is almost always an afterthought–something that just comes with the computer and only needs replacing when you spill a strawberry daiquiri on it. It’s a shame, really–the keyboard is still the most critical input device on any computer, especially when you earn your living by typing words.
Bring Back the Clicky-Clack
Thankfully, not everyone has bent their knee to the Rubber-Domed Emperor. A rapidly growing niche market for mechanical keyboards has appeared over the past few years, and many hardware companies, big and small, are eager to meet the growing demand.
Current demand had been largely driven by the PC gaming community, and the more “mainstream” manufacturers have been catering to this market. The speed and accuracy of a mechanical key switch provides a competitive edge in fast-paced games, making them a must-have accessory for pwning teh n00bs. This is why you see a lot of mechanical boards marketed as “gaming keyboards.” (It’s also why many of them look like a prop from a low-budget sci-fi movie.)
Don’t let the marketing deter you, though: even the mechanical boards marketed to gamers are still a good buy for a writer. The things that gamers want in a keyboard–speed and accuracy–are good for writers too.
Best of all, the mechanical keyboard market is vast and diverse, especially if you expand your search beyond Staples and Best Buy. There’s quite literally something for everyone. Don’t care about the number pad, and want that extra desk space back? There are keyboards for you. Need a full number pad, back-lighting, and media controls? No problem. Want lighter keys? Stiffer keys? Click-ier keys? Quieter keys? Bright yellow keys? Keys that do crazy psychedelic rainbow lighting effects when you tap them? Solid black keys with no writing on them at all? Thy will be done. The mechanical keyboard industry is here to cater to all your freaky desires.
To me, that’s the best part of owning a mechanical keyboard: no compromises. If anything, the sheer number of options available make it difficult to choose one. Fortunately the Internets are happy to help you find your dream board. I’ve posted some good resources below.
There must be a downside, though, right?
Well, of course there are downsides. The most obvious one is cost–compared to their rubbery peers, mechanical keyboards are expensive. Expect to pay at least $80 for a basic mechanical keyboard, considerably more if you need things like back-lighting and a full number pad.
To those concerned about price, I respond thusly: Does a carpenter settle for an “adequate” saw? Does a pro golfer choose the cheapest clubs? A nine iron is a nine iron, right? Of course not. Professionals choose their tools based on how well they perform, and how long they will last. And in both those respects, mechanical keyboards are clearly superior, especially when it comes to durability. A Cherry MX key switch (the most common type of mechanical switch) is rated for fifty million clicks. That’s roughly equivalent to typing all of War and Peace twenty-five times. Compare that to the pathetic one million click rating for a typical came-with-the-computer keyboard, and the extra expense doesn’t look like such a bad deal.
There’s another downside to mechanical keyboards, and it’s definitely going to be a deal-breaker for some people, regardless of budget. Mechanical switches are, by virtue of their design, considerably louder than rubber domes. Some switches are quieter than others, and there are certain things you can do to mitigate noise, but even the quietest mechanical keyboard will be louder than a typical rubber dome board. If you’re noise-averse, or if you’re in an environment where bothering other people is a legitimate concern, a mechanical keyboard might not be in the cards for you.
Shut up and take my money
Ready to take off that rubber life-jacket and jump into the deep end? Before you click the buy button on the first pretty little click-beast that catches your eye, take a bit of time to learn what’s best for your needs. Here are some sites that will help.
- mechanicalkeyboards.com is an online store that has a great selection, especially if you’re looking for something less gamer-centric. They also have plenty of good info, including a tool that helps you choose which model is best for you (it’s limited to models they carry, of course).
- /r/mechanicalkeyboards on Reddit may seem scary at first, but they’re actually great at answering first timer questions (as long as you use the “Ask Any Question” sticky). Do a search on a model you’re interested in to find out if it’s a lemon. I almost bought a keyboard that would have been completely wrong for me until I checked here.
- For Canadians (and non-Canadians willing to pay ridiculous shipping fees), NCIX is easily the best place to buy a mechanical keyboard. Their selection is massive, and their prices are competitive with the American stores.