A Practical Post About Mechanical Keyboards

TL;DR – Do your fingertips hurt at the end of a work day? Maybe you should get a good mechanical keyboard? Send me a pic of your mechanical keyboard setup if you have one; I’d love to see it.

Bryan’s actual work keyboard and mouse. Separate 10Key pad not pictured.

I have a self-declared standard of one post per week. And this week I had hoped to post my git repo and companion blog post featuring my Vagrant K8s learning lab. But it’s not . . . cooperating . . . as I had hoped. My knowledge of K8s is rudimentary and my Vagrant knowledge is even worse, so it’s been frustrating.

I am learning both K8s and Vagrant along the way so it’s the, “right kind of frustrating.”

But . . . I promise you, 26 people who follow my blog . . . most of whom are my friends and coworkers, that once my Vagrant K8s Lab is ready I will put it out there for all to criticize enjoy.

Instead, it’s mechanical keyboards this week! It’s topically code-adjacent. No, really. Have you ever used a good and proper mechanical keyboard recently?

Because I have and I do. And in my humble opinion, it is worth your time to look into getting a good quality mechanical keyboard if you are going to be coding a lot. Professional Chefs have knives that are tuned and weighted to their personal preferences and “chopping style”. Professional cyclists have their bikes tuned and sized for them and their body types. Why should we IaC warriors be any different? This is your ergonomic health we’re talking about. And Uncle Bryan has you covered.

My Fingertips Are Killing Me: A Short Story

I feel compelled to digress a bit and tell you a story about how I got into modern mechanical keyboards. A couple of years ago, after getting into the full swing of IaC, I was lamenting to one of my Dev buddies about how my fingertips hurt at the end of each day (not a joke), which was a new phenomenon for me at the time. The conversation went like this:

Me: “Dude, I don’t know what it is, but at the end of the day my fingertips are [expletive] killing me.”

Dev Buddy: “What keyboard are you using?”

Me: “The one they gave me, an Apple Magic Keyboard.”

Dev Buddy: (Audible laughter and he was unresponsive for what seemed like 10 minutes, then he composed himself). “Dude you gotta get yourself a legit mechanical keyboard. It’s like typing on pillows.”

Me: “What, you mean like one of those clickety-clack keyboards?”

Dev Buddy: (Another chuckle). “Yes, like one of those clickety-clack keyboards. Let’s start with Cherry MX Switches and continue from there . . .”

. . . and then my love affair for mechanical keyboards was born.

By the way, if you are still not on board with this, Mechanical Keyboards have an entire (very expensive) subculture. It’s a thing!

Doing the Research and the Big Decision: Keyboard Switch Types

First up: keyboard switch types. I am going to refrain from linking resources about the various switch types because there are a ton of resources out there. Simply google “Mechanical Keyboard Switch Types” and let the information wash over you. Instead, I will just give you some overall guidance. For the record, right now, my favorite Cherry MX type is the Cherry MX Blue. That is only because that’s been the range of my experience so far. There are so many different switch types out there (some are linked at the end of this post . . . keep reading!).

If this is a keyboard for your work, I would say the first thing you need to think about is the proximity of your coworkers. Some of these switch types (like the ever-popular Cherry MX Blue, aforementioned) can be VERY noisy and your cube mates will probably be none too pleased. I for one, like the sound and the feel of the Cherry MX Blue. So much so that I use that as my home keyboard switch type.

In fact, apropos of the subculture aforementioned, I would be remiss if I did not mention that some people like the clickety-clack sound of mechanical keyboards so much that there are even ASMR Keyboard Videos out there . . . I mean . . . like . . . so I have heard . . . you know . . . from like . . . other people. . . .

Whether or not you like the sound of the louder switch types, you should be respectful of your coworkers and choose something that is not so loud. That means you should probably stay way from the Cherry MX Green, Blue, and Brown. As part of my research for this, I just found that the ironically named, “Razer Black Widow Ultimate Stealth Edition” clocks in at just under 60 Decibels. I know some server fans that run quieter than that.

My work keyboard (pictured at the beginning of this post) are Cherry MX Reds in the Vortex Race 3 TKL Dye Sub PBT Mechanical Keyboard (my separate 10-key is not pictured). I have found that the reds are quiet enough for my coworkers, but not my preferred choice. My accuracy suffers a bit as a result, but a small price to pay to not be ridiculed by my peers as the, “Dirtbag Loud Keyboard Guy.”

If you really want to go the extra mile in your research, there are switch testers/samplers that will help you make the decision. I got this one at a steal, but there are others that go beyond the Cherry MX switches.

It’s all personal preference, really. I find the Cherry MX Clear as completely unusable, but I am sure some people swear by them.

By the way, it isn’t just about the noise, each type has an actuation force measured in kilogram force. You’ll have to decide what’s best for you there too. I find that the blues have just the right resistance that acts as a cushion and is easier on my apparently very delicate fingers.

If You Thought Key Switch Type Was Your Only Decision, You’d Be Wrong

Some additional decisions:

  1. Keyboard size – Sizes are in number of keys/percentages. My at-work keyboard, aforementioned, is a 10keyless 75% keyboard. Compact but still has the Function Keys along the top. As an IT Engineer I need both the Function Keys and the 10Keys, but I keep the 10Key pad separate. Why? I wanted the 75% compactness. Some crazy people go smaller with a 60% keyboard with the function keys requiring an additional hotkey to work. For the super insane, there’s the Planck 40%. Some smaller sizes also have the keys closer together, which some people prefer.
  2. Keyboard case material and color – You can get anything from wood to aluminum to plastic to brass.
  3. Keycap material – The main two types are PBT and ABS. PBT is more durable, but again, it’s all about personal preference.
  4. Keycap color, font, and customized arrangement – If you decide go a bit less mainstream, you can get your own set of custom keycaps. I like mine old school. My dream keycaps would be the old Commodore 64 Keycaps, but I am too much of a cheapskate to pay for any keycaps other than the ones I have. There are also Winkeyless keyboards that don’t have the usual Windows (or Mac) shortcut key(s).
  5. Keycap height – You can adjust how high the keys sit on the keyboard too, if you are so inclined.
  6. Customizable firmware – Don’t like how the keyboard is arranged? Make your own layout! Want to use a Dvorak layout? No problem. Lots of keyboards allow for full customization.
  7. Backlit or not backlit? If you work at night, maybe backlit is something you really need?

All of these items above will alter the keyboard choices for you. A good place to start is https://mechanicalkeyboards.com and see what kinds of features you can mix and match.

The Subculture Part 2: Dreaming Out Loud

As if I haven’t geeked out enough, there’s also the full-on DIY option. A crafting hobby I could see myself getting into is making my own custom keyboard(s). Maybe even make them for my friends. And I must say I am not the crafting type; I don’t usually have the patience.

There’s only one problem though: you can get a highly customized keyboard with many of the options I’ve listed above for way cheaper than it would be for you to make one. In fact, pricing it out, making your own quality keyboard is about double what it would cost for one you could buy. . . . Did I mention I was a cheapskate? Are DIY keyboards better? Maybe. But double the price?

I just can’t justify the cost. Instead I just drool over other people’s crafted keyboards and that’s good enough for me. I know if I started I would not be able to stop myself. If you want to experience the lamentations of the cost of this hobby, spend a few minutes in the previously linked mechanical keyboards subreddit, and you’ll see that it’s an addiction for some people. They do have a very useful wiki if you want to get started there.

Keyboards I Want to Buy Try

  1. The Unicomp Space Saver Black Buckling Spring – This is a different switch type altogether based on the IBM Model M buckling spring type, but have Winkeys. They are also noisy, but these have a cult following all their own. Affordable too. It’s just hard to buy a keyboard when I haven’t tried it.
  2. The IBM 5251 – Just for giggles.
  3. Topre Switch Keyboards – I have heard really good things about them.
  4. A Commissioned TaehaTypes BOK.CP – TaehaTypes has custom keyboards at up to $3500. I would never buy one, but they seem legit. It’s the McLaren of keyboards.

I hope this has been helpful. A good quality keyboard can certainly bring one less worry to your work day. If you have your own keyboards, I’d love to see them. Send me a pic of your keyboard setup or link me some recommendations!

Questions? Hit me up on twitter @RussianLitGuy or email me at bryansullins@thinkingoutcloud.org. I would love to hear from you.

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