Most of us are given a keyboard when we buy our laptop or computer and buy a replacement if push comes to shove (or in this case, if tap comes to no tap). So unless you have ever dug into the keyboard technologies available, you would never know there’s a whole world of choice at your fingertips.
The two major contenders battling it out are mechanical vs. membrane keyboards. Mechanical keyboards come with a wide range of differences, while membrane keyboards you should be intimately familiar with. But we will cover both below.
What Is a Mechanical Keyboard?
A mechanical keyboard is an alternative option, and can easily be compared to the knobs and cranks that in older vehicles. On mechanical keyboards, each key is composed of a removable keycap and a mechanical, physical switch rather than circuitry.
The components of a switch include:
- Stems, which mount the keycaps to the switch and come in different colors and shapes depending on the switch type.
- Outer housing, a case with all other switch components inside and which the stem rests on top of
- Metal spring mechanism at the bottom
- Metal contacts that register a keystroke when they touch
- Non-metal slider, which holds the contacts apart and then allows them to touch when the slider is depressed. That pushes against the spring until popping back into place when pressure is removed.
While modern consumers may be accustomed to nearly flat membrane keyboard keycaps due to the “chiclet” style of many laptops, mechanical keyboard keycaps are taller and are described as high profile or mid-height. Additionally, because of the different nature of the different switches, mechanical keyboards are not created equally at all. It entirely depends on the particular switch mechanism being used.
But luckily, all switches fall into one of three easily identifiable categories, and you can go from there.
- Linear: There is a smooth physical resistance when pressing a key, consistent all the way down.
- Tactile: There’s an additional physical resistance, where you’ll feel a distinct bump before or when the key is pressed entirely down.
- Clicky: A distinct clicking sound accompanies the bump — consider this Tactile Plus Sound.
Mechanical Keyboard Pros and Cons
Although it’s hard to quantify just in your home, mechanical keyboards do have 10 times the lifespan of a membrane keyboard. Membrane keyboard lifespan is 5 million clicks or less, versus a mechanical’s 50-60 million keystrokes.
- Physical (and Audible) Feedback
Many enthusiasts claim that a mechanical keyboard will improve your performance when gaming or typing. With quick, light switches, the point of actuation — when a keystroke is registered — occurs sooner than in a membrane keyboard and doesn’t require a full press down. Meanwhile, heavy switches and taller keys can improve accuracy.
What it really boils down to is the fact that a mechanical keyboard will give you feedback when you use it. It should provide a better feeling experience than a membrane keyboard. You’ll be able to use it with intention and feel the keys interacting with your fingers with each keystroke.
And of course, there’s something to be said for that ever so satisfying bump-click.
- Highly (highly) Customizable
The second part of the equation is that your own mechanical keyboard can be whatever you want it to. Quick, light, heavy, clacky. Do you want that audible feedback at all, and at what volume?
Did you commit to a keyboard with noisy switches, and now your ears are having regrets? Sound dampeners are available. You can use different switches for different areas on the same board. You can go wired or wireless with a mechanical keyboard.
And since mechanical keyboard switches are standardized and sold individually, a wide variety of keycaps are made to fit. You’re expected to add your own keycaps if you buy a pack of switches. So you can choose and design any aesthetic you fancy.
Plus, because so much of mechanical keyboard ownership revolves around customization itself, there’s actually a vibrant owner community where you can find an assortment of vetted products and build ideas.
If your aim is stealth typing, you may be tempted to say mechanical keyboards are simply too loud. But a gentle typist using quiet mechanical switches may sound the same as a someone who mashes up their membrane keyboard.
There’s really only one insurmountable downside to mechanical keyboards. Comparably, they can be more expensive.
The cost of entry has lowered over the years, so you can certainly pick up a basic mechanical keyboard on the cheap. They come with some compromises, however, and don’t leave much wiggle room on the switches. You get what they’re able to give you at that price.
What Is a Membrane Keyboard?
Now we come to membrane keyboards — common, simple, and reliable. When searching a membrane keyboard on Amazon, it returns alarmingly limited results, but any unmarked keyboard is going to be membrane style while mechanical or otherwise will be specified.
Technically, membrane “keyboards” are the physically buttonless pressure pads found on things like appliances. For use as computer keyboards, dome-switches are utilized, metal or rubber nubs under each key. They can be arranged on a single membrane like a hilly landscape, or directly and individually attached to the underside of keys.
In either case, it’s the nubs that provide any tactile feedback and cause keys to pop back into place. When you depress a key, the push closes a circuit between two layers, or membranes, of circuitry that is usually separated by a spacer layer.
The top and bottom membranes act as the contacts, while the spacer is equivalent to a mechanical switch’s slider, keeping the contacts apart, and the dome nubs act as the spring.
Membrane Keyboard Pros and Cons
- Quick, Cheap, Easy
Membrane keyboard technology can be manufactured at little cost so that a membrane keyboard can be picked up at any computer store or online for under 20 bucks. It will not be the world’s best by any means, but you will be able to easily get it and get to work. They are also what comes pre-packed with computer bundles and preloaded into laptops.
If you have more than a $20 bill to spend, you’re still more likely to readily find all the specific features you want in an affordable membrane keyboard.
- Quieter Without Trying
Although we’ve debunked the fact that mechanical keyboards have to be noisemakers, membrane keyboard design means they will be quieter by default, even if the keyboard came from the dollar store. Quiet mechanical switches must be sought out, and you’ll pay a higher premium for them.
- They’re Familiar
Many of us have been using membrane keyboards all our lives. It can be jarring to drastically alter your typing ecosystem, and you might not like what you feel. There’s much to be said for the devil you know over the one you don’t, especially if you didn’t want to put all that much research into a keyboard.
- Increased Cost Doesn’t Equal Increased Lifespan.
Despite humble lower-ends, the best membrane keyboards actually cost a pretty penny. They’re durable and well constructed, from reputable companies, and check every box on your wishlist. Yet if it’s a membrane and not a mechanical keyboard, nothing can stop it from degrading before it ever hits 10 million keystrokes.
If you have the money to spend on a perfect high-end board, the truth is that a mechanical keyboard will stretch those dollars further than even the best membrane keyboard on the market.
- Unpredictable Keys
Just as switches are not created equal, neither are membrane keyboards. Yet without a standards guide, it’s nigh impossible to tell what you might get without physically trying it out.
Will this keyboard have minimal up and down travel and an absolutely mushy, barely-there tactility? Or just springy and responsive enough to get you through the day? It’ll be a toss-up.
And no matter the individual feeling of the membrane keyboard, they only function if the key is completely depressed each and every time, with the actuation point at the very end of key travel.
If you have keys that don’t interact with your fingers enough for you to realize when you’ve properly pressed it or not, or whether or not a repeat press has been registered, keyboard functionality goes down. Your typing accuracy will take a hit, any game playing will suffer, and there are no sure ways to reliably predict or later address such issues.
Mechanical Keyboard vs. Membrane Keyboard: Which Should You Choose?
Mechanical vs. Membrane Keyboard for Gaming
Mechanical vs. membrane keyboard Reddit threads pop up all the time, and usually in relation to gaming. As many setups geared for gaming pull out all the stops and value customization, mechanical keyboards are almost always the fan-favorite.
However, there’s plenty of value and variety to choose from with membrane keyboards as well, one of which may fit your specific needs better than niche mechanical keyboards. And if you’re already highly attuned to the feel of membrane keyboard gaming, it may make the most sense to stick with what you know for the best results.
A viable transition item for such gamers is Razer’s Ornata Chroma mecha membrane keyboard, or “memchanical” keyboard — an RGB-lit, gameplay-centric board that combines soft rubber membrane rebound with a mechanical click-inducing “switch.” There’s no tactile bump and no springs, but it may be the best of both worlds for some.
Mechanical vs. Membrane Keyboard for Typing
For dedicated typing, the answer is much more straightforward. A mechanical keyboard is an undoubtedly powerful tool for improving accuracy and training your fingers.
It isn’t invaluable. Practice and comfort are foremost, and once again, membrane keyboards offer a lot of choices for different use cases. But a mechanical keyboard will outlast its membrane cousin and may turn typing into a more physically engaging, tactilely pleasant experience.
And especially if you’re the proud owner of a beloved typewriter, definitely give mechanical keyboards a try for your digital needs.
When it comes right down to it, mechanical keyboards are expensive, but you get your money’s worth: longer lasting, customization galore, and a great weighty feeling to the touch.
Membrane keyboards, on the other hand, are plentiful, accessible, and affordable. You can get more bang for your buck at lower prices, and maybe you just prefer to use what you’re used to.
Mecha membrane, or memchanical, keyboards try to combine aspects of both. They might be right if you simply love to hear those keys a-clacking, enjoy a middle ground finger feeling, or are transitioning between board types.