Transition from Traditional to Mechanical Keyboards: A Historic Insight

December 6, 2023

Have you ever wondered why people's preferences---especially gamers---have shifted from membrane keyboards to mechanical keyboards? Or why some still hold onto their old mechanical keyboards?

Switching from old-school to fancy mechanical keyboards is like turning a page in the history of how we type. Let's take a trip down memory lane to see how keyboards have transformed over time. From the basic rubbery buttons to the sleek and snazzy mechanical keys we have today, this article spills the tea on the cool shift that's revamped our typing game.

We're digging into the reasons, cool tech stuff, and the vibes that turned mechanical keyboards from geeky gadgets into the must-have tech everyone's talking about. 

What are the Differences Between Traditional and Mechanical Keyboards

The core differences between traditional and mechanical keyboards are quite significant. Here are some fundamental distinctions:

  1. Switch Mechanism
    • Traditional Keyboards: Typically use rubber dome switches. These switches consist of a membrane layer with domes that collapse to complete the circuit when a key is pressed.
    • Mechanical Keyboards: Feature individual mechanical keyboard switches for each key. These switches use physical moving parts such as springs and metal contacts to register key presses. 
  2. Tactile Feedback
    • Traditional Keyboards: Tend to have a mushy feel due to the rubber dome switches. 
    • Mechanical Keyboards: Offer more tactile feedback, providing a noticeable and consistent response when a key is actuated. Users often find this feature enhances typing accuracy and overall typing experience.
  3. Key Rollover and Anti-Ghosting
    • Traditional Keyboards: Limited key rollover and anti-ghosting capabilities. They often struggle to register multiple simultaneous key presses accurately.
    • Mechanical Keyboards: Generally offer superior key rollover and anti-ghosting features, allowing for multiple key presses to be registered simultaneously.
  4. Durability
    • Traditional Keyboards: Rubber dome switches may wear out over time, leading to a decline in performance.
    • Mechanical Keyboards:  Mechanical switches often have a longer lifespan, with some switches rated for tens of millions of key presses.
  5. Customization
    • Traditional Keyboards: Limited customization options in terms of key feel and actuation.
    • Mechanical Keyboards: Offer a wide range of switch types, each with unique characteristics. Users can choose switches based on preferences for actuation force, tactile feedback, and noise level.
  6. Typing Sound
    • Traditional Keyboards: Tend to be quieter, making them suitable for shared or quiet environments.
    • Mechanical Keyboards: Can produce a variety of sounds depending on the switch type. 
  7. Weight and Size
    • Traditional Keyboards: Often lighter and more compact.
    • Mechanical Keyboards: Generally heavier and larger due to the individual switches and additional components. However, this can vary among different models.

History of Mechanical Keyboards

The evolution of mechanical keyboards follows a path from the creation of individual mechanical switches to a period of decreased popularity, followed by a resurgence. This revival is propelled by a renewed recognition of the distinct typing experience and the more specific requirements of both gamers and professionals.

  1. Early Mechanical Switches (1960s-1970s)
    • The first mechanical switches for keyboards were introduced in the 1960s. These keyboards used individual mechanical switches for each key, employing a design with discrete moving parts and contacts.
    • IBM's Model F, introduced in 1981, was one of the early examples of a mechanical keyboard with capacitive buckling spring switches. It gained popularity for its tactile feedback and durability.
  2. Cherry MX Switches (1980s)
    • In the 1980s, the German company Cherry GmbH developed the Cherry MX series of mechanical switches. These switches became widely adopted and set the standard for mechanical keyboards.
    • Cherry MX switches come in various types, each with different characteristics such as actuation force, tactile feedback, and audible click.
  3. IBM Model M (1984)
    • The IBM Model M, introduced in 1984, is a legendary mechanical keyboard that used a buckling spring mechanism. This mechanism became an iconic input device.
  4. Decline in Mechanical Keyboards (1990s-2000s)
    • As technology advanced, membrane keyboards and laptop-style scissor switches became more prevalent due to their lower cost and quieter operation. As such, mechanical keyboards saw a decline in popularity during this period.
  5. Resurgence and Gaming Focus (2010s)
    • Mechanical keyboards experienced a resurgence in the 2010s, driven in part by the gaming community's demand for better performance and tactile feedback.
    • Gaming keyboard manufacturers like Razer, Corsair, and Logitech introduced their own mechanical switches, catering to gamers with features like customizable backlighting and anti-ghosting.
  6. Diverse Switch Options and Customization (Present)
    • The present-day market for mechanical keyboards is characterized by a wide variety of switch options beyond Cherry MX, including switches from companies like Razer, Romer-G, and more.
    • Mechanical keyboards have become highly customizable, with enthusiasts building their own keyboards and experimenting with different switch types, keycaps, and layouts.
  7. Integration in Professional Settings
    • Mechanical keyboards have found their way into professional settings, with professionals valuing the durability and typing experience they offer. Some workplaces have embraced mechanical keyboards for their ergonomic benefits and tactile feedback.

Factors Behind the Decline of Mechanical Keyboards

During the 1990s, mechanical keyboards started losing their popularity due to several significant factors.

  1. Cost: Mechanical keyboards are generally more expensive to produce than membrane keyboards. This higher production cost can make mechanical keyboards less attractive to manufacturers aiming to produce budget-friendly options.
  2. Noise: Traditional mechanical keyboards, especially those with tactile and clicky switches, can be noisy. In shared or quiet environments, the audible key clicks may be considered disruptive, leading users to prefer quieter membrane keyboards.
  3. Weight and Size: Mechanical keyboards, due to their individual switches and additional components, can be heavier and larger than their membrane counterparts. This factor may impact portability and convenience for users who prioritize lightweight and compact designs.
  4. Lack of Awareness: In certain periods, there was a lack of awareness among users regarding the benefits of mechanical keyboards. Many individuals were not familiar with the differences in typing experience and durability offered by mechanical switches, leading to a preference for more commonly available membrane keyboards.
  5. Preference for Slim Designs: With the rise of laptops and slim-profile desktop setups, there was a trend towards thinner keyboards. Mechanical keyboards, with their robust switch mechanisms, often couldn't match the slim form factor of membrane and scissor-switch keyboards.
  6. Gaming and Typing Trends: During some periods, the general trend in gaming and typing preferences shifted towards quieter and softer key presses. Membrane keyboards and laptop-style keyboards, with their softer and more silent keystrokes, became more appealing to users.
  7. Limited Variety: In the early stages of mechanical keyboard development, there was a more limited variety of switches compared to the extensive options available today. Users may have found the limited choices less appealing, especially if the available switches did not suit their preferences.

Factors Behind the Rise of Popularity of Mechanical Keyboards

At the onset of 2010, mechanical keyboards experienced a resurgence after a previous decline. This renewed interest can be attributed to several factors. 

  1. Tactile Feedback and Typing Experience:  Enthusiasts appreciate the tactile feel and audible click of certain switches, which enhances the overall typing sensation.
  2. Durability and Longevity: Mechanical switches are durable. The use of individual mechanical switches for each key means that they can withstand a significantly higher number of keystrokes compared to membrane switches, resulting in a longer lifespan.
  3. Customization Options: Users can choose from a wide variety of switch types and keycaps. In some keyboards, key mapping, macros, and backlit lighting patterns can be programmed and customized. This level of customization allows users to tailor their typing experience to their specific preferences.
  4. Gaming Performance: The gaming community has played a significant role in the resurgence of mechanical keyboards. Many gamers prefer mechanical switches for their responsiveness, precise actuation points, and anti-ghosting.
  5. Community and Enthusiast Culture: Online forums, social media, and events dedicated to mechanical keyboards foster a culture of sharing knowledge, experiences, and customizations, further fueling interest in these keyboards.
  6. Improved Switch Technology: Advances in switch technology have led to the development of new and innovative switches beyond the traditional Cherry MX. Companies like Razer, Logitech, and others have introduced their proprietary switches, offering unique features such as reduced actuation distances, enhanced durability, and quieter operation.
  7. Ergonomic Benefits: Mechanical keyboards often feature ergonomic designs that contribute to a more comfortable typing experience. This is particularly appealing to professionals and individuals who spend extended periods typing and gaming, as the ergonomic design can help reduce strain and fatigue.
  8. Aesthetics and Build Quality: Mechanical keyboards often boast high build quality and aesthetic appeal. Premium materials, customizable backlighting, and sleek designs contribute to their attractiveness for users seeking not only functional but also visually appealing peripherals.
  9. Increased Awareness: As awareness of the advantages of mechanical keyboards has grown, more users have become interested in trying them out. Reviews, online discussions, and word of mouth have played a crucial role in educating users about the benefits of mechanical keyboards.

Conclusion

The shift from traditional to mechanical keyboards has been an intriguing journey, influenced by advancements in technology, user preferences, and market dynamics.

Despite facing an initial decline, mechanical keyboards have experienced a resurgence in popularity due to their superior tactile feedback and durability. This resurgence indicates a renewed appreciation for quality and performance in the world of computing, marking an interesting turn in the evolution of keyboards.

Chris Greiner, a Mechanical Keyboard specialist, boasts a solid educational background with dual bachelor's degrees in Computer Science and Business Management from Lewis University. His additional certification in Mechanical Keyboard Design showcases his dedication to staying on the forefront of keyboard technology. Chris primarily writes for keyboard enthusiasts and has been featured on platforms like Jestik, solidifying his reputation as a thought leader in the mechanical keyboard community.
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