I will say up front that I am by no means advocating for any one particular company, switch type, board type, and am not in any way sponsored. Do your own research and experimentation to find out what you personally like.
In the beginning, there was DasKeyboard
When I started learning about mechanical keyboards, my friend at work, Colt, had mentioned in passing that he had a 'brown switch' mechanical keyboard he was looking to part with for around $60, since he had bought a new one with 'blue switches', and at the time, about two years ago now, I had no idea what that actually meant. What even was a mechanical switch and why should I care?
From previous experiences in the PC gaming sphere, I had met a few friends that swore by mechanical keyboards - some fan of 'vintage black', 'Razer green', or some other flavor of switch, but all were talking about the same thing: a keyboard that registered actuation through means of a mechanical switch which works like a circuit, pressing a tiny piece of metal against another piece of metal. So what was the big deal?
A mechanical keyboards is a giant circuit of these switches that make up a keyboard, a much different approach than most membrane keyboards that you'll find on desks and workstations today. Membrane keyboards typically feature a durable rubber insert sitting between floating plastic keys and a circuit board, with the key circuit registering at the bottom of a key press. Mechanical keyboards are very similar, only that these switches are typically soldered to the circuit board, with varying degrees of actuation for a keypress. Membrane keyboards are cheaper to produce, and last a significantly shorter amount of keystrokes, a price point that has made them the default for most people and companies. Mechanical keyboards are slightly more expensive to produce and put together, but the switches can last on the upwards of 70 million keystrokes!
Suffice it to say, the verdict is not out on which is better. Topre keyboards, for instance, fetch an outstanding price ($150 or more) for being a membrane keyboard with enthusiast mod capabilities, which draws quite a following, while the mechanical switch users swear by their Zealios-equipped Planck that has a custom 3 layer loadout for their tastes. Of course, aside from these options, there are many, many, many flavors of keyboards floating around /r/mechmarket, and it doesn't take long to realize as a new consumer to this market, you don't know what you're doing at all when trying to choose a board, the keycaps, and most importantly, the switch types.
Dramatic fast forward
So a year and a half goes by with the 'brown switch' DasKeyboard, which overall had been a great buy, but I wanted more out of my daily experience with my computers.
As a developer, I spend the majority of my time on my computer and typing, so getting this experience optimized would be a great way to improve my minute-by-minute satisfaction of using a computer and maybe even increase productivity (probably not). And so, as with most adventures, 'this is where the story began...'
At first I didn't really know where to start researching, and so I began on Reddit, crossroads of the interwebs, specifically on /r/MechanicalKeyboards, to look for leads on my 'endgame' board. Unfortunately I approached the forum with a feature list and just began searching, reading, and building in my mind what I thought would be a great board: programable, backlit, brown switches, and wireless. Mainly, I wanted something smaller - the Das left a huge footprint on my desk and made it really hard to have anything else on the desk next to it. These kind of requirements really limited my choices, until I funneled them down to the Anne Pro, a 60% bluetooth-enabled keyboard that the community didn't immediately eviscerate for design, functionality, or features. So I ordered one from a seemingly shady Chinese merchant website, TMart.
After waiting almost a month for the fish-scented DHL shipment, I finally got the Anne Pro, and it turned out to be really nice. For $100 I was able to check off all the boxes I had jotted down a month prior but.. Something was missing. I gained desk space, and wireless ability, but the switches felt the same, and the clacks were very similar (Das keys seem a bit more solid than the ABS Anne Pro keys). At times when I really started to crank up words per minute on either, the clack got a little out of hand, and so I tried o-rings, and that gave it a different feel, more of a thunk sound over the previous clack. It was really at this point that I realized I hadn't done sufficient research, and hadn't expanded my horizons either into the Mechanical Keyboard market. Admittedly I fell into a comfort zone when needing to be more adventurous and curious in what was out there... And, boy, I found out quite a bit in a very, very short while.
Switch types - 'need to know'
If you're first starting out in the mechanical keyboard market, it's essential to know your switch types. Simply knowing the difference between linear, tactile, and clicky simply doesn't cut it anymore - what is the quality? What are their actuation points? What do users say about them, and is there the option to get a sample set of switches from the seller, like with Zealios switches? Where do you start?
Well, turns out there are many ways to get a sampler set, and oftentimes Massdrop will have a switch tester as one of their drop items from month to month (there's one up right now, as I type, for around $25). Even before jumping in on that, however, I do recommend a thorough review of posts by the folks over at GeekHack, the home of keyboard enthusiasts and keyboard hobbyists. This post in particular does a great job at explaining the force of each switch, and the variety of switches available in each category for the Cherry brand switches. Also in that post, you can find this GeekHack Wiki article that explains much of what I covered earlier regarding varations of keyboards, and that same FAQ post links to a lengthy switch comparison guide! Eureka, jackpot - we've struck gold folks, and many people have done the heavy lifting of research into this topic of the great switch debate. Even more helpful, Deskthority, another enthusiast site, has done an excellent job wiki-fying these switch variants - 85 variants total listed (though for this article, my focus was solely on MX style variants).
Unfortunately, many users too have stayed within their means and switch comfort zone, and I found little in the way of meaningful reviews of boutique, rare, or oddball MX switch variations. Everybody talked about how great 'ergo clears' were, but why did only a handful of people actually have anecdoctal evidence of their usage? And despite Deskthority's wide base of switch types, why hadn't wiki articles about Outemu (Gaote) switches, or Kaihua Kailh switches, 'jailhouse' clicky switch mods, Gatistotle or 'jailhouse' Gatistotle mods been written?
After extensive searching, I stumbled upon more articles, and one in particular caught my attention. The author truly had just been fiddling around with different varieties to find his 'niche', or the proverbial 'just right' that scratched his itch. He also had done what many had bought into as 'impossible', and had assembled 'jailhouse' Zealiostotles, possibly the most boutique MX switch variant known to mankind, with positive results.
My fears about the need for experimentation were confirmed when I read an extensive article by HaaTa over at Input Club - most reviews are meaningless until you actually try the switches yourself, even with a swathe of data, force curves, and anecdoctal accounts.
Out of the woods, into the abyss
So where exactly does that leave this article? Well, to be frank, in quite the black hole of analysis and feedback, a qualitive quagmire of subjectivity and sass towards all things mechanical keyboards - away with yee foul cesspool of feelings and mushy tales of 'my first keeb'.. Useless!
In all seriousness though, it does leave this post ending on somewhat of a sour note, with me basically just voicing my opinion, which I suppose is a large part of writing a blog, so here goes nothin'.
MX light spring models
I can say with some certainty that if you are at all heavy-handed on a keyboard, do NOT purchase a switch variant below 50g, which includes most of the 'lighter' spring models (red, blue, and brown usually). You will be bottoming out a ton and likely making plenty of unnecessary noise; however, if you don't mind the loud, obtrusive-to-the-workplace clack, be my guest. Browns are the safest bet, while red variants are nice and smooth (though you may hit a few extra keys by accident). I haven't ever preferred blues ever, and I won't recommend them now, however, my friend has Kailh Speed Copper switches which are pretty incredible for a clicky switch (super early activation, not insanely obnoxious click).
As for the variant of switch? Cherry, Gateron, Outemu, etc? I haven't noticed a huge difference in the switch variants and won't raise my nose to any switch variant - it's up to you to try them out. If you end up going with the 'red' variant, the lighter linear model, I highly recommend what I like to call the Cherry 'Salmon', the Cherry MX Silent Red variant. These have little rubber bumpers on the bottom of stems and on the top to dampen any noise that may come about from excessive force. No other manufacturer has these types of switches, and they are some of the best I've used from the Cherry line because of these enhancements.
MX heavy spring models
This one is a bit tougher for me to decide - I really enjoy a few of these styles, in the heavier spring weight.
My favorite currently are Gateron Greens with JSpacers, which I have decorated my Tada68 with. Now, in all fairness, my modifiers are 'jailhouse' Gateron Blues, because shift fatigue, and because I ran short of greens. I personally don't like the Gateron Green stock 'clicky' switches, nor the Gateron Blues, and don't have sufficient experience with the Cherry Green variant to make any assessment on those. If you're looking for a heavier-set red, get the Cherry MX Silent Blacks, a switch I wish I would have gotten instead of the 'salmon' switches, but just messed up group buy timings on these.
If you're into the tactile lot, aka the brown switch variety, but looking for something with a little more resistance, I'd recommend the Zealios 67g variant. Why Zealios? Well, MX clears have a checkered history of likes and dislikes, and even I who favors heavier springs didn't prefer them. Maybe it was just a bad batch of stems, but I found the switch way too wobbly for my use, and my fingers never felt 'right' after extended use. As for 'ergo clears', I admit to not yet attempting the mod as of this writing, though it's on my list...
The odd varieties
If you're interested in entertaining the idea of customizing your MX switches, read on. There is a lot to cover, but for now, I will be revolving around the Aristotle stem, as it is my favorite clicky and tactile switch by far!
Yes, you read it, best clicky and tactile switch. How did I come to such a controversial conclusion?
In the beginning, I followed the article I mentioned earlier about the Zealiostotles, step and toe, playing with the 'jailhouse' varities along the way, by buying 60 Gateron Greens, and 60 Aristotle kits from SwitchSource. After an extended staycation with my workstation and these switches, I had an arsenal to test, beginning first with just a straight Gateron Blue swap. The click felt solid next to the high-pitched, cheap-sounding Gateron variant, and I know - this is probably the most subjective rationale of all, but if you're going to use a clicky keyboard, you have to live with the sound, and the force is strong with this one, Luke. I'd comtemplated keeping them clicky, until I popped on a JSpacer.
Now, although the interwebs say this doesn't work, I haven't experienced problems with the JSpacer mod with an Aristotle stem. It seems the confusion is really around what the difference if between the two variants, and so I'll explain that a bit.
In short, the 'jailhouse' blue/green mod stands alone in it's category of mods, having ample space in the housing for a particular kind of stem action upon actuation, resulting in a strong bump with some feedback in the stem slide (the part that slams upwards to make the click, the heart of the 'clicky' variants). With the Aristotles, there is barely enough room in the housing for the Aristotle stem, as it has a longer body when fully extended, although the stem does fit in the housing, despite claims. If you're having trouble getting the Aristotle stems in, make sure you get the extra hooks at the bottle of the stems around the switch leaf. Cherry and Gateron variants do not have these little hook extensions.
Upon assembly I had to be very, very careful about the extended prongs on the Aristotle stems, and ensure that they entered the housing first, at an angle, in order for the entire switch to reassembly, in stark contrast to the simple approach for the blue/green mods.
(My unique switch layout, mostly 'jailhouse' variants)
What is the net result of this? A switch whose tactile bump is literally at the top of the keypress, with minimal travel (fractions of a milimeter at best) to reach key actuation. At first it was a bit odd, but I had a fairly long staycation where I sat listening to music, switch in hand, in contemplation of how to outfit my MiniVan R2 after desoldering it, relieving it of the MX Clear switches the previous owner had soldered on. Each time I compared the switch to, say, a Zealios, I found the Aristotle variant to be overall just more pleasing to use. The Zealios switch sample I compared the 'jailhouse' Gatistotle to, the reigning champs of my tactile collection at the time, felt wobbly, loose, and sometimes even felt as if they had a certain harshness to their tactile bump, with the 78g variant being almost violent in a way. The Aristotles had the bump of the MX Clears I'd be desoldering, but felt far superior in stability.
My mind was set on outfitting the switch with the tactile variant, with a twist - use 67g gold springs like the Zealios, and basically make the Zealiostotle without sacrificing the Zealios I had stashed away for another build coming up at the end of summer. SwitchSource too was able to provide me with the springs I was looking for, and even though not the same as the Zealios switches, they fit the bill for the build.
As for other oddball switch combinations, I'm a fan of all 'jailhouse' variants. They have an interesting feel and combined with the Zealencios, can even be worksplace friendly.
Keyboard Layout - some considerations
Some may contest, but I believe that these are the most crucial bits about the keyboard you choose: the layout, the programmability of the board, and Open Source availability.
It's no secret that most products have 'tiers' of quality, or accepted standards that the community around them understand as ways of measuring quality. Input Club, for instance, produces not only high quality keyboards such as the ErgoDox Infinity, the WhiteFox, or the K-Type, but also offer means of programming their keyboards on their website. Other notable community favorites gravitate around TMK and QMK, a fork of TMK. TMK is the cornerstone firmware for beloved keyboards, such as the Happy Hacking Pro 2 and the GH60 (GeekHack 60%).
QMK takes this to the next level, supporting a slew of awesome keyboards, such as the MiniVan 44-key and the Planck (a 40% ortholinear community favorite), among many others. The open source nature of this firmware makes configuring any of these keyboards mostly effortless, if you have a knack for following directions and are willing to tinker. Essentially, all of these keyboards become infinitely configurable, especially if they come out of the box configured for mutiple 'layers', such as the MiniVan.
In short, if considering a board and layout, look first to see what you're buying into here!
(DasKeyboard Model S, New Poker II, and MiniVan R2)
Avoid proprietary firmware if you can, but if you can't, look for means of configuration. As for layout, this is a hard sell for anyone. You really, really, really need to figure out what works best for you. Nobody can do that homework for you! I recently transitioned my partner over to a 60% Poker II, and after some time, she got used to the Fn+IJKL setup for using arrow keys. If you need dedicated arrow keys, maybe something more along the lines of the Tada68/Saber68 is right for you. Maybe you want a near fullsize, without the bulk - look into a 96 key like the RedScarf. So many options! What to choose!
Find a friend that has a few layouts and give the layouts a try before committing fully to a layout. If they use a 60%, you will likely start realizing how obnoxious a fullsize is very shortly (probably under a day or so), and will look to downsize. Who uses numpad anyway?
In the end, just like the switches, you really must test drive them in order to make a decision, and since this can get costly, it is best to find a friend already somewhat invested in mechanical keyboards in order to try out some styles. If you end up going it alone, there's resale outlets like /r/mechmarket to ease a seller's pain on stuff you don't want to keep.
Keycap sets - added complexity at twice the cost
This is the portion of the post where I'm likely to get a bit rant-y, and some of the details start to get blurry.. Mainly because the topic of key sets are completely subjective, have a lot of variables, and the economics most would find relatively insane to even bother about it.
Cherry profiles, DCS, XDA, DA, and SA profiles all have their place in this conversation, while ABS, and PBT materials, dye-subliminated and double-shot injection molds also come into the equation, but what am I jabbering about really?
Many different key set profiles exist, and they're all different. Most keyboards either have a cherry profile, OEM profile, or DCS profile, which is a tiered height key profile, made for keyboards that have a sloped profile (non-flat base). For flat keyboards, DSA is very popular as the keys are completely flat, with no sculpt other than the indent for your finger. In addition to those lower profile layouts, there is also quite a market for high profile key sets, with Signature Plastics producing the SA profile, and the community-driven project for the alternative to SA, the MT3 profile. These keysets sit much higher when installed and overall just have a different feel to them. They're not for everyone for sure, but the alluring heavy clunk or clock sounds from double-shot injected SA profile is hard to not at least have one board running a set. Most users will find Cherry or DCS much more enjoyable, as most will find that profile familiar, and as a user, my favorite set is the GMK 80's Kid set with deep-dish homing keys (F and J).
As for material, ABS and PBT differences live in a very contested territory, and the community is divided. Concensus on the materials is that PBT is a better material, but much harder to produce well, especially using a double-shot method (where one piece of plastic that has been pressed, the key design in this case, is then pressed again into the appropriate key mold). Those legends can make it onto the key caps a number of ways - double-shot injection, dye sublimination, laser marking, and pad printing, with the most community-reputable methods being the double-shot injection method and dye sublimination. Regardless, anything aftermarket will likely bring you more joy from keyboard, by giving you a customized keyboard experience!
So what's best? Again, you need to figure this one out on your own. I admire the GMK (Cherry) profile and stick with it for most of my boards, though SA is growing on me. As for material, ABS and PBT both feel great when made by a reputable producer. Once I made the mistake of purchasing key caps that looked cool but the quality ending up being really, really, bad.. The double-shot legends were poorly finished and I hated them (sorry MassDrop, they were garbage). There are some key caps that are the exception to this quality issue, but they won't be anything like GMK Laser. Wait for a Group Buy, get them at a good price!