Sure, You Can Buy a Cheap Mechanical Keyboard. But You’re Missing Out

What do you get for your money? That’s the question everyone looking to buy a piece of tech asks themselves. It also happens to be the question this recurring feature tries to answer. Is it worth spending extra on high-end gear, or do you get what you need with cheaper models? Every month, we’ll look at some of the cheapest and most expensive products in a given category, testing each to see what their limits are and help you figure out when you can cheap it out, and when to plunk down some extra cash to get what you need.

Keyboards are the Rodney Dangerfields of the computing world: they don’t get no respect. Every day they serve you faithfully as you bash away at them like a woodpecker on a tree branch. But that’s actually a good thing; the best tools are the ones you don’t notice because they become simply an extension of your will. Your keyboard should blend into your workflow. And a premium keyboard, one that makes you comfortable and lets you type more efficiently, is a great investment for any computer user.

Amongst the connoisseurs of high-end keyboards (gamers, journalists, programmers, and other obsessives), the mechanical keyboard is the most favored. In this type of keyboard, there is an actual physical switch below the key. These work like an old-school light switch: the act of pressing the key pushes two pieces of metal together, completing a circuit and registering a key press. This mechanical mechanism means that the keys also require more physical force to press, and that they produce an audible clicking sound when pressed (although the amount of force and noise depends on the type of switch used: more on this later). It’s more like using a typewriter than a touchscreen, and that’s a feel most serious typists find appealing.

So, if mechanical keyboards are the best type for someone like me who spends most of their days huddled over a keyboard obsessively bashing out thousands of words, should I buy an expensive one, or a cheap one? I set out to find out by replacing my old (and somewhat worse for the wear) keyboard with two mechanical keyboards: the cheapest true mechanical keyboard I could find (a $45 Rosewill Striker RK-6000) and a high-end $169 Das Keyboard 4 Professional. I used both extensively, adapting my typing style to the different layout and feel of these low- and high-end mechanical keyboards.

The High: Das Keyboard 4

Let’s start with the high end. The Das Keyboard 4 is a big, black aluminum slab of a keyboard. It feels like you could stun an elephant with it, then use it to write about the experience afterwards. It isn’t large—Das Keyboard claims it is the thinnest mechanical keyboard out there, and I wouldn’t disagree, as it’s under an inch thick. That might not sound particularly thin by most standards, but in the chunky world of mechanical keyboards, that’s positively svelte. It’s not light, though. Weighing 2.9 pounds, it won’t be shifting on your desk as you bash away at it.

The model I tried used Cherry MX Brown switches, which are the quieter, smoother switches that don’t need a lot of force to push. I usually prefer the clickier, more tactile blue switches, as I tend to bash away at the keyboard when I am inspired, probably as a throwback to my early computing days on a BBC Micro, which had a mechanical keyboard built in. I’m not a real touch typist, but this slightly stiff feel is more natural to me. Although the MX Brown switches are quieter than the blues, it’s all relative, and typing on this keyboard is still a rather noisy experience. That’s not an issue for me (I work from home, and my dog snores louder than the keyboard), but it could get old pretty quickly if you have a cube mate or a small office. Plus, it’s a dead giveaway to the boss on if you are working or not: it’s easy to differentiate between the staccato click of browsing Facebook and the legato click-clack-click-clack of getting things written.

There are several varieties of Cherry MX switches available for different typing styles. If you want to get a feel for how the different switches respond, custom keyboard maker WASD offers a great sampler kit that includes the brown, blue, black and red versions of the switches and keys to try out for just $12.

The Low: Rosewill Striker

While Das Keyboard is marketed as the ultimate keyboard for typists, Rosewill markets the Striker RK-6000 directly at gamers. Out of the box, it looks like a fairly standard black keyboard, but Rosewill also includes some orange textured tops for the all-important WASD keys. Two sets of these swappable keys are included: the standard letters and arrow directions for the common forward-left-back-right movement that the keys are used for in first-person shooter games. Swapping these keys out is easy: you just use the included tool to pull the existing key top off, and replace it with the softer, textured key. This trick works surprisingly well: for games that require you to move your fingers from the movement keys (to do a side step or a strafe move with the Q or E keys), the textured feel makes it easier to find the WASD keys again using only touch, so you can keep your eyes on the screen.

To be fair, most mechanical keyboards allow you to swap out keys, including the Das Keyboard, though the compatibility of the replacement keys depends on the type of switch used. The Das Keyboard uses the common Cherry MX type, while the Rosewill uses the less-common Alps type, so there are more third-party replacement keys for the Das Keyboard than the Rosewill. There are many companies selling replacement keys for both bling and aesthetic purposes, as well as different textures of keys. There are also 3D models available to 3D print your own Cthulu escape key.

Rosewill offers drivers for its keyboard that allows you to control what they keys do, changing their mapping or creating macros (sequences of commands) that run on a key press. This might have appeal for gamers who want to automate long chains of commands, but the software is awkward to use and has minimal documentation, so it doesn’t add that much to the value of the device.

The RK-6000 also just doesn’t feel as solid as the Das Keyboard. The keys rattle, the case creaks and the Alps switches just don’t have the smooth feel of the Cherry MX switches. I doubt it would survive stunning an elephant (unless you are playing a virtual elephant stunning game). If the RK-6000 was a car, it would be a cheap-but-cheerful family runabout puttering along in the slow lane, while the Das Keyboard feels like, well, a German luxury car, smoothly cruising in the fast lane at high speed.

Sometimes a family runabout is all you need, though, and the Rosewill is far superior to laptop keyboards or the cheap rubber dome keyboards that come with desktop computers. So, it’s not a bad investment for those who write a lot or plays games. It will certainly prove to be more comfortable to use than the freebie that came in the box. But the Das Keyboard just feels better. It’s more responsive, has a more pleasant clicky noise, and can make you a quicker typist.

If, like me, you spend every day clacking through thousands of words, I’d recommend spending the extra money on the Das Keyboard Ultimate S. The cost is much higher, but it pays off in typing speed, comfort, and the satisfaction you get from using a tool with superior build quality.

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