The crisp click of a tactile switch. A rainbow backlit keyboard that changes colors when you type. Handcrafted keycaps with koi fish suspended in resin. Welcome to the world of mechanical keyboards.
If you’re not familiar with mechanical keyboards, there’s a good chance you’ve at least heard one before. Whereas a standard keyboard has a single rubber membrane underneath all of the keys (which quiets the sound), each key on a mechanical keyboard has its own key switch and spring. This anatomical difference adds resistance and sound to the keys, and gives users the freedom to tailor their entire keyboard to their needs.
And mechanical keyboard aficionados personalize everything, from the sound of the keys to the design on the keycap. The mechanical keyboard cottage industry has exploded in recent years among people who work in tech, with subreddits, Discord servers, YouTube channels, Etsy shops, and Instagram accounts dedicated to keyboards. (Fun fact: At Skillacademy, we have a whole internal Slack channel for the mechanical keyboard fans on our team, aptly named #keycademy.)
But to lots of people, mechanical keyboards are more than just a fancy desk decoration — they’re actually very functional and allow them to work more efficiently.
Doug de Jesus., Staff Engineer at Skillacademy, recalls a former mentor putting it this way: “As programmers, we spend all day working on a computer. Keyboards are the tools of our trade,” he says. “A carpenter would have the best saw. A painter would have the best brushes. Why wouldn’t we give ourselves the best tools too?”
Whether you’re a Full-Stack Developer hoping to spruce up your home office or you’re just learning how to code and want to learn more about the keyboard culture, here’s why people are so obsessed with mechanical keyboards.
You can make your keyboard work for you
Programmers are typically enthusiastic problem-solvers, so it comes as no surprise that when faced with a keyboard pet peeve, they’re compelled to come up with a way to fix it. Keys that you never use, for example, become dead space on a keyboard — why not replace them with something actually useful?
Your keyboard and mouse are the objects that you touch the most all day long, explains Daniel Munter, Product Manager at Skillacademy. “Minor annoyances become major annoyances when you have to deal with them incessantly,” he says.
For example, Daniel prefers smaller keyboards, but can’t live without arrow keys. He also never uses the caps lock, so he swapped it for something that “triggers an app that lets me control the position of my windows on screen using the keyboard,” he says. “Something I use all the time!” And he types “really hard,” so he prefers wood keyboards over plastic, which can feel flimsy. Custom mechanical keyboards “are the way to create that unicorn” that fits his highly specific preferences, he says.
Stephen Song, Product Designer at Skillacademy, says he appreciates being able to select keyboards that are suited for his needs. “Using things like shortcuts and settings can make my work more efficient,” he says. For example, he incorporated keycaps with Korean characters into his “small-ish keyboard I really like,” he says.
And Doug, the Staff Engineer who we heard from earlier, made a few adjustments to his board that are clutch for gaming: He added rubber keycaps to his arrow and WASD keys, and used linear switches only on those keys so they don’t make noise. (Did you clock his Skillacademy key?)
They make soothing sounds and have a satisfying feel
Some folks find the clicky noise that a mechanical keyboard makes soothing — like the sound of rain or gentle tapping that you’d hear on an ASMR video (BTW, mechanical keyboard ASMR is totally a thing).
There are lots of different ways to customize the sound and volume of your mechanical keyboard using different key switches. For example, a linear switch tends to be quiet, while a tactile switch has a more pronounced bump, and a clicky switch makes a relatively noisy clicking sound.
Here’s a video from YouTuber TaeKeyboards comparing linear and tactile switches — take a listen:
Most companies that sell mechanical keyboard parts have “switch samples” that you can order to try out the different sounds and feelings before you commit. And there’s a robust collection of keyboard sound samples that you can preview on the subreddit r/MechanicalKeyboards.
Hand-picking your keyboard sound might seem extra, but it can make writing code (or just responding to emails) more enjoyable. “The ‘click clack’ is kinda loud but I love it,” Stephen says. “I like to compare mechanical keyboards to film cameras that have some mechanical feedback when you take a picture, it just feels so satisfying (to me at least!)”
They’re basically ‘a personal art gallery’ on your keyboard
People go all out decorating their keyboards with funky keycaps, the piece of plastic that covers the key switch.
“I’m a huge fan of the artisan keycap community,” says Matt Schiller, Senior Software Engineer at Skillacademy. “A mechanical keyboard allows me to mount them right to the board I’m using all day everyday like a personal art gallery.” For example, he has “a whole koi pond” painted on the main modifier keys, and a host of collectables molded from resin on the other keys, he says.
Calla Feucht, Engineering Manager at Skillacademy, has solid colored keys but installed a backlit legend on her board that can be programmed to create a multi-colored light show. (Scroll up to see the video of Calla’s board in action.)
At the end of the day, you don’t necessarily need all of these bells and whistles to write code. But as a creative professional, Stephen says having an aesthetically pleasing workstation is important to him. “Having keyboards and keycaps that look good is a huge motivation for me,” he says. “The best keyboards IMO are ones that I’m happy with whether I’m actively typing on them or not.”
Inspired to put your mechanical keyboard to use? Check out our most popular courses or explore our Career Paths, which give you the foundational tools you need for jobs in tech, like Full-Stack Engineer.