Original article date: April 2015

The Pain over the Membrane §

When most people are talking about a keyboard, they're talking about the type colloquially known as "rubber dome" (or improperly, "membrane") keyboards. As the Deskthority wiki describes:

The terms "membrane" and "rubber dome" are frequently conflated, owing to how typical keyboards utilize both. However, membrane keyboards do not require rubber domes, and rubber domes do not require membranes: each can be used with suitable alternatives.

In other words, "rubber dome" and "membrane" are two different things. The keyboards I describe here use both, and I shall refer to them as "RDoM" keyboards.

Their manufacturing quality varies a lot, going from painful to use, to reasonable, and sometimes even surprisingly good. Let's dive deeper so that we can understand where these variables come from. Rubber domes are responsible for the following:

  • Holding the keycap upwards when not being pressed
  • Making contact with the membrane below when pressed enough
  • Providing tactile feedback

Membranes, or membrane layers, however, are the wiring inside the keyboard, wired to the keyboard controller chip, in order for the controller to know what was pressed, in turn, sending the appropriate scan code to the computer.

Here are the benefits of RDoM:

  • Cheap to produce
  • Relatively robust
  • Simple
  • Usually quiet

However, anyone should know that low prices have you paying in other ways:

  • Keys usually have to be pushed fully ("bottomed out") in order to register
  • Rubber domes can be too rough, inhibiting speed, promoting wrong typing practices, and causing pains.
  • Keycaps' sliders rub against upper casing plastic unless pushed straight down, exacerbating the aforementioned problems.
  • Nowadays' newfangled "slim" keyboards can take the aforementioned problems even further.

The truth is, you get what you pay for, and RDom does not bypass this rule. Unfortunately, due to the dominance of RDoM keyboards, people will expect keyboards to be cheap, and this leads them to get the impression that charging $100 for a mechanical keyboard is unreasonable.

While it's reasonable to charge $100 for a mechanical keyboard, it isn't reasonable to use brittle switches in the process. Let's go over that now.

Cherry MX Switches §

I'm going to be stepping on some peoples' feet here, but facts are facts. We all need to deal with facts.

While Cherry has been in business for over half of a century, their most popular keyboard switch type, the MX series, is prone to breakage from poor construction. I don't like saying this, but it's true; I had three Cherry keyboards fail me in less than 12 months. I will tell you my story.

The First of the Trio §

In September of 2014, I purchased a CM Storm QuickFire TK, for $81.98 shipped. After a significant wait, it arrived with a strange issue where a few of the keys felt more resistant to key-presses than they should. Only a few of the keys did this...and it turns out that this is a known defect.

The issue was caused by incorrectly-formed plastic, and, short of replacement, the only way to repair it was to use a Xacto knife. In a less-than-good attempt at avoiding an RMA, and not having a Xacto knife, I took my best alternative to it, which was a flathead screwdriver.

Unfortunately, this messed up the switch, causing it only to actuate if I removed its keycap, and pushed the switch extremely hard. Unacceptable. You could blame me, but it was their fault for having me resort to doing that to start with.

Okay, not every product is going to arrive in perfect condition, right? With that, I sucked it up and sent it in for RMA. I had to resort to an RDoM keyboard, which was a giant pain.

Thankfully, NewEgg accepted the return and gave store credit for it.

The Second of the Trio §

I eventually decided on a Rosewill RK-9200BR, for $94.99. Thanks to the store credit, it cost a mere $5.

The keyboard arrived, and it had no defects to be found...

...until a couple of months later, where something strange begun to happen: the H key seemed to hit something about 2/3 of the normal 4mm down. I honestly do not know what could have caused this, but all that really mattered is that it was happening.

I also discovered that pushing it harder once it hit the 2/3 mark would result in the switch fully bottoming out and making a plastic snapping sound as if it was overcoming whatever it was previously hitting.

Not very long afterward, the switch broke in two...and yet people actually call this junk durable.

"They call this durability?" -- TechRax of YouTube

After a few failed glue attempts of the previous keyboard, like as if that was going to be any good, this keyboard was RMA'd like the first one. Once again, I received NewEgg store credit, and dealt with a rubber dome keyboard for a while, and also played around with my older, broken NMB "Clacker" RT-8255C+ keyboard.

The Third of the Trio §

Since I got spoiled with the clickiness of my NMB keyboard, I aimed to get a Cherry MX Blue keyboard to replace the Rosewill. I eventually found the Corsair K70 with MX Blue switches on sale, and the same keyboard eventually showed up in my NewEgg promotion emails with a further price drop. Bang, I got it.

This was the most expensive of the three, at $114.99, which was pretty high. The CM board was $80 and the Rosewill was $95, and I had purchased an extended warranty on each of the former keyboards. However, this time, I skipped on the extended warranty, because I was already coughing up more money than I wanted.

Fast-forward two months later, and as the ignorant ones continue to call these things "durable", my keyboard is failing once again. The volume wheel does not work correctly when rolling it swiftly downwards (yet not upwards), and the Caps Lock keycap cracked at its underside! While it's better than a broken switch, it's about equally as useless. How do I keep killing all of these keyboards?

The End Result §

Oh, I figured it out. I am abusing these entire keyboards, terribly, and I did that by removing them from their packaging, and pressing keys. Who else would ever dare to do something so terrible with their keyboards? Aren't I a monster for treating these keyboards that way?

Boo! That'll show me for thinking that something electronic made in the 21st century was any good!

This isn't the first time that people call something that crumbles into pieces the second I touch it a "durable" product. You're reading the article of a guy who split a keyboard almost completely in half with nothing but a single slam of the bare fist. I didn't even expect that when it happened. Trashy products have a hard time with me, and even "durable" ones do, as well.

Yes, I understand that everything has its limits, but I call absolute bull to all three of these keyboards. Which companies are responsible? Cherry's responsible for the poor keycap mounting system, and Corsair is responsible for the lackluster volume wheel and keycap quality.

Also, the Corsair K70 cost me only marginally less than an IBM Model F on eBay. If it weren't for the fact that I had NewEgg store credit, I could've gotten a 1980s vintage keyboard for about the same price! In the 1980s, fists didn't destroy keyboards; keyboards destroyed fists. Now, that's just reserved for Russia (where keyboards type on you).

Finally, if you're a Cherry keyboard switch fan, ticked off at me for this article, then let's make a deal: you buy me a Cherry MX keyboard you think will last with me, and, in exchange, I'll give it an honorable mention here, once it hits six months of successful operation. Else, if it fails, I'm adding it to the list of failures.

The Right Choice §

In May of 2015, at long last, I got the right choice: the Unicomp EnduraPro.

The keyboard, with a tape measure going along the bottom, showing a width of 18 inches.

It sounds like an authentic keyboard, and types like an authentic keyboard. It's got some weight to it. People say that it isn't as heavy as the IBM Model M, but it's not puny by any means, not like Cherries.

This keyboard uses the USB interface, and only a single USB A plug. Because of this, I can plug it into any PC I like that has a USB port and such, and have not only buckling springs, but also a pointing device, all without restarting the computer! This also means I no longer have to scavenge for a working mouse. I hate mice, anyway. Talk about convenient!

People note that the track stick feels strange in comparison to other ones, due to actually moving a lot more than typical for its type of pointing device. I first came from a Dell Latitude C840 laptop, and it didn't feel so much different from that one. Later, I even wound up getting a ThinkPad, and even that didn't ruin the experience of the Unicomp for me, so I think its track stick is good.

It uses PBT keycaps, so I know it won't turn to dust like Cherry keyboards do.

On top of all of that, it's only $99. While the shipping was rather expensive at $14, you'd be hard-pressed to find something at NewEgg with a similar sturdiness-to-price ratio.

Additionally, you can save $20 if you don't care for the track stick. That's right, brand new buckling springs for $79! How does this company even stay in business? They have such a small customer base that it's outright unfair, having to compete with the pathetic Cherry keyboards eating up the market.

At one point, I managed to wreck the buckling spring assembly on one key, but Unicomp was very responsive about it and even paid the shipping for me. Take that, Cherry keyboards!

Buckling Springs: The Best Keyboard Switch §

For the last section, let's cover the advantages of buckling spring switches over RDoM and Cherry MX switches:

  • Very robust
  • Easy to clean
  • Simple
  • Very high quality
  • Authentic typing sound
  • Encourages good typing practices
  • Versus RDoM, it also doesn't need to be bottomed out

This concludes the article. Always remember that buckling springs rule!

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