Why some techies are obsessed with mechanical computer keyboards — and how I learned to build my own

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Mechanical keyboards on display at the Bay Area Keyboard Meetup in San Jose on November 9, 2019.

Jordan Novet | CNBC

Typing shouldn’t hurt. It should feel good. And it should be fun.

I realized that in 2016 and started wondering what might be better than the standard-issue Apple keyboard I was using with my MacBook Pro at work, and the cheap Microsoft keyboard hooked up to my PC at home.

I started paying more attention to keyboards. When I visited tech companies, I began to look at what software developers had on their desks. One developer I met at Pinterest had a keyboard called a DataHand that let him type five keys with each of his fingers. It blew my mind.

That’s when I fell into the wonderful world of mechanical keyboards. They’re different from the common rubber-dome keyboards that are often embedded in laptops.

On left, rubber domes sit beneath the keys on a Microsoft keyboard. On right, a Corsair keyboard features Cherry MX Red switches.

Andrew Evers | CNBC

You can see the difference in this picture, which shows what lurks under each key in a traditional rubber-dome keyboard (left) and a mechanical keyboard (right).

On mechanical keyboards, each plastic keycap covers a physical switch that goes up and down. It can be triggered not just when you push the key all the way down, but even part of the way down. As a result, you can type faster and more comfortably on these keyboards.

It didn’t take me long to fall down the rabbit hole.

I started following discussions about keyboards on Reddit. The MechanicalKeyboards community, with 490,000 subscribers today, has a new post to read every few minutes. I learned about various keyboard models and individual components on specialized websites like Deskthority and Geekhack, and then I watched reviews on YouTube. I kept an eye out for releases of interesting products on Drop, a commerce site with a dedicated keyboards section.

After months of research, I wound up buying keyboards from Apple, Corsair, Matias and a small Taiwanese company called KBParadise. But none of them was just right.

So I decided to take the next logical step and assemble my own keyboard.

I knew I wanted a wood case. And I knew what types of switches I wanted — clones of tactile Alps switches that emit a delightful clop-clip sound, just like the ones that appeared on Apple’s high-quality keyboards from the 1980s and ’90s.

Apple Macintosh computer, model M001, with keyboard and mouse.

Science & Society Picture Library | Getty Images

From there, I was able to find keycaps that fit the Alps-style switches and MacOS, and I chose a compatible printed circuit board and plate to sit below the switches. There are companies that make all sorts of custom USB cables, and I picked up one of those, too. I also bought some lube to make the switches move up and down more smoothly.

My girlfriend gave me a soldering iron, and I ordered solder. In all, I’ve spent more than $750 on the keyboard parts and associated equipment for putting everything together.

I’m waiting for the custom wooden case to arrive in the mail. Meanwhile, I’ve started accumulating parts for a new Windows keyboard.

The soldering iron also came in handy recently when the A key on my main work keyboard, a Matias with “silent” switches (they’re not perfectly silent, as my colleagues can attest) stopped working. I called the manufacturer, and a very nice customer-service representative mailed me instructions for replacing the switch at home, along with five new switches.

To gain the necessary soldering experience, I ripped apart an old alarm clock and practiced removing and re-soldering some of the connections on the circuit board inside it. Once I felt confident, I turned to my malfunctioning keyboard.

It took time and I smelled up our apartment, but I did manage to swap out the switch and get my A key working again. It felt great to personally fix something I not only relied on, but loved.

Input Club’s Keystone keyboard

Input Club

Now, there’s an emerging category of keyboards that let users swap out different types of switches without soldering anytime. The freedom to easily give my keyboard a different feel intrigues me. A few days ago I pre-ordered one of these keyboards from a small company called Input Club.

If my first attempts at making my own turn out OK, I could see myself making keyboards for friends and presenting them as gifts. After all, friends don’t let friends type on weak keyboards.

Stories behind the keyboards

I’m not alone in my obsession.

Marcin Wichary, a designer at design software start-up Figma, got curious about keyboards in 2014 after seeing the typewriters around the headquarters of his former employer, blogging company Medium, and the conference rooms that were named after typewriters.

He now has a collection of over 30 keyboards and four typewriters, but not because he wants to type on them — in fact, he still types on standard-issue Apple keyboards — nor to display them for others to admire. Rather, he finds keyboards to be an intellectual and emotional pursuit that involves history, design, engineering and other elements, and is particularly interested in keyboards “with interesting stories behind them.”

For example, he owns a wireless chiclet keyboard that shipped with IBM’s PCjr home computer from 1984. The keyboard was widely panned — the New York Times called it “uncomfortable for extended typing” — and IBM wound up offering to replace it with a model resembling its well-liked Selectric typewriters. Jacob Alexander, a co-founder of Input Club, helped him reverse-engineer it so that it could be used with modern devices like an Android phone. “I might be the only person writing on this keyboard in this millennium,” Wichary wrote in a 2017 newsletter.

Other people are more concerned with sound and feel. Cal Henderson, co-founder and chief technology officer of Slack, has amassed 30 to 40 keyboards, which he keeps in a cupboard in his home office alongside spare keycaps and cables.

Henderson prefers keyboards with clicky keys, those that require more force to push them down and have a tactile bump you can feel with each keystroke. His belief is that each key press should be “rewarding.”

“I’ve always been accused of being an angry typer. I type very thoughtfully,” he said. “I buy high-quality keyboards so they can stand up to that kind of punishment.” He and his colleagues talk about keyboards and individual components in an internal Slack channel dedicated to mechanical keyboards. The channel has more than 80 members, Henderson said. There has even been discussion of people’s matching keyboards and sneakers. That level of coordination is not for me, but I appreciate the commitment.

The chief technology officer of Microsoft, Kevin Scott, has a thing for keyboards, too.

Scott told me that when he was a Ph.D. student at the University of Virginia, he started having wrist problems because of all the programming and paper writing he was doing, and his advisor suggested he try a keyboard called a Kinesis Advantage. Comfort is the main reason you get a Kinesis, even if it looks peculiar and has a learning curve. It has two cereal bowl-like indentations, one for each hand to sit on top of.

The Kinesis Advantage2 ergonomic keyboard.

Kinesis Corporation

Scott has sworn by the Kinesis for more than two decades, and has multiple backups in case the company goes out of business. “I have a stockpile of five of them sitting in a closet, so if the four or five I have in use break, I will not go without, because I don’t know what I’d do,” he told me.

Some Kinesis buyers have defected to the Model 01 from Keyboardio, a company run by former Microsoft program manager Jesse Vincent and his wife, Kaia Dekker.

The Model 01 came about after Vincent, who had once bought Microsoft’s ergonomic Natural Keyboard Elite in bulk packs, couldn’t get used to the bowls on the Kinesis Advantage. In 2012, he set out to make something more approachable that didn’t just attract ergonomics wonks. He shared a blog post with photos of his prototypes on the message board Hacker News, which got people’s attention. In 2015 he and Dekker started a Kickstarter campaign, and they raised $652,000, five times more than what they had sought, and sold 2,125 keyboards. Shipments began in 2017.

The Model 1 is flatter and more portable than the Kinesis Advantage, and about $20 cheaper, at $329. It also looks less intimidating, with its two wood-clad symmetrical units that can separated for more comfortable use.

The Keyboardio Model 01

Keyboardio

Vincent and Dekker now have more than 50 keyboards between them. He’s not sure if they’re for business use or for personal enjoyment. “It’s nice because I get to do something that’s my hobby,” he said.

I asked Vincent why there seems to be a movement building around keyboards, and he talked about how the keyboard is the tool he uses to create things, and how he spends so much of his life with it.

“I think especially as the default options for keyboards have gotten worse and worse and worse, it’s made it easier and easier to notice that you want something better and to start to think about it,” he said. He thinks the rise of PC gaming has helped the market expand, along with falling prices for low-volume manufacturing.

Vincent was among the hundreds of people at a keyboard meetup in San Jose in November. He said it was small in comparison with events he’d attended in Japan and Taiwan. But to me it was almost sensory overload — booth after booth of magnificent keyboards. Wichary was there, too, and he shared facts about various models on display.

There was, for instance, a Northgate OmniKey Ultra from the late 1980s, and Wichary pointed out that it had a “comma period lock” key. It was conceived to prevent people from accidentally sending less-than or equal-to signs when they hit the comma and period keys, regardless of whether the shift key is being held down. On typewriters from earlier years, even if you weren’t holding down the shift key, a comma or a period resulted every time you hit their corresponding keys, making it easier to add those punctuation marks while writing uppercase letters. Wichary sees “comma period lock” as bringing together the old and new.

My level of knowledge is not nearly as vast.

And I don’t think I could ever make keyboard production a full-time job the way Vincent and Dekker have. I do think keyboards are more than just mere computer equipment. I’ve sometimes wondered how long it will take for malls around the world to be full of keyboard stores.

Henderson, from Slack, as much as he loves keyboards too, thinks that’s a little hard to imagine.

“It’s still so niche, and I don’t think it’s ever going to become super mainstream, because less and less people are tethered to their desks when they work,” said Henderson, from Slack. “It requires a more permanent setup, I think.”

Niche, but growing. Earlier this year an Indian company called Market Research Future predicted that the mechanical keyboard market would grow to $1.36 billion by 2023, up from $705 million in 2017.

WATCH: Apple unveils its latest MacBook Pro with a new keyboard

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