If you’ve been browsing for a keyboard anytime recently, you’ve probably run across the question of whether or not you need a mechanical keyboard. The answer? Probably not. But just because you don’t need it doesn’t mean it can’t be of value. Mechanical keyboards may be most popular among gamers, but they can have value for everyone from coders to business professionals. But membrane keyboards also have their own advantages. HotRate is here to break down those distinctions and help you decide whether a mechanical vs. membrane keyboard is right for you.
If you find a keyboard on the market today, chances are it will be a membrane keyboard. If you’ve ever used the PC in your school’s computer lab or a library, you’ve encountered a membrane keyboard before. A membrane keyboard uses rows of keys that are placed over a circuit board. The thin membrane places pressure on a circuit which then sends the signal to your computer.
In practical terms, there are some serious advantages of a membrane keyboard. The fact that a keyboard with a circuit board is easier to produce means that you can get a membrane keyboard for not a lot of money. In fact, the majority of keyboards on the market today sport a membrane design, and that prolific presence in the market means there are a lot more membrane options to choose from when comparing a mechanical vs. membrane keyboard.
When shopping for membrane keyboards, there are two main options available to you. While both sport the same circuit board based design, there can be a big difference between flat key and domed key designs. We generally suggest a domed membrane keyboard if you have the chance. It allows you to get a more tactile and ergonomic response that better resembles the strength of traditional mechanical switches
If membrane keyboards are digital, then mechanical keyboards are analog. Rather than rely on a circuit board as is the case with a membrane keyboard, each key on a mechanical keyboard makes use of a mechanical switch under each key. The results are a typing experience that’s more satisfying and more accurate for most users. No matter how fast you type, you don’t need to worry about keystrokes getting overlooked when typing on a mecha keyboard.
But whereas circuit board based keyboards are often dirt cheap and stripped down to the basics, mechanical keyboards are much more involved pieces of equipment. They may provide you with what’s arguably the best typing experience (especially for gaming), but that sort of performance comes at a much steeper financial cost.
Comparing Mechanical vs. Membrane Keyboard Models
So in a direct showdown between mechanical vs. membrane keyboards, who stands above the rest? While the popularity of mechanical keyboards in gaming communities may make it seem like they stand head and shoulders above the alternative, the actual competition of membrane vs. mechanical keyboards is far more complicated. We’ll go one by one through the major factors you should pay attention to when shopping for keyboards so you may pick a keyboard that’s tailored to your preferred office or gaming experience.
If you’ve ever listened to the rhythmic tapping of a typewriter, you have an understanding of how a mechanical keyboard sounds. Since the individual keys on this type of keyboard have to press hard against the mechanical switches beneath them, they tend to have a clackity-clack that you won’t find in more traditional keyboards. That being said, different mechanical switches may offer different levels of noise.
The Cherry MX Brown is largely recognized as the gold standard if you want to keep the noise to a minimum, but even the quietest of mechanical keyboards is still going to be louder than the keys on membrane keyboards. If you’re occupying a cubicle in a crowded office, mechanical keyboards can be loud enough to be a frustration for your office neighbors.
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There are a whole lot of advantages that come with investing in a mechanical keyboard, but it would be a shame to overlook the fact that they look, sound, and feel very cool. And since both the keys and the key switches can be taken out and replaced, there’s a lot of potential to customize your mechanical keyboard to match your personality. Looking online, you can find a ton of customized mechanical keyboard keys with a number of different themes. Swapping them out can really give a sense of personality to your mechanical keyboard.
Mechanical keyboards mare undoubtedly the best choice as far as customization is concerned. Whereas a these accessories allows you to shift out keys one by one, the only real choice, if you have a membrane keyboard, is to put on a new protective cover. And while you can change the feedback of a mechanical keyboard by swapping out the switches, membrane keyboards follow a philosophy of “what you see is what you get”.
The ability to pick the switch type you use also gives mechanical keyboards significantly more versatility. How much pressure do you want to apply to register a key press? Do you prefer your keys quiet or have a satisfying noise behind each press of a switch? Do you prefer high or low profile buttons? The biggest switch manufacturer around is Cherry MX, and they offer a generous selection of a dozen different switches. Putting aside features like RGB lighting, keyboards with switches simply run circles around membrane models for customization.
The circuit board that constitutes the core of a membrane keyboard is one single unit, and that makes membrane keyboards significantly cheaper to produce, but it also comes with one distinct advantage. The circuits built in can’t register more than one button press at the same time, so faster typists may get frustrated if they find out that their words per minute outstrip the pace at which the keyboard can register your key strokes. That can spell death for high end gaming or give you a real headache when trying to do some serious clerical work.
That’s not to say that you’re completely stuck if you get a membrane keyboard. Many sport something called “n-key rollover”. The “n” in this instance is usually replaced with the number of keys that can be registered at once. With n-key rollover, the keyboard can queue up different commands on their core memory before sending it to the computer, allowing each key to register more quickly. 6-key rollover is usually only available on mechanical keyboards and should be more than enough for gaming or productivity. Many membrane keyboards offer n-key rollover but usually can’t match the equivalent best capabilities of a mechanical model.
An individual keyboard switch isn’t that heavy in its own right, but once you start packing in all the switches you need for a full sized keyboard, you have to recognize that the weight and form factor really starts to become more unwieldy. In other words, these keyboards are big, and they aren’t really built with the intent of being dragged around on a trip.
And with there being such a prolific variety of membranes available on the market, there’s a whole host of choices at your disposal too. You’ll find a countless amount of lightweight and portable membrane keyboards that are designed explicitly with the needs of travel in mind, and you’ll also find a variety of full sized keyboards that are designed to give you more functionality with the keys.’ Need a keyboard you can toss in your backpack and safely transport across campus? The winner in that case is pretty clear.
That said, being heavy isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Gamers tend to ride their keyboards to death, and in the heat of the moment, a flimsy plastic keyboard could easily slip across the surface of your desk. A heavier model will ensure that you’re rooted where you are even in more frantic moments.
The biggest advantage that a membrane keyboard has to promise is probably the price point. Membrane keyboards are much less expensive to produce since they use a smaller amount of parts that can be quickly assembled. For instance, you can easily find a travel membrane for $10 or less if you know where to look. And while there are a few mechanical models that are priced at under $50 or even under $20, they tend to be rare, small, and stripped down on features for the sake of keeping prices low.
If you want the most bang for your buck, there’s no doubt that a membrane model is the way to go. Between comparably priced keyboard models of both styles, the membrane will often pack in a ton of extra features while still maintaining a price below that of a decent mechanical model.
How a keyboard’s keys feel beneath your fingertips is going to come down to personal preference to some degree. After all, many of us have spent out whole life having never typed on a switch based keyboard, and the resistance built into the switches can feel like it requires more work.
That said, we’re of the opinion that most computer users will fall in love with switch based keyboards once they’ve spent a little bit of time with them. You can feel each key press in a satisfying way that you otherwise wouldn’t experience, and the variety of switches means that you can create a level of tactile response that comfortably fits between the stiff response of switches and the “mushy” feel of a membrane surface.
Membrane keyboards may come cheap, but they also tend to be more highly disposable. If something goes wrong with the circuit board, you’ll probably have to replace the whole keyboard, whereas you could just switch out the keys manually with a mechanical model. Debris tends to gather in the crevasses between keys on a mechanical model with few ways to remove them, and the cheaper components have a tendency to wear down over time.
Crumbs and spills are significantly easier to handle with mechanical choices since the keys can be taken out individually. Cleaning out keys may be a labor intensive process, but it’s far more efficient to deal with. A well made mechanical keyboard can last nearly a lifetime and maintain its pristine nature as long as you take good and regular care of it. Unfortunately, you can’t really say that about the alternative.
Maybe you want a keyboard that can provide you with simple controls for playing movies or listening to music built in, or maybe you need to customize your keys with some complicated macros for your favorite game. While there’s a chance that you can find a mechanical model with whatever killer feature you want, there will almost undoubtedly be more membrane models that do the same thing. Circuit based keyboards are everywhere and that means that they’re more experimental with specialized and niche features.
At a glance, the winner in the battle between mechanical and membranes may seem obvious. Thanks to their reliable typing and high-quality switches, a good mechanical keyboard can provide a higher level of accuracy and a greater sense of responsiveness than the alternative. But membrane keyboards greatly outclass the alternative in one very important category: pricing.
If you do some serious gaming, a mechanical keyboard may be the right choice for your typing style. A mechanical keyboard can also be nice for those looking to set up an aesthetically pleasing office or gaming space. So yes, mechanical keyboards offer the best performance, but that doesn’t mean they’re going to be the best choice for every customer or even a majority of customers. Before you make a final decision, we encourage you to go to a local retailer and test out how typing on a switch feels. For dedicated enthusiasts, typing on a mechanical keyboard is like listening to music on vinyl.