Miguel Ventura's blog : Going Mechanical: 60 days of Pok3r

The case for the Mechanical Keyboard

If you take your craft seriously enough, there's a point in time where the tool becomes the bottleneck. The warriors' sword, the musician's instrument, the writers' pen. As a software engineer, I spend more time thinking than typing, but I still kind of end up using the keyboard all day, every day. However, I never considered the quality of the keyboards I used as a limiting factor to my productivity, and effectively it wasn't... not until I went through two weeks of intense typing durinch which I'd get to the end of the day with aching fingers.

The keyboard I was using was to blame. Cheap, non-mechanical keyboards, have a single membrane over a circuit board that needs to be activated to register the keypress. This usually means that the key has to go all the way down to register. If instead of delivering keypresses you were delivering punches, this would be the equivelent of punching a wall. It would hurt your hand. As-is, it hurts your finger. Probably not enough for you to notice, except after some serious repetition. A mechanical keyboard, on the other hand, has individual switches on every key. By having an individual switch for each key, mechanical keyboards usually register the keypress half-way during the key travel, which means (getting back to the punch metaphor) that you can slow down before hitting the wall and with some training you stop hitting the bottom at all. Trust me, it causes much less strain on you and your fingers.

Mechanical keyboards may be much more expensive than their non-mechanical counterparts, but the investment is totally worth it if you spend a lot of time using your keyboard. In my case, I immediately felt the difference the day I switched keyboards — the aching disappeared and hasn't come back ever since.

There are lots of sites explaining why a mechanical keyboard is worth the price, but I think MechanicalKeyboards.com sums it up pretty well:

Stop and consider how much time you actually spend sitting down (or standing) and typing. Odds are it's a considerable amount. Do you want to spend such a significant portion of your life interacting with an inferior product?

For the price of a nice dinner out, you can purchase an amazing piece of hardware you will use nearly everyday of your life.

Finding your keyboard

Mechanical keyboards are usually much more expensive than their non-mechanical cousins. You can find a pretty good keyboard by 10€ but in the mechanical realm your starting point is much higher, so you should set your starting point expectation at 80€.

There's also a great deal of options regarding mechanical keyboards. The kind of switches you chose, for instance, will influence the kind of noise and key stiffness you'll get, so it'll influence a lot the typing experience. If you're spending 100€+ on a keyboard (80€ was just a reference starting point; chances are you'll spend much more) you want to make sure you're buying something you'll actually like. If you don't have any way of trying a keyboard before buying it, your second best option is to get a switch tester. I got mine from WASD keyboards but UK Keycaps also has a few options.

Pok3r Keyboard
The switch sampler I bought from WASD Keyboards
Pok3r Keyboard
The switches in this tester: MX Blue, Brown, Black, Red, Clear and Green

In my case, from looking at the characteristics I had decided on MX Brown switches (no clicky sound, tactile bump on the actuation point, low stiffness), but upon experimenting the switches I ended up deciding on MX Clear because it felt better for me. Only after getting my keyboard with the Clear switches, I had a chance to try another one with Brown switches and verified that I had done the right choice for me. The real point here is that the switch type that feels better is a personal choice, so you should really try them out to see what's best for you.

Another good idea to get acquainted with the world of the mechanical keyboards is to check out the online communities around this matter. I spent some time lurking in /r/mk and checking their wiki. There, besides learning a lot about keyboards, I also got to learn about keyboard enthusiasts. Initially I thought that a keyboard enthusiast would be someone doing intense use of keyboard that would probably have to fit into the category of gamer or programmer. It turns out that keyboard enthusiasts come from all kinds of backgrounds and the only thing in common is really the interest in keyboards and in a superior keyboard usage experience.

Size Matters

Since I was getting a different and rather expensive — for my standards, but not expensive in the mechanical price range — new keyboard, I also wanted to try ditching the numpad. Although the numpad helps a lot when introducing a fair amount of numbers, I actually use it very rarely but I switch a lot between typing and using the mouse, and the numpad is just in the way, forcing a bigger distance for this switch and usually leading to a worse position for the keyboard and a worse posture overall.

However after getting to know more about mechanical keyboards (and keyboards in general) I found out that besides keyboards without numpads (also called tenkeyless or TKL) there are lots of other sizes, and I got especially interested in the 60% size, which are the size of a laptop keyboard. Besides discarding the numpad, 60% keyboards also don't have the arrow keys cluster, further shortening the distance a right hand has to go from a normal writing position to a mouse placed at the right of the keyboard. As a software engineer, I spend quite some time reading code and navigating around, so I use the navigation keys a lot and discarding them completely wouldn't do.

Some 60% keyboards, however, allow you to access those keys either by using a Fn key or by packing them without a cluster of their own (like laptops do). I thought that could be enough for me and decided for the 60%. I regretted this decision every day for the first week of using the keyboard. By the 3rd week, however, I had no regrets. Now I find it strange to use those big, normal keyboards.

The Pok3r

Pok3r Keyboard
My Pok3r keyboard — MX Clears, White version, UK ISO Layout

The keyboard I settled on buying was a Vortex Pok3r with UK ISO Layout. I would prefer a PT layout but I don't mind what's written in the keys as long as the layout is ISO.

My very first feeling about the Pok3r, right while unboxing, even before trying it, was that this is a very robust keyboard! This was because I was used to plastic keyboards which are quite light, and suddenly I'm holding a keyboard with a solid metal case which feels a lot heavier in comparison. Aluminium is supposed to be light, but this is thick aluminium and it gives a great feeling of robustness.

The typing experience is also great. This is not exclusive from the Pok3r, it has much to do with my choice of switches (the MX Clears feel great for me) and with their choice of keycap material — the slightly rugged surface of the PBT plastic of the keycaps was a pleasant surprise for me; I'm pretty sure that all other keyboards I've used in the last 15 years had ABS keycaps.

Pok3r Keyboard
The keycaps that come with the Pok3r with their legends for the default behavior and Fn behavior

The Pok3r also has programmable layers that can be switched into. This means that despite not having the F1-F12 keys that are very useful in a lot of programs (most visual debuggers use F8-F12) I could easily program a layer where I replaced the top row keys from 5 all the way to the backspace key with F5-F12. This means I can debug by switching to a layer and pressing single keys instead of having to press combinations like Fn+9 to produce F9.

Besides the great typing experience and its robustness, the Pok3r also looks good. It's so photogenic that it's impossible not to see it while browsing mechanical keyboard communities such as /r/mk.

In Conclusion

Mechanical keyboards may be more expensive, but the extra confort and superior feeling make them totally worth the investment.

Going to a smaller size (like 60%) is not for everyone and might call for an adaptation period if you use a lot the keys you are discarding (probably a non-issue for most laptop users).

The Pok3r is a great product. Looks good and feels good. 100% recommended! Even if it's not the right product for you (due to the layout), if you're a regular keyboard user you should consider other options for mechanical keyboards.

Pok3r Keyboard
Profile View — you can see the height and slope, as well as a bit of the switches underneath the keycaps