Almost everyone knows about the computer keyboard, and they look pretty much alike. But do you know that these keyboards are using different switch technology? Mainly people divide them into two categories: mechanical keyboard and membrane switch keyboards. In fact, mechanical keyboard and membrane keyboards have distinct constructions. They work differently as well.
Definition of a mechanical keyboard and how the switch works?
For a mechanical keyboard, all the keys are separate parts and each key has its own switch and metal spring. When the key is pressed, the stem forces the metal spring down to send the signals to the keyboard. Thus, the key presses registering is complete and turns into the magic output on the screen. Normally, these types of mechanical switches feature high quality. This means it can provide a lifespan of up to 50 million keystrokes or even more.
Some of the mechanical keyboard switches are linear, which means you don’t need to push all the way down. But other mechanical switches are tactile, only halfway down can register successfully. So it will save you time to move to the next key faster.
Cherry MX switches
Various types of switches are available for different mechanical keyboards. And the Cherry MX switches are the most popular ones for a quality mechanical keyboard. And people differentiate these mechanical switches according to the key stem colors. Usually, distinct colors show different characteristics and amount of force as well. And there are four common types: Cherry MX Black, Cherry MX Red, Cherry MX Brown, and Cherry MX Blue. For each type of switch, it requires different actuation force.
Cherry MX Blue
Cherry MX Blue is the most popular type of keyboard because of its tactile feedback and clicky feel. Thanks to the special plunger, the blue switches feature a louder clicking sound and strong tactile feedback. Thus, you can type faster and save some efforts without pushing the key caps all the way down. Because the clicking sound and physical feedback signify the key presses are complete. As the blue switches can offer very good typing experience, so they are preferable by the typist. Yet the actuation force is a bit high, so it is not easy for the double-tapping. Besides, blue switches are louder than other mechanical keyboards and the rubber domes. So it may be a bit disturbing in some conditions.
Definition of a membrane switch keyboard/membrane switches keyboard
The membrane keyboard is a keyboard with all the keys attached together instead of separated. So it is not like the mechanical keyboard switches. And this switch technology is well-known in the computer keyboard industry for decades. Because membrane switch assembly is easy so the cost is affordable. This type of switch is the most popular keyboard nowadays.
In total, a typical membrane switches keyboard uses three-layer designs. It includes a top membrane layer, a middle layer (known as a ‘holes’ layer or spacer layer), and a bottom membrane layer. The top layer shows the look of the keyboard, and both of the top layer and bottom layer have conductive traces. Those conductive tracers can function to register key presses. As for the layer in the middle creates an empty space. Thus this spacer layer can separate the top layer and bottom layer from each other. All these layers’ designs can influence the typing experience.
The way a membrane switch works
When the key is pressed down, the top membrane layer pushes through a ‘holes’ layer to contact the bottom layer. Thus conductive traces will communicate to close the circuit and create the keystroke. after the pressure released, the key caps returns so the circuit is back to open position.
Types of membrane switch/ membrane switches keyboard
For the membrane switch keyboard, there are mainly three types
Flat-panel membrane keyboard
You can also call it the flat membrane switch. And you could barely find any flat-panel switch technology used in the PC keyboards. Because it is preferable for appliances such as microwave ovens. It has three-layer designs too. Both of the top layer and bottom layer have conductive ink printed on them. And when a user presses the button, the circuit is complete so signals are sent to the computer. As the tactile feedback is weak, hence we need something to show the keystroke is complete. For instance, the microwave ovens control-panel could give a “beep” sound.
Full travel membrane keyboard
The full travel membrane keyboard, on the other hand, is an economic option. This is a well-known switch technology used for the PC keyboards. A key is mounted to the top layer membrane. When the key is pressed, both of the conductive stripes contact each other from the top and the bottom layer. Thus the command is sent to the computer.
Dome switch keyboard
Dome switch keyboard is a combination of flat-panel membrane and mechanical keyboards. Under a rubber or silicone keypad, It has two circuit board traces with metal or rubber domes. Compared with metal domes, rubber domes are cheaper and quieter. Then the rubber dome keyboards don’t give an obvious response as metal dome keyboards do. When key presses happen, the metal/rubber dome collapses to bring the two circuit board traces together.
As for scissor switch, it is, in fact, a type of rubber dome keyboard. There is a scissor-like piece that links the key and keyboard together. Thus, it helps to reduce the actuation distance. What’s more, it can increase the rubber dome keyboards’lifespan. They are widely used in portable electronics like laptops and cell phones.
Comparison between Mechanical keyboard and Membrane keyboards
The quality mechanical keyboard tends to have a longer lifespan than the rubber dome keyboard. Most of them can reach up to 50 million keystrokes or even more. So it represents high quality. But for the membrane keyboard/rubber dome keyboard, are rated to about 5 million key presses. That’s because a rubber or silicone dome is likely to fatigue. So the amount of force for each key on the same keyboard may be distinct. What’s more, If one key breaks down, you need to change the whole keyboard. Yet for the mechanical keyboard, you only need to swap the switch instead of the whole keyboard.
Input speed and precision
Rollover shows if a keyboard can register the key presses right while many keys get pressed at once. For the membrane switch keyboard, it can have an only 2-key rollover. This means a membrane switch keyboard can make errors if more than 2 key caps are pressed. But for the high quality keyboards (mechanical keyboard switches), they have 6-key rollover or more. And it means the mechanical switches can deal with more inputs at one time without any mistakes. So the user will enjoy the faster speed and precise input. For this reason, they are perfect for fast-paced games. In a word, any occasion requiring many keys pressing simultaneously.
Mechanical keyboards can create strong physical feedback with a loud clicking sound. And this can certainly better the gaming and typing experience. Although you need to be careful as the noise could be a concern. After all, even a silent mechanical keyboard sounds louder than the membrane switches. As for the membrane keyboard, it feels mushy to type on. That may influence the typing experience. Generally, membrane keyboards are preferable for office use since they are quieter.
Price is always important. Compared with a mechanical keyboard, the membrane switch keyboard is much cheaper. And that is one of the noticeable advantages. As they are easier to manufacture during mass production. So this type of keyboard could be a great low-budget option. But for the high quality mechanical keyboard, it has more parts and tends to be more complex to make. So, it will cost 10 times or more. In fact, sometimes the membrane keyboard can be a good alternative for casual games.
Membrane switches keyboard is usually made of lightweight plastic-like rubber or silicone. Accordingly, they are light, portable and can be wireless as well. It is always easier to carry around a membrane switch keyboard rather than the heavier and bigger wired mechanical keyboards. Its good portability makes it ideal for laptop applications.
Good maintenance can keep the keyboards in good condition. Dust or dirt can’t get underneath the keys, so membrane keyboards are easier to clean. But for mechanical keyboards, they are harder to clean because of the big gaps between the keys. Harder to clean means it is a bit tricky for maintenance.