Mechanical vs Membrane Keyboard

Last Updated on by Nicholas Frost

Since the arrival of personal computers, keyboards have always been an essential part of using them. Keyboards are the most used computer input device and have become an indispensable way for anyone to operate and control PCs.

They can trace their roots to the old typewriter and work on the same basic principle. You can press several buttons called keys that each corresponds to an alphanumeric character. A modern-day computer keyboard has at least 101 of these keys arranged in what is called a QWERTY layout, which is called that based on the order of the first six keys on the top alphabetic row.

There are different types of keyboards, but the only two you should be interested in are membrane and mechanical keyboards. They are the most commonly used, but each one has its pros and cons. However, some of the negatives traits of one type, other people might see as a good thing. In the same vein that what others think is positive about one type, other people might see as a negative.

Sometimes it all boils down to personal tastes and preferences. But first, you have to know about them and their particular quirks and features that make them different from each other. In that way, you would know which one between the two types works best for you.

Membrane Keyboards

Slowly but surely, through the years, membrane keyboards have overtaken their mechanical counterparts and are now the most common type of keyboard that you can see around you. Most offices and homes have them. If you’re shopping for a PC, the chances are that it comes with a membrane keyboard. They‘re so common that people have referred to them as regular or standard keyboards.

Although they may look the same on the outside, not every type of keyboard is designed and built the same way inside. Most people are unaware of the difference because, to them, all keyboards look the same.

Sure, some of these keyboards might look more expensive than others, but the average consumer wouldn’t know the difference. When they buy a personal computer system, they usually don’t give much thought to keyboards, let alone how they work. They might not even know what a membrane is and what it implies. To them, it’s just a standard peripheral that comes with the whole package.

Parts of a Membrane Keyboard

However, if you’ll look deeper into the inner workings of these keyboards, then you would be aware of the differences and how much they can affect your work or whatever you’re planning to use your PC for. While it’s true that membrane keyboards have similar parts with mechanical keyboards, they also have some unique ones that make them go about performing their job differently.

Controller chip

It’s an IC or Integrated Circuit chip that handles the input signal coming from a key press by the user and tells the computer what alphanumeric character he or she used. It is a standard part that you can see in mechanical keyboards too.

Top plate

It is the frame that holds the many keys that you press when you’re typing on the keyboard. The plate itself can be detached, but the Individual keys are rarely removable. It makes thoroughly cleaning the keys and the plate more complicated than with mechanical keyboards in that it prevents you from reaching the stubborn dirt that gets stuck inside them.

Top membrane layer

It is the top layer, usually made of soft silicone or a rubber-based touchpad membrane. There are tiny embossed areas in the shape of domes that are each positioned directly under a key to simulate a spring. Each dome serves as a switch and has a conductive trace material under it. When a user pushes down on the dome, the conductive trace closes a circuit that tells the controller which key the user pressed.

Holes layer

It is the layer that makes sure that only the dome under a key pressed by the user is pushed down, preventing any accidental pressing of the other domes beside it.

Bottom membrane layer

It is simply the PCB or Printed Circuit Board that also contains the conductive trace of a circuit for each key that connects to the controller chip. The printed circuit, when closed by the conductive trace from a dome switch, is where the signal travels to reach the controller. It is the controller’s job to identify precisely which key the user pressed.

It’s this fundamental difference in parts and how each of these parts works that make membrane keyboards light, quieter, and make them more affordable. To manufacturers, their simplicity makes them easier and cheaper to produce.

How do membrane keyboards work?

As their name suggests, membrane keyboards rely on membranes or to be more precise, silicone, or a rubber-based layer as a means of conveying input from a user to the computer. Instead of separate switches, this top membrane is usually a single part where all the key positions are laid out.

To make it simple, think of it as a large pressure pad that has areas on the surface that if, depending on which location on the pad you press, will transmit the matching alphanumeric character to the computer.

Imprinted on the bottom of this thin top membrane is the contact points or conductive traces for each of the keys. These are what come in contact with a bottom layer’s conductive traces when you start typing. And these conductive traces form a circuit for every single key that goes into an 8-bit controller chip.

So every time you press a key, you push that small area of the top membrane down. Then the conductive traces on both the top and the bottom layers under that small area connect. Whenever this happens, it closes a circuit allowing a signal to travel to the controller chip. The controller can then identify correctly which circuit closed and which key you pressed. It would then proceed to tell the computer the corresponding alphanumeric character that you have inputted.

All of this happens in a blink of the eye. You can imagine all the processing that goes on with a touch typist working on a document with speeds faster than 40 words per minute.

However, it also makes them feel different when typed on and less durable, which are relevant criteria that someone should think about if they’re going to work for long hours with this device.

It’s this simple design, together with the simple materials used that make them cheaper to manufacture than mechanical keyboards. With less moving parts and softer materials that help stifle much of the noise, they’re relatively silent operators as well. And because they’re lighter, it makes them a lot more portable and more comfortable to lug around. The downside with membranes for some users is that they tend to lack tactile feedback and can feel mushier.

In a typical membrane keyboard, the top layer has a dome shape under each key that imitates the function of a spring. Because it’s made from a soft elastic material, you’ll understand how different it would feel from a metal spring mechanism. This dome switch is a hybrid of flat membrane touchpads and mechanical switches and is the most widely used type of membrane keyboard.

The difference with dome switches is that you have to push the soft dome all the way down to the bottom layer to make sure their respective conductive traces meet. It takes more effort to press a key because you have to make sure that the contact points touch. You might not notice it with a few keypresses, but they do add up and feel less comfortable and tiring during extended use.

That top membrane also acts as a protective shield that prevents dirt and liquids from penetrating more delicate parts inside the keyboard. The disadvantage of this kind of method is that silicone or rubber has a shorter shelf life. They do degrade faster over time, especially when exposed to certain elements and subjected to frequent use and abuse.

They can get brittle and hard or less springy with each passing day, which would affect their performance negatively, even if you do regular maintenance on them. Eventually, they would be impractical to use, even impossible to work with.

Still, because they’re the most commonly used type, membrane keyboards are continually being improved, and they are getting better.

Mechanical Keyboards

There used to be a time when mechanical keyboards dominated the market. And why not? They were the first ones that rode the wave of the personal computer revolution. When PCs started to become a regular fixture in homes, so did the mechanical keyboard. Even IBM’s Model M keyboard is still revered today as one of the best keyboards ever made.

Slowly but surely, membrane keyboards have crept into the mainstream PC market. They were easier to manufacture, were quieter, lighter, and best of all, they were cheap to make. They helped bring PC prices down and thus made computers more accessible to more people. Pretty soon, they became the standard fare in PC models sold everywhere. Mechanical keyboards were swept aside, although not forgotten. Still, the new generation of computer users hardly knew what they’re about, or if they even existed. To them, a keyboard was just a keyboard and wasn’t a big deal.

Now mechanical keyboards are making a comeback of sorts, especially with the gaming market. Because they are more robust, highly customizable, quicker, and more responsive, they are perfect for PC gaming. Other people had begun to remember how good they were. They’re still a lot more expensive than the average membranes. Yet, more people who use keyboards heavily and for long hours are taking a serious look at them and the benefits they bring and are considering them as a valid alternative to membranes.

Parts of a Mechanical Keyboard

What separates them from membrane keyboards is that instead of having a single touchpad layer handling all the signaling involved during typing, each key has a dedicated mechanical switch that works individually to handle all those user inputs. That means that these keyboards have as many switches as they have keys. The standard QWERTY layout has about 101 keys, and sometimes, even more. You can already tell the amount of moving mechanical parts that’s that make up this switching method.

Keycaps

These are the many caps that you can see at the top that make contact with your fingers as you type on the keyboard. They each represent a different alphanumeric character or a function that is identified by a symbol. In mechanical keyboards, these keycaps can be removed and replaced.

It makes it easier for people to customize their look. More importantly, it makes it easier to clean them thoroughly. With the keycaps out of the way, you can get to the stubborn dirt and grime that you couldn’t reach before.

Controller Chip

This Integrated Circuit or IC chip is similar to those found in most membrane keyboards. Its job is to figure out what key the user pressed and tells the computer what alphanumeric character or function corresponds to that key.

Key Switch

The key switch is the part that makes them different from membranes, which allow for more flexibility and versatility. The way manufacturers designed these switches makes them more responsive and make them quicker, although they do make a lot of noise. There are many types to choose from that feel different to the touch.

Key Plate

Sometimes manufacturers mount the key switches on these metal plates. Called Plate-Mounted Key Switches, this is a very sturdy method of securing all those switches in place.

PCB or Printed Circuit Board

The PCB is the circuit board imprinted with the circuits for each key that connects to the controller chip. Sometimes the key switches are soldered on to the PCB and called PCB-Mounted Key Switches.

The most important thing to consider in buying a mechanical keyboard is choosing the right type of switch. Some mechanical switches are best for typing, while others are better for playing games. We’ll delve into a more in-depth discussion about them below, explaining the different variations in performance.

How Mechanical Keyboards Work

Unlike membrane keyboards that use embossed dome shapes laid out on the membrane as switches, mechanical keyboards use a dedicated and self-contained Key Switch for each key. But first, let’s get the basic parts out of the way before we explain the different types available out there.

Parts of a Key Switch

Stem

It’s the topmost part of the switch that connects to a keycap. Its design allows the convenient removal of keycaps from the switch. It’s also the part that regulates key travel distance measured in millimeters.

Upper Housing

Since every switch is a self-contained device, individual housing encloses the components. The upper housing is what guides the stem when it slides up and down during actuation.

Base Housing

The base housing is where the upper housing is attached. It is where the switch can mount to a plate or the PCB.

Spring

It is the coil spring that pushes the key back up to its resting position. It also determines the force of the downward pressure needed to actuate the key. Stiffer springs mean a harder keypress is required.

Metal Contact Point

These are the metal parts (usually gold) that are connected directly to the key’s circuit on the PCB. The stem separates them when the key is in its resting position. When a key is pushed down, the stem slides down, allowing these metal parts to connect and close the circuit.

An electric signal can then flow freely along the PCB to reach the controller chip that can identify which key was pressed.

The Main Key Switch Types

One of the most widely used brands of key switches that you can find in most mechanical keyboards is from German manufacturer Cherry. There are also other known key switch brands like KBT, Outemu, Greetech, and Kailh, among many others. Still, the most popular is the Cherry brand, which has a comprehensive line of different types of switches.

Now depending on the kind of action that happens during actuation, key switches can further be divided into three main types. As an example, we’ve grouped many types of Cherry key switch models under these main types to give you an idea of how diverse these key switches can be.

Clicky Switches

When fully actuated, clicky switches make distinct clicking sound along with a tactile resistance. But before key travel bottoms out, the keystroke is registered by the key switch, which makes them quick and responsive.

It is perfect for heavy typists who want tactile feedback from every keypress and can handle the most number of words typed per minute. They can be rather noisy, and some folks might want to avoid them because of that, although some people enjoy that clicky sound they make. It’s different keystrokes for different folks, I guess.

  • Cherry MX Blue
  • Cherry MX White
  • Cherry MX Green
  • Tactile Switches

Tactile switches work the same way as clicky switches with a similar tactile bump but minus the loud clicking sound. Keystrokes are also registered quickly without the key having to bottom out. That makes them equally ideal for heavy typing work. The only difference is that they’re less noisy.

  • Cherry MX Brown
  • Cherry MX Tactile Grey
  • Cherry MX Clear
  • Linear Switches

Linear switches don’t have the clicky noise as well as the tactile feedback and slide up and down smoothly when actuated. While they too don’t need to bottom out for the keystroke to register, the lack of tactile feel may turn off serious typists. This lack of resistance, though, is what gamers are looking for because of the smooth actuation and even faster response times.

  • Cherry MX Black
  • Cherry MX Red
  • Cherry MX Nature White
  • Cherry MX Linear Grey
  • Cherry MX Speed Silver

Durability of Mechanical Keyboards

Another thing that mechanical keyboards got going for them is their durability. These things were built to last and endure all sorts of extreme conditions and stresses. Just to give you an idea, a single key switch is designed to deliver anywhere above 50 up to 80 million key presses. That’s up to ten times more than a regular membrane keyboard could withstand.

If you think that’s overkill, it isn’t to the manufacturers who went out of their way to make sure these little things could take that much stress without failing. Their only weakness is dirt, but if you take care of your keyboard as you should, then it would provide you with many years of dependable service.

NKRO or N-Key Rollover and Anti-ghosting

Because of their key switch mechanisms, mechanical keyboards lend themselves better to anti-ghosting. Anti-ghosting simply means that the keyboard doesn’t register any “ghost” keypresses, and only registers those you made. Ghosting happens due to hardware limitations that can only handle a limited amount of simultaneous key presses so that an error occurs where some random key is registered that you didn’t press at all.

Because of anti-ghosting, modern mechanical keyboards also have the N-Key Rollover ability to register the keys that you pressed at the same time. The higher the NKRO rating, the more keys your keyboard can register at the same time.

So you can understand the rating, the letter N in NRKO is substituted by the number of key presses a keyboard can handle. So if it can handle three simultaneous key presses, it’s rated as 3KRO. Some even have Full NKRO, which seems excessive since a normal human being only has ten fingers. It means it can handle more input faster without missing any of your intended keypresses.

It makes the keyboard very responsive and is why it’s the preferred choice of knowledgeable gamers. No matter the amount of input they throw at it in a frenetic video game, mechanical keyboards almost always never miss a beat.

Pros and Cons of Mechanical Keyboards

Pros:

  • Better Feel

Because of the flexibility offered by being able to use different types of key switches, mechanical keyboards can be tailored to the specific tactile and responsiveness that any user wants. This way, they can be more comfortable using their keyboard for long extended periods.

  • Durable

These keyboards were designed around the many individual key switches, which do make them heavier but sturdier. What makes them durable is the amount of abuse those tiny key switches can handle. As long as you clean them regularly, a mechanical keyboard would last many years longer than any regular keyboard can.

  • Quick and Responsive

Unlike regular keyboards, key presses don’t have to bottom out for a key switch to register a keypress, and that’s why they’re highly sought after by gamers who would attest to how quick mechanical keyboards are to respond to game inputs. With their high NRKO ratings, they can handle more simultaneous key presses, making them even more reliable and responsive.

  • Highly customizable

Keycaps can be removed easily, making customization a breeze. The key switch can be removed as well if you want to change them to a different type that you think will suit you better. These removable parts can easily be replaced if they get damaged somehow. Also, a lot of mechanical keyboards have RGB lighting to give them a sleek look. A whole hobby is behind this type of keyboard because of how easy it is to modify them than regular keyboards.

  • Easier to clean thoroughly

Because their keycaps and key switches can be removed, dirt and grime that you can’t reach before can be removed.

Cons:

  • Expensive

Mechanical keyboards are much more expensive than regular keyboards, and the good ones usually start at $50 or more. It’s not shocking to see mechanical keyboards costing hundreds of dollars. The premium you pay is understandable considering their durability and the types and quality of components used. You’re also paying for the quality of the experience working with them with mainly how they feel.

You can find a few good ones below $50 that still have great key switches, but they’re more the exception than the rule. Also, they’re not as well built as the average mechanical keyboard.

  • Heavy

Because of the key switches, the design around them is sturdier but at the cost of more weight. Some people prefer this, though, because aside from their robust build, they are more stable to use, and they stay in place and aren’t easily pushed around.

  • Noisy

To many people, this is the biggest deal-breaker about them. On the flip side, many love the kind of feedback the clicky noise they bring. But honestly, they’re not ideal to use in the office or anywhere else where their noise can bother other people.

Because of the ruckus it makes, you have to factor in the environment that you are going to use mechanical keyboards. There are known instances of blue switched mechanical keyboards being banned in the workplace because of how much noise they make.

Pros and Cons of Membrane Keyboards

Pros:

  • Cheap price

Most of what are considered to be quality membrane keyboards cost less than 30 dollars. Because they have fewer parts and made from basic materials and simpler mechanisms, they are a lot cheaper and easier to manufacture than mechanical keyboards.

  • Very quiet

Because of their soft rubbery dome switches, they are a lot less noisy than even the quietest mechanical keyboard. Silicone and rubber are materials used for noise and vibration dampening in other machines, and this system of dome switches is as quiet as you can get with keyboards.

  • Lightweight

Since they’re a lot less heavy than mechanical ones, they’re more portable and easier to move around. You can place them on your lap if you want. They’re just more manageable than mechanical keyboards.

Cons:

  • Feels mushy

They’ve got that rubbery, spongy feel, which is just fine with some people, but not to those who demand more refined and better tactile feel from their keyboards. Also trying to bottom out the key to register a keypress can get tiring after a while of continuous use.

  • Less Durable

Silicone and rubber degrade over time. While mechanical key switches can maintain their original feel for years, membranes in regular keyboards are on a downhill path when it comes to performance the moment you start to use them. Those soft materials can’t maintain their original condition over time.

  • Not as quick and responsive

Because the key travel with dome switches has to bottom out for the contact points to meet, that makes them a tad less responsive than mechanical key switches. However, that tiny gap in response time adds up, especially in gaming or in touch typing.

  • Difficult to clean

Dirt and grime buildup can be hard to reach because of the irremovable keycaps.

Final Verdict

Mechanical keyboards are more expensive by far, and they are indeed noisier. But if you’re someone who does a lot typing or a person who likes playing games with a keyboard and mouse combo, then the overall experience you’ll get in the long run would be better if you bought a mechanical keyboard. With the flexibility you have in customizing one, sometimes it’s all a matter of knowing what kind of switch that best suits you.

But if you’re the type of user who’s always on the go, or who has to work in an environment where noise is a big concern, membrane keyboards are the only way to go. More so if you’re running a tight budget and can’t afford the luxury of an expensive mechanical keyboard.

Whichever type tickles your fancy, your best bet would be finding a place that will let you try out different kinds of keyboards so you can get a feel of exactly what you need.

 

 

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