The mechanical vs. membrane keyboard decision used to be simple. Have $100 or more laying around to spend on one peripheral? Get a mechanical keyboard. On a budget? Stick with membranes. The price premium and limited availability meant that mechanical boards were strictly for the dedicated.
Things have changed over the past few years, though, and you can now get a mechanical keyboard for around $50. If you’ve been holding out, those prices might tempt you to upgrade just to see what the fuss is all about. If you’re on the verge of taking the plunge but need a bit more convincing, we’ve got just the article for you.
Mechanical vs. Membrane Keyboards: What Are They?
Before we compare the two types of keyboards, we figured it’d be a good start to explain each.
In common usage, “mechanical keyboard” refers to a keyboard that uses high-quality switches. This can be anything from the typical Cherry MX switch to less-common examples such as Alps switches.
Both of these types of switches use physical metal contacts to complete a circuit and signal a keypress. This is one of the defining characteristics of certain types of “mechanical” switches.
However, there’s no standard definition for “mechanical,” especially since switches like IBM’s buckling spring and Topre’s electrostatic switches are often lumped into the “mechanical” category. The problem is that the former uses a membrane, while the latter uses a rubber dome. So it’s a bit of a confusing, imprecise term.
Generally speaking, though, what unites most “mechanical” switches, regardless of technology, is a sharper, more defined typing feel than membrane keyboards.
Despite the increased popularity of mechanical keyboards, membrane boards remain the most popular and affordable type on the market.
Membrane keyboards are designed using three layers. Two of these layers are flexible membranes with traces on the bottom (for the upper layer) and top (for the lower layer). In between these two membranes is a spacer layer with holes in it.
The spacer keeps the two membranes apart, but the holes allow the membranes to contact when a key is pressed. When the membranes make contact, a circuit is closed, and your computer detects a keypress.
As with mechanical keyboards, there’s a bit of confusion here. When people talk about membrane keyboards for computers, they generally mean keyboards that use rubber domes and membranes.
Pure membrane keyboards are like those on a microwave keypad or a roll-up keyboard. They’re really unpleasant to use, so most membrane keyboards add a rubber dome layer between the keycap and membrane. This offers slight tactile feedback and a bit of bounce to return a key after you press it down.
Mechanical vs. Membrane Keyboards: What to Consider
Now that we’ve discussed the key characteristics of mechanical and membrane keyboards, let’s dive into what sets them apart.
We alluded to this earlier, but the biggest and most critical difference between mechanical and membrane keyboards is the typing experience.
Regardless of switch type, mechanical keyboards generally offer a distinct, “clean,” and crisp feeling when typing. On top of that, mechanical keyboards don’t suffer from the soft, mushy sensation that membrane keyboards have when you press a key all the way down (known in the keyboard community as “bottoming out”).
There are many different mechanical switches on the market. Most, especially the popular Cherry MX-style switches, can be divided into three general categories: linear, tactile, and clicky.
Linear switches like the Cherry MX Red (and clones by Kailh, Gateron, and other Chinese companies) are designed to be smooth with no tactile feedback in the middle of the travel. That makes them great for fast-paced gaming and late-night typing since they’re relatively quiet.
Tactile switches like the Cherry MX Brown have a “bump” in the middle of the switch’s travel. This adds some physical feedback when you depress a key. This can be good if you want some tactile feeling when typing. It’s also a decent halfway point between linear and clicky switches.
Clicky switches are the noisiest of the bunch. Switches like the Cherry MX Blue make a high-pitched click every time you press on the switch. The tactile bump in the middle is often a lot more noticeable than on tactile switches.
This can be particularly fun when typing but can make clicky switches the least suited for gaming. The loud click will also annoy your coworkers or anybody in your Discord voice chat, as we’ve found out through personal experience.
Here’s a video so you can hear the difference between these switch styles:
While even linear switches are generally a bit louder than membranes, you do have some options if you want to cut down on noise. Cherry makes switches like the MX Silent Red, and there are a few silent switches amongst the Chinese MX clones. Gateron, for example, has a series of silent switches, including a tactile Silent Brown.
Here’s a great comparison between Silent Red and standard Red switches, courtesy of Rocket Jump Ninja:
If the board you like doesn’t have a silent switch option, you can also try installing sound dampening o-rings. These will change the feel of the switches slightly, but it might be worth it for you.
Yes, there are a lot of things to consider. And yes, it can get a bit confusing. But, as far as we’re concerned, it’s worth it. Membrane keyboards simply aren’t as fun to type or game on. They’re usable, sure, but have none of the satisfying click or physical feedback that mechanical switches offer. Once you go mechanical, you won’t go back.
A plus side to having so many switch options is that you’ll probably be able to find a switch that’s just right for you. The days of living with the same old membrane keyboard experience will be over.
Given the wealth of switch options for mechanical keyboards, it comes as no surprise that they trump membrane keyboards for customization. Not only can you get a keyboard with the right switch for your tastes, but you can also spruce it up with all manner of keycaps to make it uniquely yours.
Like a clean grey colorway with some splashes of color? There are keycaps for that.
Prefer something darker to suit your room (or your personality)? No problem:
On top of all the color and font options, you can also fit artisan keycaps on your keyboard for an extra splash of bling. These can be anything from a cute soccer ball to breathtakingly detailed wood-and-resin keycaps.
Some of the best artisans can be hard to get a hold of. Some go for exorbitant prices on the used market. Others will need you to join a group buy to purchase one, which isn’t for everyone. However, there are still many artisan keycaps that are readily available online. Check out our list of places to buy artisan keycaps to start your artisan journey.
If you really get into the hobby, you even can build your own custom mechanical keyboard. These are often the absolute cream of the crop of the keyboard world, with exotic layouts and high-quality aluminum cases the norm.
Often, custom keyboards will take a bit of effort and patience to build, as the switches will have to be soldered to the PCB. But hot swap PCBs are becoming more popular. These PCBs let you swap switches in and out by just snapping them in; no soldering required.
Hot swap also opens up a whole new world of customization. Feel like clicky switches one week and linears the next? No problem. It really helps make your keyboard uniquely yours. Some pre-assembled boards come with hot swap PCBs too, like the Glorious Modular Mechanical Keyboard (GMMK).
There’s really no contest here in the mechanical vs. membrane keyboard competition. If you want to customize your keyboard, mechanical keyboards are hands-down the winner.
The mechanical vs. membrane keyboard battle is a bit more evenly-matched when it comes to portability. Membrane keyboards are thinner and lighter than mechanical keyboards, making them a lot easier to carry around with you on the go.
A membrane keyboard like the Dell KB212-B is only 0.43 inches thick and weighs 1.11 pounds. It’ll fit in just about any bag, a big plus if you’re working on the road. The mechanical Logitech K840, which has the same 104-key layout as the Dell, is 1.5 inches thick and nearly double the weight at 2.01 lbs.
Sure, it’s only an inch and a pound (give or take), but if you’re never in one spot for too long, we can see the appeal of minimizing your keyboard’s size and weight.
But there’s nothing that says you have to stick with the full 104-key layout if you’re buying a mechanical board. If you don’t need the numpad, you can get an 87-key tenkeyless (TKL) keyboard. It’ll be lighter and narrower than a full-sized keyboard.
The Glorious Modular Mechanical Keyboard (GMMK) mentioned earlier comes in a tenkeyless layout and is pretty well-liked by the community. There are even smaller 60% boards, like the Anne Pro 2, if you really want a compact keyboard.
As you might guess, mechanical keyboards come in all shapes and sizes including an even smaller 40% layout. We wouldn’t recommend starting with that, though, as it can take a lot of adjusting. If you’re interested in learning more about the different layouts available for mechanical keyboards, check our guide to keyboard sizes.
As we mentioned at the start, price used to be the big deal-breaker in the mechanical vs. membrane keyboard comparison. Mechanical keyboards used to almost always cost well north of $100. Even now, mechanical keyboards from well-known, high-quality brands such as Filco still hover around the $150 mark.
The Filco Majestouch Ninja, for instance, will set you back anywhere from $137 for Cherry MX Reds to $159 for MX Blues. That’s significantly pricier than a gaming membrane keyboard like the Corsair K55 or the Dell KB212-B ($26) we mentioned earlier.
However, the past few years have seen a flood of affordable, Chinese-made keyboards and Cherry MX switch clones. These have lowered the barrier to entry significantly. For instance, Redragon’s K556 keyboard with MX Brown equivalent switches can be had for under $70 on Amazon.
If you’re okay with a TKL keyboard, it can get even cheaper: Redragon’s K552 TKL with MX Red-style switches sells for $35 on Amazon. It doesn’t have per-key RGB, but we don’t think it’s a deal-breaker at that price point.
Sure, a Redragon keyboard won’t feel as premium as a Filco. But it’s a great place to start on a budget. We’d take a cheap Redragon mechanical over a membrane keyboard any day ourselves.
Linus Tech Tips posted a video about sub-$45 mechanical keyboards a few years back, and it’s still a good watch if you want to learn about the budget end of the spectrum:
Buying a used mechanical keyboard is an option too. We’ve seen more than one friend quickly sell off their starting keyboard once the mechanical keyboard bug bit them. There can be some terrific deals on Craigslist or your local equivalent if you’re willing to do a bit of searching.
One final thing to consider when choosing a mechanical or membrane keyboard is its durability. While mechanical boards can be more expensive, the upshot is that they generally last longer. Cherry rates their switches for 100 million presses, while clones by Kailh or Gateron are rated for anywhere between 50 to 80 million.
Another positive is that mechanical keyboards can be repaired. If a switch dies, you can simply replace it. You can even swap PCBs or controllers if those fail. On the other hand, if your membrane keyboard stops working, it’s headed straight to the bin.
Switched On Yet?
Even five years ago, choosing between a mechanical and membrane keyboard was a bit of a tough choice. The extra cost of mechanical keyboards was a big issue, so membrane keyboards stayed relevant for gamers on a budget.
Now, though, we really don’t think there’s any reason to get a membrane keyboard for a home-bound PC user. Chinese-made budget mechanical keyboards have made mechanical keyboards a lot more accessible. Coupled with a healthy secondhand market as users upgrade, it’s never been easier to find a keyboard to fit your budget and tastes.
If you’ve been holding out on the mechanical keyboard train, we’re here to tell you that now’s the time to get on board.