How We Test Mechanical Keyboards

Introduction

Testing mechanical keyboards is unlike testing so many of the other products we review. Typically, we perform extensive benchmark testing, churning out a small mountain (sometimes a large mountain) of objective data that we scrutinize and analyze in depth. With keyboards, though, there is unfortunately only so much in the way of objective testing that one can perform.

Even so, any objective tests you can run on a keyboard are really not about the keyboard - they're about the switches. There are scads of mechanical keyboards on the market (and more coming constantly), but there are only so many brands and types of switches. And unlike, for example, graphics cards, switch makers are not consistently producing updated switch technology. In the tech world, in fact, switch technology is comparatively static.

Further, from keyboard to keyboard, there is little a given manufacturer can do to affect a switch's performance. The switches come in batches from switch makers, and keyboard OEMs mount them onto PCBs and do not have the ability to alter them.

Therefore, there is little objective testing--at least in the way we're accustomed to reviewing products--to be done on mechanical keyboards. That's not to say we can't evaluate them; it just means that how we do it is a different beast.

We have, though, developed a procedure for testing mechanical keyboard switches, which you can read about in detail here.

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Features & Specifications

Although there are few objective tests you can reasonably perform on a keyboard, there are numerous objective factors to weigh when considering what keyboard you want to spend your hard-earned money on.

In our reviews, we include the basics, including the make and model of the keyboard, type of form factor (for instance, tenkeyless versus numpad included), switch type (and the specifications thereof), any additional ports, key rollover, polling rate, OS requirements, weight, dimensions, and price, as well as more detailed aspects of each product, including the type of material used to make the key caps, the type of key cap character printing used, the type of cable used, and the microcontroller(s) on board.

Sample Specification Table:

We also examine the software and lighting (if any) on each keyboard. We use each feature of the software to illustrate how it works in practice, and we thereby can determine if there are any glitches or other performance issues. (Typically, the software and lighting are tied together.)

We also completely disassemble each keyboard to better examine its build quality, and also to get a look at the design of the cable assembly and the microcontroller(s).

Verifying Key Rollover

A common claim that keyboard manufacturers make concerns key rollover. Some keyboards claim 6-, 10- or N-key rollover, which is typically written 6KRO, 10KRO or NKRO, respectively. Using simple publicly available and free tools, we are able to confirm and qualify these claims.

The primary tools we use are the AquaKeyTest (link hosted here) and Switch Hitter (link hosted here), which are simple but handy little applications that show when keys are both depressed and registering with the PC. We double check those results with the Microsoft Applied Sciences online tool.

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Measuring Noise

Switches of different types, mounted onto keyboards with different designs and materials, certainly make different levels and types of noise, and because of that, some try to measure the decibel level of the switches on a keyboard.

There is no point to measuring decibel level by hand, though, because each person will bang the keys with different levels of force. Even if the same person performed the test the same way each time, he or she would be unable to strike the keys in a consistent manner each time. And even if this was possible, at best you would be achieving only a baseline, not an objective decibel level that anyone else could replicate.

However, the audio experience of a keyboard is important. What is more important than loudness, though, is the quality of the sound being produced.

Das Keyboard 4C Professonal audio

For example, a Red switch does not sound like a Blue switch. They have different mechanisms, and therefore they have different sound qualities. Reds are linear and have a single clack sound, when you reach the bottom of the key travel, whereas Blues have an extra "click" during the travel. One may be perceived as "louder" than the other, but that's not really important here; what's more notable is the fact that one has an additional event in its travel, and it makes a certain type of sound. Besides, a great many factors affect noise, including switch materials, tolerances, lubrication, and so on.

Further, the design of the keyboard can affect the sound the switches make. A keyboard with a metal top plate and switches mounted directly on top will have different sound qualities than a keyboard with a plastic backplate and switches mounted into a "bowl" with a top panel covering up parts of the switches. This is not to mention how sound is affected by keycaps (the material they’re made from and its thickness), how well a keyboard chassis is assembled, and even whether or not the feet underneath are flipped out or not.

Therefore, our methodology concerning audio is to record a reviewer typing on a given keyboard, describe the sound qualities he or she perceives, and offer that recording so readers can listen for themselves.

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Switch Testing

In an effort to bring objective, scientific testing to switches, we use a machine called a texture analyzer. We discuss this process in detail here.

Reading Our Switch Testing Charts

In our keyboard reviews, we produce a series of charts showing switch data.

On each chart, we overlaid dotted light gray lines to show the switch’s manufacturer’s specifications so you can see at a glance where the switches in a given chart match up. Thus, even for certain items we can’t confidently measure, you can at least get a visual idea of where the switches lie in relation to the manufacturer’s specs.

The first chart shows the keyfeel of a given switch as well as the median force curve of all of the standard switches on a particular keyboard. The smoother, thicker red line is the median of all switches in that particular dataset, and the squiggly black line is a random switch from that set, isolated to show the smoothness or roughness of the stem, the overall keyfeel, and so on:

The second chart shows the range of a set of switches, with the median from the first chart included. The highest line represents the max force at every point in the key travel for all switches, and the lowest line shows the minimum force at every point in the key travel for all switches.

Note that we’ve omitted the rebound line for all three (median, max, and min). Mainly, this is for clarity.

The next chart shows all of the standard switches on a given keyboard:

From that chart, we can see any outliers. Then, using both the chart and the raw data, we can pull out and examine those outliers:

Separately, we also have a look at the stabilized keys. There is much interesting data there. First of all, as we mentioned, the force curve of a stabilized key is almost always different than that of a standard key. The biggest factor is how the stabilizers affect performance.

In practice, it’s all but impossible to strike a standard key off-center such that it impacts the switch performance, but people strike wider keys off center all the time. The extreme example is the spacebar - when typing or gaming, how often do you strike that key exactly on-center, right above the switch? At the very least, the answer is “not always,” even for the most accurate typers and gamers.

So then, the stabilizers actually become quite important in the performance of the wider keys. A poor stabilizer can completely wreck the switch performance relative to the standard keys.

Because of that, we perform three tests on every stabilized key: directly above the left stabilizer, directly above the switch, and directly above the right stabilizer.

By isolating those tests, we can look the performance of all of a keyboard’s stabilized keys based on the center press:

We can also look at the left, center, and right presses of the individual stabilized keys if we want. We can compare any switch in our database this way, in fact.

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Subjective Assessment & Final Analysis

Keyboard reviewers spend no less than one week with each keyboard, using it throughout the work day for normal use and also putting in hours gaming. (It's a tough job, but somebody has to do it.) Ideally, the time spent would exceed a week, but in all cases, reviewers carefully track their own observations and also examine any issues that may arise.

This hands-on time both informs the reviewer's subjective opinion (for example, "I like the soft-touch feel of these key caps") and also evinces any subjective observations that are worth noting ("I noticed that the shift key wobbled more than it probably should").

The difference here is that a subjective opinion is informative insofar as it's an expert opinion based on a given reviewer's proclivities. An opinion can help color and even frame a review - although it is still, of course, just an opinion.

On the other hand, subjective observations are details that a reviewer notices and calls out for the reader. These fall somewhere between subjectivity and objectivity. For example, a reviewer may notice (as mentioned above) excessive wobbling on a particular key, or point out that a PCB's welds are a little sloppy, or that the stabilizers on a keyboard are flimsy. There is no real test for "wobbliness" or weld precision or what have you, and therefore we would not deign to call these things "objective;" they are observations colored by a reviewer's experience and expertise, so in that way they are subjective, but they are also not mere opinions.

There is no way to avoid subjectivity in a keyboard review. We present readers with subjective opinions and observations, as well as detailed descriptions of every aspect of each keyboard, illustrating points and showing the work via images, audio, and video as much as possible. Through this, readers can get a clear picture of each keyboard reviewed and also extrapolate for themselves.

However, we have also developed a way to objectively test switches. These tests speak primarily to the quality and consistency of the switches on a given keyboard.

We will continue to evolve our testing procedures as new tools and techniques become available.

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