Whether you're working or gaming on your computer, there's nothing quite like the feel of a mechanical keyboard. All of the best gaming keyboards are mechanical, but when it comes time to choose a laptop, you’ll find not many come mechanical switches. While there have been a handful of high-end gaming laptops that managed to incorporate mechanical keys into their designs over the past few years, the amount of vertical space needed is a huge limiting factor.
But last month, Alienware announced that it would be the first-ever brand to use new Cherry MX Ultra Low Profile mechanical switches as it deployed them in a couple current-generation gaming laptops. The Alienware m15 R4 and Alienware m17 R4 were already among the best gaming laptops, but it seemed likely they were about to get better. These unique switches provide strong tactile feedback with an audible click that feels and sounds like one of the company’s famous Cherry MX Blue switches.
The Cherry MX Ultra Low Profile keyboard is available right now as a $147 upgrade option when you configure your laptop on the Alienware website. It also comes with per-key RGB lighting, a feature that the standard Alienware keyboard lacks, and 100 percent anti-ghosting and N-Key rollover.
To demonstrate what Cherry MX Ultra Lower Profile switches feel like, Dell sent me an updated Alienware m17 with them under each key, along with a switch tester that shows what the mechanism looks like without a keycap or surrounding keys covering it. After typing and gaming on the laptop, I’m impressed with just how much this feels like an external, clicky keyboard.
The Cherry MX Ultra Low Profile switches have a fairly deep travel of 1.8mm and a total height of 3.5mm. This is much more compact than regular Cherry MX Blue switches that have 2mm of travel and an 18.5mm total height, or even MX Low Profile switches that have 3.2mm of travel and 11.9mm total height.
The 1.8mm of travel is good for a laptop keyboard, but it is by no means extraordinary, as we’ve seen ultraportable ThinkPads have this much. What makes the Cherry Ultra Low Profile switches stand out is a design that maximizes the amount of resistance and feedback by placing a taut spring horizontally across a metal base that has two edges which flip up like the “Gullwing” doors on a Delorean car (Cherry specifically cites the car as an inspiration). When you press down on the middle of the key, the spring stretches, pushing the edges down and actuating while you get a pleasant click sound.
Cherry says that the MX Ultra Low Profile switches require 65 grams of force to actuate, which actually makes them a bit more resistant than the 60-gram MX Blue switches you find on so many external keyboards. The keys also have 0.8mm of pre travel, which means that there’s an extra 1mm of travel after you actuate the key and before you bottom out. That’s good, because the goal of every typist, whether they know it or not, is to avoid the unpleasant feeling of bottoming out, pressing against the hard base at the end of a switch.
When I typed on the Alienware m17’s mechanical keyboard, the feel was almost as good as on the Hexgears Impulse -- the external keyboard I use every day with my desktop -- and its best-in-class Kailh Box White clicky switches. The keys on the laptop felt snappy and emitted a very pleasant click. This enabled me to hit a very strong 102 words per minute with just a 3-percent error rate on the 10fastfingers.com typing test. That’s at the high end of my typical 95 to 100 wpm rate. Better still, my fingers were less tired than after performing the same test on my everyday keyboard.
To see what it’s like to game with the Cherry MX Ultra Low Profile switches, I loaded a saved game in Cyberpunk 2077 and immediately jumped into a firefight. Moving around with the mechanical keys felt great, but the gaming experience with the Alienware m17’s default, non-mechanical keyboard was also pretty good, so it’s a smaller step up than the typing experience. Gamers who prefer the rapid-fire feel of linear switches will probably not like the clicky feel here, but for me, it was fantastic.
The Alienware m15 and m17 are already fantastic laptops, thanks to their strong performance, attractive sci-fi inspired designs and gorgeous screen options. The default, non-mechanical keyboard option is snappy and tactile all by itself. However, using Cherry MX Ultra Low Profile switches really takes the everyday typing experience to the next level while also making the gaming feel a bit more responsive. If you’re already spending thousands of dollars on a high-end gaming laptop, the $147 premium to get the mechanical keyboard option is worthwhile as you’ll have no reason to attach an external keyboard, which could cost $100 to $150 on its own. Plus you'll also get better per-key RGB backlighting along with the better keys.
As a picky typist, I’d like to see some non-gaming laptops using the Cherry MX Ultra Low Profile switches. Alienware told me that, right now, it has an exclusivity window with Cherry, but that’s not going to last forever. I’d love to see other companies, including Dell itself, put this on lightweight consumer and business laptops you can use for productivity. Having this kind of key feel would automatically make any system a contender for the best ultrabooks list.