There’s no better feeling for the enthusiast than hitting your favorite keyboard switch. In the mechanical vs. membrane battle, the aficionado is almost guaranteed to choose a mechanical keyboard, but why is that? Let’s examine the reasons fanatics choose switches over silicone.
Mechanical vs. Membrane Keyboard: Side-by-Side Comparison
|Keystroke Technology||Full-travel, dome, scissor-switch, chiclet, capacitative||Switches|
|Feel||Soft, Mushy||Tactile, Smooth|
|Actuation Force||180–600 grams||45–85 grams|
|Durability||5–10 million keystrokes||20+ million keystrokes|
Mechanical vs. Membrane Keyboard: What’s the Difference?
There are many differences between mechanical and membrane keyboards. The actuation force and durability are two of the most stark contrasts. However, they also differ in feel, sound, customizability, and technology. Let’s examine the characteristics that distinguish these two keyboard types.
These keyboard types differ on the base level of technological design. Mechanical keyboards use a matrix of switches, while membrane keyboards use an elastic membrane. However, understanding the differences requires knowledge of the basic design of a keyboard.
Keyboards use a matrix of circuits on a printed circuit board (PCB) to determine which keys are pressed. The circuits on the PCB are incomplete, and when you press the keys, the keystroke completes them. This completion sends a signal to the computer to tell it what button was pressed and registers the associated digital action.
Several types of membrane keyboards exist. The most common type is a full travel keyboard. However, dome, scissor-switch, chiclet, and capacitive keyboards also use membranes. Let’s look at the various types of membrane technologies.
Full Travel Membrane
Full travel membrane keyboards are the most popular type by far. Keys act as a plunger, pushing the silicone layer down to the bottom level of the PCB and closing the circuit. A combination of a spring under the switch and the elastic sheet will push the key back up when the pressure is released.
Rubber/ Metal Dome
Dome keyboards marry the mechanical switch matrix and the rubber membrane. They feature rubber or metal domes underneath the keys, treated with conductive traces that close the switch when the roof is depressed. When the key is released, the arch is stiff enough to return to its original shape.
Scissor switches are another combination of mechanical and membrane components. They use rubber domes and plastic scissor mechanisms, connecting the keycap to a plunger. The plunger depresses the rubber dome and actuates the switch.
Scissor switches have lower travel distances of 1–2.5 millimeters, making them popular amongst people who need a light keyboard that can actuate with less force than a typical membrane.
- Utilizes Bluetooth 3.0 technology
- Durable and resistant to scratches
- Can be used with devices running iOS 13.0 or Android 10.0 version or above
Chiclet keyboards are a popular choice because of their sleek design. They have two actuation methods. The first type of chiclet keyboard uses keys with a rubber coating that collapses and presses the membrane’s top layer against the bottom layer. The second type uses keys coated with a conductive material that completes the matrix’s circuit when depressed.
Capacitative keyboards require no force to actuate. They activate when the PCB detects the presence of a finger using the minor electric charge that humans carry in their skin. There are two types: PCB and film.
PCB keyboards use touch buttons on a circuit card that measure the energy of a capacitor. Film types use a conductive ink layer that touches a ribbon connected to the electronics.
Mechanical keyboards use a switch matrix. The button has a spring inside it. So, when you press the key, it depresses the spring into the PCB and connects the circuit, actuating a keystroke. Since it uses a physical mechanism to activate the keypresses, we refer to the keyboard technology as “mechanical.”
Different types of mechanical switches exist and provide distinctive tactile feedback. The three main types are clicky, tactile, and linear. Clicky switches produce a loud noise when activated. Tactile types have a tactile bump in the chamber to signify a keypress. Linear buttons provide no tactile feedback; they are silent and have no bump.
The feel of your keyboard depends on the technology used to actuate the keys. Various membrane technologies feel different to use, but they are generally softer than mechanical switches. However, mechanical switches have a lower actuation force than keyboards with a silicone or rubber layer. So, you can tap the keys lightly and still get the keypress, which makes them feel very agile.
Chiclet keyboards are the most controversial regarding feel. Many people find that they feel squishy and gross, but others swear by them. Some typists prefer chiclet technology because of the short travel distance between the keys. Others find that the wide space between the chiclet keys forces them to overstretch their fingers when using them.
Membrane keyboards tend to be quiet. The rubber layer suppresses much of the sound that would be made by the keys depressing. Based on the type, mechanical switches differ in sound. Naturally, clicky switches are very loud, while linear ones tend to be silent unless you bottom out the keys regularly.
The biggest draw of membrane keyboards is how affordable they are. Full travel keyboards are especially affordable, with prices dropping as low as $10–12. Mechanical keyboards tend to be on the more expensive side.
Even lower-end mechanical keyboards start in the $25–30 range. Additionally, if you want to have any say over the build or switch type, you’ll be looking at a starting price of around $60. Higher-end mechanical keyboards, such as the ever-popular Ducky keyboards, start at around $100.
One of the primary factors that makes mechanical keyboards so popular is their low actuation force. Actuation force is the pressure needed to get the key to register a keypress. It’s measured in grams or centi-Newtons.
The average membrane keyboard’s actuation force starts at about 180 grams and can go as high as 600 grams. Conversely, on average, a mechanical keyboard needs approximately 45–85 grams of force to activate the keys.
Actuation force can be a crucial factor for people with disabilities such as arthritis, carpal tunnel syndrome, and Ehlers-Danlos syndrome, which can affect the use of the hands and fingers. A lower activation force means less stress is applied to the fingers when using the keyboard and can help alleviate some of the pain that might be caused by typing.
It can also be an essential factor for people who work jobs that require them to type more than average. Typists, transcriptionists, and writers may find that their jobs put excessive stress on their fingers that can be remedied with a keyboard with a low actuation force.
Another significant factor for mechanical keyboards is how customizable they are. Membrane keyboards attach the keycaps to the membrane; you can’t remove them. However, switches allow you to remove the keycaps at will and replace them with new ones.
Additionally, the advent of hot-swapping in keyboards means that you can pull the switches off your PCB and replace them with alternate types of switches on the fly. If your keyboard’s switches are soldered to the circuit board, you’ll need more knowledge to remove and replace them.
However, a hot-swappable keyboard lets you pull the switches off the matrix with a switch puller and slot new ones without tools. Most soldered mechanical keyboards also allow you to select the type of switches you want installed on the PCB. This customizability can be crucial for people who wish to tailor their typing experience to their needs and preferences.
Keyboard durability is measured in the projected number of keystrokes before the key starts to degrade. Mechanical switches typically begin at a low point of 20 million keypresses and go as high as 100 million keystrokes. Average mechanical keyboards rate their switches at around 50 million presses.
Membrane keyboards have varying ratings, depending on the type of keyboard. Most have a durability of about 5 million keystrokes, while scissor switches tend towards 10 million keypresses.
On average, most mechanical keyboards last about ten times longer than a membrane and nearly five times longer than a scissor-switch type.
Membrane keyboards are made to be cheap and accessible. Thus, the materials used in the builds are “not the best,” affecting many factors, from the durability to the feel. Lower-quality materials break more easily and tend not to feel as good during use.
Mechanical keyboards are more expensive on average because they’re made with better stuff and have more components that need to be constructed and assembled. The high-quality materials used make them more durable. Additionally, they tend to feel better in use because of the build quality.
If you like to work on the go, a membrane keyboard is probably the best choice for you. They are generally lighter and smaller than mechanical keyboards. They have fewer parts overall, making it easier to fit the necessary components into a sleek and slim, even foldable form factor.
You can’t fold a switch matrix, and there are many moving parts that make up a mechanical keyboard that can’t be reduced as easily as a membrane. Thus, they tend to be bulkier. So, traveling with them is much harder.
Ghosting is when you press a key, but the keyboard doesn’t send a signal to the computer. So, the key command doesn’t occur. Ghosting is typically a technical limitation of the keyboard itself rather than a software or firmware issue.
Membrane keyboards are particularly susceptible to ghosting, especially when the user presses multiple keys simultaneously. For gamers, the ghosting issue is a dealbreaker. However, even casual users, especially typists, may experience issues with ghosting when trying to perform hotkey commands or even typing.
Mechanical vs. Membrane Keyboard: 6 Must-Know Facts
- There are five types of membrane keyboards and three types of mechanical keyboard switches.
- Mechanical switches have a lower actuation force than membrane keyboards.
- Mechanical switches are four to twenty times more durable than membrane keyboards.
- Membrane keyboards are more affordable, with some being as cheap as $10.
- Hot-swappable keyboards let you change the switches on the fly without any extra tools.
- You can change the keycaps on a mechanical keyboard.
Mechanical vs. Membrane Keyboard: Which One Is Better?
As a veteran keyboard enthusiast, I always choose a mechanical over a membrane keyboard. I did try one rubber dome type recently, and after a few articles, my fingers felt like they would fall off. I have many big feelings and opinions about keyboards and can often be found proselytizing the wonders of Cherry MX Red switches to anyone who will listen. Let’s examine why.
I have two keyboards, one for gaming and one for work. My gaming keyboard has Razer Green switches, which have an actuation force of 51 grams, and my work one has Cherry MX Red switches, which activate at just 45 grams.
While the Razer switches are heavier than the Cherry ones, they’re light switches. I have hypermobility spectrum disorder, and my fingers tend to hurt if I put excessive stress on them. So, I immediately notice when a keyboard’s actuation force is too high for me.
Every membrane keyboard I’ve used had an actuation force that was too high for my fingers. Switching to mechanical made it possible for me to engage with my hobbies again. Additionally, I’m a writer. I spend hours and hours a day typing. So, a low actuation force means less stress on my fingers while doing my job and lowers my risk of developing arthritis or carpal tunnel syndrome.
I love customizing my keyboards. Picking out switches and buying new keycaps are the highlights of my shopping experience. I keep both a switch and keycap puller in the drawers on my desk organizer. I even know how to remove and replace buttons on a PCB with a soldering iron.
Being able to choose features for my keyboard that tailor it to the exact experience I want to have is essential to me. Perhaps that’s because I’m used to being able to do so. So, not being able to customize the keyboard is unusual for me. However, it’s also just a nice thing to have. The ability to choose how you interact with your keyboard makes it feel more personal.
A durable keyboard is a must for any typist or gamer, and I’m both a typist and a gamer. Additionally, I hit my keys hard. When I used cheaper membrane keyboards, I went through a keyboard weekly; I demolished them. I’ve only had two gaming keyboards since I switched to mechanical and one for typing.
Further, I replaced the keyboard I had to replace for gaming because I spilled wine on it. It still worked, but the keys were sticky because it was a sugary dessert wine. The switches hadn’t degraded yet; I couldn’t handle the consequences of drinking at my computer.
I also spilled soup on my work keyboard, and it still works. The soup or the wine would have instantly mutilated any membrane type. They couldn’t even handle my typing or gaming habits, let alone liquids.
This one is more of a personal preference, but it’s a rather popular opinion. I love clicky keyboards. The sound they make is so satisfying to me. My gaming keyboard has clicky switches. Pressing them is so fun, and it adds to the experience of playing games, in my experience.
My work keyboard has linear switches that are mostly silent. I say “mostly” because I hit the keys with the force of a supernova, and the keycaps hit the backplate and make a sound, but the mechanisms are silent! However, with that one, I prioritized a lower actuation force over a satisfying sound. So, I still got both what I paid for and the experience I desired.
Let’s take a listen to the sound of each type of keyboard.
This is another personal preference, but I hate the feeling of membrane keyboards. Pressing the keys into the rubber layer feels like pressing my fingers into some alien goo. Some people claim they feel “soft,” but I find it mushy and weird.
Mechanical keyboards are also more responsive than membrane types. Keypresses take less force and still come through, and the switches feel lovely under your fingers. Additionally, the whole unit is made with higher-quality materials, which naturally improve the keyboard’s feel.
Mechanical keyboards perform better than membrane keyboards on every metric. They are more responsive, more comfortable, more accurate, and less susceptible to ghosting.
This better performance is one of the driving reasons that gamers everywhere tend to switch to mechanical keyboards. Better performance is also excellent for typists who may find that their jobs become significantly easier when they switch to mechanical keyboards.
The image featured at the top of this post is ©Om.Nom.Nom/Shutterstock.com.