Thursday, February 1, 2024

How to Choose and Customize a Mechanical Keyboard

Henri Robbins (Hacker News):

Linear switches have straight “legs” on the sliders that allow for a smooth and consistent key press. Because of this, they have no bump and will be faster to type on, but they won’t have a physical indicator to tell you when the key has been pressed.

Tactile switches have small bumps on their legs that create an increase in resistance right before the switch is actuated, resulting in a “tactile bump.” While this can make typing more precise, it also means your typing experience may be less smooth, and rapid inputs will have more delay between them, since you’ll have to completely remove your finger from the key.

Clicky switches are not as common as linear or tactile switches. They use a multipiece mechanism to create tactility instead of a bump, such as a click jacket, click bar, or click leaf; these switches are characterized by a strong bump and a distinct “click” sound when typing. Functionally, clickies have the same benefits and downsides of a tactile switch, to a slightly stronger degree.

MX-style switches, which have a cross-shaped stem and two metal pins on the bottom, were originally patented by Cherry, and the patent has since expired, leading to multiple different manufacturers making their variations of these switches.


Typically, wired keyboards will be compatible with both MacOS and Windows, and any programmable keyboards using QMK, VIA, or VIAL can be reprogrammed to work with either operating system.

I recently tried the NuPhy Air75 V2 (Amazon) with Gateron Cowberry switches. These are low-profile but still have a lot more travel, noise, clickiness than Apple’s current keyboards. (I can no longer read the official description of them because it appears they’re no longer available. Link fixed.) Though I like the feel of the keyboard, I unfortunately cannot recommend it because of a variety of problems. The F# keys only work as media keys, no matter how you configure System Settings. NuPhy support confirmed that macOS cannot use them for custom keyboard shortcuts. The fn key doesn’t work for standalone taps (e.g. to enable dictation) or combined with another key (e.g. the built-in fn-E shortcut for opening the emoji picker). There is no firmware updater for Mac. I also found that the keyboard made my Magic Mouse less smooth and sometimes disconnect from Bluetooth.


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The NuPhy Air 75 V2 (w Moss tactile switches) has been working great for me.

Using the VIA web app in Chromium I swapped the F-key mapping to make all the F-keys work as F-keys, while Fn + F-keys do the media stuff.

It's true that Fn- key combos (such as dictation and language swap) don't work, but I don't particularly need any of them.

The NuPhy V2 products include a 2.4GHz USB-A dongle (as well as significantly better battery life than v1) - I'm using this instead of bluetooth, but I didn't notice any bluetooth issues on a MBA M2 w/latest Sonoma when using the NuPhy v2 in bluetooth mode.

There IS a Mac firmware updater on the V2 NuPhy firmware page -

@Ed Good to know that you can do it with VIA, thanks. I’m not sure why support told me that remapping them wasn’t possible with Macs. I now see that there is a separate firmware page for V2. I think I was confused because it said QMK rather than NuPhy.

In addition sometimes I need to load the json kbd definition into the VIA web app in order to be able to connect and recognize the keyboard. In VIA web app settings -> enable design tab, then in the design tab click to load a json file, available, then the kbd is recognized and can connect to the app (usb cable required, rear kbd switch set to cable).

Firmware updates wipe/reset any custom layout, so before doing a firmware update need to back up (save) the current custom layout in the VIA web app, and after firmware update need to load the backed up file.

I'm using a Keychron C1 with Gateron Blues and I love it.

Can confirm, the V2 of the Nuphy is much better. Using it daily on bluetooth with no issues at all. The new Via/Qmk stuff is great. Overall, a much better product than V1 (which I also couldn't recommend, but now can).

> rapid inputs will have more delay between them, since you’ll have to completely remove your finger from the key.

Wut? No you don't, for tactiles. For clickies with droppers you might to get another click, but not to get another actuation. That said, I prefer linears for gaming, tactiles for working, and clickies to make coworkers mad. ;) My favorite tactile MX is the Gazzew Boba U4 (silent), favorite tactile Choc the Sunset.

A programmable keyboard is life changing. Personally I'd recommend not picking one with the typewriter era row stagger, but a much more ergonomic split keyboard with column stagger, and crucially: thumb keys. Easy to get options are ZSA keyboards, such as ErgoDox, Moonlander or Voyager. A little cheaper might be to build your own, there's tons of options such as the Lily 58 or Sofle. In the ultimate class for me are 3D sculpted ones, such as BastardKB Charybdis, MoErgo Glove80 or Kinesis Advantage 360 non-Pro.

They are all expensive, but as software engineer I type for a living and don't want RSI.

PS: to find the perfect switch for you, I recently discovered

They have a quiz about your preferences, with audio samples, and provide a selection of switches to match your selection. If you're in the US, you can rent a selection of switch testers, because nothing beats a hands-on (literally) experience.

Since I'm outside the US, I opted to buy 11 tactile switch testers (and friends of mine ordered a total of 17 linear ones), and it was very interesting. My favorites are listed in the previous post, but my experience/preference might not match yours.

If there are only limited options for the keyboard you like, I'd recommend starting with a light tactile, such as Cherry/Gateron/Kailh/Choc… Brown. IMO that's a decent middle-ground switch, only slightly tactile, shouldn't offend either linear or tactile enjoyers much. I would however mod them with thick O-rings, to make them quieter (so it's closer to a silent tactile).

Over time one might develop stronger preferences in one or the other direction. Like mentioned in the previous comment, my preference is use case dependent. Only clickies I no longer like, despite my first ErgoDox having been one with Cherry Blues.

But to reiterate, your main input to the computer is the keyboard. The main output is the display. Don't skim on either of those, especially if you make a living using a computer. The first programmable keyboard I ever used, a Kinesis Advantage 1, changed my life in 2008, by making working so much more comfortable.

Here are a few excellent Youtube channels with videos about ergonomic mechanical keyboards that I would recommend: Code to the Moon, If Coding Were Natural, Green Tea Coding, Ben Frain, Ben Vallack

Vlad Ghitulescu

I'm using for the last two years the [Ultimate Hacking Keyboard V2][1] (UHK) with clicky Box White key switches and plain ANSI layout.

The hardware quality is exceptional!

I'm using it 8 - 14 hours daily and it's an ergonomic wonder through

- split design
- the modules (I'm using [the key cluster module][2] and [the trackpad module][3], so no extra pointing device for me)
- [the wooden palm rest][4]
- [the Riser (for even more tenting)][5]

I've made extensive use of the programming capabilities of the UHK through its ["*Agent*", the UHK configurator][6]. It lets you configure 12 layers per keymap, macros, shortcuts - even mouse keys.
At times I had to use a PC for work and I configured the UHK so that I could press all the keys that are normally different on Mac and PC on the same keys on the UHK.
In the IDE I'm working I've configured the most macros I need in one of the 12 layers so that I can use them without extra stretching my hands.

And since I'm blind typing I use a plain layout - that's one more security layer for everybody trying to type something on my UHK! :-D


@Ed NuPhy tells me that the latest firmware is 1.0.7 RF and that it can only be applied via iOS or Android. The MCU 1.1.3 can be applied via macOS, though I saw a report of it causing Bluetooth problems.

I also have a UHK, although I have the v1 kickstarter version. There's a lot I like about it, but I really hope they make a 75% version at some point. I'm much more clumsy with the arrow keys on an alternate layer, and the weird chords you have to type to get at them can get confusing.

Ah, mechanical switches! This is a subject I've enjoyed for a long while now and can talk about for longer than most would consider reasonable. I started out with clicky switches, trying out the old buckling spring style and eventually springing for (pun not intended but intentionally left in) getting a keyboard with cherry blue switches. But soon I realized that they would drive my housemates insane with the noise, even with my office door closed, so then began looking for switches that were still nice and tactile and therefore good for typing, but not so loud. I bought a keyboard with cherry brown switches, but found them to be too squishy and not tactile enough for me, so I ended up returning it.

Then in 2019 I bought a switch "sampler" which was basically a 5x5 grid of key switches where I got to pick which each one was. Not only did it give me a fun tactile desk toy, but I got to try out a bunch of different switches before committing to one. I ended up going for Zilent v2 switches (the lower 62g actuation pressure ones) and I love it. They're very tactile and comfortable to type with, but not all that loud, which is ideal for me.

Though now I wonder if there are any newer models of switches that have come out in the last five years. I'll have to check out that link from bOli and see what there is! Being able to try out the switches ahead of time is so key.

I also still have a couple of old Apple Extended II keyboards with an ADB to USB adapter that I use every now and then too.

This is where I stop in to recommend my Ultimate Hacking Keyboard. Programmable on Mac, Linux and Windows, with hot-swappable keys, backlight, and it can be a split keyboard if you want. The MOD layer means I never have to move my hands to use the arrow keys, and the optional mouse and key cluster modules mean I never have to move my hands to use the mouse either. I can stay on home row the whole day.

I love the Kaihl Box Jade switches because they are clicky and tactile in the same was as the old IBM Model M keyboard. Kaihl Box White are also super good and not quite as hard to press or quite as loud when they click.

I also have an article where I talk about Linear switches.

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