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First-Timers Guide to Mechanical Keyboards

· 10 min read

If you’re a first timer to mechanical keyboards, read on! This will help you choose the best keyboard for your needs, and help you understand some names of things.

Psst! If you’re familiar with mech keebs, but are a first timer to Keebio, and you want to know how to DIY your first keyboard, skip here.

Keyboard Anatomy

Before we talk shop about what parts of keyboards are left out of smaller kinds, take a look at the anatomy visual below.

Know your anatomy! It’s a biggie on understanding the kind of keyboard that’s best for you and your needs.

Keyboard Sizing

You’ll see a lot of percentages used to describe the size of a keyboard. A small list for you:

  • 100% = full keyboard This has your numpad (short for number pad), function row, arrow/navigation keys and alphas, naturally.
  • 75% = without numpad, but all the rest of the keys are scrunched together
  • 65% = no function row, numpad is absent, but the navigation cluster is smushed up to the right side.
  • 60% = Chop off the navigation cluster and arrows from the 65%, and this is what you have.
  • 40% = Very smol. This keyboard heavily relies on layers for its usability. There's more granular detail to sizing, but this is for starting and getting some basics under your belt.

This is not totally comprehensive, but I wanted to share with you the basics! I don’t want to fry your noggin with too much info! I’ll definitely get more in-depth into this in a later post. :)

Once you hit 40%, it's a good time to talk about your staggered versus ortholinear. Ah! What're those?! It's okay, we'll take it one step at a time.

In a staggered layout, your keyboard keys are in a zigzag arrangement from row to row. The letter "V" is placed between and below the letters F and G, for example.

Staggers are cool. Grids are cool too! It’s all about tinkering with what feels best for you.

Whereas on an ortholinear layout, the V is situated directly under letter F, and B is under letter G. Ortholinear designs rose up to say that human fingers are not entirely meant to move side to side, but rather up and down.

While on the other hand, if a keyboard has each of the columns catering to the different lengths of your fingers that is column stagger. The Keebio Iris (add the link here) is a great example of this.

The F and J key usually tell you on most keyboards where to rest your fingers. Here, the Iris helps your fingers find their places with the height.

Another development in keyboards came from the awkward wrist bend that can occur from a 40% keyboard. Let's talk split keyboards.

Switches

With so many switches under the lovely mechanical keyboard umbrella, I'll stick to covering a few here.

Sometimes tactile and clicky get combined into one magical switch! Or you can have one of each. Sometimes folks will put a different kind of switch for specific keys, like a modifier.

Switches can dictate how your keyboard feels to your hands and your wrists. Switches are linear, clicky, tactile, or a combination of clicky and tactile. For all kinds of switches, the grams of force needed to actuate (get the switch to send data to the computer) the switch can vary.

Keebio carries one of each kind most of the time. Always be checking our Status Trello page for what is current! Our in-house switch that we sell loose (that is, not attached to a pre-built keyboard) is the tactile Durock Shrimp switch.

Split Keyboards

The biggest reasons behind split keyboards are typing comfort and aesthetics. A spot for your cat to sit between your typing halves is a bonus. Typing comfort comes from allowing a natural distance between your hands. If your hands are scrunched together, you may be bending them awkwardly to make use of it.

This old keyboard I’ve been using for a while. It doesn’t do the best by my wrists, so I’m thinking of upgrading. I’m torn whether to build a Levinson or a Nyquist… Or both?

Many people take it as a granted that’s how keyboards just are, but consider: if you’re here, you are looking to expand your viewpoint on the world of typing. Spending so many hours daily typing, it is worth considering different ways to make it more comfortable and sustainable with less pain to be dogged by. (Because we all know doggies are great at making sad faces while you eat.)

Let your arms rest naturally at your sides. Ah. Feels nice, right? Your arms relaxed at your sides (but on your desk) is achievable with your keyboard setup. The common keyboard that comes with a computer doesn’t give you that relaxed distance. And that distance is one of the goals with a split keyboard: for your body to be in its natural position Tenting takes this concept even further, but we’ll get back to that.

By typing in a more natural position, you’re reducing strain on your shoulders and neck. The idea of not hunching over a keyboard can seem nice, yes? Read on for a few more pointers and one more way to make your split keyboard ergonomic and helpful to your daily workflow.

2.25u, 1u, so many u’s!

The small u that follows some numbers that you see is telling you the size of the keycap that will go over the switch. 1u is the smallest, and 7u or 8u are the biggest, depending on the keyboard you’re looking at. (Those big ones are usually saved for the spacebar, if you’re curious!)

When you’re thinking about a Quefrency, Sinc or KBO-5000, knowing what keycap sizes and controls you’d like on your bottom row will help you pick out your format.

Tiny parts?!

I won’t get into ALL of them here, but they do all have their unique purposes. Rotary encoders, through hole diodes, resistors, reset buttons… to name a few. You’ll see these more often with the DIY kits, but the great news is this: we have a robust documentation site built for you!

Sometimes the list of gear can get extensive! Never fear, for our documentation how-to-build-site is here!

Middle Layers… do what?

This is another strategy you can implement a more ergonomic setup for your keyboard. The pieces that get sandwiched in between the top plate and the bottom plate are the middle layer. Depending on the keyboard model, it can come with tenting holes, or just be the attractive piece that the RGB shines through.

The way light filters through these is a treat!

What’s up with tenting? Are we going camping?

Camping is cool. It’s also cool to reduce wrist strain, babyyyy! If you’ve ever been unable to move your wrist/hand you know what I mean.

There are easy steps you can take to reduce wrist strain. We talked of natural positioning for the body, right? By angling a keyboard so it is highest toward the center you’re bringing your wrists into a position that is more natural for them.

The tenting can help if you have wrist troubles or are looking to prevent them. While it is natural for the radius to pass over the ulna, the body still struggles to do so for the hours people tend to work at their computers and keyboards nowadays.

Depending on your stretches of time at a computer, it can be worth thinking about tenting as an option for you.

With your palm facing up, that position is supinated. :)

Coming close to neutral positioning could [help reduce existing wrist strain as well as prevent future pain.](https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/001401399185225)

The bones in the forearm are built to overlap. They are not built to overlap for the hours of typing that people currently do today. It is entirely possible to reduce that strain, and make your keyboard look mega cool.

Some vocabulary that might help you!

What is FR4?

It’s the material PCBs are made out of. And, incidentally, also makes cool plates to hold your PCB and switches.

What’s this 2u, 2.75u and 1u stuff all mean?

These are the sizes of the keycaps that will go on top of your switches. The size of the keycaps placed on top of the switches influences where they all sit, and how closely or far apart they sit.

What is tenting? How is tenting ergonomic?

Tenting angles your keyboard so that your hands position themselves more closely to their natural resting position. On a flat keyboard, your hands are facing downward. That means one bone in your forearm is twisted over the other. That can cause some pain for some folks. The tenting alleviates the twist by producing an angle for the natural resting position of the bones. Here is a video on Danny assembling the Iris with a middle layer that allows it to be tented.

Why do so many things have middle layers? Do I need one?

A middle layer can be functional, purely for aesthetics, or both. Many people like the middle layers for the look: the non-tented middle layers make the lights under the PCB opaque and softer. Others like the middle layer for the aforementioned reason as well as for tenting, as described above.

What is a macro section? Do I need one?

If you're looking for more details on macro stuff, here's a link for you: https://www.gomechanicalkeyboard.com/guides/what-are-keyboard-macros/

What on earth is NKRO?

N-key rollover. Not an instruction to give your pup, but this indicates how many inputs a keyboard can take until it no longer takes inputs.

Too many choices on keycaps! Am overwhelm.

The top things you need to know are that keycaps are made of primarily two different materials. ABS and PBT.

Keycaps from the top row of keys to the bottom row of keys may be shaped differently. Some are contoured to your fingers, and others are not. There's a fantastic page that goes in-depth on the profile chart you see below by u/gtderEvan to help you think about what you'd like in keycap profiles.

First Keebio Keyboard, eh?

Rock on! I'll talk about how Keebio boards are different from other shops and direct you to some resources. Ready? Steady... go!

Ergo Options

Danny, Keebio's founder, breaks a lot of barriers to bring people new models of keyboards. We primarily offer split keyboards but we still have some classy keyboards without splits. Emily has joined us and is doing some stunning work with Danny for our aluminum cases as well as PCB design! #goteam!

[image for splits, and image for non splits]

The primary ways to order keyboards from us is to 1) build your own DIY kit or 2) order a pre-built.

Build Your Own DIY Kit

Order a Pre-Built