As a human being of the digital era, it’s nigh impossible to not have heard of mechanical keyboards. They’re the other type of keyboard, the other one being membrane keyboards. So, you might be wondering what exactly is the difference between the two apart from their name? Or more importantly, which is better, mechanical keyboard vs membrane keyboard?
To help you answer that question, you need to understand what exactly is either type of keyboard.
Fundamentally, there is no “better” or “best” option. Each type has its own drawbacks and advantages– even the mechanical keyboards.
In fact, mechanical keyboards existed before membrane keyboards did. So, here’s a bit of a history lesson:
The most popular one back in the 1980s was the IBM Model M mechanical keyboard, which, along with manufacturers like Apple, invented and sold their mechanical keyboards. These had sturdy builds and offered a satisfying tactile bump and sharper feedback for every keystroke.
But of course, they were expensive to make. So IBM came up with an alternative and opted for the membrane keyboard switches. They were quieter, lighter, and of course, cheaper to produce.
The big difference was, membrane keyboards used rubber domes on a pad instead of metal springs and contacts in dozens of individual switches of mechanical keyboards, making the typing feel mushy or less responsive.
It wasn’t until the mid-2000s that mechanical keyboard designs started creeping back into the market. And now, they are as popular– perhaps more so than membrane keyboards once again.
This brings us back to the original question: mechanical keyboard vs membrane keyboard? Let’s weigh the pros and cons of each.
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Pros of Mechanical Keyboards
Mechanical keyboards have come a long way and have faced many improvements due to the ever-evolving market demand.
They are now more affordable than ever with lots of varying designs and engineering innovations. They’re like the Toyota of keyboards, marketed as something sturdy and will last indefinitely. Here’s where they excel.
Mechanical Keyboards Are More Sturdy, Durable, & Modular
That’s a general advantage. Mechanical keyboards rely on individual embedded switches on the circuit board for every key press. Each of these switches is rated for 50 to 100 million cycles or presses, depending on the brand of manufacturer.
If one of them breaks, you can always replace the problem switch with a new one and it will be good as new.
However, if something were to happen to the circuit board below, then the keyboard is done for good. Do note that this doesn’t usually happen since keyboard switches are more prone to breaking than circuit boards. They’re rare occurrences.
Being able to replace an individual switch or key in a mechanical keyboard is thus its biggest strength. It adds a layer of modularity to the keyboard. Speaking of which…
Mechanical Keyboards Offer a Dizzying Amount of Customization
You’ve probably seen some unique or novel designs around the internet. A lot of hobbyists have this tradition of customizing their mechanical keyboards based on their taste or preference.
Because it’s not just the individual switches that you can customize, but also the keycaps or the top-most plastic parts (usually) that come in contact with your fingers.
Due to the nature of the mechanical keyboard’s engineering, you can easily pull out the keycaps of an individual switch and replace them with something that has a different color, material, or brand.
Additionally, some mechanical keyboards allow for hotswap sockets, which allow the user to replace the switches. If you want something with heavier or lighter springs, or something quieter or more tactile, or maybe something smoother and less scratchy, then you can experiment with different switches. This allows for a tailored typing feel based on your preferences.
It’s hard to apply this modularity with membrane keyboards because of the rubber dome.
Cons of Mechanical Keyboards
Of course, it’s not all rainbows and butterflies for mechanical keyboards. They do have their bad qualities which led to their being dethroned by membrane keyboards back in the 1990s. Some of these qualities still remain.
Mechanical Keyboards Are More Expensive
All that sturdiness, modularity, and customizability don’t come cheap. The fact of the matter is, the cheapest mechanical keyboards are still more expensive than the cheapest membrane keyboards.
That’s just how it is. Mechanical keyboards are more expensive to manufacture. The circuit board has to be thicker and sturdier to accommodate the switches and the case also has to be of a certain degree of thickness whether for metal or plastic to protect the moving mechanical parts inside.
If you want a decent mechanical keyboard that leverages its advantages such as the hotswap sockets, metal build, and stylish design, you might need to spend upwards of $70 or more (usually more).
And if you want custom mechanical keyboards which are the best in the hobby, the typical entry-level expense is around $200 (keycaps and switches included); high-end custom models go as high as $400 or more. These offer the best appearance, typing feel, and sound.
There are cheap brands or models with some odd names (typically from mainland China); but sometimes those purchases are risky compared to established budget brands such as Royal Kludge, Keychron, Glorious, Redragon, etc.
Pros of Membrane Keyboards
The fact that these things dethroned mechanical keyboards in the 1990s is proof enough of their reliability, right? Well, membrane keyboards do have their own advantages.
Membrane Keyboards Are Cheaper
The main advantage of membrane keyboards compared to mechanical keyboards remains mostly the same today. They are easier to mass-produce and are lighter on the consumers’ wallets.
In fact, you can have a simple membrane keyboard that works for as little as $10. Don’t expect it to last more than a year, of course.
There are mid or higher-end models, thankfully, like these from Razer. Even so, they are still comparatively more affordable compared to higher-end mechanical keyboards; they’re also certainly more reasonably priced compared to crowdfunded custom mechanical keyboards in a third-party market.
Membrane Keyboards Are Simpler To Use
This is only an advantage for membrane keyboards if you find the mechanical keyboard hobby a bit intimidating. After all, the hobby expects you to tinker with your keyboard and try out modifications to change the typing acoustics and feel.
You don’t have to do any of that with membrane keyboards.
You can buy budget mechanical keyboards and have them work right out of the box, like membrane keyboards. But if you get curious and want to try out other keycaps or switches, you will need to research a bit.
Cons of Membrane Keyboards
Sadly, there are more cons to membrane keyboards than there are pros. The initial advantage of the membrane keyboard where it’s more silent and comes with a softer typing feel is now null; there are now mechanical keyboard switches that have light springs and are made to be quiet.
So here’s why you might want to avoid membrane keyboards.
Membrane Keyboards are Less Durable & Harder to Repair
The thing about the rubber dome switches of membrane keyboards is that they are all typically connected in a single rubber pad.
So if one key wears out, there goes the whole pad or keyboard. You’ll have to either replace the whole rubber dome pad. There might be some specific designs that allow you to replace the individual rubber domes or membranes, but keep in mind that opening a membrane keyboard is a lot riskier than opening a mechanical keyboard.
It’s also a well-known fact that rubber wears out faster than metal springs. Other parts that might wear out in a membrane keyboard would be the pressure plates under the rubber dome. If those break, the keyboard is as good as gone.
So what made the membrane keyboard so affordable in the first place is also its biggest drawback.
Membrane Keyboards Aren’t Customizable or Modular
Technically, you can take out the keycaps in a membrane keyboard but you usually can’t interchange them between other membrane keyboards.
Because membrane keyboards typically don’t have a standard keycap placement size, unlike the standard Cherry MX stem that’s prevalent in mechanical keyboard switches. Besides, taking off the keycaps has a chance of damaging the rubber domes.
Since you also can’t change the rubber domes, you also won’t be able to customize your typing feel or sound.
And since membrane keyboards allow for little to no customization in their switches and keycaps, manufacturers also don’t market them to hobbyists. That means their case designs are also consequently bland or simple unless it’s marketed for gamers.
Your Budget Is the Tie-breaker Here
All arguments lead to mechanical keyboards being the superior choice and based on technicality and design alone, they are better.
Still, there are other factors that affect your choice and the biggest one is how much you’re willing to spend on keyboards.
If you want something that will last and something you can turn into a hobby, then mechanical keyboards are ideal.
If you want something that works for typing without any regard for feel, sound, responsiveness, durability, or appearance, then membrane keyboards are the way to go.
Then again, you can always change your mind depending on your budget and how curious you are about the fuss. We hope that answers the question of mechanical keyboard vs membrane keyboard.