Mechanical and Membrane keyboards are considered the de-facto standards when thinking of keyboards in general. While both of them share the same exterior (in one way or the other), there are a lot of differences between their construction and use cases. Unlike popular thought, both mechanical keyboards and membrane keyboards have unique distinct advantages and disadvantages that separate them from one another.
We will explore each of these differences in this article to give you a better understanding of which one of them will be more suitable for you.
There are 2 layers of rubber membrane, connected to a circuit, and separated by a spacer membrane. The membranes have electrical connection points which are used to register presies.
Rubber Dome Membrane Keyboards:
In dome membrane keyboards, under each keycap, you will find a rubber bubble or dome, which is pushed against the bottom membrane to make an electrical connection with the circuit.
Pros of Membrane Keyboards:
- Noiseless operation
- More resistant to water spills
Cons of Membrane Keyboards:
- No feedback
- Components cannot be replaced
- No key rollover
- Short lifespan
Every key in a mechanical keyboard is placed over its own dedicated switch, which has 3 or 5 pins to connect to the PCB for the circuit to activate and register the keypress. Each switch has a stem and spring, and due to the spring, the keys bounce back to the natural state after pressing the key.
Pros of Mechanical Keyboards:
- Prominent feedback on keypress
- Replaceable components (switch, keycaps, and, stabilizers)
- Can be easily cleaned
- Durable and long-lasting
- Anti-ghosting and Key Rollover
- Ability to customize
- Feedback can be tuned using lubricants
Cons of Mechanical Keyboards:
- Heavier than membrane keyboards
Types of PCB
The mechanical keyboards broadly come in two types of PCB, one is the soldered one where the switches are directly soldered on the circuit board. On the other hand, there are hot-swappable keyboards, where PCB has sockets and the switches can be inserted in those sockets and also pulled out and replaced easily.
Types of Switches (Feedback):
The feedback offered by a mechanical keyboard largely depends upon the type of switch being used. There are three types of feedback that you can expect:
- Linear: No Feedback
- Tactile: A bumpy feedback on keypress
- Clicky: A click sound on keypress
There are different types of switches eg Red, Blue, Brown, Black, Blue, etc. offered by a variety of manufacturers (Cherry MX, Gateron, etc.).
Key differences between the membrane and mechanical keyboard:
1. Components and Working:
Most membrane keyboards consist of 3 important parts below the keys: the bottom membrane, spacer, and top membrane. It purely works on electrical connection, by default in the normal state, there are no electrical connections between the two membranes.
When a key is pressed, the top layer is pressed against the lower membrane to activate the circuit and register the keypress. There are conductive traces, on the top and bottom membranes, which help the system identify which key is pressed. In some keyboards, there are small rubber domes over the membrane, hence also known as rubber dome keyboards as well.
On the other hand, in a mechanical keyboard underneath the keycaps, you will find PCB, switches, and stabilizers. The switch consists of top and bottom housing, a spring coil, and pins at the bottom. When a key is pressed, the pins at the bottom of the switch make a connection to the keyboard circuit. In essence, as the name suggests, a mechanical keyboard operates on a more analog circuit while a membrane keyboard has lesser moving parts.
When a key is pressed the user must know that the keypress he just performed is successful, through a click sound or any other physical feel. This is known as keyboard feedback. Mechanical switches are known for giving feedback to users in terms of either a clicky sound or a tactile bump. Membrane keyboards don’t provide such type of feedback. Some of the rubber dome keyboards offer a slight tactile bump as feedback.
But, they aren’t nearly as noticeable as their mechanical counterparts.
Mechanical keyboards tend to a bit costlier to produce than their membrane brethren. However, you’ll often find tons of mechanical keyboards produced by shoddy brands that are cheaper than more reputable membrane brands. But, if we were to take a top-tier membrane keyboard and compare it with a mechanical one, we’ll always notice a huge price gap in favor of a membrane keyboard.
Due to metallic and plastic components, which are more durable than rubber, mechanical keyboards have a longer lifespan. Mechanical keyboards last easily for 8-10 years even after extensive use. Rubber components tend to wear out after a certain period of time, so even if you are not using it extensively the membrane keyboard will not be 100% functional even after a few years.
In membrane keyboards, customization of any sort is not possible. But on mechanical keyboards, you can use different types of switches as per your preference, and you can customize the feedback to some extinct by suitably lubricating the switches. However, this depends on whether you have a hot-swappable keyboard or one with a soldered PCB.
6. Accuracy and Precision
In membrane keyboards, all the keys are placed on the same membrane, so they are not individually placed but are part of a single layer, which can sometimes register an incorrect key press. Also, if you are typing too fast, then there are high chances that some of the keypresses are completely missed because the circuit can only handle a certain amount of presses.
With a mechanical keyboard, accuracy and speed remain at pristine levels since each switch is individually attached to the motherboard. Plus, with features like N-Key rollover, you can press multiple keys in the same second and still expect your keyboard to be able to register them all with precision. This is why most critical sectors where each keypress is of paramount importance resort to mechanical input methodologies.
There are a number of reasons why a mechanical keyboard is faster than membrane keyboards. Firstly, due to high accuracy users can type to the best of their capability in terms of speed. In a mechanical keyboard, there are springs in the switch which return the key to its natural state after the keypress is registered, due to which users will be able to use it faster.
In some switches, the keypress is registered only halfway down, so users don’t have to press it to the bottom. And, finally due to the feedback mechanism users can identify if the keypress is successful, and hence they can move their fingers to the next set of keys.
|Based on rubber membrane design with electrical tracing||Based on a mechanism where electrical pins makes the connection|
|Keys to be pressed till the bottom||Keys are registered halfway down|
|No feedback, due to soft touch||Gives feedback (clicky or bumpy)|
|Irreplaceable components||Components can be replaced|
|Good for normal office and study usage||Good for fast typing and gaming|
What are hybrid-keyboards or mecha-membrane keyboards?
There are various types of hybrid keyboards where the components of the two types of keyboards are mixed and matched to produce keyboards. A largely popular structure of a mecha-mechanical keyboard replaces the spring coil of the switch with the rubber dome, which makes the keypress softer. This, in most cases, leads to a more linear feeling keyboard that still has the build quality and reliability of a mechanical keyboard.
Why are mechanical keyboards more accurate and precise than membrane keyboards?
There are a couple of reasons behind the accuracy of mechanical keyboards, described as follows:
- Design and mechanism: Unlike a membrane keyboard where are the keys are placed on the same membrane, in a mechanical keyboard every switch is placed on its own. Hence, each keypress is registered separately, and you can press a number of keys together.
- Anti-ghosting and N-key rollover: Due to their design, they can identify each keypress distinctly, and hence there are fewer chances of registering accurate keypresses, and one keypress doesn’t overlap with any previous keypress.
- Due to the spring coil design, the keys come back to their natural state very quickly.
Which one should you use? (conclusion)
It is actually about preference, but usually, a membrane keyboard is highly popular in offices, firstly due to their cost, and they are sufficient for normal office usage.
For gamers, typists, and data entry professionals it is recommended to use mechanical keyboards, as they need to use the keys faster due to the nature of their work, and honestly for someone who switched from membrane keyboard to mechanical keyboard – I’m not going back, it’s more fun, the sounds, the customization options, etc. I might be biased on this, but overall I think it’s more enjoyable to type on a mechanical keyboard.
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I work from home. To do the best possible job I need the right accessories - the right desk, the right chair, the right keyboard, the right monitor, etc. When I work I want to feel comfortable. I review everything that's related to home desk setup - focusing on Monitors & Keyboards.