I’m a mechanical keyboard fan. Mechanical keyboards have gone in and out of fashion, but I kept using them regardless. I only see one drawback with them: the cost. So what does a mechanical keyboard cost? And why are mechanical keyboards so expensive?
A mechanical keyboard costs 10 or even 20 times as much as a cheap membrane keyboard, so the price can be off-putting. The reason is because mechanical keyboards have many more parts, and they are more labor intensive to make. The cost is easier to justify if you use it a lot, but the price does make it feel like a commitment.
How much does a mechanical keyboard cost?
You can get a cheap mechanical keyboard for around $30 or $40. I got one, and was surprised by how good it was. It wasn’t quite as quiet as I needed, but my wife uses it. I replaced it with a quieter, but more expensive model. You can easily spend $70, $100, or even $200 on a mechanical keyboard depending on the features you want.
The last time I was at Micro Center, I found a keyboard for three bucks. Three lousy bucks. It wasn’t very good, but it was three bucks. I’m skeptical of any keyboard that costs less than $10, but still, for $10 you can get a respectable membrane keyboard, which makes the $30 mechanical keyboards seem a bit extravagant, perhaps.
IBM used to ship all of its computers, or at least all of its business PCs, with mechanical keyboards. By using membrane keyboards, IBM’s competitors could undercut IBM’s price by $100 or more easily, without changing anything else.
Yikes! Why are mechanical keyboards so expensive?
A lot more goes into manufacturing mechanical keyboards than the cheap membrane keyboards we’re so used to. Cost was one of the reasons mechanical keyboards fell out of fashion in the first place. When you pay $2,000 for a PC like we did in the early 90s, there’s room in the cost for a luxurious keyboard. But at the $300 price point? Not so much.
Inside a membrane keyboard
When you open up a membrane keyboard, there are essentially six parts inside. There’s a board with a microcontroller and a USB connector to generate the signals your computer expects. There’s an upper and a lower shell. There’s an assembly with keys on it. There’s a big rubber membrane thing with conductive pads on it, and a printed circuit board with a bunch of traces on it. When you press a key, the keyboard engages the membrane and bridges a pair of traces on the board. None of these parts is especially expensive. They cut some corners to get the price down to three bucks, but if you use cheap enough materials, you can get there.
Inside a mechanical keyboard
Mechanical keyboards are different. They don’t have a big rubber membrane pad. Instead, each key has its own individual switch with a spring and contacts in it. Each switch requires multiple solder connections. The switches retail for about a dollar apiece when you go to buy one yourself. The wholesale price will be much lower, but even at 10 cents apiece, you’re looking at $10.40 worth of materials just for the switches to go into a 104-key keyboard. The keys themselves have to be printed and molded to fit on the switches’ stems. You’re probably looking at another $10 worth of materials there. Then someone has to mount and solder all those switches to the circuit board, so there’s some labor involved, and we’re not talking the 30 seconds it might take to snap together a membrane keyboard.
The only way it’s possible to sell mechanical keyboards for $30 is by using off-brand switches and cutting down the key count, to reduce the number of switches and keys they have to use. The large number of relatively expensive parts is why mechanical keyboards are so expensive compared to membrane keyboards.
Why use one, then?
Mechanical keyboards are much smoother to type on. It’s easier to tell when you actually hit the key, and it’s possible for a skilled typist to type faster on a mechanical keyboard than a mushy membrane keyboard. When you ask people who worked with me 5 or 10 years ago what they remember about me, most will say I type fast. Even cheap mechanical keyboards feel nicer than most membrane keyboards. They last longer too.
I’m picky about my keyboards because I notice a difference. I can type 10 percent faster, or more, on a decent mechanical keyboard. I’m OK on a $10 keyboard and I make way too many mistakes on a cheaper board.
Mechanical keyboards fell out of fashion in the late 90s and have only recently started to come back. I continued to use them, even though for about two decades they were about as cool as disco balls and leisure suits.