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Reflections on Mechanical Keyboards in the Time of Covid-19

Why building the perfect keyboard for someone can be an act of love

Mechanical keyboard with rainbow backlighting.
Photo: Sunchai Borahem/EyeEm/Getty Images

As a writer — both aspirational and professional — one of the first things you learn is to use whatever tool is available. No electricity? Pick up a pen and paper. It needs to be sent via email? Fire up Microsoft Word and start typing. Having said that, writers have a favorite tool. Many novelists swear by Scrivener. Tom Hanks has a collection of typewriters. A couple of friends obsess over fountain pens and various inks. We all need a hobby, and sometimes the lie we tell ourselves is that this tool will be useful for our profession so it’s perfectly fine if we indulge in it. (It’s also perfectly fine to indulge in it even if it’s not practical!) Mine became mechanical keyboards — keyboards that use individual switches (as opposed to membrane keyboards) and are highly customizable.

My first experience with a mechanical keyboard was in 2016 when my previous employer ceased operations and I was compensated with separation pay. It was an indulgence back then at P5,000.00 ($100.00) due to a lack of retailers carrying cheaper alternatives — at least to my meager knowledge at the time. I wondered whether mechanical keyboards were all marketing hype or if there was something substantial to them, and the only way to find out for myself was to bite the bullet and buy one. This became my advice to people who asked (no one ever asks) about computers: First, if you haven’t already done so, invest in a good solid state drive (SSD). If you’re going from a hard disk drive (HDD), the difference is night and day. My second piece of advice is to get a mechanical keyboard — at least if you’re a touch typist. Typing — and by extension, writing — has never been as luxurious. (I would also now add a third to that list, which is to invest in a good ergonomic office chair.)

We all need a hobby, and sometimes the lie we tell ourselves is that this tool will be useful for our profession so it’s perfectly fine if we indulge in it.

If I bought a mechanical keyboard back in 2016, why am I only talking about it now? Back then, I had purchased a pre-built mechanical keyboard, used it, and didn’t give it a second thought. It was working for me, so why mess with what works?

An Akko 3087 SP Ocean Star mechanical keyboard, a pre-built keyboard with Cherry MX Brown switches

However, Covid-19 changed most people’s lives. I don’t blame 2020: The tragedies and violations of human dignity that occurred in 2020 are merely the culmination of decisions and compromised values we, as a whole, made back in 2016. The proliferation of Covid-19 is just one of many debtors who have resurfaced and come to collect. Still, I have to live in 2020 and when not fighting to survive, we need to keep depression at bay. The USPS killed my postcards to my friends in the United States, so I needed a new hobby.

Why mechanical keyboards? I attempted to write a 2,000-word essay on the subject but that ended up like a poor imitation of Ben Frain’s “A Complete Guide to Mechanical Keyboards.” Instead, let me quote the inimitable Amal El-Mohtar, who describes it so succinctly:

“[It] [m]akes me realize how often I’ve sort of customized myself to my keyboard instead of the other way round!”

Go buy all of her books, although The Honey Month seems to be the most apt in this instance.

If you’re willing to do the research (and you have the expenses that go along with it), mechanical keyboards can be customized to fit your specific needs. One day, I was typing on my keyboard and thought, the keys are heavy and loud. Is there something a bit lighter? Something that rattles less? And when I found the solution to those problems, I opened myself to other possibilities. Why stop there? Aren’t there other keyboard-related problems that I can fix? My keyboard was too wide to be a good ergonomic fit for me. Was there an alternative? (Hello 65% keyboards.) Black keyboards look too impersonal. Is there a way of expressing my tastes visually? (Keycaps are an art.) And the list goes on.

A TKL keyboard and a 65% keyboard

The other joy I discovered is building a keyboard for someone else. I’m the foremost expert on things I like the most, so building the perfect keyboard for myself is a matter of patience and deep pockets. And while monotonous, there’s a sense of satisfaction as you pull out keycaps and switches and replace them with brand-new ones while listening to podcasts. But the real challenge, I think, is building a keyboard for a friend.

Some of us might reminisce about creating mixtapes for our crushes: picking the right selection of songs, hitting the pause/play button at just the perfect moment, debating which song to end Side A, and so on. Building a keyboard for someone elicits similar emotions — especially the hours you spend on the project — but if mixtapes are about the overlap between your taste and theirs (or rather, our fervent wish that our tastes are in sync), keyboards are all about the other person. I personally prefer Gateron Browns, but maybe Cherry MX Blues is a better fit for them? I appreciate neutral colors but it seems like they’ll enjoy brighter colors more? I’m fond of 65% but maybe a TKL is more suitable for their office work? It’s an exercise on how well you know the other person (or a good opportunity to know them better without intruding on their personal life) and sometimes, they’ll surprise you, or you might get a detail or two wrong. But that’s always the risk when gift-giving — and makes the moments you get it perfect all the more valuable.

Taking apart a keyboard by pulling out the keycaps

And then there are those rare, kindred souls whom you know will appreciate building the keyboard themselves more than receiving one you made, so you give them the components they need and let them experiment.

One alternative is that sometimes, we decide to build keyboards for someone we haven’t met yet. Maybe this person is someone we wish we could meet someday. Or it could be one of our many personas, a keyboard we wish someone would give us. These choices aren’t arbitrary, although we may not know it at the time. We lump it under the category of “experimentation” or justify it as a learning experience.

Mechanical keyboards are not only my hobby, they are a reminder that we should care for people — sometimes that happens to be us (self-care is important!) and at other times, it’s someone important to us. It might not be the most frugal option while Covid-19 is rampant, but people cope in their own personal way.

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Charles Tan

Charles Tan

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A Bibliophile Stalker. Wicked, Foolish, Evil. Adores you. Hates everyone else. Mean and angry in real life.