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Buying a new keyboard? Why the right key switch matters for your health and productivity

Do you favor linear, tactile, or clicky? And what's your ideal g-force? If you don't know the answers, read this before shopping for your next mechanical keyboard.
Written by Jack Wallen, Contributing Writer
Ultimate Hacking Keyboard

The last time you purchased a keyboard was probably many years ago -- and you probably didn't put much thought into it.

Unless you're a writer. Or a programmer.

You probably just grabbed whatever was the cheapest. Or, maybe you're a Mac user and you purchased one of the basic, but functional, Apple keyboards.

Also: The best keyboards: Our top pick integrates a helpful ChatGPT shortcut

Well, you're doing yourself a disservice. Allow me to explain.

I've been using an Ultimate Hacking Keyboard for about a decade. Back when I received the first version, it came with very loud, tactile keys that required 45 g-force to press. Key switches are labeled in either centinewton (cN) or g-force (gf), which indicates the actuation force (or effort) required to activate the switch. The higher the gf, the harder the keys are to press.

Some people prefer a "clicky" key with a higher gf. It's a very personal thing. However, after using a "clicky" switch (red linear) on my UKH for nearly 10 years, I found my fingers and forearms were starting to give me problems.

Before I continue, understand that I type anywhere between 6,000 and 10,000 words a day. I'm banging on a keyboard for hours. To compound this issue, I type very fast. So, on top of the pain I was beginning to suffer, my fingers were no longer able to keep up with my brain. It took me a while to put those two and two together, but I realized eventually that the keyboard key switches were not only causing the pain but slowing me down.

Are you thinking, "Maybe it was the keyboard itself"? Keep in mind that the Ultimate Hacking Keyboard has the word "Ultimate" in its name because (at least in my opinion) it is the ultimate keyboard. Not only can you separate the keyboard's two halves, but you also can tent the two sides and shift them around to perfectly meet the needs of your hands and arms. 

Also: Sorry, Apple: This Logitech keyboard is my new go-to for the Mac

When the pain became unbearable, the first thing I did was separate the two halves even further. Prior to that, the halves were butted up against one another but shifted about 30 degrees. The keyboard almost resembled a carrot character (^). When that failed me, I moved them away from one another, and that alleviated the problem for a while. Eventually, the pain returned.

I was also developing a bump on my right thumb (under which the UKH space bar resides). I did some experimenting by switching between my desktop and my laptop, and I noticed that -- when using the laptop -- the bump on my thumb was far less noticeable.

A clue!

It was then that I realized the pain in my hands and my right forearm (which was considerable at times) stemmed from the 45 gf required to press the keys on my keyboard and the fact that the space bar had started sticking and probably required double the amount of gf to press. No matter how I tried to alleviate that space bar problem, I couldn't make it work.

Also: Mechanical keyboards: A comprehensive guide

In the end, I decided to go ahead and purchase a new Ultimate Hacking Keyboard. This time, I went with the Pink switches, which were silent and only required 35 gf to actuate.

The difference was dramatic and almost immediate. 

Since I started using the new keyboard, the pain in my hands has all but vanished and the forearm issue has lessened quite a bit. I'm not certain if the elbow/forearm issue will ever completely go away, but I'm relieved it no longer requires me to constantly massage and ice just so I can keep typing.

I realize this issue probably doesn't haunt many of you. But for those who spend hours pounding away on keys, it will eventually creep up and cause you problems. To avoid that, it's important that you purchase a keyboard that allows you to select from a list of key switches. Yes, those types of keyboards are considerably more expensive. (The UHK set me back about $350.) But considering how much life and relief you can get from such a keyboard, I consider it money well spent. 

Different types of switches

One thing to keep in mind is that key switches only apply to mechanical keyboards. For those types of keyboards, there are three basic types of switches:

  • Linear - These feel the same from first press to bottoming out, and there is no tactical feedback.
  • Tactile - These provide feedback when they hit the actuation point to let you know the key was pressed successfully.
  • Clicky - These provide a noticeable sound when hitting the actuation point.
Ultimate Hacking Keyboard

For each of the above switches, you can get them with actuation force ranging from 35 gf to 50 gf. You'll also find different companies that make switches, such as Cherry, Kailh, Razer, Romer-G, Logitech, and SteelSeries. Each manufacturer's switch has different specs (such as actuation distance). Keyboard manufacturers will use a different manufacturer for their switches. For example, Ultimate Hacking Keyboard uses Kailh switches.

Also: The best mechanical keyboards right now, from compact to full-size

What's important is that you understand the difference between the switches and are aware of how much of a difference they can actually make for you. Not just your typing speed but preventing fatigue and repetition-related strain placed on your hands and arms.

The next time you go to purchase a keyboard, keep this advice in mind and you might save yourself a visit to a massage therapist or an acupuncturist.

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