This article is part of my Mechanical Keyboards 101 series in which I talk about mechanical keyboards, their components, customisation and how to get started. Read the rest of the series here.
So where do you get started? Thankfully, there is no need to look at building a keyboard from scratch if you want a simpler solution. There are plenty of mechanical keyboards ready for use, and your challenge will only be to pick the one you think will suit you best.
Just a word of warning, this hobby can get very, very pricey very quickly. You will find just about anything in any price range, but the quality only increases with the price, and some items can reach stupid prices ($200 for a keyset?! $2100 for a keyboard?!!!).
If you do not use a numpad regularly, consider opting for a TKL keyboard so that your mouse is closer to your keyboard. If you want a compact TKL, opt for a 75% keyboard. If you don't use the function row that much but are attached to your arrow keys, go for a 65%. If you're happy without arrow keys, a 60% will do just fine. If you want to go smaller, just make sure you're comfortable with switching layers!
If you can get your hands on a switch tester, I would highly recommend it, if only to make sure that your intuition is correct. If you can't get a hold of one, brown switches are good all rounders, being quiet enough for use in an office, but stiff enough to stop you from making all the typos.
This might be the trickiest part. You will find lots of fun keysets readily available on the internet, but a lot of the cool ones are only available through Group Buys, which makes it trickier to buy new keysets.
That's true, there is a lot of choice. A good strategy is to start by buying from a well-known reputable brand like Filco or Ducky (or HHKB if you want a layout with a twist). They offer most sizes, with classic switches so you don't have to worry about that and can just yank the keycaps to put your own if needed. You will find a list of shops that sell these brands further down.
If you're a developer and you're after a good 60% keyboard to get started, I am entirely biased, but the Anne Pro 2 is an excellent choice. It is compatible with Mac, Windows and Linux, it has a decent choice of switches, it comes at a reasonable price and you can easily customise the keys via the software provided. I have been typing daily on mine since July last year, and it's my little baby. You can find it on Banggood and although the site looks seriously dodgy, I've have no problems with them so far.
Once you figure out what you like and what you want, you will feel more comfortable to dig around for info or even to be involved in group buys, and you will be able to get closer to your endgame (spoiler: there is no endgame in this hobby!)
So what are Group Buys? Both a useful strategy, and a very annoying one at once. Because mechanical keyboards remain a rather niche-ish market still, group buys allow the community to support an idea to completion.
Creators will create keyboards and design keysets, and ask if people would be interested in buying them. This is called an Interest Check (IC), and if the IC shows that there would probably be enough demand, the idea will move from IC to Group Buy (GB).
During the GB, people will buy items that do not exist yet. They work on the same model as Kickstarter, etc. During a month or less, people can buy the promise of an item being delivered when made.
Once the GB is concluded, the creator, often with the help of a retailer, will submit the order to the manufacturer, who then delivers it a very, very, very long time later. GB usually take months to be delivered, and it's common for buyers to wait 6-7 months before receiving their products.
Once the product has been manufactured and sent to the retailers in charge of shipping to customers, those same retailers may put up for sale a number of items that they had purchased to make a profit on (called "extras"), allowing people who may have missed the GB window to get their hands on the desired product.
This means that when you first get into the hobby, you may see many keysets that you cannot buy because they are not on sale anywhere. Reddit's Mech Market will sometimes be your saviour, although people might put the prices up as demand soars for items.
This can be very frustrating, but keeping an eye out on the right websites and Discord channels may mean luck in the future! People often wait a long time before they can put together their keyboards as components are bought through GBs and take forever to arrive.
Geekhack is undoubtedly one of the best place to keep up with mech keyboard news, ICs and GBs. Deskthority and KeebTalk are other boards to keep an eye out on. Reddit's r/MechanicalKeyboards and r/MechanicalKeyboardsUK will also prove very useful.
Retailers and creators may also have their own Discord channels and Instagram accounts, so it is worth subscribing to have the freshest news and ask your questions.
This list is by no mean exhaustive, so please do your own research if you don't find what you want in here! Being based in the UK, I have a very limited knowledge of retailers in the rest of the world, so apologies for the lack of options!
First check out if there is a shopping guide for your country on Reddit. The UK one is available here, and there is a more general guide available here. If you're looking for second-hand items, r/MechMarket is the place to be.
If you are in the UK:
If you are in Europe:
If you are in North America:
If you are in Australia/New Zealand/South Asia
If you want some cheap(ish) and cheerful keycaps, keep an eye out on Amazon, Aliexpress and Banggood! Brands like MaxKey and Tai Hao also tend to be more readily available than keysets that were sold through group buys.
Good luck young padawan!
This concludes my Mechanical Keyboard 101 series! Thank you for sticking with it to the end, and to read the rest of the articles in my Mechanical Keyboard 101 series, head over to this page, or read about the different types of keyboards, or how to customise a keyboard.
If you have any questions, I'd be happy to try answering them!