Glossary of mechanical keyboard related terms and definitions.

Glossary of Mechanical Keyboard Terms and Definitions

There are certain words, phrases and acronyms used by mechanical keyboard enthusiasts that will leave the average person who’s unfamiliar with the subject scratching their head. As with most hobbies, the terminology can be confusing and it continues to evolve as the hobby grows. The purpose of this glossary is to provide a quick, easy way to find definitions for the terms you don’t know and expand your mechanical keyboard vocabulary.

#

  • 40% – Extremely small form factor with only the bare minimal of dedicated keys required to function. No alphanumeric keys, F-row or numpad. Many standard key operations will be hidden under multiple function layers. Some keys will be of a non-standard size.
  • 60% – Compact form factor that drops the numpad and F1-F12 keys. Has the alphanumeric row. Possible to have all keys be standard size.
  • 65% – Similar form factor to 60%, but includes some extra navigation and arrow keys.
  • 6KRO – 6KRO or 6-key rollover is the amount of keys on a keyboard than can be pressed at the same time (which is actually 6 letter keys + 4 modifiers with 6KRO) without exhibiting problems such as blocking. 6-key rollover is common over modern USB connected mechanical keyboards. Many older keyboards are limited to 2KRO. See also: NKRO
  • 75% – This form factor fits in dedicated arrow keys, the function row and a selection of navigation keys into as small of a footprint as possible.  A layout for users wanting a board more compact than a TKL while still retaining dedicated arrow and F-keys. Due to key placement in this form factor, 75% boards are actually smaller than 65% in length. This layout also prohibits the use of a complete standard sized key set.
  • 80% – Occasionally used to reference TKL (TenKeyLess) keyboards.

A

  • ABS – Short for Acrylonitrile Butadiene Styrene, ABS plastic is the most widely used material for keycap construction. ABS is cheap, easy to mold and durable. Also prone to “shine” (from contact with oils in skin) and yellowing with prolonged exposure to ultraviolet light.
  • Actuation Force – Amount of downward force required for the key to register as being pressed. Can also refer to the force needed to bottom out the key or initial force at the top of a key press.
  • Actuation Point – The moment during key travel when the switch is actuated, sends a signal to the connected device and registers the key press.
  • ALPS – Mechanical key switch manufactured by Alps Electric from the 1980s through the early 1990s. The production of genuine ALPS switches has ceased. All modern ALPS switches are clones, with the most well known and respected copy coming from Matias.

B

  • Backlighting – The use of a LED (Light Emitting Diode) to illuminate keycaps and/or translucent legends.
  • Backplate – Most retail/non-custom keyboards are plate mounted, meaning a piece of alloy (usually aluminum or steel) is installed between the PCB and the switches. This is known as a backplate and the switches are mounted atop it. Plated mounted keyboards that make use of a backplate are more rigid and exhibit less flexing.
  • Bottoming Out – When the switch is pressed down completely at the end of a key stroke. Unlike rubber domes over membrane, mechanical keyboards don’t require the key to bottom out before registering a key press.
  • Buckling Spring – A type of clicky switch not commonly found in modern keyboards, most famous for its use in the IBM Model M. Read more…

C

  • Chatter – Refers to key bounce. Key chatter may also be used to describe the sound of typing on a mechanical keyboard.
  • CHERRY – Popular manufacturer of mechanical key switches (notably the MX line of switches), keyboards, mice and sensors.
  • Clack – The noise a key makes when fully pressed (bottomed out).
  • Clicky – Switch type that produces a “click” sound when pressed to the actuation point. This noise comes from the switch itself, not the keycap making contact with the switch housing.

D

  • DIP Switch – Small switch that can be flipped between two positions. Commonly used to enable/disable certain modes and alter/exchange a keys function with another key.
  • Doubleshot – Method of manufacturing keycaps which results in the legends being integrated with the keycap material, resulting in a legend that won’t fade with wear.
  • Double Tap – In reference to gaming, when a key is pressed twice in rapid succession.

E

  • Ergonomic – Keyboard designed to alleviate stress on muscles and tendons. Ergonomic mechanical keyboards usually feature a split V form factor of some kind and have more adjustability than a standard keyboard.

F

  • Form Factor – Refers to the size and shape of a keyboard. E.g. Full size, TKL, 75%, 60% etc.
  • Full Size – Typically refers to the modern day 104-key form factor, which includes the function row, a section of navigation keys, the alphanumeric row and a numerical keypad.
  • Function Key (Fn) – A key that when held down activates another layer of programmed keys and modifies the operation of one, multiple or all keys. Commonly found on compact form factor boards that omit certain keys. For example, a 60% board could be configured so that when holding the Fn key the output of the W, A, S and D keys changes to the arrow keys. This way a keyboard can be smaller in size without sacrificing the utility of having every dedicated key found on larger sized mechanical keyboards.

G

  • Ghetto Switch – When parts/springs from two separate switches are interchanged the resulting combination is often referred to as a “ghetto switch”.
  • Ghosting – When a unintended key is registered, outputting a ghost character for a key that wasn’t pressed. This can occur when multiple keys are press simultaneously on keyboards with lower key rollover.

H

  • HHKB – Acronym for the Happy Hacking Keyboard line that uses Topre switches in a 60% form factor.
  • Home Row – Center row of keys (ASDFGHJKL;’) on a keyboard that contains the home keys where touch typist position their fingers in the resting position. The F and J keys normally have a small bump or pronounced shape so the user can easily feel where to place their left and right index fingers when touch typing.
  • Hysteresis – When the release point (moment of key de-actuation) of a switch is higher than the point of actuation. A small amount of hysteresis is a good trait for a switch. However, too much hysteresis can cause complications for gaming when repeatedly pressing the same key in rapid succession.

I

  • ISO (International Organization for Standardization) – Most common keyboard layout used in European countries. Small differences from ANSI include: a different shaped Enter key, right Alt key replaced with Alt Gr, one additional key and a shortened left Shift.

J

  • Jumper Wire – Helps with trace routing, soldered between two points on the PCB of a mechanical keyboard.

K

  • Kailh Switches – A popular Cherry MX clone switch that was introduced shortly after Cherry’s patent expired.
  • Key Blocking – When a keyboard’s rollover threshold is exceeded and it refuses to register additional key inputs.
  • Key Bounce – Also known as chatter, this happens when the input of a single key press registers multiple times. Most keyboards with mechanical switches that exhibit this trait are calibrated (either with hardware or software) to mitigate the effect of key bounce.
  • Keycap – Plastic cap that attaches to the switch stem as a means of pressing the key. The keycap contains a legend displaying the purpose of each individual key. Keycaps on a mechanical keyboard are generally easy to remove with a keycap puller tool for maintenance, cleaning or replacement.
  • Keycap Puller – Tool used to aid in the removal of keycaps. The two most common types are plastic ring and wire pullers.
  • Key Travel Distance – This is the distance (measured in mm) a key can be pressed down from the resting position before bottoming out.

L

  • Laser Etching/Engraving – Process of using a laser to create legends (characters) on a keycap. With laser engraving, the grooves produced by the laser can be infilled with a material to alter its color. Laser etching can only produce one color on any given keycap.
  • Layout – The layout of a keyboard is different from form factor, for which it’s often confused. Layout refers to the organization and physical location of keys on a keyboard. See ANSI and ISO.
  • Legends – Characters (in the form of numbers, letters, words or symbols) added to the top and/or sides of a keycap to indicate output/function of the key.
  • Linear – Switch type that provides no tactile or audible feedback on key actuation. The switch is silent and has no tactile bump. Just a smooth, unrestricted key press until the switch bottoms out. Linear Cherry MX Reds are a popular choice among PC gamers who desire the quickest key actuation possible.

M

  • Macro Key – Key that can be configured to input a series of programmed keystrokes when pressed, allowing for many actions to be carried out from a single key press. This can be accomplished through additional hardware in the keyboard itself or software installed on a PC. A popular feature among gamers who want an edge over their competition. Dedicated macro keys are often included on high-end mechanical gaming keyboards.
  • Matias – Produces a modern version of ALPS-type switches.

N

  • NKRO – Acronym for N-key rollover. With NKRO keyboards every key is capable of being pressed simultaneously with all the keys being accurately registered.

O

  • O-Ring – A small rubber gasket, circular in shape that’s installed over the stem of a keycap. The goal of using o-rings is to dampen the noise created from plastic contacting plastic when a key is bottomed out. They alter the feel of typing by reducing key travel and cushioning the end of the key press. The extent of this effect is determined by the size and hardness of the o-ring.
  • OEM – A manufacturer that produces generic keyboards or related products for another company that adds their own branding to the product so it can be marketed and sold under their name. Can also refer to “OEM layout” (ANSI) or “OEM profile” keycaps.

P

  • Pad Printing – The cheapest and easiest process of adding legends to a keycap by adding a layer of ink/paint to its surface.
  • PBT – Short for Polybutylene Terephthalate, PBT is a material used in the construction of high quality keycaps that usually come with a premium price. PBT is very durable, highly resistant to “shine” and will not yellow when exposed to ultraviolet light. Its ability to withstand chemicals and high temperatures make PBT a good candidate for dye-sublimation. PBT is a complicated material to work with due to shrinking from the molding process. As a result of this shrinking factor, PBT keycaps are somewhat uncommon and more costly than ABS keycaps.
  • PCB (Printed Circuit Board) – Board onto which the switches, controllers, LEDs and other parts of a mechanical keyboards are soldered.
  • PCB Mounted – PCB mounted mechanical keyboards have their switches attached and soldered directly onto the PCB with nothing in-between. The housing of PCB mounted switches differs slightly from plate mounted switches, as it requires two plastic prongs that go through the PCB for stability. Very uncommon, usually only found on custom or kit based mechanical keyboards.
  • Plate Mounted – Plate mounted mechanical keyboards feature a backplate between the PCB and switches. The switches are attached to the backplate and then soldered to the PCB underneath. Generally all retail, mass produced mechanical keyboards use a backplate and plate mounting method.
  • POM – POM, or Polyoxymethylene, is a material used for keycap construction. Used much less often than ABS or even PBT.

R

  • Reset Point – The point during key travel after a key is pressed where the switch resets, allowing it to be pressed again.

S

  • Slider – Another term for the stem portion of a mechanical key switch.
  • Sprue – Marks commonly found on keycaps created during the injection molding process where a material is inserted through channels.
  • Stabilizer – Part used on the larger keys (enter, shift, spacebar etc.) of a keyboard. The purpose of a stabilizer is to prevent binding, keep the keycap level and reduce key wobble. The most commonly used stabilizers function with the help of a wire bar, such as Cherry MX and Costar stabilizers. Often referred to as stabs or a levelling mechanism.
  • Stem – Switches and keycaps have stems used to connect the two together.

T

  • Tactile – A mechanical key switch that has a tactile bump that can be felt as feedback on actuation. Tactile switches can be either clicky (Cherry MX Blue) or silent, with no click on actuation (Cherry MX Brown).
  • TKL – TenKeyLess, a form factor that doesn’t include the numerical keypad on the right side of the keyboard. Has all other keys typically found on a full size board, including the function row and navigation cluster.
  • Topre – Electrostatic capacitive switch with a hybrid design that makes use of a slider over a rubber dome. A light coil spring is used as the key actuation element. Read more…
  • Travel Distance – The distance a switch can travel before bottoming out. Cherry MX switches have a travel distance of 4mm before bottoming out (2mm to the point of actuation).

U

  • Universal Serial Bus (USB) – Most common connector type found on modern keyboards. Used for communications between the keyboard and PC/source device. Mechanical keyboards with detachable cables primarily use Mini-B or Micro-B USB connectors on the end that plugs into the keyboard.
  • UV Printing – Method of printing keycap legends with the use of ultraviolet light.

W

  • WASD – Standard key cluster used for direction/movement in PC gaming.
  • Winkey/Winkeyless – Whether a keyboard has Windows keys on the bottom modifier row. Keyboards that include a Windows key are Winkey, while Winkeyless boards omit the Windows keys. Most modern mechanical keyboards are Winkey.

Z

  • Zeal PC – Canadian based online shop founded in 2014. Zeal PC (https://zealpc.net) specializes in mechanical keyboard parts and accessories.

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