tl;dr: if $70 is not a problem for you and you’ve never tried a mechanical keyboard, go buy a Cherry MX Brown Qisan MagicForce 68 keyboard right now. It’s easily worth it.
I recently had a cheap MS keyboard die on me. I’d heard all about how mechanical keyboards are so much better than membrane keyboards, but the price tag always scared me off. This time, I found a mechanical keyboard being sold on Amazon for a much cheaper price, and decided to buy one on a whim. Two months later I found myself having purchased four separate versions of the keyboard, and let me tell you: you should seriously consider buying of them. I’m talking specifically about the MagicForce 68, which right now costs $70 on Amazon. The main thing about these mechanical keyboards is that, well, typing on them is incomparably nicer than typing on cheap keyboards. I confess that I used to bin mechanical keyboard people right along audiophiles (no, don’t get me started), and well, consider this post as penance.
When shopping for mechanical keyboards, you’ll find that the main thing people discuss is which kind of switch the keyboard uses. The switch is the actual mechanical part that activates when you press down on the key. Again, I didn’t think that picking specific parts could make that much of a difference. But hey, I was already buying a number of these keyboards, so might as well do the research experiment. And, lo and behold, they actually feel fairly different! To be clear, either of these three keyboards is a serious improvement over non-mechanical switches, but they’re sufficiently different from one another that at this point I’m happy recommending one specific kind: Cherry MX brown switches.
Here are the switches I tested: I got one keyboard with Gateron brown switches, one with Cherry MX blue switches, and one with Cherry MX Brown switches. Cherry is the company famous for making good keyboard parts, and their switches are the gold standard. The different colors stand for the ways in which these switches feel different. The thing to know is that the blue switches are the loved/dreaded “clicky” switches: they have an additional sliding part that makes an audible click sound, in addition to the sound of the keycap (the thing you press down on) hitting the actual board part of the keyboard. If you’re interested in how these operate, the Keyboard Company has a good article with animations of how the different switches operate. Gateron, on the other hand, is a brand that simply attempts to produce lower-costed clones of the Cherry MX switches.
Overall, I found the Gateron switches to be totally fine (and boards with Gateron switches are about $10 cheaper on the whole than the Cherry MX equivalents), but they’re just a little too smooshy. Both Gateron browns and Cherry MX browns are both super quiet to type, but the Cherry MX have slightly more satisfying feedback when the key actually registers. As a result, I find myself typing a little more softly with the Cherry MX keyboard than with the Gaterons. The Cherry MX blues, on the other hand, make an incredibly satisfying sound (well, if you’re into that kind of stuff, I suppose) when you press a key. But I find their activation force to be a little too big, and also their feedback is too “hard”: the key resists a little too much just before the clicking and activating. And some people are annoyed by the clicky sound, so make sure you’re not going to be that jerk in the office.
The MagicForce keyboard itself has a number of nice features (which I don’t really care about, but) including LED-backlit keys (white LEDs on the brown switches and bright blue LEDs on the blue switches). The actual keyboard layout is fine too, except that you don’t get a row of function keys - that’s why they’re “compact keyboards”. Instead, you get a “Fn” key that you press with the number keys. I found that a non-issue. However, if you’re a heavy user of R or sh-like shells, you should know that the backtick is slightly unergonomic: you have to hit Fn-Esc to get it. Similarly, a tilde requires shift-Esc. These come up almost never for me, so I alredy got used to it. But if you need your function keys often, you might want to go for the full-size keyboards (which will run you \$120 instead). You unfortunately don’t get the control key in the right place (in the home row, where it damn well belongs). Still, keyboards that get this right now cost \$300. I got four of these for that price, and I can fix it in post now: it’s no longer 1993 and our operating systems are not entirely broken anymore (well, at least not in this particular aspect).
Given that other good mechanical keyboards I found cost multiple hundreds of dollars (and you can easily end up with a \$500 keyboard if you go into this rabbit hole), I can’t recommend this budget-friendly Qisan MagicForce enough. I didn’t expect to love them nearly as much as I do.
UPDATE: The Esc-key weirdness is fixable in software by simply typing Fn-Q. Now hitting the Escape key gives a backtick by default, and Fn-Esc gives “regular Escape”. This is way more ergonomic, since the Fn key acts uniformly to replace the top row of keys.