About six years ago, some engineers at Razer got the idea to put a mechanical keyboard into a laptop. The goal was to bring the satisfying clickiness of classic desktop keyboards–and Razer’s gaming keyboards in particular–to the company’s sleek gaming notebooks.
After years of working through a wide range of engineering challenges, the Razer Blade Pro launched in 2016, debuting what Razer called the “World’s First Ultra-Low-Profile Mechanical Keyboard” in a laptop. It should have been a triumph, both for PC gamers and for serious typists. Instead, it was a bust. A new version of the Blade Pro, which Razer announced last month, will abandon mechanical keys for a more traditional laptop keyboard.
“Razer has received positive sentiment from consumers regarding the tactile feedback of the Razer Blade 15 keyboard,” the company said in a statement, “so we decided to deploy that technology in the Razer Blade Pro.”
The sad demise of the Blade Pro’s mechanical keyboard is a prime example of why today’s laptop keyboards are, for the most part, not so great. The race to make laptops slimmer and smaller has put the squeeze on even the most well-established keyboard designs, let alone ambitious new ones like Razer’s mechanical keys. The most fertile ground now for laptop keyboard innovation is in making them even thinner without rendering them intolerable, rather than truly excellent. And as Apple has experienced with its Macbooks’ failure-prone “butterfly” keyboard mechanisms, those efforts can backfire.
In other words, as laptops follow phones and tablets into the realm of ultrathin designs with edge-to-edge screens, they’re ruining one of the defining features that would lead you to use a laptop in the first place.
Miniaturizing the mechanical
Apple is getting most of the heat for bad laptop keyboards. But I’m not a MacBook user, and so I haven’t felt the frustration of a busted butterfly mechanism. I am however a fan of desktop mechanical keyboards, and have also been reviewing some laptops for PCWorld lately. After spending time with those laptops–or typing on my iPad Pro’s keyboard cover, for that matter–returning to my desktop and its Cherry MX Blue keyboard always feels luxurious. That’s made me wonder why there’s been so few attempts to bring that same feeling to laptops.
While there was talk in early 2018 of Cherry bringing a “low-profile” version of its famous switches to laptops, that appeared not to happen. (Cherry did not respond to my request for comment.) Razer was the only company I could find that’s made a go of it, outside of some tank-like gaming laptops in the $4,000 price range.
Vivek Gowri, Razer’s senior manager for hardware engineering, says the idea for a mechanical keyboard came about as gaming laptops were becoming more desktop-like, with powerful processors and graphics cards that could still fit in a reasonably slim chassis.
“I think along the way, some of our competitors introduced a couple of ghastly looking notebooks with full desktop mechanical key switches. Those things were roughly the size of briefcases and not really laptops anymore,” Gowri says. “But the ideas were kind of there. And for us it was less about doing it for the sake of doing it, but doing it in a way that customers would like.”
The project turned out to be tougher than Razer anticipated.
To begin with, mechanical key switches are just much thicker than the rubber dome or membrane mechanisms that most laptops use. With traditional laptop keyboards, the key presses down on the top of the dome, which inverts like a toilet plunger and creates an electrical contact with the circuit board underneath. A scissor-like mechanism also sits underneath each key, keeping it in place while providing some extra resistance.
A mechanical key switch, by comparison, uses a tall piece of plastic that pushes down on a spring underneath, while the electrical contact is triggered from the side. While a typical laptop key switch is about three to four millimeters thick, Gowri says a mechanical desktop key switch is about six or seven millimeters thicker than that.
“Adding a time and a half of thickness is just not acceptable, he says. “All of a sudden you’re talking about your 13-millimeter laptop being a 21-millimeter laptop.”
In trying to shrink the mechanical switch, Razer ran into several obstacles. The printed circuit board underneath the keyboard had to be stiffer than usual to support the spring-loaded switches of mechanical keys. Backlighting required more space, because the larger key mechanism left less room to diffuse light. Even finding the right balance between clickiness and quietness took a lot of refinement, because Razer wasn’t about to offer a half-dozen laptop models with no variation beyond key feel.
“Just the miniaturization of all those components to fit into a notebook form factor was this series of design challenges for us,” Gowri says. “It took significant amounts of development to refine and iterate on that concept to where we felt it would be productizeable.”
Despite the valiant effort, reviewers weren’t uniformly enthused. “It’s certainly clickier than a normal laptop keyboard, but I can’t say I love it,” wrote PCWorld’s Hayden Dingman, who said he found himself typing more slowly that he would on most laptops, and still wasn’t getting the wrist relief that comes with typing on a keyboard with ample key travel. Other sites, including PCMag and Techradar, were more positive, though neither of them even mentioned the mechanical keyboard’s demise while covering the new 2019 model.
Oddly enough, Gowri doesn’t mention it either during our interview, which occurred the day before Razer announced the new Blade Pro. When I ask him if the company might parlay its years of work on a mechanical laptop keyboard into future models, he only gives a non-answer.
“We are always working on a lot of different things,” he says, “and what comes to market will come to market.”
Too slim for their keyboards’ own good
Unfortunately, the conditions that made Razer’s mechanical laptop keyboard difficult to develop are unlikely to improve.
That’s partly because laptops are getting thinner, but it’s also because they’re slimming down in other dimensions. Over the past few years, the thick bezels that once surrounded laptop displays have given way to screens that almost run from edge to edge. When those bezels shrink, the rest of the laptop has to get smaller as well, which in turn leaves less room around the keyboard for other components, like the battery or cooling systems.
“That very thin form factor that we had is now getting pushed in the X and Y, so every square millimeter matters,” says Kevin Turchin, an engineering technologist director at Dell.
This demand for all-screen laptops–along with the gradual elimination of thick ports like Ethernet, VGA, and even the familiar USB-A–has pushed the traditional membrane and scissor switch keyboard mechanism to its breaking point. Make them any thinner, and the keys become too squishy. Even worse, the keyboard itself doesn’t last as long.
“I think we’ve reached the point of diminishing returns on a rubber dome design, where you can only get so much thinner,” Turchin says. “And if we drove it too thin, we’d just really compromise that user experience.”
Hence the much-maligned butterfly mechanism–so named for the way it lifts up each key with a pair of slim butterfly-like wings–that’s made its way into recent MacBooks.
Dell is dabbling in butterfly mechanisms as well, though its approach is a bit different from Apple’s. While MacBook keys still have a collapsible metal dome at the center, Dell’s “MagLev” keyboard dispenses with domes entirely. Instead, each key has a magnet sitting on it, and on top of that is a metal butterfly mechanism, whose wings hold up the keycap above. When the user presses a key, the wings invert, lifting the base of the butterfly mechanism off the magnet and detecting the keystroke. As the user’s finger lifts back up, the magnet reengages, and the butterfly wings help push the keycap back up.
“It almost creates a spring sensation as you’re lifting up the keycap, and what we’ve found is a lot of people like that, because that gives them a little bit of feedback on the return that they don’t get on the rubber dome today,” Turchin says.
Dell debuted this system in last year’s XPS 15 laptop, and Turchin says it’s 24% thinner than a traditional rubber dome keyboard. When I tried the MagLev keyboard myself, I found the lack of travel jarring, especially at first. But there’s a snappy feel that’s mildly satisfying. If the goal is to make a slimmer keyboard that still feels adequate, Dell has succeeded.
But what about keyboards that are truly excellent? I used one several weeks ago, on Lenovo’s ThinkPad L390 Yoga. It’s not mechanical, but it has a level of travel and snappiness that in 2019 feels exceedingly rare. In a typing speed test, the ThinkPad almost beat my trusty desktop keyboard with Cherry MX Blue switches, and it instantly recalibrated my expectations for what a laptop keyboard could be.
The one major complaint in my review only confirms the impossible challenge of putting great keyboards into modern laptops: The ThinkPad Yoga, I wrote, was just too thick and bulky.