The Alienware m15 R4 and Alienware m17 R4 laptops will soon have a feature that no other gaming laptop can boast: authentic Cherry MX mechanical key switches. If you’re a mechanical keyboard fan — and even if you’re not — this is a big deal.
Cherry arguably makes the best key switches in the business, and to have a switch thin enough for a laptop keyboard represents a huge breakthrough in portable gaming technology. In fact, this innovation could arguably solve the biggest problem with gaming laptops today.
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The info comes directly from Dell, Alienware’s parent company. Alienware and Cherry MX worked together to develop the Cherry MX Ultra Low Profile switch, which is only 3.5 mm tall. Compare and contrast to the Cherry MX original switch, which is 18.5 mm, or the Cherry MX low profile switch, which is 11.9 mm.
For laptop aficionados who may not be familiar with the wonderful world of mechanical keyboards, a little explanation is in order. Most keyboards on the market — including the vast majority of laptop keyboards — are “membrane” models. These inexpensive keyboards work by passing a signal through two electrical membranes every time you depress a key. While they’re cheap and easy to produce, they’re also prone to failure, and don’t provide much satisfying tactile feedback.
Mechanical keyboards, on the other hand, work more like a typewriter. Each key houses a switch with a mechanical spring. When you press down on a key, that switch sends a signal directly to your computer, rather than relying on two big gelatinous slabs of conductive material.
The problem with mechanical keyboards — apart from the fact that they cost more money — is that, for obvious reasons, key switches take up a lot more space than membranes. As such, mechanical keyboards are almost impossible to incorporate into laptops.
MSI experimented with adding fully mechanical SteelSeries keyboards into its Titan laptops a few years ago. While the keyboards did indeed function beautifully, it meant the laptops had to be both thick and heavy. That arguably defeats the point of having a gaming system than can come with you anywhere.
The Cherry MX Ultra Low Profile switches are no thicker than the average membrane laptop keycap. Dell claims that these switches offer a comfortable 1.8 mm of key travel, and can withstand up to 15 million keystrokes apiece — more than what many full-size mechanical keyboards offer. Also, like many popular mechanical key switches, the Cherry MX Ultra Low Profiles will make noise when you type on them, although not quite as much as the company’s famously loud Blue switch.
Tom’s Guide has already reviewed the Alienware m15 R4 laptop, which impressed us with its powerful hardware, strong gaming performance and lightweight design. Having a mechanical keyboard, in theory, could only make this system even better.
We hope to go hands-on with the new key switch soon. Until we do, be aware that the Cherry MX Ultra Low Profiles will add an additional $150 to any m14 R4 laptop you customize, putting the absolute minimum price of such a system at $2,300.