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The MuchNeeded Mechanical Keyboard Buying Guide

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MuchNeeded
27 January, 2022 • Updated 14 days ago
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Mechanical keyboards are one of the most popular computer peripherals available. Whether you’re a writer, programmer, or gamer, mechanical keyboards are the prevailing choice. However, with the broad spectrum of mechanical keyboards on the market, it’s commonplace to become a bit confused.

Mechanical keyboards are ideal for those who love to type fast and accurately — which, of course, includes those who enjoy gaming. The stability and longevity of these keyboards make them absolutely worth getting for both work and play. 

Compared to their sibling, butterfly keyboards, mechanical keyboards tend to be more customizable, easier to repair, longer lasting, and most importantly they’re a lot of fun to use.

We’ve prepared a simple yet thorough buying guide to make sure you make an informed purchase. After researching all the key factors identified in this guide, your mechanical keyboard purchase should be as easy and comfortable as typing QWERTY.

Things to Consider When Buying a Mechanical Keyboard

Space

First and foremost, determining how much space you have is crucial. Consider where you want to keep this keyboard: your desk at home or the office? Maybe you just need one small enough for travel. These are all subjective scenarios that depend on the use case. 

In this Mechanical Keyboard Buying Guide though, our focus is keep the objectivity in mind and share all that yo uneed to know.  

Mechanical keyboards can range from 12 inches to 18 inches across, which might as well be a mile when it comes to desk space and ergonomics. Examine where you’ll be using your keyboard to determine how much room you have to work with before you venture out to buy one.

Budget

Identifying the budget is arguably as important as identifying the space.

Setting a budget also saves time by eliminating options that might be too expensive for your needs.

Factors that can influence the budget (aside from how much you can spend) include assessments of the build quality and features required and then asking yourself if it is worth investing extra money.

Fortunately, you could budget anywhere from $50 to $200 for a decent mechanical keyboard due to the incredibly diverse market. Of course, there are outliers, with some keyboards selling for $500 or more. With such a wide price range, your budget is fundamental to the decision-making process.

Usage Type

It’s plainly necessary to know why you’re buying a mechanical keyboard to make the right choice.

True, the budget and size are essential considerations. However, understanding the primary purpose of your purchase plays a vital role in identifying which options to browse through and which to avoid.

If you’re in the market for gaming needs, you should look for keyboards with linear switches and review other gamer-targeted features such as RGB backlighting. Writers and programmers tend to lean toward tactile switches, and so forth.

Connectivity

Mechanical keyboards come in various models and types of connections, wired or wireless. Due to the diversity of options, it’s useful as an early step to determine how much portability you require.

If you’re a gamer, a wired full-sized keyboard might be best suited to your needs due to the snappy response time offered by a wired connection. On the other hand, a wireless keyboard can be your go-to if you want to move about or keep a clean desk.

In the end, it’s key to get these four questions crossed off your checklist before you decide to switch things up and buy your new mechanical keyboard.

Layout & Form Factor

Mechanical keyboards come in various sizes and format, so it’s necessary to evaluate which might best suit your needs. Determining factors, among many others, include the space in which you’ll be using the keyboard and what keyset you require.

All keyboard layouts contain different clusters of keys. The main or alphanumeric key cluster consists of letters, space, backspace, escape, and punctuation keys. The number and function keys are usually on top, organized in rows.

Toward the right, there are page up and down, home, and end keys in a cluster of navigation keys, often accompanied by directional arrow keys. The number keys can be found toward the extreme right in a cluster known as the numpad.

As keyboards get smaller, as discussed below, they feature fewer and smaller clusters.

100% (Full-sized, 104 Keys)

Features

  • Full-sized keyboard
  • Access to all keys
  • Large and comfortable

The standard or full-sized mechanical keyboard provides a complete typing experience, including a number pad, navigation and arrow keys, and number and function rows.

This size is decidedly preferred by those doing a lot of data entry, particularly if using the number pad.

Additionally, the keys are comfortably spaced out, which may reduce typos and cramping.

The full-sized keyboard is a generally good option for multipurpose needs, as it offers a wide variety of keys for applications in gaming, media, and other uses.

That said, these keyboards can be heavy and expensive, so it’s worthwhile to understand the use case before buying a full-sized mechanical keyboard.

Advantages
  • Includes number pad
  • Wide variety of keys
Disadvantages
  • Bulky
  • Requires more desk space

Tenkeyless (TKL, 87 Keys)

Features

  • Smaller body
  • 87 keys
  • No number pad

The name “Tenkeyless” is relatively self-explanatory; unlike the full-sized keyboard, the TKL keyboard does not include a number pad. As a result, the TKL offers 87 keys.

The TKL is one of the most popular keyboard layout options because users can keep the vast majority of keys while eliminating the redundancy of the number pad.

The TKL includes navigation and arrow keys and number and function rows, making it useful for most scenarios.

Due to the absence of a number pad, the TKL also allows the mouse to be closer to hand and therefore more easily and quickly accessible.

Advantages
  • Takes up less space
Disadvantages
  • No number pad

75% (84 Keys)

Features

  • 75% of the full-sized keyboard
  • Navigation and arrow keys are side by side

The 75% is the baby brother of the Tenkeyless. The design of the 75% mechanical keyboard places the navigation and arrow keys right next to each other, with the cluster aligned vertically to minimize gaps and save space.

The 75% mechanical keyboard is relatively rare in availability compared to other layouts. Moreover, growing accustomed to a 75% keyboard can take time.

The right shift key is smaller than usual, and the arrow keys are crammed in with the rest of the keys. All these changes can delay the development of muscle memory for touch typing and use in general.

Advantages
  • More compact keyboard size
  • Condensed keys for more efficient typing
Disadvantages
  • Lacking many keys
  • Less space between keys

65% (66–68 Keys)

Features

  • Compact size
  • Vertical home cluster
  • Ideal for laptop users

The 65% mechanical keyboard is even more compressed, perfect for small workspaces.

The navigation cluster is designed vertically, and the arrow keys are often blended in with all the other keys.

Some 65% keyboards carry a slightly different key arrangement. The keys may be more spaced out and the arrow keys separated; this layout is very similar to the TKL, only without the function keys.

However, 65% keyboards’ inclusion of a small navigation cluster makes them a particularly popular choice for minimalist users, as they can acquire a sleek office space without too much sacrifice.

Advantages
  • Compact size
  • Increased mouse space / proximity
  • Popular choice for minimalists
Disadvantages
  • Fewer keys
  • Less spacing, thus difficult for adoption

60% (62 Keys)

Features

  • Extremely condensed
  • Common and popular
  • Easy customization

As one of the smallest and most compact sizes available, 60% keyboards are notably popular in the gaming community.

They are very widely available, including various options to choose from based on exact preferences and needs. The 60% mechanical keyboard can also be straightforward and cheap to customize or even build yourself.

However, many find the lack of keys is too significant on 60% keyboards. They lack the number and function rows and the navigation cluster and arrow keys, which can make typing extremely challenging.

If you are considering a 60% keyboard, it’s best to be as certain as possible that it’s right for you before purchasing.

Advantages
  • Extremely compact design
  • Easy and cheap to customize and build
  • Wide variety of options on the market
Disadvantages
  • Sacrifices many keys
  • Too small for many to use comfortably

Mechanical switches

Now that you have a sense of the differences between the various sizes and layouts of keyboards, the next step is to determine what switches you will need. Switches are the core component of what makes a mechanical keyboard.

Most mechanical keyboards are made up of sets of square housings over internal mechanisms.

Each depression of a keycap moves a pin downward to connect to a receiver, closing a circuit on the keyboard’s printed circuit board (PCB) to signal a keypress to the computer.

These mechanisms or switches typically come in three main categories: linear, tactile, and clicky. We explore the traits of each further to determine which is the best switch type for you.

Of course, there are numerous possible combinations and degrees of how tactile and audible a switch can be. And these variables are on top of the amount of force required for switch actuation and to bottom out, how far the switch must be depressed to register a keypress, and even the material and rebound rate of the spring inside each switch!

The most popular versions are Cherry MX switches, which are classified by color: blue, brown, red, green, black, yellow, clear, white, gray, and silver are common options, each with a specific feel and sound.

However, ultimately, this vast selection boils down to the movement, sensation, and noise of the switch action.

Linear

Features

  • Smooth
  • Consistent
  • Quiet

Linear switches tend to provide smooth and relatively consistent operation without tactile feedback. Beyond the absence of a tactile touch, the linear switch also rids itself of the loud noises of a tactile or clicky switch. People who prefer a quieter experience thus tend to prefer these switches over others.

Gamers are the number-one audience for linear switches due to their high precision rate, which can be extremely useful for demanding gameplay performance. The most common switches in this category are the Cherry MX Red and Cherry MX Black switches.

Most people find it takes time to adapt to these switches. Users may experience finger strain or even pain when transitioning to a linear switch keyboard.

Advantages
  • Smooth
  • Precise
  • Durable
  • Fast response
Disadvantages
  • Can take time to adjust to
  • Can cause finger pain or fatigue

Tactile

Features

  • Bumpy response
  • Moderate level of noise
  • Easy for beginners’ use

As their name might suggest, tactile switches provide bumpy feedback while typing. People who prefer a solid response or feedback from their keys tend to go with these switches.

Unlike linear switches, tactile switches are much more user friendly; anyone coming from a different type of keyboard should not have any trouble with these. They are also relatively quiet, though not silent. Some users find the bumpy feedback can even encourage them to keep typing.

People playing MMO games that might require a lot of communication usually opt for tactile switches and these can be found in the Cherry MX Brown and Clear categories.

Advantages
  • Good for beginners
  • Tactile feedback
  • Durable construction
Disadvantages
  • Keys can feel light when typing
  • Not completely silent

Clicky

Features

  • Lots of tactile feedback
  • Loud noise
  • Easy to use for beginners

Finally, there are clicky switches, which live up to the name. Users who prefer the loud audible sound of typing need look no further for their ideal mechanical switches. Cherry MX Blue and Green switches are suggested for users wanting to have the clicky typing experience.

Clicky switches aim to provide a smooth typing experience with a tactile and auditory response. For those who prefer immediate and not-so-subtle feedback, clicky switches are the way to go.

Before making a purchase, it’s crucial to decide whether you can tolerate the noise and sensation of a clicky keyboard.

Writes often prefer clicky switches because of their response and it feels nice to type on them.

Advantages
  • Great tactile feedback
  • Satisfying and loud sound
  • Beginner friendly
Disadvantages
  • Sound may be too loud

Keycaps

While the switches drive the action in a mechanical keyboard, users interact directly with the keycaps — generally square shells protecting all the switches.

Of course, there is usually some indication on the surface of each keycap what action or command will be triggered by pressing it, whether this legend is printed, carved, illuminated, or otherwise. 

Normal mechanical keyboards tend to carry one of two main types of keycaps: ABS or PBT. Both are different in their way and can serve people according to their needs.  We’ve covered the debate of ABS vs PBT Keycaps, but will cover the difference below as well.

ABS

Features

  • Impact resistant
  • Cheap
  • Smooth texture

Acrylonitrile Butadiene Styrene (ABS) is a copolymer plastic commonly used to produce keycaps and keyboards.

This type of plastic is relatively cheap to produce; hence the price of ABS keyboards also tends to be quite low.

Unfortunately, ABS switches are prone to deterioration over time. The keycaps can thin, the keyboard overall may start to wear and break down, and the lettering can also fade quickly.

Depending on the brand and price, most of the legends are printed through pad printing, laser marking, or sometimes even engraving.

ABS keycaps typically feature a rather smooth texture helpful for efficient typing. However, that same smoothness can sometimes develop a greasy-looking sheen over time.

Advantages
  • Cheap
  • Smooth texture
  • Beginner friendly
Disadvantages
  • Prone to thinning
  • Lettering can fade away
  • Develops a greasy appearance

PBT

Features

  • Heat resistant
  • Sturdy
  • Thick
  • Textured keycaps

The other common keycap material on the market is polybutylene terephthalate or PBT, a thermoplastic polymer. PBT is generally more expensive to produce than alternative materials; thus the purchase price of PBT keyboards also goes up.

Unlike ABS switches, PBTs are thicker and very textured, which also comes into play when justifying the higher price of these keycaps.

PBT is much more rigid than ABS. Thus, unlike the ABS, the PTB doesn’t wear down or thin with handling and use over the years. PBT keycaps can be used for long periods before they show even the slightest signs of deterioration.

Advantages
  • Textured
  • Thick
  • Durable
Disadvantages
  • Expensive
  • Can be loud when typing

Casing/Body

The material your mechanical keyboard is made of plays an essential role in determining a few major metrics such as weight, flexibility, and other significant factors.

Keyboards come in various materials — some more popular than others — including plastic, aluminum, wood, acrylic, etc.

Each material brings its own unique traits to the keyboard casing. Ultimately, the choice of material comes down to personal preference and budget.

Plastic

Features

  • Inexpensive
  • Wide availability in many colors
  • Unstable

Plastic is by far the most common material used for mechanical keyboards because it’s cheap and straightforward to manufacture compared to other materials.

Of course, the user experience with a plastic keyboard varies a great deal due to the diversity in finish, thickness, and manufacturer. While you can pick a plastic keyboard in an array of colors, the most common options tend to be black, white, or gray.

Most plastic keyboard casings are made from ABS plastic and often come with a metal plate for support. Polycarbonate is also used in making keyboard casings but not as often. Unfortunately, plastic keyboards can be quite brittle or prone to flexing. Plastic keyboards can also be rattly and unstable; they simply don’t feel as sturdy as other materials. Despite this, they are a decent choice for anyone looking for a budget mechanical keyboard.

Advantages
  • Inexpensive
  • Durable
  • Popular and easy to modify
Disadvantages
  • Not sturdy
  • Prone to flexing
  • Brittle

Aluminum

Features

  • Sturdy
  • Heavy
  • Less Flexible
  • Conductive

The second most common type of keyboard casing is aluminum. Aluminum casings can vary according to the quality of aluminum used and how it’s processed. However, aluminum cases are generally of better quality than plastic ones, which is also reflected in the price.

Aluminum cases are heavier and sturdier than plastic, and they tend to have minimal flex. Many aluminum keyboards are anodized, which is simply a process that helps give the outer layer more durability, resistance to corrosion, and extended longevity.

Unfortunately, aluminum keyboards can be heavy at times, and since aluminum is very conductive, it can get especially cold during the winters, making it uncomfortable to type on. This means that you generally won’t see an aluminum keyboard in the ergonomic keyboards section.

Advantages
  • Sturdy
  • Minimal flexing
  • Durable
Disadvantages
  • Expensive
  • Heavy
  • Conductive

Acrylic

Features

  • Transparent
  • Stiff
  • Minimal flexibility

Although acrylic is technically a plastic, it shares some qualities with glass, making it functionally almost a hybrid material. Acrylic keyboard cases are not as easy to come by as aluminum or plastic.

Acrylic casings tend to be extremely strong and stiff. Unlike other plastics, acrylic casings are less brittle and can age well. Acrylics also weigh about half what glass does, yet possesses impact resistance vastly superior to glass.

These cases are usually about four to five millimeters thick acrylic, making them very stiff. The transparent visual aesthetic of acrylic attracts many people.

However, just like any other material, acrylic has its downsides. It’s prone to scratching, and if the case falls from an average height, there’s a high chance of it just snapping.

Advantages
  • Stiff
  • Lightweight
  • Unique visual aesthetic
Disadvantages
  • Scratches easily
  • Can break if dropped

Wood

Features

  • Heavy
  • Unique appearance
  • Little to no flexibility
  • Solid feel

Wood is a possible but uncommon material for mechanical keyboard casings as the creation of wooden keyboard casings requires extensive effort.

Taking measurements, cutting, sanding, and finishing require hours of work and access to costly machines and expertise, which adds to the price.

Naturally, the visual aesthetic of a wooden case is striking and unique, varying wildly depending on the variety and finish. The overall feel is very solid and can be heavy, with little to no bend.

Advantages
  • Almost no flexing
  • Unique visual aesthetic
  • Solid and sturdy design
Disadvantages
  • Expensive
  • Heavy
  • Rare

Customizability

One of the most debated topics regarding mechanical keyboards is the choice of mechanical switches for customizability – soldered or hot-swappable printed circuit boards (PCBs)?

Hot-swappable PCBs allow quick and easy switch changes, while soldered boards lock the mechanical switches in place.

Additionally — although mainly a concern for those creating custom-built keyboards — newcomers should be aware that one of the most influential components would arguably be the plate and mounting.

The plate is essentially the skeleton that holds the switches in place to interface with the PCB beneath, adds rigidity and stability, and fundamentally affects the feel and sound of the keyboard.

These plates can be made of various materials, including aluminum, brass, steel, polycarbonate, or carbon fiber. And keyboard builds may be full plate, half plate, or plateless.

Even the method and materials regarding how the plate is mounted in the casing may significantly affect the feel and sound of the keyboard; these methods include top, bottom, tray, or gasket mounts. Each combination is compatible with some choices of switches and PCBs and incompatible with others.

Again, these considerations are primarily for experts creating their own custom-built keyboards.

However, it’s helpful for all users to be aware of this architecture and the implications related to your choice and use of the mechanical switches and PCB at the foundation of your new mechanical keyboard — whether hot swappable or soldered.

Hot Swappable

Features

  • Swap and replace switches
  • Easy for beginners

First, consider hot-swappable PCBs. The most popular feature of hot-swap PCBs is doubtless the ability to easily install and replace switches.

All you have to do is ensure the two pins of the switch are straight. Hot-swap PCBs make maintenance easier as well.

However, the customization options are limited to the established layout of slots on the keyboard.

Advantages
  • Easy switch installation
  • Easy maintenance
  • Beginner friendly
Disadvantages
  • Restricted layout
  • Not recommended with half-plate builds

Soldered

Features

  • Almost limitless customization
  • Requires know-how to customize
  • Usable with half plates

Soldered PCBs give experienced users the flexibility to customize their mechanical keyboard layout with absolutely no limitations.

Furthermore, unlike the hot swap, a half plate can be used with a soldered PCB, as the soldering fixes and stabilizes the switches directly on the PCB.

A soldered PCB will also cost marginally less — an average of $10. However, the money saved will most likely be spent on acquiring parts and assembly items.

You may need tools such as soldering irons and desoldering tools, as well as expertise to safely solder in the first place. All of this ultimately means more time and effort in exchange for customization.

Advantages
  • Limitless customization
  • Pairable with half plates
Disadvantages
  • Requires soldering tools and materials
  • Requires know-how and work

Connectivity

Connectivity is essential, regardless of how you’ll be using your mechanical keyboard. The only question is whether that connection should be wired or wireless.

Gamers, in particular, tend to prefer wired gaming keyboards due to their snappy responsiveness and minimal delays or other issues. However, if you’re buying a keyboard for travel, for example, you might want to consider more portable, wireless options, whether via Bluetooth or wireless adapter.

Wired

Features

  • Minimal interference
  • No batteries
  • Generally cheaper

Wired keyboards can be connected to your computer once, and then there is no further need to disconnect or power off.

Wired keyboards transmit and receive data as needed and draw electricity from the computer via cable connection.

Thus, they do not require batteries, built-in or replaceable, eliminating any distraction, delay, or expense related to replacing or recharging batteries.

A wired connection also offers minimal lag and no signal interference because it has nothing to do with Bluetooth or other wireless connections. These factors alone make wired keyboards popular gaming keyboards.

Wired keyboards are cheaper than their wireless counterparts due to the lack of Bluetooth or other wireless technologies and batteries.

Of course, wired keyboards can be inconvenient if you want to move around since you’re limited by the length of the wire. The keyboard’s cable can also make your workspace look cluttered.

Advantages
  • Minimal interference
  • Cheaper than wireless
  • No batteries
Disadvantages
  • Inconvenient to move around
  • Adds clutter to workspace

Wireless

Features

  • Wireless convenience
  • Portable
  • No clutter

The single most popular deciding factor for buyers of wireless keyboards is their wireless capability. With new Bluetooth technologies, these keyboards can now conserve more battery life than ever.

However, there are drawbacks—wireless keyboards need their batteries replaced or recharged periodically.

Furthermore, due to batteries and Bluetooth technologies, these keyboards can be expensive. Finally, wireless keyboards sometimes suffer from slight latency (a small delay between the action and the input registering).

Nonetheless, people who are used to keeping a clean, clutter-free workspace tend to prefer wireless keyboards due to their convenience and lack of dangling cables.

Advantages
  • Convenient to move around
  • Clutter free
Disadvantages
  • Expensive
  • Risks interference and latency

Backlighting

Many modern keyboards come standard equipped with backlighting. These lights under the keys illuminate the key characters, making it easier for users to see, especially in the dark.

No Backlight

Features

  • Standard keyboard
  • No backlighting

Not much can be said about standard keyboards without backlighting, except that the keys simply do not light up.

This can help conserve battery life if the keyboard is wireless.

Of course, a lack of illuminated characters can be frustrating when working in an unlit or poorly lit environment.

It’s important to understand that the presence of numerous lighting effects doesn’t determine a mechanical keyboard’s quality, and the lack of a backlight doesn’t necessarily mean a keyboard is inferior.

All it means is that the keys don’t light up.

Advantages
  • Saves battery (if the keyboard is wireless)
Disadvantages
  • Frustrating in dark environments

Monotone Backlighting

Features

  • Single-colored backlight
  • Creates uniformity
  • Single-color helps focus with fewer distractions

The name is self-explanatory. Single-colored or monotone backlighting is popular in productivity-driven environments.

People who need keyboards for typing accuracy simply need their characters illuminated, and anything more complex would only be a distraction.

For meticulous people with a minimalist look, single-color backlighting provides a clean visual aesthetic compared to an RGB backlit mechanical keyboard.

Advantages
  • Convenient to type in the dark
  • Helps with focus
  • Contributes to minimal design
Disadvantages
  • Inability to change lighting colors

RGB Backlighting

Features

  • Multicolored backlighting
  • Adds “gaming” visual aesthetic
  • Customizable lighting per key

RGB lighting is created by combinations of red, green, and blue LEDs (light-emitting diodes) that make up an array of colors. Some RGB backlighting can generate more than 16 million possible hues and numerous customizable effects.

Over the years, the gaming community has seen a particular desire for RGB backlighting to create ambiance, especially in dark rooms. Mechanical keyboard RGB backlighting may coordinate with other illuminated peripherals, such as speaker systems, or even smart room lighting fixtures.

Many RGB-equipped keyboards come with software allowing users to control the exact color each key should illuminate and what triggers the effect, giving users numerous customization options. These effects may be timed or sequential; activated by games or other software presets; and triggered by PC system alerts or connection status events.

Color changes may be set to simply illuminate in response to a keypress—supplying another dimension to the mechanical keyboard user experience in addition to tactile and auditory feedback.

However, not every RGB backlighted keyboard can automate or choose colors. A full RGB keyboard can also tend to be distracting when working.

Advantages
  • Creates gaming ambiance
  • Ability to customize lighting (available on some models)
Disadvantages
  • Can be distracting

Software

Finally, some mechanical keyboard manufacturers or vendors provide software specifically for use with their hardware.

Companion software can be downloaded, and it may be used to change key commands, lighting colors, lighting intensity, low power mode, and more.

No Software

Features

  • Lack of software
  • Not prone to update glitches

If your mechanical keyboard doesn’t come packaged with software, your only option is to use default or generic hardware drivers. However, that isn’t always a bad thing.

Keyboards without software remove any concerns about customization. It also keeps the keyboard safe from potentially corrupted software updates resulting in firmware errors.

Many keyboard companies consistently remind users that installation of updates is at their own risk.

Advantages
  • No risk of firmware glitches
Disadvantages
  • Inability to customize colors
  • Inability to set certain preferences
  • What you see is what you get

With Software

Features

  • Customizability
  • Fresh updates
  • More control

Keyboards that come with dedicated software open a new avenue of customization for users. If the keyboard comes with backlighting, its software likely supports changing colors or adjusting brightness in individual keys or clusters and potentially much more.

Keyboard companion software may allow for reprogramming keys or creating macros. If supported by the hardware, keyboard software may also include multimedia controls or various other features and options.

Software-supported keyboards can also regularly undergo updates affecting settings and capabilities as well as firmware support, solving any software-related glitches or compatibility issues.

However, the software can fix or create problems, which may leave the user and their mechanical keyboard at the mercy of the manufacturer’s ability to push a hotfix or patch.

Advantages
  • Customization
  • Updates
  • Settings according to preferences
Disadvantages
  • Firmware glitches

Conclusion

Buying a mechanical keyboard is more complicated than just looking for the cheapest one with the prettiest colors.

There are factors to consider such as space availability, ergonomics, lighting needs and so much more, with each of these having their own unique advantages and disadvantages.

We hope that this guide has helped streamline your shopping experience.

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