Finding the Perfect Keyboard


ScreenshotKeyboards are one of the essentials of web work; if you can’t get words into your computer, you probably can’t get much done. And yet, web workers seem to be split on how much they care about their keyboards. Some are content to use whatever cost-saving hardware the manufacturer sold the computer with. Others (and I count myself in this camp) are willing to spend considerable money looking for the perfect keyboard.

I’m relatively happy with my current choices (a Unicomp keyboard for the PC and a Matias Tactile Pro for the Mac), but I don’t necessarily think they’re right for everyone. I do think it is worth looking over the variety of available keyboards, and figuring out what works best for you. Here are four things to think about during your search.

Spring vs. Dome – Many of us who grew up with the first generation of personal computers developed a fondness for IBM’s original “buckling spring” keyboard mechanism. Others, who have started computing more recently, may never have tried anything other than a dome-switch keyboard. The difference is that the buckling spring is noisy (it makes the clack-clack sound you hear from older PCs) and gives more positive feedback, while the dome (also called membrane) switch has a quieter action, usually with less key travel.

The only way to know for sure which type is best for you is to try both; I know that for me personally, a buckling spring keyboard raises my typing speed considerably. Dome keyboards are ubiquitous, but spring ones are harder to find. Three sources you can try:

  • Unicomp still sells some keyboards that are very close to the original IBM Model M 5-pounder.
  • Matias makes the Tactile Pro, a spring keyboard for the Mac.
  • Clickykeyboards has some used and new-in-box IBM keyboards for sale

There are a couple of other things that you need to keep in mind if you decide to try the spring route. First, these keyboards tend to be larger because of their more complex mechanisms. Second, you can not type on them quietly – if you need to take notes while you’re on the phone, they may prove an annoyance.

Regular vs. Ergonomic – There are a variety of ergonomic keyboard designs out there that are supposed to lower the stress on your wrists as you type. These range some keyboards with simple wrist rests (and perhaps sloping from a higher front to a lower back) to split keyboards and more outrageous deviations from the usual.

If you have any symptoms whatever of carpal tunnel syndrome (shooting pains in your wrists when you type, for example) you should probably be investigating ergonomic keyboards (as well as checking out other remedies, like a proper-height desk and well-positioned screen). Keep in mind, though, that switching to an ergonomic keyboard is often a matter of relearning how to type well. Worse, if you switch from computer to computer frequently, you either need to get the same model ergonomic keyboard on all of them, or suffer from decreased typing speeds as you move back and forth.

Of the less extreme ergonomic keyboards, models like Microsoft’s Comfort Curve and Logitech’s Wave seem to consistently get the best reviews. For split keyboards, the classic Microsoft Natural Keyboard is a perennial favorite.

Wired vs. Wireless – How much does having a cord between your keyboard and your computer bother you? If the answer is “a lot” then it’s time to look at a wireless keyboard; the technology in them has improved greatly in the past few years, to the point where they work as well as wired keyboards and don’t eat batteries. If you’re in the habit of slouching back with your feet on the desk, or moving your keyboard around the desk as piles of other stuff slosh back and forth, a wireless keyboard is the way to go.

Wireless is also great when you want to use the same high-end keyboard on multiple computers; it’s easier to pick up and move a small receiver than to dive behind your computer to remove cables. But how far from your computer do you really need to move your keyboard? Extension cables are cheap too.

But there are drawbacks to wireless. If you’re working in a single room with multiple computers, you may find that a plethora of wireless keyboards and mice interfere with one another. You may also find that the continuing investment in batteries is an annoyance, though recent wireless keyboards eat batteries at a much slower rate than the first generation did.

Standard vs. Extras – Finally, do you want a keyboard with something other than just keys? You can get a built-in pointing stick or a built-in trackball. You can get keyboards with dedicated keys for computer games, or dedicated keys for things like “email” and “internet”. You can get programmable OLED keys that let you change the images on your keycaps. You can get backlighting, flexible keyboards, folding keyboards, and even blank keyboards that force you to touch-type.

Personally, I look on most of these differences as gimmicks designed to make a product stand apart from the herd. You may feel differently, though, depending on your circumstances. If you prefer working in an unlit room with the curtains closed, for example, a backlit keyboard may be your best friend.

Price – One factor that I would urge you not to assign too much weight to is the price. For most keyboards, the range is from $10 to $300 or so. Amortized over the life of your computer, even the high end of this range is pretty trivial. I think it’s more important to find an input device that you can live with, that doesn’t hurt your hands, and that you can type quickly on.

What’s your favorite keyboard? Or do you just use whatever comes along?

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