Keyboards: You mean there's a choice?

For users of desktop computer systems, nearly everyone uses the keyboard that came bundled with it. And it's probably a crappy keyboard, too. Considering that the keyboard is the primary way we input data and commands into our computers, you want to ensure that communication method is as optimal as possible.

Here we'll discuss some keyboard history (for computers) and what you should be using today.

Early PC keyboards were quite heavy and had noisy keys that clicked rather loudly when typing. The "key travel" was also rather long to accommodate typists that were used to typewriters. They were also comparatively expensive to manufacture. But since the computer itself could easily cost $2,500 (already a lot of money but even more so in the 80s!) then it wasn't really a noticeable expense.

But as time moved on, computers became cheaper and so did the keyboards. Many computers today include suboptimal keyboards. But you can inexpensively buy a decent keyboard that fits your typing style. For what is essentially a board full of push-buttons, there's a remarkable amount of research and design that goes into today's better keyboards.

As I've visited my clients over the years and fixed their computers, I've typed on many keyboard models so I've developed a pretty good sense of what works well and what doesn't -- for me, anyway. So in this article, I'll go over what I believe makes for a good keyboard.

There's a number of things affect how well a keyboard fits the user. e.g.

  • Key travel distance: How far the key must be pressed to bottom out. This is a full stroke.

  • Key side rake/ramp/slope angle: The extent to which a key's sidewall angle deviates from vertical.

  • Key press tension to break: The "break" is the point during the keypress when you overcome the resistance and the key becomes easier to push, completing the full stroke. Keys have a break to give you tactile feedback.

  • Return force: How strongly the key wants to return to the up position after a full stroke.

  • Island or "chiclet" keys: Keys are separated by a bezel. The keys resemble "islands" and the bezel is the surrounding "ocean", hence the name. The other name, "chiclet", is so-named because the keys resemble the size and shape of the colorful gum we enjoyed as kids.

You really have little choice in picking individual metrics above unless you order a custom keyboard -- quite expensive. But there are plenty of commonly available keyboards that have well-designed and matched features.

Days of yore

Back in the day, typewriters -- even electric ones -- had keys with a long travel. Some models, especially manual machines, took considerable pressure to trigger. Manual typewriters had no mid-travel break. You had to whack the key pretty hard to make a good impression on the paper. Early PC keyboards were designed to accommodate typists accustomed to these typewriter keyboards.

But that was then. Few people born after 1980 and probably no one after 1990 have ever used a typewriter. So it no longer made sense to design computer keyboards that mimicked their typewriter progenitors.

Keyboard designers are now free to focus on the experience without regard to what came before. With that in mind, today's trend in keyboard design is flatter with shallow key travel and a lighter touch. And the timing is pretty good, too. Devices are smaller than ever so there's less room for big, bulky keyboards.

Here are close-ups of four key styles.

 

  • Island or "chiclet" keys: Shallow travel with no ramping at all. e.g. Sides of keys are vertical. These have a light touch and are excellent for touch typists. Typos are less frequent. Also notice the bezel surrounds each key.

  • Steep Ramped keys: The sides are steeply ramped, almost vertical but not quite. Key travel is longer than island style keys. Typos are less frequent.

  • Shallow Ramped keys: The sides are shallowly ramped, much closer to horizontal than #1 or #2 above. Key travel is short. Typos are more frequent.

  • Membrane keys: Virtually no key travel, stiff break tension, and you must hit the key dead-center. This design offers a poor experience and generally used only in harsh environments.

  • Ergonomic w/Island keys: Microsoft's newest ergonomic keyboard has island style keys.

Island or "chiclet"

Island or "chiclet"

Steep key sides

Steep key sides

Shallow key sides

Shallow key sides

Membrane

Membrane

Ergonomic Island

Ergonomic Island

       1               2              3               4               5

In my opinion, the island style (#1) shown above is the best keyboard design today. The short travel and very light touch most closely mimics the virtual keyboards on a touchscreen device. Not the same, but still similar. The #2 style is good, too, if you like a more traditional keyboard.

Problems with style #3: The shallow ramping of the keys makes miskeys more common and the bottom edge of adjacent keys can get caught under your finger, possibly pulling the key cap loose. And once loose, they are nearly impossible to reattach. Contrast that to the nearly vertical ramping of style #2 which reduces the likelihood of a miskey as your finger will slide along the side if you get too close to the incorrect key.

Problems with style #4: Touch-typing is impossible. Keys require considerable force to actuate and you must press the key dead center. These keyboards are used in harsh, industrial applications where an environmental seal is critical. In practice, you'll never see this type of keyboard.

Then there are keyboards with alternative positioning such as style #5. e.g. Microsoft's ergonomic keyboard is split in two with the left and right sides angled outward toward you. The idea is that it matches your arm and wrist angles. I'm not a fan. It's one thing to move between key styles with the different travel lengths and touch weight. It's quite another moving between physically different positioning. Also, if you use a keyboard like this, you must adhere closer to proper typing technique. e.g. Using the correct fingers on each key. This is not a keyboard for a hunt and peck typist. Fans swear by them so who am I to say otherwise? If you buy one, get a model with island keys.

Other considerations:

 

  • Backlight: Common on high-end laptops. Lets you easily see the keys in dim lighting. This is a must-have feature for me. I won't consider a laptop without it. Although I'm a decent typist, I still need to look occasionally for the more specialized symbol keys. Backlit desktop keyboards are pretty rare and never come prepackaged with a computer.

  • 10 Key Pad: Standard these days on desktop keyboards and laptops with 15 inch or larger screens.

  • Full-Sized F Keys: Sadly, the F keys are shrinking on many keyboards these days, especially on laptops. If you use the F keys a lot then you might want to find a keyboard with larger F keys. Most F keys these days do double-duty as media control such as volume, play, pause, etc.

  • Wireless: Not as important for a keyboard because it doesn't move, so the wire is no big deal. Mice? yes definitely. Keyboard? Not so much. But if you want a wireless keyboard, fine. There's no disadvantage. Just have some spare batteries on hand.

  • Tilt Feet: Most keyboards have foldout pegs or legs along the back edge to give a little more tilt toward you.

I'm using a Logitech K750. It has island keys and is pretty heavy so it doesn't scoot around. It's wireless but it's also solar powered so the batteries last much longer. Find it on Amazon.com for around $50 or so.