The computer keyboard is the one input device everyone uses and most take for granted. When you buy a computer from Dell or HP, you will usually get a keyboard included with it. Likewise, you can find plenty of different designs and features across hundreds of different models, most of the time at very cheap prices. I am here to tell you that there’s a reason why most keyboards are so cheap, and why I think people should seriously think twice before picking up whatever $10 model might be laying around the retail stores.
There are plenty of factors that go into picking a good keyboard, primarily the way the keyboard types, how the keyboard interfaces with your computer, how the keys are printed, and the shape of the keys themselves. I am going to cover as many factors as I can so that hopefully whoever reads this can be better informed about what they are shelling out good money for. For example, as a programmer (and a LockerGnome writer, of course), I tend to type a ton every day, so it is only natural for me to search out the best keyboard.
How Keyboards Work
Before I discuss the specific factors, allow me to give you a brief explanation as to how keyboards work. To put things simply, when you press a key on a keyboard, it completes a circuit that ultimately sends a signal to your computer indicating that you have pressed a key. (Wow, that was an easy explanation; it barely deserves its own header now!)
Factors to Consider
This list here is a bit more comprehensive than the short one I described earlier. I will go in-depth after the fact on each individual aspect, but let this serve as an outline:
- Switch type (How it feels when you type); a few I will discuss:
- Membrane & Dome-switch
- Buckling Spring
- Key printing
- Pad Printing
- Laser Etching
- Dye Sublimation
- Double-shot Injection Molding
- Key shape
- Interface (PS/2 vs. USB)
- Extra features (e.g., backlighting, ergonomics, etc.)
Probably the most important factor in choosing a keyboard is how it actually feels when you type. Nowadays, people assume keyboards are all alike in this aspect, so they pick the cheapest keyboard they can find, not knowing they are literally getting what they are paying for.
First, let’s talk about membrane keyboards. These keyboards are literally two or three layers of material lined on top of one another. When you press a key, the layers come in contact with each other, completing a circuit and sending a signal to the computer that a key has been pressed. Flat membrane keyboards offer very little (if any) tactile feedback when you type.
Now to discuss the most common type of keyboard today, the dome-switch keyboard. These keyboards are essentially membrane keyboards with an array of domes on top. That is, when you press a key, the dome compresses and causes a plate of metal to come in contact with the membrane layer underneath. This gives you a certain degree of tactile feedback compared to membrane keyboards, while generally remaining quiet while you type. These keyboards are typically inexpensive, which is why they are so incredibly popular today. One downside, however, is that you are required to press completely down on the key before the press is recognized at all, increasing the amount of strain you are placing on your fingers and hand throughout the day (it adds up). Depending on your tastes, you might enjoy the virtual silence you get from these keyboards, but you might also be disappointed by the lack of real tactile feedback.
Next up, mechanical switch keyboards. These keyboards use real, honest-to-goodness switches under the keys. The primary benefit of mechanical keyboards is that they do not require you to press completely down on the keys, relieving you of hand and finger strain and allowing you to type more quickly. There are a number of different types of mechanical switches, primarily varying in their level of noise and tactile feedback.
If you buy one of the popular branded mechanical keyboards such as Das or Razer, you’ll notice they use a “Cherry” switch of a certain color. The color of the switch will tip you off as to how that particular switch “feels” when you type. For example, Cherry MX Black and Cherry MX Red switches are “linear” switches, meaning they cleanly compress down, silently and smoothly. On the contrary, Cherry MX Blue switches are designed to be extremely tactile and “clicky.”
To close, there’s the Cherry MX Brown switch, which is for those who enjoy tactile feedback but want to keep the noise to a minimum. When you’re buying a mechanical keyboard, definitely keep your eyes peeled and look for what type of switch is used, as it will determine how a keyboard will feel when you are typing.
The last type of keyboard I want to discuss is the famous buckling spring keyboard. Perhaps the most famous buckling spring keyboard of them all is the IBM Model M. The way these keyboards work is simple: When you apply pressure to a key beyond a certain threshold, a spring underneath the spring will collapse and “buckle.” This triggers a hammer to hit a membrane layer beneath it and send a signal that a key has been pressed.
These keyboards are extremely tactile and extremely loud. If you love to hear yourself type, this is probably the keyboard for you. Best of all, these keyboards will last an extremely long time; I have heard reports of Model M keyboards lasting over 20 years since their manufacturing date, and are still clicking away. While IBM no longer manufactures Model Ms, it has sold the technology to Unicomp, where you can find an array of keyboards to pick from nowadays.
Another factor you should be considering when looking for a new keyboard is how the keycaps are printed on.
To be brief and concise, there’s pad printing, laser etching, dye sublimation, and double-shot injection molding. Pad printing is the cheapest method of the four, and is essentially a sticker placed on top of the key, so they don’t last long and you are usually able to feel a bump where the key has been printed.
Laser etching is a step up, lasting quite a bit longer, but you will still occasionally feel the etching and they tend to be slightly blurred. Dye sublimation is a method where a dye is set into the key plastic, resulting in a clear print that doesn’t wear off, the downside being that it is so high-cost that very few companies nowadays produce keyboards using this method.
Finally, we have double-shot injection molding, where two pieces of plastic are literally fused together, leaving a print with virtually flawless edges that never wears out. Once again, however, the high cost of this method means that very few companies use it, so you might be looking around for a while if you have your heart set on it.
If you’re really hardcore, you might even consider getting a keyboard with entirely blank keys. If you don’t know what I’m referring to, perhaps you should check out the Das Model S Ultimate keyboard.
Perhaps a less noticed trait of the keyboard, the shape of the keytops, plays a surprising role in your typing experience. If you’re using a laptop, you might notice that the keys are flat, whereas on most desktop keyboards they will be cylindrical or round. When your finger falls down on a key, you might appreciate that it is landing in a sculpted “bowl” of sorts. It’s something to consider when you’re shopping around.
PS/2 or USB? That is the question. Don’t jump the gun and go with the newest technology, though. While USB is the dominant interface these days, PS/2 should still be considered. Personally, my keyboard connects through PS/2. For a while I assumed there wasn’t much of a difference between the two interfaces, but recently I learned otherwise.
First of all, USB is a polling interface. That is, your computer will ask devices connected to it via USB if there is any new data to be received. On the contrary, PS/2 is interrupt-based. This means that a PS/2 keyboard will send an interrupt signal to the computer directly. If your computer’s USB controller is busy with other devices, there’s the possibility that it will miss some of your key presses. Meanwhile, because PS/2 sends a direct signal to your computer, you can usually type without worry that some of your words will be lost in translation. Of course, I have heard reports that say both interfaces are prone to the occasional hiccup, but I suppose it’s up to personal experimentation if you want to find out for sure.
Aside from the things I discussed above, there are plenty of other factors that might influence you towards one keyboard or another. For instance, you might be drawn to ergonomic keyboards (I’m currently using one right now, as a matter of fact). You might also be a gamer who might appreciate plenty of extra keys that can be bound to special in-game actions. You might be incredibly wealthy, in which case you might be attracted to a keyboard that uses an OLED screen for each and every one of its keys. In the end, it’s up to you to decide which keyboard works best for you, so don’t be afraid to hop around a bit and try different styles and configurations.