Ted on Tech: Key points on keyboards

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While I haven’t practiced in quite some time, I imagine that I give my lowly keyboard almost the same workout that many accountants do. After all, much of most accountants’ work is performed at a keyboard entering data, doing word processing, creating and editing spreadsheets, and doing tax prep. On my side, I typically spend hours a day banging out text in Microsoft Word.

My keyboard wasn’t something I gave a lot of thought to until the one I’ve used for the past four or five years started showing its age. I’m not much of a typist. Even with millions of words under my belt, I’ve never learning to touch type, so I spend much of my time looking at the keyboard then shifting my gaze up to the screen. Suddenly, I was seeing a lot of words with missing letters. My first thought was that I was typing too lightly, but then I realized the keyboard was dropping keystrokes.

Time for a new keyboard.

The keyboard that gave up the ghost was a Microsoft model, but I’ve also used Logitech keyboards with good results over the years. With me, the average keyboard life seems to be four to six years, which I guess is reasonable.

I really didn’t give the replacement keyboard a lot of thought. I have a bunch of inexpensive keyboards here (in the $25 range) that I use with PCs I build to do hardware and software reviewing, so I just grabbed one and tossed the older one in the garbage.

Not a great choice. The keyboards I pick up in bulk are fine for the light use they get doing review work. But when I have to pound out a couple of thousand words, they just feel wrong. I tried a couple of different keyboards, and was unhappy with all of them.

You get what you pay for…sometimes
I have to be honest. As a long-time reviewer, most of the time I pay for equipment I use, but on occasion, I get to ask for something to try out. Rather than dropping $50 to $100 on a keyboard I would be unhappy with, I sent a few emails, and received four keyboards to test in return. In testing them, I learned something I had forgotten. When it comes to a keyboard that’s going to get significant use, pay the money and get a better keyboard than you think you’ll need.

I’ve been using computers (and keyboards) since before there was even such a thing as personal computer. But I do remember, when PCs first came out, there were several keyboards that were considered the “Gold Standard”. One was the original IBM keyboard that came with the PC, XT, and AT (but not that joke of the PCjr).

Also highly regarded was a keyboard from a company called North Star Computers. Finally, keyboards with Cherry switches were also held in high regard.

All of these keyboards had something in common — they each used mechanical switches. Most of today’s keyboards use a technology that relies on a switch constructed of a conductive rubber dome. When the key is pressed, the top of the dome touches the bottom and the keystroke is recognized. This works pretty well in many cases, but there’s not a lot of what used to be called key feel. Cherry switches are mechanical. When the key is depressed past a certain point, the switch’s contacts touch each other and the keystroke is then recognized. Mechanical keys have a distinctly different feel from a dome type keyboard, and in some cases, they have a distinctive click.

Out of the four keyboards I received to test, two of them use Cherry mechanical switches. The other two use the more common dome switches. The two non-mechanical keyboards were from Microsoft and Kensington, while the two Cherry key-based keyboards came from Logitech and Cherry itself.

The results
The Kensington KP400, priced at $69 (MSRP) is a light- to medium-duty keyboard with a split personality. It’s switchable between a USB connection and Bluetooth, so it’s a good keyboard if you want one that you can share between a PC and a tablet or smartphone. It has chicklet-style keys with not much travel, and I found it had less feedback than I’m used to, but if I had bought it as a replacement for my retired keyboard, I probably would have been satisfied — if not delighted — with it.

The $70 Microsoft Sculpt Ergonomic Desktop is rather strangely shaped with a tear-shaped cutout in the middle of the keyboard and curved and sloped sides and higher at the sloped center. I’m not a touch typist, but someone who is told me that their hands seemed to settle nicely and comfortably into the right position for touch typing. It comes with a separate 10-key pad and mouse, and all three units are wireless with a dongle receiver that plus into a USB port. I found the key feel comfortable and familiar, similar to the Microsoft keyboard that just bit the dust.

The Orion G610 Brown from Logitech costs about $100 and uses Cherry MX switches. It’s a “gaming” keyboard, and as such, has keys for media control, which are actually useful if you tend to watch instructional videos. The keyboard sent for me to test uses Cherry Brown switches. Cherry switches also come in Red and Black versions, each with more or less “click” noise and firmer or greater key pressure needed. The Brown switches are middle of the road. The Cherry MX keyboard also uses Brown switches, and has a similar key feel, but is pricier at $150. Cherry offers less expensive keyboards with its signature mechanical key switches, but the MX keyboard I received feels like you could drive a truck over it without doing any damage. To my unsophisticated hands both keyboards seemed to have similar key feel, and both have great tactile and audible feedback. Finally, both keyboards are heavier than most of the keyboards I’ve typed on over the years, so they won’t move around if you’re a heavy handed typist like I am.

So what’s the bottom line? As with many things, it’s a matter of personal preference, and if I didn’t have the opportunity of testing four different keyboards, I’d probably be happy with a $50 or $60 keyboard. But there is a definite difference in key feel between a $100 keyboard with Cherry mechanical keys and the less expensive Kensington. And of the four, the $150 Cherry brand MX is the one I liked best, though the Logitech, despite it being targeted to gamers, would make a fine addition to any office PC setup. Keep in mind, though, that your budget needs to follow the use. If a keyboard is going to only get light to moderate use, it’s probably not worth spending $100 or more on it. But if you pound on it as much as I do mine, the increase in productivity and longer life starts to make a premium keyboard a lot more financially attractive.

More Ted on Tech:
Odds and ends
Do desktops still make sense?
Managing those pesky printers

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