consumer products

My Guide to Keyboards

To those of us who spend a long time using large desktop computers the keyboard is something you spend a lot of time using and hopefully very little time thinking about. Sadly for me my keyboard broke a few weeks ago. I was not particularly attached to my old keyboard, it had some issues that made it annoying at times but it was still usable. It had some functions that were silly like a cooling fan for your fingers but it also had some features I quite liked such as back lighting and macro keys. This meant now with the keyboard dead I could assess what was new in the market and see what I could get that would hopefully get me all the features I wanted for little cost.

A little bit of background as to why I care so much about keyboards. Firstly I can touch type, now for the purposes of this argument touch typing is where I can stare at something I’m reading and type it at the same time. I am not the fastest typist but a new keyboard takes a little bit of time to adjust to because I rely so heavily on muscle memory to type. Secondly I learn’t to type on a mix of electronic typewriters, mechanical typewriters and early 90’s computer keyboards. All of these have fairly separated keys with long travel distances if you wish to compare it with your average laptop keyboard, they also had a fair bit of resistance and tactile response whenever you were typing at speed.

So what was my old keyboard then? A rubber dome medium travel full size keyboard. This while not unusable was not ideal, it worked plenty fine and I was even able to type at speed with it for those longer report based assignments. The reason why I originally got the keyboard as for a couple of reasons, firstly it was cheap, second it had macro buttons and third it was backlit. As time went on these features changed in their importance to me. When I got my keyboard I was mostly playing games and web browsing so keyboard use was pretty basic so the ability for it to work and not take up too much of my desk was about it.

Now some five or so years later things have changed a bit. I am gaming a lot less, I do the occasional bit of programming and I do the occasional assignment which can span for as much a 40 pages. Needless to say my demands have changed. So when one morning I turned my computer on and the lights on the keyboard didn’t I knew it was time for a new keyboard. Sure I could have opened it up and tried to figure out what happened to it but this was a great excuse to finally get a new keyboard that is suited to my needs.

So my list of things that were essential on the new one were;

  • High set (long travel) keys, this is the old keyboard design where the keys travel about 1cm when you press them down. These types of keys usually have very good separation between the keys.
  • Macro Keys, while I do not use these very often when I do I appreciate it. This is a feature that I mostly use for gaming but comes in handy sometimes for repetitive tasks.
  • Media Keys, I may very well be the last person who uses a media player on my desktop and I do like being able to control volume etc. from the keyboard.
  • Num pad, I really like them, I don’t care about the extra space it takes up. When you do the occasional 3D modelling it is super helpful.
  • Quiet, my housemate hates loud clicky clacky noises.

Things that would be nice;

  • Back lighting, even though I can touch type it is still nice.
  • Detachable USB Cable, I don’t often detach my keyboard, but when I do I prefer to do it on the keyboard end rather than the computer end.
  • Ergonomic design, I really like the Microsoft ergonomic series so I figure it would be worthwhile looking at.

One thing I really was not set on was mechanical vs rubber dome keyboard. This is a whole subject unto itself, suffice it to say that mechanical keyboards with micro switches are all the rage at the moment and if you want fancy features on your keyboard it appears that not many manufactures are including rubber dome option. In some ways that made my mind up on the matter and thus the question would be which type of mechanical switches to get. For the uninitiated there are many types of switches with different spring strength, actuation force and tactile feedback. Again my requirement was quiet which narrowed down the options to only two or three types.

To save you a long and tedious story about all the different things that were options ill just jump straight what I ended up with. It is the Cougar Attack 2, a fairly unknown brand here in Australia. There is nothing particularly special about this keyboard except that the price was right and it wasn’t gaudy. While it is not perfect and could be a little more feature packed it does not make any of the common mistakes that some other brands do. Firstly you don’t need any special software to run it like many other “gaming” keyboards. This is great I don’t have to have another silly program load on start up! The only down side to this is I can’t do stuff like have macros with delayed key presses and create obscure shortcuts and save them to the keyboard. The only other thing that would have been nice would be back lighting but I never considered this a necessity.

What I really bought was more comfortable typing, and this I defiantly have. Without using any silly romantic marketing talk the keyboard works as intended and the separation of the keys coupled with the longer travel means I can now type at speed without looking at the board at all (unless I need ^&*$#@, I never can remember where they are). It means that using my laptop for typing (like I’m doing at the moment) is slower and more annoying to me.

So why write a huge long mostly pointless article about computer keyboards? It got me thinking about the process of how I buy pretty much anything, I sum up the options and then pick on. But more than that I often find that the “market leader” or the current product with the rave reviews rarely meets my requirements or expectations. It makes me lament how there seems so few reviewers that I agree with. This is at its worst when I look at digital cameras. Many years ago you had photographers reviewing cameras, now you have tech journalists doing the same. The reviews focus on different things, the conclusions are often very different. I found that review sites for computer hardware didn’t give me much insight into the current state of the market or narrow down the options of what I should buy. While I am not about to decry reviewers for not being able to tell me what I want (this really isn’t their job) I just feel that a little diversity in this field would go a long way.

To conclude …. New keyboard, pretty good. Better than old one. Wont have to think about it for another five years or so.