October 22, 2010
As a guy who spends most of his day typing words on a screen, it's hard for me to take touch computing seriously. I love my iPhone 4, and smartphones are the ultimate utility belt item, but attempting to compose any kind of text on the thing is absolutely crippling. It is a reasonable compromise for a device that fits in your pocket … but that's all.
The minute I switch back to my regular keyboard, I go from being Usain Bolt to the Flash.
Touchscreens are great for passively browsing, as Scott Adams noted:
Another interesting phenomenon of the iPhone and iPad era is that we are being transformed from producers of content into consumers. With my BlackBerry, I probably created as much data as I consumed. It was easy to thumb-type long explanations, directions, and even jokes and observations. With my iPhone, I try to avoid creating any message that are over one sentence long. But I use the iPhone browser to consume information a hundred times more than I did with the BlackBerry. I wonder if this will change people over time, in some subtle way that isn't predictable. What happens when people become trained to think of information and entertainment as something they receive and not something they create?
Because we run an entire network of websites devoted to learning by typing words on a page, it's difficult for me to get past this.
But I'm not here to decry the evils of touchscreen typing. It has its place in the pantheon of computing. I'm here to sing the praises of the humble keyboard. The device that, when combined with the internet, turns every human being into a highly efficient global printing press.
My love affair with the keyboard goes way back:
Maybe I'm biased. As I recently remarked on programmers.stackexchange.com, I can't take slow typists seriously as programmers. When was the last time you saw a hunt-and-peck pianist?
I've been monogamous with the Microsoft Natural Keyboard 4000 for a long time. But in this supposedly happy marriage, I was accidentally neglecting one of the most crucial aspects of the keyboard experience.
The vast majority of keyboards included with white box systems or sold at office supply stores are rubber dome or membrane keyboards.
They are inexpensive, mass produced, relatively low quality devices that are inconsistent and degrade the user experience. Most users don't know this, or simply don't care. The appeal of cheap rubber dome or membrane keyboards is that they're usually available in a variety of styles, are included "free" with a new system, and they may sport additional features like media controls or wireless connectivity. But these cheap keyboards typically don't provide users with any tactile feedback, the keys feel mushy and may not all actuate at the same point, and the entire keyboard assemblies themselves tend to flex and move around when typed on. Not fun.
All this time, I've been typing on keyboards with least-common-denominator rubber dome innards. I was peripherally aware of higher quality mechanical keyboards, but I never appreciated them until I located this absolutely epic mechanical keyboard guide thread. It's also the source of an entire forum of people at geekhack.org who are mechanical keyboard enthusiasts. These kinds of communities and obsessions, writ so large and with such obvious passion, fascinate me. They are the inspiration for what we are trying to do with Stack Overflow and the Stack Exchange network.
If you don't have time to read that epic guide (but you should!), allow me to summarize:
- Almost all computer and laptop keyboards today use cheap, low quality switches -- rubber dome, membrane, scissor, or foam element.
- Mechanical switches are considered superior in every way by keyboard enthusiasts.
- Because the general public largely doesn't care about keyboard feel or durability, and because mechanical switches are more expensive, mechanical switch keyboards are quite rare these days.
Mechanical switches look, well, mechanical. They're spiritually the same as those old-school arcade buttons we used to mash on in the 1980s. You push down on the key, and the switch physically actuates.
Yes, we are rapidly approaching the threshold of esoterica here. Mechanical keyboards were already becoming rare even before the internet, so I'd wager many people now reading this can't possibly know the difference between a typical cheap membrane keyboard and a fancy mechanical model because they've never had the opportunity to try one!
We should rectify that.
If you want to dip your fingers into the world of mechanical switch keyboards, start by asking yourself a few questions:
- Are you willing to spend $70 to $300 for a keyboard?
- How noisy do you want your typing to be?
- Do you want a tactile "snap" when the key is depressed?
- How much force do you type with -- do you have a light or heavy touch?
- How much key travel do you want?
Next, there are further subtleties to consider, like how the keys are printed
- Pad Printed -- the standard cheap stuff. Little more than stickers. Keycaps will wear off fast.
- Laser Etched -- permanent, but leaves tiny surface scars on the keys due to the characters being literally burned into the keys. May also be a tiny bit blurry.
- Dye Sublimated -- dye set into plastic; expensive but nearly optimal.
- Injection Molded -- two keys in different colors are physically bonded together. Very expensive but considered as close to perfect as you can get. Notably, NeXT keyboards used this method.
And what about the shape of the keycaps? Cylindrical? Spherical? Flat? And if you're an avid keyboard gamer, you might want to consider n-key rollover, too. I warned you this rabbit hole was deep.
Let's start looking at a few likely candidates. The one you may already know is Das Keyboard.
Das is a good, reliable brand of mechanical keyboards. They have two primary models. Each is available in the "blank keycaps" versions if you are the sort of ninja typist who doesn't need to look at the keyboard -- you type by chanelling the Force.
The "silent" mechanical switch distinction is an important one: mechanical switches can be loud. How loud? The DAS website actually sells honest-to-god earplugs as a keyboard accessory. I'm sure it's slightly tongue in cheek. Maybe. But consider yourself warned, and choose the silent model if you aren't a fan of the clickety-clack typing.
If you want the most old-school IBM-esque experience possible, and a true classic buckling spring keyboard, then Unicomp is your huckleberry. The common models are the Customizer 104/105 and SpaceSaver 104/105.
Next up is Elite Keyboards, but I can only recommend the (slightly expensive) Topre Realforce model due to the cheap pad keycap printing used on their other models.
Finally, Deck Keyboards -- I remember writing about these guys years ago. They have a full sized keyboard now with a lot of attention to detail: The Deck Legend.
It is also the only keyboard in its class that is backlit, if that's your bag.
Of course, none of these premium fancypants mechanical switch keyboards are really necessary. The most important aspect of writing isn't the keyboard you use, but the simple act of getting out there and writing as much as you can. But if, like me, you accidentally fall in love with the keyboard and everything it represents -- then I think you owe it to yourself to find out what a great keyboard is supposed to feel like.
Posted by Jeff Atwood
Keyboards are an impediment to your work. Programming is thinking and creating, but, unfortunately, you need to get your ideas into the computer somehow.
I knew there was something special about those old IBM keyboards. I felt like they doubled my typing speed. Two problems with 'em, though: (1) loud and (2) not ergonomically shaped. If I don't use a V-shaped keyboard, I start getting wrist problems.
I recently went down exactly the same path. I've had a number of MS Natural 4000s and got tired of the letters fading and the space bar sticking. After quite a lot of research on mechanical keyboards I've picked up a filco and haven't looked back.
@Sigivald: I said in my first post that it's not so much about speed as efficiency, and in my second post I said there are fast Qwerty and Dvorak typists (and plenty of slow ones in each camp, too). Yes, my personal preference is now Dvorak. And of course the fact that the current record holder uses Dvorak doesn't prove anything, but it is something to consider.
There are some facts about Dvorak which are indisputable:
- you spend twice as much time on the home row
- this reduces finger movement and strain
- you alternate hands more (this is an ergonomic improvement)
- it is easier to learn because it is more logical and there are so many common words you can practice right from the very first lesson
I'm not trying to convert you, I couldn't care less if you love Qwerty, or if you type twice as fast as me, or earn ten times as much. But, I think it's unwise to call the benefits of Dvorak a myth when there are so many people who swear by it, and you probably haven't tried it yourself for any significant period of time.
"The Fable of the Fable" http://dvorak.mwbrooks.com/dissent.html
@Sigivald: I'm a Dvorak typist, but I try to take a more nuanced approach for keyboard recommendations.
If I were setting up a typing class at school for kids who are new to typing, I'd make a strong case for setting up the whole computer room to use Dvorak. That is because I do believe that Dvorak is easier to learn if you aren't already a skilled typist. (For starters, you can do home-row exercises using real words.)
But for people who are already skilled in their layout (100+ wpm, no matter what layout they're using), there's no reason to switch, unless they particularly wanted to. The retraining will take time, and in my opinion, the real gain comes if you struggled on qwerty, not if you're already good at it.
(Back when I switched, 7 years ago, I was one of the fastest qwerty typists at work. I switched because I was bored and needed something to keep my brain active. Sadly I didn't record my typing speed before the switch, so I cannot meaningfully decide if switching improved my speed significantly.)
Of course, that reflects my view that people who know what they're doing should be free to do what they want---if they're comfortable with qwerty, then they should feel free to keep using it. Personally, for myself, I have the same opinion of qwerty as I do of Apple*, and so it's extremely unlikely that I'll ever switch back.
* I strongly dislike both, but I don't judge people who use either or both. Hey, there are people who strongly dislike Dvorak, Linux, and Android; that shouldn't make me a better or worse person in their eyes, either.
I couldn't help but think of the gorgeous artisan/steampunk keyboards at Datamancer.net (http://www.datamancer.net/keyboards/keyboards.htm) that I found a while back. I can't see myself ever shelling out that much cash for a keyboard, but they sure are purdy.
I wonder which one of the available mechanical keyboards is least noisy...
Any keyboard with flat keybeds has sacrificed ergonomics to reduce cost or achieve compactness; your fingertips do not naturally move in a plane when flexed.
The only two keyboards that ~don't have flat keywells are the kinesis contour/advantage and the Malton, and it's not clear if latter even still exists; they don't answer their e-mail.
I find it funny that there are so many complaints about no ergonomic mechanical keyboards, with the MS Natural Ergonomic 4000 being a great example of what is needed. I scored one of these at work and my thumbs were sore after about 2 minutes as it requires a significant amount of pressure to depress the spacebar, unless you push it down dead in the center.
This is apparently a common problem [ http://www.paulstravelpictures.com/MS-Natural-Ergo-Keyboard-Sticky-Spacebar-Fix/index.html ] though I was able to mitigate it by twisting the sway bar a little. But still the keyboard provides little advantage except forcing you to separate your hands a little and come in at an angle. Though I already do this on standard keyboards and can type fine anyway. In fact my hand placement is probably better on a standard keyboard as I don't have to twist or stretch my hands to press the spacebar as near to dead center as I can just to ensure the thing doesn't jam. For those of you who can't use anything but an ergonomic keyboard, there has to be something better.
And, as a couple have noted, there are ergonomic mechanical keyboards.
And they take a lot more into consideration than just splitting the keyboard. For example, both halves of the keyboard are mirrored, just like your hands, instead of angled from left to right. And they give the thumb more to do than hit the spacebar.
Using the MS Ergo 4000 (along with having a job) has convinced me it's time to spend the $300-$500 on a good mechanical ergonomic keyboard. Now if I could only decide. Maltron, or Kinesis?
Had the same low-end rubber dome Microsoft Wired Keyboard for six years now. Cleaned it out a year ago but still a very nice, basic keyboard for £6. Loose tolerances and a mushy feel but very relaxing to type on and reasonably quiet.
My favorite keyboard was the FingerWorks-modified MS Natural Keyboard with the integrated mousepad. Thanks to Apple, FingerWorks disappeared and I no longer had a source for it. The MS Natural 4000 is about the closest I can get to a perfect keyboard, except that it doesn't have the nice feel of mechanical switches. However, it correctly defaults to not using the *stupid* Fn lock, and the arrow / PgUp, etc. keys are all in the right spots.
Ergonomics is important for me, and while the MS Natural 4000 isn't a true ergonomic keyboard, I didn't last very long with the Das keyboard. I absolutely need a split keyboard at the very least. So I ended up hacking the MS 4000 to work for me, and I brought my mouse as close as possible to the main keys. Who needs 10 key anyways? :)
Good post, Jeff. You and I actually conversed about a year ago about keyboards via email. I'm a long-time Microsoft 4000 keyboarder, but have always longed for "the perfect mix."
I don't have RSI issues after extended typing sessions on either of my Macbook Pro laptops. One is "old school" -- silver keys. The other (that I use 98% of the time) is a 2009 model with the chiclet keyboard. Even so, I still prefer an "ergonomic" keyboard for my desk. I enjoy the short key travel and quick feedback from the better laptop keyboards currently on the market. I have been looking for a keyboard that combined an ergonomic layout with "laptop-style" keys for a long time, and have never found one. It seems that every ergonomic keyboard uses rubber domes, and the Microsoft 4000 is the least of the evils.
I also recently came across the same threads of keyboard enthusiast messages that prompted your blog post. I'm still undecided where I'm going to go next with keyboards.
So, I have to ask... after all the reading you did and your effort in putting in this blog post, I didn't see anything that said if you were actually going to start using something other than your tried-and-true Microsoft 4000? Was this post simply informational musing, or were you going somewhere with it (such as, "after all this research and what I've learned, I've decided that I'm going to try xxxxxx keyboard next")?
>"I can't take slow typists seriously as programmers."
>That seems rather silly. The speed of typing has nothing to do with >programming.
>I've seen good programmers that use the two finger method of typing. Just >because it takes them a bit longer to put down (even so, barely, >apparently if you do it a lot, you become fast regardless), it doesn't >affect the quality of their code.
Yes those good programmers you saw were superior to most programmers, because they can remain good while having slow typing speed (less than 6 keys / seconds), and distraction of moving eye focus between the keyboard and the screen.
In other words, while nothing can denies they are good, they must have greater brain power.
In other words, while they have greater brain power, why don't they improve typing speed by using more fingers, and then have less distraction, and eventually become even better programmers?
learn2swype noob http://swypeinc.com/
i'm a 120wpm typist but out of necessity, not choice. swyping is freedom from our mechanical overlords, and i'm not even very good at it yet, just got my new phone a couple weeks ago.
Great article, I couldn't agree more. I've been using an old IBM SpaceSaver II server keyboard (no numeric keypad, built in Trackpoint nipple, nice and clicky).
I love macs but everytime I get a new desktop machine I have to ebay the attractive but useless fancy-pants Apple keyboard - all style and no substance. Muggles (non-techies) express surprise when they see my state-of-the-art MacPro connected to an unassuming '1980s style' keyboard. This just goes to show how much they know ;)
PS. Agree wholeheartedly with your view on non-typists. The analogy re: pianists is a very good one. How much time DO you spend at the keyboard ...?
I recently left AT&T and after three years of iPhone I was unable to type at all on the teeny tiny Blackberry keyboard! I ended getting an HTC EVO because it has a glass capacitative touch screen and has that iPhone "feel." My speed on Blackberry was less than half that on iPhone. I guess that's an acquired taste.
As to keyboards, I used to love the old mechanical IBM keyboards, but I'm now with the commenters who note the lack of ergo keyboards in the list. My employer bought me a Kinesis Advantage (for $285!) after my elbow and wrist surgery two years ago because the damage to my wrist and elbow was attributed to keyboarding by my hand surgeon. The Kinesis Advantage's mechanical keys have a similar "click" to those old IBM's but the hand positioning is nearly optimal, which it is not with the IBM. I do use the built-in keyboard on my Macbook Pro for short durations at home, but I can't tolerate a standard keyboard for long. I also use a vertical mouse at work, as a standard mouse or trackball puts too much stress on my wrist. I couldn't do my job without my Kinesis Advantage and my vertical mouse.
I currently use this
and a crappy Acer at work (crappiest thing about this keyboard is the placement of the f-keys means I keep reaching for the esc key and end up hitting the sleep button)
One of these days I would like to try something GOOD, maybe something with mechanical keys (I have used the original MS natural keyboard and hated it though)
What I want to know is why no-one has made a bluetooth keyboard with mechanical key-switches (would be the ultimate keyboard :)
Jeff, Jeff, Jeff,
How could you do this without one decent ergonomic keyboard? My personal favorite is the Kinesis Contoured. Whether Essential, Advantage, or Pro, the mechanics are all the same---only the firmware is different. This keyboard saved my career. I got my first one in 1994, and I own six of them. New costs $300 but a reconditioned is just as good and you can save some cash.
I do sometimes miss my original IBM PC keyboard, which not only was a great mechanical keyboard, but was also rugged enough to use as a cricket bat. But the Kinesis is better.
Mechanical switches in keyboards? Whatever!
I used to have a Marquard(t?) keyboard with Reed switches! Reed! Those that react to the the _speed_ at which you pressed the key! Slow down motion -> No key. Proper keydown -> Hit! Made in early 80s, it was the perfect typing tool. German made, I believe (of course).
Even Apple's Extended II keyboard, which was great, couldn't match it (= mechanical switches).
And yes, I could always tell the cheap ones, they were and still are everywhere! And people wouldn't believe me when I told them that the kbd was crap. Oh, the good ole times...
I love my Goldtouch keyboards. I'm curious about whether mechanical keys are really better, but I would never go back to using a less ergonomic (angle/position wise) keyboard again, and it's really hard to even consider going back to page up/down being on the right.
PGUP/PGDN on the left hand FOREVER!
The laptop keyboards and the Apple flat keyboards drive me nuts. I like the longer travel. I am, however, a keyboard killer. I beat them mercilessly until they start skipping keystrokes. I would love to be able to try one of those Cherry switch keyboards before buying it. I have an old IBM keyboard, and it is great except that the plug doesn't fit anything any more (AT only).
It is about time for a new keyboard again (space bar, "M", and "T" skip) so I will take this all into consideration.
This post reminded me . . . I have been using this site for roughly 2 years now
keyboardr is basically a search aggregation engine which allows you to search for a term and get results back not just from google, but youtube, wikipedia, google images, and google blogs. obviously it uses the same search engine as google but the fact that a lone German,Julius Eckert , was able to create this site about 2 years before google instant came out (and yes if you have looked at the site at all you'd see that it does have the same features as google instant (it also, in my opinion, feels a bit more responsive.)
I notice that all the keyboards you've shown there have standard layouts.
I've had to work for alot of employers that don't know the difference. Like when the backslash moves over and the enter key grows to fill the space, or (this is the worst) when the arrow keys and home,end,insert etc. get mangled to "save space"; usually for the pointless plasticky moulding on the side.
I would like to use FrogPad. Only one hand to write, though it will make me exhausted later. So the other hand is always ready to move the mouse.
I agree that typing on a mobile device is no fun. It seems like someone should reinvent the keyboard for mobiles, and it seems someone did: http://www.the8pen.com
Let's see what comes out of this...
FYI, for you trackpoint fans, the M13 variant of the Model M included a trackpoint. It came in a relatively rare black version too.
Unicomp's Endurapro also has a trackpoint, but it uses a different technology and has a different feel compared to the strain-gauge IBM Trackpoints.
I don't think either have the middle trackpoint button though, which is one of the reasons I love trackpoint.
Jeff, you neglected to say which keyboard you're switching to. The MS Ergo wasn't a secret, so why haven't you told us? Is it the Das?
I was excited to receive my new Unicomp Customizer 104, delivered just today. To my extreme disappointment, it arrived in an inoperable condition. The tilde key fell off as removed the keyboard from the box. The CapsLock, Shift, and Ctrl keys on the left of the keyboard will not depress; the underside of the keys overhang the plastic molding.
I'll give the company call tomorrow and arrange for a replacement. I hope to report a good customer service experience.
+1 for Autohotkey - makes any keyboard better. Runs great off a USB drive too.
+1 for Swype on Android; so sorry Steve won't allow third-party input schema on iOS devices.
+1 for MS Natural Ergonomic 4000
+1 whoever said "ergonomic" means very little other than "designed for fat people" - When I use one of those, I have to hold my arms in a very unnatural position, and it feels like I'm trying to air out my pits or something.
Also, those who are defending their poor typing skills - I think you are missing the point. It has nothing to do with your actual speed - it's that poor typing skills represent a deficiency in the usage of YOUR PRIMARY TOOL for getting the job done - and I'm not just talking about the job of writing code, which is only maybe 10% of the job of "computer programmer" - if you can't type, you've ignored the opportunity to become proficient in something you use every day, and that is a bad quality in a programmer. It doesn't represent a lack of skills, it represents an attitude that Jeff (and myself and many others) thinks is important.
It may have taken a long time to paint the Sistine Chapel, and there is little doubt that it is very well done. However, what do you think would be the effect on the quality and time to execute, if Michelangelo didn't know how to use a paint brush? Or even better, what if Michelangelo couldn't properly demonstrate his ability to paint? Would he have been hired for the job?
You can not deny this. Don't defend your poor skills - learn your tools better.
As far as mechanical keyboards go, occasionally you can get amazing deals. Occasionally.
I have a SIIG mechanical keyboard - not the best out there, but a good entry model. http://www.siig.com/ViewProduct.aspx?pn=JK-US0112-S1 This usually costs $70 or so, but I just happened to be in a place where people don't know much about keyboards, and so found this keyboard stuffed (barely fitting) in a box labeled "USB multimedia keyboard" ... for $20. It just so happens that the picture displayed on the box was essentially identical, except that the multimedia keyboard uses cheap membrane switches. No one bothered to point out the difference, so I bought the box, damaged and all. The keyboard inside was perfectly fine.
That was some deal.
Just to follow up on my previous post, my customer service experience with Unicomp was excellent, and I am *very* satisfied with the new Customizer104. I've been clicking away happily for a couple weeks, now.
What arrogance. You can type. Hooray.
After spending the evening with the Deck Legend, I frankly don't understand the recommendation. The sucky spacebar alone is a deal-breaker--never mind that it won't work *at all* with my KVM switch.
The bonus? I logged back onto Deck's (amateur-hour) website to return this clunky monstrosity, only to learn that--apparently--the 30-day money back "guarantee" includes a 12.5% restocking fee...and that on top of what I'll pay to have it shipped back.
Innall fairness, I'll be talking to the Customer Service folks tomorrow to see whether other arrangements can be made. But I'll certainly be viewing your recommendations with a jaundiced eye after this. What a waste of money & time!
I would say this will all become moot as I would estimate within the next 5 years or so, we will do most of our typing via voice, maybe just on our mobile devices, but probably also on our desktop/laptop systems as well.
For those wanting mechanical switches and ergonomics, here's another option:
Unfortunately, they are currently in a pre-order phase. But it looks like it might be a good option for some people.
As for me, I'm using a Logitech Illuminated keyboard. Works pretty well, though I would prefer it if it were a little more ergonomic.
Oh my god! That guide is epic. I never thought I would care, but I'm going out this weekend to shop for a new keyboard.
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It's taken me a while, but thanks to this post I went and got a Das Keyboard (Silent with blank keycaps because I do use the Force to type...in Dvorak). I love it.
So very much.
Now if only I could convince work (sadly, not a programming job where I'd have the leverage to get comfortable and productivity-enhancing clickity-clackity hardware) to get one for me.
Kevdog, I'm with you on the TypeMatrix - check out my in-depth review of it here (http://www.slipjig.org/Mike/blog/typematrix-ezr-2030-keyboard-review). I loved my 2030s, and my only gripes are the price ($110), lack of Bluetooth, and lack of durability. I've gone through four or five of them, because they only last 12-18 months for me and tend to fail with the exact same symptoms*, which to me indicates a flaw in design or manufacturing. When the last one failed, I reluctantly decided to just buy a cheap name-brand keyboard... the Microsoft Bluetooth Keyboard 6000. The feel is OK, but as I found out, it sucks for programming because you have to press Fn to get Home or End (ugh). I'll be switching to something else.
*The X, B and Z keys would stop working.