Coding Horror

programming and human factors

The Keyboard Cult


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.


Touchscreen-vs-keyboard


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.

Membrane-remote-control

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:

  1. Almost all computer and laptop keyboards today use cheap, low quality switches -- rubber dome, membrane, scissor, or foam element.
  2. Mechanical switches are considered superior in every way by keyboard enthusiasts.
  3. 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.


Buckling-spring-switch


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-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.


Unicomp-spacesaver


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.


Topre-realforce


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.


Deck-legend-keyboard


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.


Written by Jeff Atwood

Indoor enthusiast. Co-founder of Stack Exchange and Discourse. Disclaimer: I have no idea what I'm talking about. Find me here: http://twitter.com/codinghorror