The keyboard is an item usually overlooked in the IT pantheon but which, for those who spend literally all their time typing, is the physical interface to the page. There’s a surprising amount of variety across models and it pays huge dividends in comfort and accuracy to get the best.
Let’s get the boring stuff over with by talking about plugs and sockets. Keyboards nowadays use USB connections, just like printers and other hardware. Just plug one in and it’ll work. No software is required, strictly speaking, but some keyboards come with apps to let you use the additional row of “multimedia” keys running along the top. Whether you install this is up to you.
If your computer is (ahem) of a more vintage year then you might find it uses a PS/2 keyboard connector. These are circular plugs and are usually coloured purple. It doesn’t make any difference which connector you use, and if your computer is so creakily old that it doesn’t have USB ports – or if all the USB ports are already in use – then you can get a USB-to-PS/2 adapter on sites like eBay. These are cheap as chips.
Switch on the wireless
The second boring consideration is whether to go wireless. There’s certainly a lot of convenience in being able to put the keyboard where you want, including on your lap while you lounge around, and there’s no performance difference between a wireless and cable connection – you can type at 200 words per minute on both, if you’re capable.
Two different technologies are used for wireless: Bluetooth, and 2.4GHz. Unless you’ve a Mac or higher-end PC then forget about Bluetooth. Such keyboards are more expensive anyway and typically designed for use with tablets, so more compact than standard keyboards and they typically feature modifier keys for Apple hardware (I’ll explain what this means in a minute).
2.4GHz keyboards are typically cheap and come with a tiny USB “dongle” that you keep constantly plugged-in to your computer. The keyboard itself uses batteries (usually 2xAA Walkman-size) to communicate with the dongle. You can expect anywhere between two to six months of battery life, and you can sit up to 10 metres away and still stay within range. 2.4GHz wireless keyboards usually come with a wireless mouse too. The mouse will very likely eat batteries like they’re Ferrero Rocher at Christmas so you might choose to leave it in a drawer, and stick with a standard cabled mouse.
Laptops come with built-in keyboards, of course, but there’s no reason why you can’t use an external keyboard if it makes life easier or more comfortable – or indeed if the built-in keyboard has developed a fault. The exact same rules apply as with using such a keyboard on a desktop PC.
Blame Apple. Its designers introduced a new style of keyboard around a decade ago that’s best described here in the UK as The Scrabble Tile Keyboard. In the US they call it the Chiclet keyboard because each key looks like a square of Chiclet chewing gum.
Aside from looking better – or perhaps just different – the keys on these keyboards have shorter travel distances, so that hitting them requires less force than with other designs. This allows you to type with a lighter touch and therefore faster and more accurately – at least in theory.
The traditional style of computer keyboard design used for decades, where each key protrudes from the keyboard and has a more satisfying travel distance, is becoming increasingly rare. In fact you’ll struggle to get a laptop that features anything but Scrabble-style keys, although standalone PC keyboards in this style can still be found from certain manufacturers (Kensington is worth a particular mention). Luckily for fans of such keyboards, generic no-brand models can be had for bargain prices at sites like eBay because they’re considered fusty and undesirable.
Other things to watch out for in the design of keyboards are odd-shaped backspace, enter, shift, and other non-alphanumeric keys. Why’s this important? Well, as just one example, most of us are used to backspace keys at the top right of the keyboard that are large enough to hit without requiring any accuracy. However, some keyboard designers shrink them down to the size of a standard key, and the result can be intensely frustrating when you hit the equals key by accident each and every time you want to delete.
The cluster of keys to the right of the main keyboard are known as the “home” keys (there’s a potential puzzler for a pub quiz). A number of these are useful for writers. The Page Up/Page Down (sometimes PgUp/PgDn) keys let you jump up or down a screenfull of your document at a time, for example. The Insert key switches editing mode so that the cursor will overtype letters where it’s positioned, rather than push the text out of the way, as usually happens. The Home key will take you to the start of a document — or to the start of a paragraph, depending on which word processor you’re using. The End key takes you to the end of a document, or to the end of the paragraph.
Multimedia keys aren’t of any use to writers — unless you like to play music while you work, of course!
The keys at the left and right of the spacebar — such as Ctrl, Alt and the Windows key — also have a name: modifier keys. Again, check any keyboard you buy to ensure these are not only a reasonable size but also that they’re where you’d expect them to be — if they’re even shifted a few millimetres left or right, you can end up hitting the wrong one.
Macs feature a different set of modifier keys – Ctrl, Alt and Cmd – and this design has been carried across to Bluetooth keyboards designed for use with tablet computers. When such keyboards are used on a Windows or Android computer their functions are swapped in for Ctrl, Alt and Windows. They’re just not labelled as such. Even if you’re a touch typist it can all get very confusing. Our advice is to buy a PC keyboard for a PC or Android tablet, and a Mac keyboard for Apple hardware.
The gold standard
Modern keyboards use membrane technology, in which two pieces of conductive plastic touch to register each key press. In the olden days of the 1970s and 80s, computer keyboards used microswitches. Every single key had its own switch.
Switched or mechanical keyboards, as they’re known, are much more sturdy than modern keyboards. In fact, some people are still using keyboards from this era. They refuse to die no matter how harshly they’re treated. For those who learned to type on typewriters, and who have a heavy touch that can wear out standard keyboards, switched keyboards can be a God-send. They’re considered to have a much more positive and responsive feel too, in that there’s little ambiguity as to whether a key has been depressed. People who set world records for typing speeds typically do so on switched keyboards.
Alas, there are some drawbacks. They’re very noisy, with a clack clack sound that will annoy anybody in the same room as you. Additionally, because they’re rarer than membrane keyboards they can tend to be expensive — not ridiculously so, but it can be hard paying £60 for a switched keyboard when you can get cheap membrane PC keyboards for a fiver via eBay. Finally, if you’re used to membrane keyboards — especially Scrabble-style ones — using a switched keyboard takes a little getting used because your fingers have to strengthen. Yes, finger fatigue is a real thing.
Cherry (www.cherry.co.uk) is undoubtedly the market leader for switched keyboards. It not only manufactures switched keyboards but produces a range of switch types for use across its keyboard ranges. Each is defined by its “action” (the feel and travel distance of each key) plus the degree of force required to activate each key (measured in centi-Newtons). If you’re the kind of typist who makes the desk shake on each keystroke then you’ll certainly find a model that can cope, but there’s much for just about any conscientious typist.
Cherry kindly sent us one of their G80 models (http://goo.gl/9xrK97) and we have to say it was a revelation, with our typing speed increasing dramatically and an overall more satisfying experience.
Just a quick word about ergonomic keyboards, which is to say those that move the keys into positions that are supposedly more accessible for your fingers and hands while at rest. If you can get used to them then they may well bring benefits but adjusting to them can be literally painful. Can you afford to spend a few weeks wherein you type extremely slowly? It’s perhaps because of this factor that such keyboards are increasingly hard to find although if you suffer from any typing related complaint then exploring the use of keyboards such as the Maltron Ergonomic Keyboard might be worthwhile — see www.maltron.com.