Karl Strieby

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Keyboard Review

I just upgraded my Keyboard — again.

In my world, keyboard choice is important. I am far from the only geek who thinks computer keyboards matter.

  • Remember all the fuss in the media over the last couple of years about Apple laptop keyboards?

I'm a grade-8 summer-school trained touch typist, from the era when the IBM Selectric™ typewriter was the one that lured us to class early so we could grab one of those state-of-the-art machines instead of the sucky Remington (basket of easily jammed keys) models that inhabited all but the front two rows of the classroom. Although I spent my grades 9-12 and university days banging out term papers and other school work on a manual Smith-Corona that is older than I am, I never lost the love of the Selectric's touch and feel.

What is so great about Selectric-type computer keys?

When IBM began to produce personal computers, those systems came with the now-legendary Model M keyboard that used very similar key technology as the Selectric typewriter. Other computer companies used similar keyboard technology at first, but when the “race to the bottom” (make it ever more cheaply) trend started a long time ago, new PC computers all began to have cheap plastic “membrane” keyboards that I quickly grew to hate.

  • Because the keys clicked when pressed properly, they never dropped a character -- unless there was no audible click. (Typewriters made a solid bang when the key or Selectric ball hit the ribbon, but on a computer, you need to hear and feel that click...)
  • As a touch typist, I don't need to look at the paper in a typewriter or the screen on the computer.
  • Instead, I can look at the copy I'm typing (or just think as hard as I need to) about what I'm writing, and simply listen and feel for those marvelous clicks . That's lots easier than shifting attention back and forth and losing your place!
  • A touch typist then depends on careful editing (your own task. if a real professional editor isn't available to you) to catch any errors that snuck through into the document, correct inaccurate or awkward wording, and all the other wonderful things a great editor does.

Important feature: inverted dome keys

Just like on a Selectric (and even old sucky Remingtons and my ancient Smith-Corona), the tops of the keys are shaped to fit the tip of a finger comfortably. This has the advantage that your fingers are unlikely to slide off of a key. You don't want to strike the key next to it. Instant typo!

And the “home keys” (F and J) have little raised ridges at the bottom of the key that tell your index fingers where they (and the other four fingers of each hand) should be.

  • You'll find this home key feature on most typewriter and computer keyboards, even the ones with flat key tops. (Yay!)
  • On flat-key keyboards, however, the little ridges only help you start typing with your fingers in the right place: you can still easily slide off a desired key onto a wrong one. (Boo!)

Thin -- by itself -- does not make a keyboard sexy.

(Apologies to Jony Ive and his competitors, but...) A truly typist-hostile trend in modern keyboards is thin-as-possible design. Why's that so nasty?

  • Vertical key travel is tiny. If that takes away tactile and audible clicks, it makes even an otherwise beautifully-designed keyboard harder to use for fussy typists than it should be.
  • And flat key tops? C'mon man!

Having said all that, I'm probably being too harsh about the flat key tops. Or not.

  • But I won't back down about the mushy feel of these things...BOO!

Give me crisp action, please!

On keyboards I like, the key action is crisp. When you press a key,

  • You feel a little bit of resistance, until, after a short distance of key travel,
  • It goes down fast, and
  • You hear (and feel) a solid CLICK when the key hits bottom.

That wonderful click tells you that your last key press truly sent that character to whatever application your were typing in.

  • Don't get me started on a rant about the times when something unexpectedly steals the system focus and you end up typing either nowhere or (worse) somewhere you didn't want those keystrokes to be going...
  • Once again, I strongly feel that the mushy-feeling computer keyboards so common today are downright unreliable. Unless you slow down and press keys a lot harder than you should need to, you can’t possibly know (without looking at the screen) whether a character you typed was input or not.

    Almost all modern laptop or other mobile keyboard keys have relatively little vertical travel, and little to no tactile bottom or click feel. That makes a mushy feel to spoiled fingers like mine. Ick! again...

    • Some people wonder why Repetitive Strain Injury (RSI) and Carpal Tunnel Syndrome are so common nowadays…but I digress.

    With a good keyboard,

    • If it clicked, you typed it.
    • If it didn’t click, you didn’t.

    There is never any doubt. And --

    • It’s easier on your hands, because you don’t have to use any more pressure on the keys than it takes to produce that click
    • Your touch can be fast and light.
    • Finally, it just makes plain good sense to reduce RSI risk.

    I have other keyboards that I have used and loved. And wrote about.

    (Perhaps ad nauseum...)

    Two that I still have as spares:

    Matias One

    The Matias One keyboard was one of those “they’ll have to pry it out of my cold dead fingers” items in my high-tech collection. I finally just replaced it.

    This is easily 2012’s most anticipated new addition to my technology collection. Engadget had a posting about this keyboard back in January of that year.

    http://www.engadget.com/2012/01/13/matias-one-hammer-out-an-iphone-masterpiece-on-the-best-keyboar/

    More or less immediately after reading that post, I headed over to Matias’s web site and placed a “pre-order” with the understanding that it would arrive in May.

     

    Multi-function Keys

    An interesting bonus feature of the Matias One is the ability to easily produce a very long list of “extended characters”. If you look at any of the standard alpa-numeric keys, you see two additional available characters that you produce by holding down Option or Shift+Option plus the desired character.

    So if you need international language or scientific/mathematical characters, this is a handy feature. It could beat the old ALT+4-digit Numeric Keypad way to get special characters (assuming the character you need is supported by the Matias key mappings) because it involves fewer key presses. For more information about the old way to get extended characters, Google "Ascii Extended Characters"... 

    Bluetooth connection to iPhone / iPad (or other mobile device)

    This seemed like a silly option until I actually used it. 

    • It’s fast and easy to set up the required Bluetooth pairing. 
    • And if you need to type more than a few words of text on your mobile device, the One Keyboard is a quick and easy and very reliable way to do just that.

    These were worthwhile features, but I actually rarely used them. But I kept using that Keyboard because it was great to type on (if a little loud).

    The new Matias is even nicer to type on. A slight decrease in required finger effort, and considerably less noise.

     

    Das Keyboard

    http://www.daskeyboard.com/

    Not long after I got my first Mac, I purchased one of these when they had a discount promotion. I was briefly tempted to get the “Ultimate” version with no labels on the keys, but reconsidered. I decided that was too geeky even for me...

    I used it at home on my Mac for a while, but I quickly started missing the special Mac function keys that I use a lot. Hmm, I see that they now have a Mac-specific Das Keyboard model that costs about the same as the Matias Tactile Pro. Darn, I guess I missed that product announcement.

    At any rate, I took my generic PC Das Keyboard to my day job workplace, and loved it to pieces. I cursed inside my head every time I had to use one of the standard Compaq, HP, Dell, or Lenovo cheap plastic mushpads my poor coworkers put up with so uncomplainingly. I also cursed a little bit at my standard Apple keyboard when using my Mac at home. The original USB keyboard that came with my old Mac Pro was almost OK, but it had flat keys...

    Then I got the original Matias...

    I've just taken a look at today's das keyboard web site, and their Mac offerings look very good as well. Pricing, maybe a bit cheaper than Matias...depending on the features you want.

    This old pack rat also kept the original wired USB Apple keyboard that came with my original Mac Pro. It has flat keys, but at least they click a little bit, and I got some good use out of it. Otherwise I would have recycled it years ago. Maybe next time I go to the nearby electronics recycling place, I'll take it there with some other obsolete hardware.

    Heading down memory lane one more time, I was once fortunate enough to own a Northgate Omnikey keyboard that I wish had never gone flakey on me. And its PS-2 style connector was yet another factor that made it useless after many years of good service.

    So...what's my new Keyboard?

    Another Matias, this time a Tactilepro. I ordered it after getting an e-mail from Matias promoting it.

    UPS dropped it off here a few days ago, and I really like the touch and feel of typing on this. It's a softer touch than my previous Matias, but still clicky enough to keep my fingers and ears happy. I have yet to see a missed character when I am typing at full speed, unlike what happens on many other keyboards I use. (Notable exception: the keyboard that comes on the late-2019 16-inch MacBook Pro is just clicky enough for shorter use, even if it sometimes drops the odd character or (worse) lets my fat fingers slide off the flat keys and mess up everything :-(.

    If I need some longer-form text to input to my mobile devices, I'm happy to type it on my Mac and use iCloud Drive to move the data and paste it into whatever mobile app. Notes work well for this, as they go to iCloud automatically. Unless there's no Internet available, in which case my thumbs and off-colour language might get a big workout. (No huge deal, if you have a USB drive and the right adapters to plug that into your mobile device...)

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    Site recreation started (palindrome alert!) 02/22/20. This page last updated: 7 March 2020.