The importance of a good keyboard

Something I have been thinking about a fair amount but sounds ridiculous to some people is the importance of a good keyboard. The more you work at computers and type, the more it matters. I think that programmers, being more tightly intertwined with the history of computing, probably have a bit more of a culture around keyboards than the average office would - but that doesn’t mean that it’s not particularly relevant to everyone.

I thought that “they just didn’t make keyboards like they used to” until Zach reintroduced me to mechanical keyboards, with this one that he built himself that I’ve been using:

The keyboard I'm currently using

Mechanical keyboards have real switches and springs rather than the rubber that’s in most laptop and regular cheap keyboards today. The mechanical aspect of it gives the user real feedback and “clickiness”, which is not only satisfying but actually lets you type more quickly. When using a regular keyboard, there’s no obvious feedback that lets you know when the keypress has been registered by the device, so you have to exert more pressure and push the key all the way down. With mechanical keyboards, the clicky feedback lets you know when you’ve pushed the key far enough and then let go immediately and move onto the next one. I know it’s hard to imagine how that helps, but in practice, it feels very different and much more efficient.

Since then, I’ve been shopping around at a few computer stores to start trying to figure out what it actually is that I care about in a keyboard. I boiled it down to a few key categories:

  • Size of keyboard (key spacing)
  • Size of the keys
  • Feedback (aka “crunchiness”)

Things that I was surprised to find did not end up on the list:

Key layout

I have some preferences regarding where things like the Home or End keys are (or that they exist—looking at you, Mac keyboards), but ultimately, as long as all of the keys immediately next to the normal QWERTY layout where the same, I generally didn’t have too much trouble readjusting to to different locations for lesser-used buttons like “Print Screen”.

Actually having the names of the keys

Granted, this one will be far more important for most people, but I turned out to be enough of a touch typist that I don’t actually need the characters to be displayed on the keys at all. I did run a cross a couple issues when trying to use the non-labeled Windows keyboard on a Mac, but I think that was due more to being unfamiliar with Mac commands, particularly not being sure how the Windows keyboard would end up mapping to them.

At Hacker School, we happen to have one of what is generally considered by many to be the best keyboard ever made: the Model M, known for its extreme clickiness.

I really enjoyed trying it out, and I’m going to be getting a mechanical keyboard myself for sure - I just have to decide which, and what is worth the price, since they can run $80-$130.