Keyboard Perfection

I’ve used many keyboards in my time on this Earth. I think the very first one I used was attached to an old manual typewriter that I used to use to type up certain homework assignments in junior high. The first one that I used that was connected to a computer was the collection of square calculator keys that Commodore called a keyboard on the PET 2001. After that, there were the TRS- 80s, the Apple II, the VT-100 in the high school, the Adm-3a, Tektronix, and some horrific unified APL terminals at Umass, and who can forget the Concept 100s at CMU.

And all these before I ever owned a computer of my own.

Over the years I’ve had some favorite keyboards. I think that the original IBM RT workstations had the best keyboard that I used while in college. The Sun keyboards were also a favorite because for a long time they held out against the evil of the “business” keybaord layout which moved the CTRL key down into a hard to reach corner rather than placing it above the left shift key where God Himself intended it to go. Over time, I have come to peace with this mutilation of the perfect layout, but only after I trained myself to stop using Emacs for everything.

Later on, after a few bouts with wrist tendonitis I went through a phase where the only keyboard I would use was made by a company called Adesso and had a track pad stuck into the wrist wrest so that I didn’t have to use a mouse. At the time, the buttons on most mice were on the stiff side and aggravated my hands. This was also my “split layout” phase. Eventually I concluded that split keyboards just make it harder to commit the crimes against touch typing that are my normal mode of working, so I stopped using them.

I have always liked wireless keybords, and used nothing else for a couple of years starting in 1998. I stopped using them around the time Bluetooth was foisted on the world and could never make myself happy with all that pairing and unpairing. I started using laptops almost exlusively for several years. The Dells at the time had nice keyboards. There were always the ThinkPad enthusiasts, but I never liked the exaggerated depth of those keyboards, not to mention the stupid pointing stick.

During my latest Mac phase, I’ve had to put up with generally inferior keyboards. I used a couple of Ti Powerbooks as my only computing machines for a couple of years and eventually got used to the square mushy keys, but I never really liked them. The Aluminum Powerbooks and Macbook Pros were an improvement, and the cute little semi-chicklet keyboard on the Macbook is also pleasing. The Apple desktop keyboards have traditionally been abysmal. I have several complaints about them, some of which are specific to the Apple product and some of which apply to desktop keyboards in general:

1. They are too wide. I never use anything on my keyboard to the right of the right shift key. As far as I’m concerned that whole area and just be chopped off. I’ve always hated desktop keyboards because they put my mouse too far away, and I like using my mouse. Laptops made me happy for a long time partly because I like trackpads and partly because when you use a mouse it’s not too far away.

2. The key feel is mushy. I’m not sure what kind of membrane switch they use, but I could never get used to it when typing fast.

3. They have this clear enclosure underneath the main keyboard assembly that does nothing but collect dirt, hair, and other gross bodily detritus. It’s really disturbing.

What I always wanted in a keyboard was something that used a laptop layout, so it wasn’t too wide, and which had light but positive action so it’s easy to type on without tiring out old fingers. I tried the Happy Hacking keyboard for a while, but didn’t like it. The key action is unpredictable and the keyboard doesn’t have the function keys, which I don’t like. For the last few years, I’ve been compromising with the Matias mechanical switch keyboard. This thing has the stupid too-wide desktop layout, but it makes up for it with the best key action that I’ve ever experienced. The keys take almost no pressure at all to activate, and when you hit bottom there is a reassuring mechanical <click>. Unfortunately, I work in a fairly open office, which means that everyone on my side of the bulding can hear me type. I decided that these problems were worth the great key action, and I stopped looking at keyboards for a long time.

Imagine my surprise and delight when Apple, of all companies, revamped their Bluetooth keyboard and made it nearly perfect. The keyboard uses switches that feel like the ones in the current Macbook laptops (not the Macbook Pro). I like the key tops and the switches, but others might not like their semi- chicklet nature. For me, the action is light enough to not tire my hands, and even if the tactile feedback is not as sure as the Matias, it’s good enough. What is finally perfect about this keyboard is the size. Finally, the useless keypad boat anchor on the right side of the keyboard is gone, replaced by what feels like ten inches of reclaimed desk space. Better yet, the huge clunky transparent enclosure is gone. The body of the keyboard is about as thick as two or three credit cards and is covered in that new shiny Apple metal skin. Finally, the battery tube on the back tilts the thing at just the right angle and in a final design flourish, there is a hidden green LED that tells you when the keyboard is on and when it is doing the dreaded Bluetooth pairing dance.

So far, I only have two minor complaints:

1. The “media” keys are not laid out the same way as on the laptops. Oh well. At least the fn-key row is there, so I don’t have to lose my precious Exposé key, even if it is on F3 rather than F9.

2. The square CTRL key is hard to hit. I have this problem sometimes on the Macbook too, but it’s not too bad.

Overall, I think this keyboard is a design triumph for the small-handed keypad hating users of the world. The thing is shiny, small, thin and superbly functional. The Consumer Rule dictates that to hedge against the future, I should purchase five of these, once I make sure that the keys break in well.