Opinion

By Ben Hart,

Working from home: a guide to keyboards

In the last article we recommended using a mouse rather than a laptop trackpad. Typing long hours on a cramped laptop keyboard is not ideal either. Your hands and wrists would greatly appreciate a proper keyboard, saving you from a painful RSI in the long run.

When it comes to buying a keyboard, there is an almost overwhelming degree of choice, with different shapes and sizes, types of key switches, springs, the amount of key travel, colours; endless possibilities for customisation. Some can be connected over Bluetooth for greater convenience, and the latest Bluetooth wireless technology is capable of lightning-fast communication with virtually zero latency (latency in this context is the amount of time it takes for a press of a key to be registered by your computer) and in many cases no more latency than a wired alternative. If you’re looking for a basic keyboard (probably helped by all their ‘tax efficiencies’) Amazon has some very good offers, including the budget, full-size Amazon Basics Matte Black Wired Keyboard with low-8profile keys for £9.99. For a more ergonomic experience the Logitech Wireless Keyboard K350 for £41.98 is shaped for a more natural wrist placement. However, for a truly premium experience, mechanical keyboards, such as the popular “60% layout” example pictured above, are the way to go. These come in endless combinations of colours, key switches, keycaps, cases, sizes and layouts.

The keyboard reactionaries

There is a growing number of dedicated keyboard enthusiasts who swear by mechanical keyboards, which, unlike most modern consumer keyboards on the market today that use a ‘membrane dome’ system whereby pressing down on a key compresses a rubber dome to provide feedback, use mechanical switches and are considered superior by professional typists and gamers alike.

In the past, all keyboards had actual mechanical switches under the keys, and the aforementioned keyboard enthusiasts, or keyboard reactionaries we should perhaps call them, have long championed the traditional mechanical keyboard, arguing that they are more reliable and more enjoyable to use. Gamers also swear by mechanical keyboards due to their higher quality, their endless opportunities for customisation, and the ability to press multiple keys at once, known as nth key rollover, important to gamers and something that mass market membrane dome keyboards can struggle with.

Mechanical keyboards are indeed more enjoyable to use, and the ability to choose the exact type of key switch that best suits your needs is invaluable. There are many types of key switches available to choose when purchasing a keyboard or to buy individually; some mechanical keyboards even have “hot swappable” PCBs which means you can swap key switches without needing to use a soldering iron. The most well-known brand of key switches are made by the German company Cherry GmbH, whose Cherry MX switches have long been considered by many to be the best available, although newer brands such as Gateron, Kailh and Topre are challenging Cherry’s dominant position in the market, as well as existing brands like Logitech. They are available in either tactile feedback versions, with a noticeable bump as the key is depressed (this is distinct from the bump you feel when the key bottoms out) or non-tactile, linear versions, and there are versions with a distinct “clack” sound when they are depressed, and versions that are near silent. These are known as tactile, linear and “clacky”respectively, with the silent types usually falling into the linear category. There is also a choice of different levels of actuation force and different amounts of travel distance required to register a keystroke. For gamers wanting the quickest possible reaction times, linear-type switches are a great option, however, for users mainly using their keyboards for typing, a switch with tactile feedback is recommended.

Mechanical keyboards come in a huge variety of sizes from full size with 110 keys, down to the popular laptop-style “ten-keyless” layout, to 65% and 60%, right down to 40% with as few as 46 keys, using multiple function layers to access all the different functions. Some have unique, experimental features like a split space-bar or even ortholinear layouts, as pictured below, with keys arranged in a grid rather than staggered as they are on a regular keyboard, a hangover from the days of typewriters.

Yes, it is all slightly ridiculous, and just a little bit over the top, but a good quality mechanical keyboard can be incredibly satisfying to type on, and can last a lifetime if looked after. And yes, they are expensive, but if your job means you spend hours every day typing, perhaps it’s a price worth paying?

Pictured: a “ten-keyless” layout
Pictured: Vortex Vibe 60% Extended keyboard
Pictured: a 65% layout special edition keyboard from popular Taiwanese keyboard maker Duckey

The best mechanical keyboards can be difficult to get hold of; there are often models available on Amazon but the best models such as the ones pictured tend to sell out incredibly fast. Any of the more unique models will almost certainly have extremely limited production runs, and are only available on sites like drop.com (formerly known as massdrop.com) who sell limited runs of exclusive “curated” and “community-inspired” products. These are often made available in the form of “group buys”; this works sort of like a cross between Kickstarter and eBay, with products only being manufactured when enough people pre-order, so any buyers hoping to get hold of a particular product need to keep their eyes peeled for the “drop” when a new product is announced as they have a limited time to get their name on the list.

Another option is AliExpress or BangGood, although the items are often shipped from China or Taiwan, and invariably from somewhere outside the UK so shipping times can be quite long, and some options are only available in kits comprised of components that need to be assembled by the user, so some knowledge is required, although there are a wealth of highly detailed instructional YouTube videos on the subject. It’s almost as if the custom keyboard “community” makes owning such a keyboard deliberately difficult out of a sort of snobbishness towards the non-enthusiasts. A decent prebuilt mechanical keyboard can cost anywhere from around £40 upwards, with an average price range of between around £60 and £200. Not cheap, but very much worth it.

The latest must-have keyboard accessory for any self-respecting mechanical keyboard enthusiast is the custom keyboard cable, as pictured below. Again, these can be quite tricky to get hold of, but if you keep an eye out on sites like drop.com or eBay, you’re sure to find one eventually. Just like the keyboards themselves, there’s a virtually endless amount of combinations to choose from, with solid colours, patterns, coils, and even old-fashioned aviator style connections, purely for aesthetics of course. These cables are generally priced at around £50, although they can be difficult to obtain in the UK so you may end up paying a fairly significant shipping fee if the product is being mailed from the US or Taiwan or somewhere. Again, whether it’s worth it, that’s for you to decide.

Pictured: the IBM Model M keyboard, a mechanical “buckling spring” variant that is considered the holy grail of keyboards by many enthusiasts, with many regarding this as the greatest keyboard ever made. Replica models are now being built due to the huge demand.

In the next article in this series on the ever-growing practice of working from home, we’ll take an in depth look at monitors.

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