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Keyboards

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This article is part of a current project of mine to re-think keyboard haptics, ergonomics and efficiency:

  1. Keyboards (this article)
    • Basics of (Mechanical) Keyboards
    • My Personal History of (Desktop) Keyboards
    • My Personal Desktop Keyboard Requirements
    • My Current Plans for Getting a New Keyboard
  2. Keyboard Switch Tester
  3. Kinesis Advantage2 LF Keyboard: Initial Review and Plans
  4. Kinesis Advantage2 LF Keyboard: My Custom QWERTY Layout, Touch-Typing, Dampening, Switches

Updates:

Here is an article on keyboards and my personal keyboard history including plans to buy a new mechanical keyboard soon.

Basics of (Mechanical) Keyboards

First some basics on keyboards. I concentrated on the most important properties from my personal background. Therefore, this is no exhaustive list of keyboard basics. You can find more on Wikipedia and other sources on the internet.

Layouts

To me, the most important layouts are the standard German QWERTZ layout and the US international QWERTY layout. There are layouts for all kinds of languages.

Since mid-90s, the Windows key was introduces with more and more keyboards. At first they were a clever marketing gag by Microsoft, pushing their Windows 95. Later on, they got useful with more and more keyboard commands available with those keys. For any user of Emacs, any additional modifier key is welcomed.

Sizes

There is a wide variety of different sizes for keyboards. This page lists the most popular sizes:

Switches

I learned about the differences of mechanical keyboard switches in recent years. Before, I did not care much.

By reading sources like this, this, this or that you can learn about at least docents of different mechanical switches.

This page sums up the differences between mechanical switches and membrane switches:

In contrast with the membrane keyboard, the keys on a mechanical keyboard have individual keyswitch mechanisms that register keystrokes instead of sharing a membrane sheath with all other keys. This results in a different feel when gaming or typing. For instance, Blue Cherry MX Switches are a form of clicky and tactile mechanical keyswitches that deliver a very distinct tap to the user's fingers when a key is actuated accompanied by an audible click, quite similar to the experience of performing a mouse click. As a result, the tactile feedback experienced by the user on a mechanical keyboard is significantly different from a membrane keyboard, with some users demonstrating a strong personal preference for this type of keyboard feel.

At the moment, from my point of view the most important general mechanical switch types (independent from specific manufacturers) are:

Switch Tactile Sound
red no no
brown yes yes
blue yes loud

Of course, there are much more properties such as pre-travel distance, travel distance or actuation force.

Connectors

My first computer from the 80s got a DIN connector. Later models came with PS/2 connectors. More modern keyboards were shipped with USB. Most of them with Type A connectors. Currently, there seems to be a move to Type C.

My Personal History of (Desktop) Keyboards

Here is a section on the keyboards I worked with so far. I'm afraid it is not a complete list. I probably have lost a few keyboards on the way.

You can read about my personal hardware history in this old (German) article.

The order is roughly chronological. Since I sometimes moved between different keyboards back and forth, the order is hard to define.

IBM Model M

Brand IBM
Product Model M 1391403
Layout German QWERTZ w/o Win-Key
Size Full-size
Switches Buckling spring
Connector PS/2
The good old IBM Model M. (click for a larger version)

I once started to work with computers with an old IBM Model M keyboard. They are legend.

To be precise, it was not this exact device which is shown here. I guess my first keyboard (using a DIN connector) got lost over the years. However, I got that beauty later-on again with a PS/2 connector. I saved it from being thrown away.

The typing experience on IBM Model M is very similar to nowadays blue switches. The keyboard is bulky, loud and very heavy. Of course they lack Windows keys because of their age.

Thanks to a Vivanco PS/2-to-USB adapter, I worked with this keyboard again for about a year or so just recently. The lack of the Windows key and a its loud sound level made me switch away again.

Mitsumi

Brand Mitsumi
Product KPQ-E99ZC-13
Layout German QWERTZ w/o Win-Key
Size Full-size
Switches Mitsumi KPQ Type
Connector DIN
Standard Mitsumi keyboard. (click for a larger version)

This is a rather standard keyboard from a time where might have concentrated on the price of a keyboard rather than other properties.

Cherry RS 6000 M

Brand Cherry
Product RS 6000 M
Layout German QWERTZ w/o Win-Key
Size Full-size
Switches Maybe rubber-dome
Connector DIN
Cherry RS 6000 M keyboard. (click for a larger version)

This is a rather standard keyboard from a time where might have concentrated on the price of a keyboard rather than other properties.

HHKB Lite 2

Brand Happy Hacking Keyboard
Product Lite 2, PD-KB200W/U
Layout QWERTY, US intl.
Size 60%
Switches Rubber dome
Connector USB Type A
HHKB Lite 2. (click for a larger version)

This is probably my first keyboard I invested more research effort and money into. As far as I remember, I was listening to friends ordering this "cool" keyboard over the internet and I got hooked.

Unfortunately, the rubber dome switches are far from high quality, resulting in a not so great typing experience. It lacks dedicated function keys. It got a few very cool features such as offering a Control key instead of a Caps Lock key, separated arrow keys, DIP switches for configuring the device (switching position of Alt and the (unlabeled) "Win key"; defining the behavior of the "Delete" key).

Key caps are not detachable. Therefore I was not able to clean up properly as you can see. Worked with it for a couple of years in the early 2000s I guess.

Apple Bluetooth Keyboard

Brand Apple
Product Bluetooth Keyboard, second generation (A1255) MB167LL/A
Layout QWERTY, US intl.
Size 60% with F-keys
Switches Scissor
Connector Bluetooth (wireless)
Apple Bluetooth Keyboard (click for a larger version)

With my first Mac Mini, I bought myself this stylish piece of technology. It was my first wireless and my first flat keyboard. Rechargeable batteries lasted for many weeks if not months - I can't remember exactly.

After switching away from Mac back to GNU/Linux, I was not able to find out how to connect it to my computer. Maybe Apple built-in some proprietary wireless stuff which did not ran on GNU/Linux machines. So I had to stop working with it.

ThinkPad UltraNAV

Brand lenovo
Product SK-8845 and SK-8855
Layout QWERTY, US intl.
Size 60% with F-keys and Home/End/Pgup/Pgdn
Switches Scissor
Connector USB Type A
ThinkPad UltraNAV SK-8845. (click for a larger version)
ThinkPad UltraNAV SK-8855. (click for a larger version)

Somehow, I ended up owning three lenovo UltraNav-keyboards. One even came with a nice leather-bag for save transportation. The switches are not quite as good as the good ThinkPad ones. Biggest advantage are the similarities in the layout to the ThinkPads when switching between desktop and a ThinkPad all the time as well as the trackpoint which is a really good and ergonomic mouse replacement if you made yourself familiar with it.

I worked on the UltraNav keyboards for a couple of years, writing my PhD thesis on them.

Freedom Pro BT

Brand Freedominput
Product Freedom Pro
Layout Custom QWERTZ
Size similar to 60%
Switches don't know
Connector Bluetooth (wireless)
Freedom Pro Bluetooth keyboard. (click for a larger version)

Somebody gave me this special keyboard because he did not use it any more for his mobile devices. It is a nice foldable mini-keyboard which also comes with a leather case and a small stand for a mobile phone or a smaller tablet in landscape mode. It runs on 2×AAA batteries and offers HID as well as SPP protocols.

The layout is quite unique which requires typing carefully, not at the usual speed. Special characters are not at their usual spot.

I can not say that I've worked a substantial part of my time on this thing. It's more a nice-to-have when you're abroad without a proper notebook. On Android, you can use such a bluetooth keyboard to type some emails which enlarges your screen estate: the software keyboard does not take away a large part of the screen interface.

E-YOOSO Z-88

Brand E-YOOSO
Product Super Scholar/Z-88 Keyboard
Layout QWERTY, US intl.
Size 75%
Switches Outemu brown
Connector USB, Type A
E-YOOSO Z-88, my current main keyboard and a speedlink SL-610005-BK-01 vertical mouse. (click for a larger version)

I bought this keyboard in early 2019 for having a mechanical keyboard in the office. It was my first one with brown switches which are a good trade-off between the nice tactile feedback of the blue switches and the quiet sound level of red switches.

It's a rather cheap mechanical keyboard and it comes with a nice background light you can customize. I prefer a static light pattern. In my current case, it's a very smoothing green tone.

I'm still not accustomed to the position of the HOME/END/PGUP/PGDN keys. Overall, I do like the form factor. It could be my perfect keyboard if there wouldn't be some things I keep an eye on. I've got the feeling that it does not get all the characters I type and it does cause some exchanged characters. Maybe this is an illusion and my typing got worse.

The switches are nice but not as good as other (more expensive) brown switches I tried. It is my current main keyboard - I'm writing these lines with it.

ETPC I-600

ETPC I-600 (click for a larger version)
Brand Easterntimes Tech
Product I-600
Layout QWERTY, UK
Size Full-size
Switches blue
Connector USB, Type A

A colleague who left the company left this one behind. Since nobody seemed to care and UK layout is not popular in Austria either, I decided to adopt this thing.

For the office, it is a bit loud with its great blue switches. The hollow body adds a bit to the noise level.

The OK layout is a bit different to the US international layout which sometimes gave me a hard time to find some special characters. The number pad is not something I really need. It just adds an obstacle between the keyboard and the mouse.

Unfortunately, the LED backlight is of poor quality. The position of the LEDs is not aligned with the lit characters. So you can only see the bottom half of it, ruining the fun on the special characters above the numbers or the F-keys. As a gaming keyboard, it comes with tons of absolutely crazy RGB-LED effects I can not accept. Once I found the one setting with the continuous, non-blinking light, I had to make sure not to activate the LED pattern switch keyboard combination again.

I was working on this thing maybe a year or so at home. I had to stop using it when I started with home-office and video conferences (sound level!) in 2020-01 and switched back to the Z-88.

Bluetooth Mini-keyboard QWERTY

Brand Unknown
Product mini-keyboard
Layout QWERTY, US intl.
Size 60% with dedicated F-keys
Switches Unknown
Connector Bluetooth (wireless)
Bluetooth Mini-keyboard with nice moiré patterns. (click for a larger version)

I bought this Bluetooth keyboard last year in order to have a very flat and easy to pack keyboard for my BOOX Max 2 e-ink tablet (I did not blog about it yet). This very flat keyboard fits well into the original tablet sleeve.

The nice thing about it is the separate F-key row which I do prefer. The keyboard works good with Android. Unfortunately, there are (software-based) issues with keys like ESC and misc other combinations with Alt and so forth. This does limit my fun with it when being on a train, running a ssh session on my server. I just can not work as usual. The app External Keyboard Helper Pro did fix some of the issues.

Corsair K70 RGB MK.2

Brand Corsair
Product K70 RGB MK.2
Layout German QWERTZ
Size Full-size
Switches Cherry brown
Connector USB, Type A
Corsair K70 RGB MK.2. (click for a larger version)

Actually, this is not my keyboard. It's a keyboard I bought for my wife. After reading recommendations on the web I accepted the large price tag.

So far, it really seems to be a very good product. The brown switches are a bit snappier than on my Z-88, the volume control wheel is a nice gimmick, the palm rest seems to be a good thing to have and the built quality is really good.

My Personal Desktop Keyboard Requirements

My current (as of 2021-01-30) requirements for a desktop keyboard are:

My Current Plans for Getting a New Keyboard

After experiencing the great brown switches of the Corsair and the (maybe imaginary) typing issues with the Z-88, I want to get a new keyboard.

So far, I've identified two possible candidates for me:

The Keychron C1 (~60€ including shipping) and the SteelSeries Apex 7 TKL (~150€).

What are your thoughts on them? Do you have alternative suggestions that match my requirements?

As an experiment, I started a Signal group for this topic. If you want to join this group, use this link. The group is not intended for being around forever. If you would like to contribute a comment that should be more accessible with a long-term perspective, use the comment options below.

Suggestions: Varmilo and Leopold

I got several recommendations for the keyboard brands Varmilo and Leopold. While those seem to be fine keyboards, I still have to dig into their products.

Leopold has no good filter mechanism on their web page and so I can not tell the difference of their series without reading all the details.

For Varmilo, I found a German reseller that has good filter options for the keyboards but all Varmilo are out of stock.

I'll keep them in mind.

Suggestion: Kinesis Advantage 2

Several readers suggested to think of getting a Kinesis Advantage 2 ergonomic keyboard.

While this clearly violates one of my must-have requirements (standard keys layout), I still do find it interesting. It is the keyboad of choice of Xah Lee which got some reputation of having no compromises when it comes to functionality and ergonomics. He's also well-known in the Emacs community for the same reasons.

This large beast is quite expensive (~450€). However, it fits well with my other requirements. Further more, it would force me to improve my touch typing which can be described as "unorthodox (multiple fingers per hand)" as categorized for around 40 percent of the people who contributed to this large keyboard survey from 2017. Maybe I get that proficient that I could think of adding another 70€ for blank key caps? This would improve the old-fashioned styling of the Kinesis a bit.

So far, I could not find any negative review of this thing. On the contrary: most people use terms like "the best keyboard on the market by far" and similar.

There are hardly used devices on the usual markets which suggest that people tend to keep this thing instead of selling it after failing to adapt.

Furthermore, there is an option to replace the built-in controller with a DIY one in order to get an open source firmware named QMK. This adds another 170€ to the price tag, invalidates the guarantee but fixes some limitations of the crappy original firmware. Sounds more like a hobby than a keyboard.

Since starting with 2020, I'm in home-office only. This would eliminate the need for a second keyboard in the office for now. Therefore, I may as well depend on this rather unusual keyboard in order to get an ergonomic keyboard.

You can see, this thing is tempting to me.


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