Mechanical keyboards revisited

      20 Comments on Mechanical keyboards revisited

When your job involves many hours a day hammering at a keyboard then the nature of that humble instrument, so little regarded by occasional or amateur computer users, assumes great importance.

And if, like me, you are of considerable age and have worn-out hands, then the choice of keyboard becomes critical – otherwise it turns into an instrument of torture.

I’ve talked many times before about mechanical keyboards – and I’m going to do it again. Because now I’ve had time to live and work with these devices. And so I thought I’d run through my collection and share my experiences so far.

Why mechanical?

Every ‘mech keys’ enthusiast has his or her own definition of what constitutes a mechanical keyboard. I’m not going to get into semantics here. For our purposes we’ll define these keyboards by what they’re not: they’re not the cheap, clacky, rubber dome-based board that was shipped with that crappy Dell you bought in the 1990s and are somehow, inexplicably, still using; and they’re not those extremely flat, square-keyed chiclet keyboards fitted to nearly every laptop these days, and quite a few desktop machines. Mechanical keyboards have switches with a decent amount of travel and can usually be refitted with alternative keycaps.

(By the way, many of my boards do, indeed, have replacement keycap sets. Given I spend so many hours a day looking at these things I want them to be pretty, dammit.)

And the reason I got into all this is because of the osteoarthritis in my hands, which has also incited a return of carpal tunnel/RSI problems that I thought I’d licked. Hey ho.

Putting on the pressure

One of the critical things here is the amount of pressure required to activate a keypress (commonly specified as a weight in grammes) and also trying to avoid ‘bottoming out’ – ie, the key hitting the board at the end of its travel. That sends a small shock wave up the finger which, for me, is A Bad Thing.

There are lots of compromises to be made: a light activation force (say, 35g) means I can tap the keys quite lightly, which is good. But it also means that the key presents very little resistance to bottoming out. That’s not good. Stiffer keys make bottoming out less likely but guarantee that more force is needed on every keystroke, which is tiring.

The bottoming out problem can be ameliorated a tiny amount by adding O-rings. These are rubber rings that you mount on the keycaps. They cushion the blow a bit, but also effectively shorten the travel of the key, making bottoming out actually more likely.

See what I mean by compromises?

Das Keyboard 4C

The first mechanical keyboard I ever bought was a full-size Das Keyboard 4 – the full-size Mac version. It was what convinced me that mechanical boards were the way to go. But it also persuaded me that full-size keyboards don’t suit my workstation. So I later invested in the ‘ten keyless’ (TKL) version. TKL boards include function keys, the cursor and navigation key clusters (page up and down, home, end, insert and delete) but do away with the numerical keypad. It’s the perfect compromise between compactness and functionality for me.

The TKL version – the Das Keyboard 4C Professional – is a great piece of kit. I have it fitted with brown switches. Das now seems to mostly use Cherry MX switches but at the time I bought my board it shipped with Greetech knock-offs.

I recently fitted new keycaps because the Das ones were dismal and hard to read. The current keycap set is the Matt3o /dev/tty MT3 set with the ‘Triumph’ mods. It’s highly sculpted and an acquired taste.

While I keep trying this board, a couple of things prevent me from making it my daily driver. First is that, in spite of being TKL, it’s still quite large, with lots of squandered space around the edges. And it doesn’t work perfectly with the Mac – to whit, a lack of media control meta keys. I could probably get around that using Keyboard Maestro, but as I rotate my boards frequently that could get messy. And the switches are okay, but not great.

There’s more about this keyboard here.

Input Club K-Type

I bought this via Massdrop. There was a huge kerfuffle in the mech keys community over a spat between Input Club and Massdrop. I can’t remember the details and really don’t care. What interested me were the specs of this board.

First, it’s well-built, with an aluminium baseplate. Second, it’s programmable, using an online utility, which works adequately. It means I can ensure full Mac compatibility. But most interesting is the fact that you can change the switches. They pop right out using the supplied tool. Not only can you try different switches to see how you get on with them, you can even mix switches of different brands and weights.

I decided to re-cap the K-Type. The eagle-eyed among you will notice this board now has three different types of switch.

I bought the board fitted with Kailh Kaihua Speed Copper switches. From the description these sounded perfect. They are said to have a lighter actuation force at the top of the travel, up to the activation point, followed by progressively heavier forces to prevent bottoming out. Theoretically, that’s my ideal switch. In practice, not so much. They just feel to me like Cherry MX browns but heavier. Too heavy, in fact. I couldn’t get on with this board with these keys.

I’m in the process of replacing the switches. In the picture above, I’ve left the Speed Coppers in place for the function keys. The main alpha keys I’ve replaced with Gateron browns that I happened to have knocking about. Meanwhile, many of the modifiers (the ones with yellow stems) are the rather clicky Kailh Kaihua Speed Gold. Again, these are slightly too heavy for use as the main keys, but for less-frequently used keys the difference in feel from the Gaterons provides interesting feedback.

A couple of other notes about this board. It doesn’t have fold-out feet, just a rather pretentious (read: Apple-like) magnetic bar on the bottom. I use my boards propped on a bit of wood, so this wasn’t a big deal for me but it makes the board less than ideal when used on a desk. And the supplied keycaps are terrible. At first encounter they feel high quality. But they have a texture that can best be described as ‘scratchy’ and which also gathers dirt, so the caps are already starting to look grubby.

Already looking grubby.

The board also has backlighting for the keys and underlighting for the board, both of which might matter to you if you’re 14 years old or less.

Now resplendent in DSA Royal Navy keycaps.

I’m going to be giving this keyboard a serious trial to see if it can become my main board, now that it has the new switches.

Code TKL

I’ve had this Code keyboard, fitted with Cherry MX blue switches, for some time now. And I keep going back to it. In fact, it’s what I’m typing on now.

Mac compatibility isn’t an issue (there’s a switch for that). And it’s well built. It has white backlighting with several levels of intensity, if you care about that – I leave it switched off these days. In fact, I’ve replaced the standard shine-through black keycaps with something a little more eye-catching. This is the Jessica GMK Plum keyset. I’m slightly dubious about the purple keys, but the ivory-like main keys are beautiful.

There’s nothing especially clever or innovative about this board. It just works reliably.

Kûl ES-87 TKL

Alongside the Code, this is my other go-to board at the moment. It’s fitted with Cherry MX brown switches, so I swap the boards whenever my arthritis tells me I need a different feel.

Like the Code, there’s nothing especially clever about this keyboard. It’s solid and it also has macOS compatibility via a switch. And again, I’ve re-capped it, this time with the MiTo Canvas XDA set with Bauhaus modifiers. I really don’t like black keys and this is much more pleasant to look at.

There’s a fuller review here.

Also rans

I’ll deal with the other boards briefly because, frankly, they’re not seeing much use and I’ve written about them elsewhere.

The Plum 87 is one that I had trouble getting hold of. When I did finally get myself a copy I rather fell for the ‘thwocky’ feel of the keys and the light touch (35g) they required. But I can’t persuade the damn thing to work properly with the Mac. If I can ever sort this problem I reckon I’d make a lot of use of this board. It’s silky smooth to the touch and very forgiving on my joints.

Matias Mini Tactile Pro

The Matias Mini Tactile Pro is a board I really want to like, not least because it was expensive. It’s built for the Mac and its key switches are based on the famous Alps using in the nigh-on historic Apple Extended Keyboard – a device I used to write a novel and which I adore (and still have).

But the truth is the feel is just too heavy. I’m going to keep trying for a while and if I can’t get used to it this board will be going on eBay. And I’ll be sad about that.

I bought the Magicforce 68-key board with typewriter-style keycaps because it looks good with my HMV1960 Raspberry Pi project. It’s good at looking good. It’s lousy for typing.

And finally, what is it about mech keys nerds and having as few keys on a keyboard as possible? There is a kind of one-upmanship that goes on that often morphs into a form of tech snobbery. People like to boast about their ortholinear, Planck keyboards, or the slightly less ridiculous Happy Hacker. On minimalist boards, many of the functions that normally are assigned to their own keys, such as function keys, number keys, punctuation and so on have to be accessed through additional ‘layers’ – that is, you have to press combinations of special function keys to do something as basic as type a number.

I have one 60% board, the KB Paradise V60, which is beautifully made – but it drives me nuts. Having to use a key combination to access the cursor keys stops me dead in my tracks. I’m sure you can get faster with practice – but having to practice in order to overcome a self-imposed disability seems idiotic. The V60 persuaded me that TKL, or perhaps 68 keys, is as small as I’ll go, thanks.

20 thoughts on “Mechanical keyboards revisited

  1. Zobeid Zuma

    quote: “Having to use a key combination to access the cursor keys stops me dead in my tracks. I’m sure you can get faster with practice – but having to practice in order to overcome a self-imposed disability seems idiotic.”

    People use this layout because they find it more convenient, not as some kind of exercise in self-flagellation. Calling it a “disability” seems idiotic. However, the KB Paradise V60 that you referred to is not the most optimized 60% layout either.

    Reply
    1. Machina Post author

      I like the idea of a Model M, but I think I would find the action way too heavy. And I have no use for a full-size keyboard in my set-up. TKL is as big as I’ll go.

      Reply
      1. dwasifar

        They did make tenkeyless Model M keyboards, but they’re rare, and highly sought-after for exactly your reason.

        As to the action, you’re right that it’s heavier than the switches you’re using, but that doesn’t tell the whole story. The amount of pressure that would be objectionable in a linear-action Cherry-type switch is somehow comfortable in a buckling spring. I know that sounds irrational, but there’s a reason the M has so many devoted followers while there’s no comparable market for a mech board made with Cherry greens.

        Reply
    2. Zobeid Zuma

      One could almost get the impression that “Legendary Model M” was its official name, I see that turn of phrase (over)used so often. It gets to be slightly ridiculous. (And among hard-core keyboard geeks the Model F is the real legend anyhow.) Yes, the Model M was a highly influential keyboard in computer history, but its layout is a relic from the pre-mouse DOS era, and its build quality and switches are being surpassed by current production keyboards. Its time has passed.

      Reply
      1. dwasifar

        Oh, I forgot to reply to the “build quality” thing. I’m typing this on a Model M manufactured in 1991. It’s been in service for coming on 27 years. How much better than that do you need the build quality to be? 😀

        I suppose we’ll have to wait until 2045 to see if current production mechanical boards hold up that well. But I really don’t think build quality has ever been an issue with the M.

        Reply
  2. dwasifar

    Well, I actually intended to use the phrase kind of ironically. 🙂

    You’re correct that the F is technically superior and “legendary” among the hard-core, but Machina can’t just plug one of those into his test systems like an M.

    I’m not sure I understand what your objection is to the M’s layout. Aside from the Menu and Windows keys, it’s the same layout used by just about every production keyboard for the last 30 years. (Also not sure how the mouse comes into it.) Can you elaborate?

    Reply
    1. Zobeid Zuma

      Okay… F-keys and numeric keypad. In the DOS era there were no drop-down menus, and many applications were primarily controlled using the F-keys, sometimes with a helpful overlay that you could put on your keyboard to keep them straight. The number pad was important in a time when computers were heavily used for data entry and spreadsheets, and there was really nothing like a USB accessory pad available. All the navigation keys were on the right, because most people are right-handed—and that hand was not yet tasked with operating a mouse or other pointing device. The Model M layout (still with us today in standard “full-sized” keyboards) was designed for that environment, and it was very good for that environment. Nobody starting with a clean sheet of paper would come up with it today. You would get rid of the F-keys, get rid of the number pad, and put the arrow keys on the left (which gamers have already sort-of done with their WASD convention). If you want a more concrete example, here was my attempt at an updated 60% keyboard layout → http://zobeid.zapto.org/misc/zo64.html

      Reply
      1. Machina Post author

        I still use function keys heavily, with a lot of macros assigned to them. Couldn’t live without them.

        Reply
        1. dwasifar

          I also use the function keys. They’re commonly mapped by default to actions. F3 to search, F5 to run code, F12 to save-as, and so on.

          Zobeid, I have to say that I just don’t understand your logic. Why would you design a keyboard seemingly meant to keep your hands in one place, yet rely on mouse menus to get around? That seems to defeat the purpose of the thing.

          Returning to the Model M build quality question for a moment: Zobeid, are you basing your judgement on the modern Unicomp version? I have one of those. It looks like this one: http://zobeid.zapto.org/image/photos/mac_pro_ubuntu_mate.jpg If so, then you’re probably undervaluing the design. The Unicomp is perfectly functional but it’s nowhere near the quality of the old IBM-made ones.

          Reply
          1. Machina Post author

            I also make great use of Del, Home, End, PgUp & PgDn because I do a lot of work on documents. Same, obviously, goes for cursor keys (especially when coding). That’s why I need all these keys to be on the top layer, accessible with a single stroke, not buried under Fn-key layers.

            Truth be told, if it were practical, I could probably benefit from a full-size board – maybe even one with extra keys, like this monster: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=e-5DDDd3Qzw – alas, this just wouldn’t work with my workstation setup.

          2. Zobeid Zuma

            The logic is: Cursor keys (arrow keys) and PgUp, PgDn, Home and End are used when editing text. Keeping hands on the home row when typing and editing text has some benefits. Going through menus and controlling an application is a different activity.

            As for Model M build quality… Yes, I have a Unicomp, and I also have a Model F (PC/XT version) which you might have seen here → http://zobeid.zapto.org/image/keeb/IBM-XT.jpg It’s a very impressive piece of hardware, much better than the Unicomp. However, I can build a keyboard today with off-the-shelf components that’s just as solid, and I have done so. Discrete switches have improved a great deal recently, and machined aluminum cases are available. (This does get expensive, but the Model F was very pricey in its day too.)

  3. dwasifar

    Hm, no reply link once you get down past a certain level, it appears.

    I use Del, Home, End, Page Up and Page Down all the time too. Cursor keys too, either on their own or in conjunction with Ctrl.

    I sometimes use the numeric keypad, but not super often. I could probably get by with a tenkeyless board if I really felt it would make a difference in reaching for the mouse. But I absolutely don’t see the need to get rid of the function keys. Unlike the numeric keypad, they’re not in the way of the mouse, and they don’t hurt anything by being there.

    My understanding is that super-minimalist keyboards exist so that you never have to leave the home row. The function keys and navigation keys do take you off the home row, so I understand that. If I spent most of my time editing in vi, I might want one. But if what you’re doing makes substantial use of the mouse, you’re on and off the home row all the time anyway.

    Duplicating all the functions of a full keyboard in a minimalist layout requires layering, as you noted. This basically turns it into a chord keyboard, with associated learning curve. Fine if that’s what you want or need, but it’s not for everyone.

    Reply
    1. Machina Post author

      Not leaving the home row isn’t an issue for me. Like so many journalists of my generation, I never learned to touch-type. I’ve earned my living from writing for the past 37 years, all of it on keyboards of one form or another, starting with manual typewriters. But I didn’t learn to touch-type because it would have meant slowing down my typing speed during the learning period, and I couldn’t afford that.

      Reply
      1. dwasifar

        …which explains why you’re so interested in what your keyboard looks like. 🙂 Touch typists aren’t looking at the keyboard. 😀 No offense intended, of course.

        I became a touch typist gradually over the course of years, but I had the benefit of a little bit of early instruction. My left hand is 100% standard touch typing, my right hand about 80%; it tends to float and wander a little, probably because I’m always jumping over to the navigation keys. As I type this right now, my left wrist is planted on the desk and my right hand is hovering.

        Speaking of keyboard looks, I really like the keys on your K-Type. They remind me of old-school data entry terminals. Very retro.

        Reply
    2. Zobeid Zuma

      I sometimes wonder if F-keys are still somewhat a Windows PC thing. The large majority of my computer usage over the last 20 years has been on Macs, and I haven’t found any real use for F-keys, and I suspect that’s true of many Mac users. Maybe it’s just a different tradition, a different culture. Amusingly, I’ve read that Steve Jobs detested the F-keys. The original Macintosh in 1984 came with what we today would recognize as a 60% keyboard, and it didn’t even have arrow keys.

      I have no use for “super-minimalist” keyboards. To me, though, that means something smaller than 60%. I tried a 45% layout (Carpe JD45) and didn’t get far with it. I’d be typing along and then need an exclamation point, and everything ground to a halt while I tried to remember which three keys I had to press to get one. To me a keyboard is all about typing, and I can touch-type on a 60% board without any re-training or any slowdown. I understand some people just don’t want their arrow keys on a layer, and 65% keyboards (like the WhiteFox or ClueBoard) are great for them. Going bigger than that doesn’t seem to provide much benefit from where I sit, though.

      Reply
      1. Machina Post author

        I mainly use Macs (plus handfuls of Raspberry Pis and one Win10 VM). Like I said, couldn’t be without my function keys…

        Reply
      2. dwasifar

        About the F-keys, I think you’re probably right. I have to use Windows at work, but I use Linux at home. At the Linux command line there’s nothing I need the F-keys for. In a Linux desktop environment, there are apps that use them, but usually those are apps that have Windows versions.

        Reply

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