How can a keyboard be a hobby? Let me tell you. Keyboards may be a commodity, but that doesn’t mean you can’t seek out a nice one. The keyboard you type on every day may have been a carefully considered purchase but, for most of us, it wasn’t given much thought. There’s an explanation for this mindset. This quote from the excellent Mech 101 series at Keychatter.com sums it up:
Like a mattress, a good quality keyboard is an easy thing to overlook. And, like it or not, many of us use our keyboards even more than we use our mattresses. So is $100 really unreasonable for a great keyboard? Not at all. It’s actually a bargain.
If you’re still not sure, consider this quote from Eiiti Wada in an interview with Massdrop:
Because keyboards are accessories to PC makers, they focus on minimizing the manufacturing costs. But that’s incorrect. When America’s cowboys were in the middle of a trip and their horse died, they would leave the horse there. But even if they were in the middle of a desert, they would take their saddle with them. The horse was a consumable good, but the saddle was an interface that their bodies had gotten used to. In the same vein, PCs are consumable goods, while keyboards are important interfaces.
If you’re convinced that keyboards are worth thinking about, there a few things to consider before you make a purchase.
A full-size (or 104-key) keyboard includes the alphanumeric keys, function keys, navigation cluster, and number pad (or tenkey). This is great for people like me who use the alphanumeric keys to type, the nav cluster to get around documents and spreadsheets, and the tenkey when a little data entry is in order. The downside is that it takes up a bit of space and makes you reach further for the mouse.
80% / Tenkey-less / TKL
An 80% keyboard has all the goodness of a full-size keyboard minus the tenkey. If you don’t enter lots of numbers often enough to justify dedicated keys, you can save some space. That’s about all you’ll save, by the way. Smaller keyboards are not necessarily cheaper.
If you can part with the nav cluster and function keys, you can go even smaller. There are a number of in-between sizes like the 64% and 68% that add parts of the nav cluster back in, while others provide you with one or more built-in layers that provide access to navigation keys.
There are a lot more form factors including 40%, Planck, Ergodox, and just of ton of weird stuff that you really have to see for yourself. New things are being developed all the time. If you’re considering making the switch to one of these, you’re already pretty far down the rabbit hole.
If, like me, you grew up in the US, you are probably familiar with the QWERTY layout on an ANSI keyboard. The QWERTY layout predates modern technology and was designed to minimize mechanical interference in typewriters. An alternative layout, DVORAK, was created to maximize the speed and comfort of the typist. Why we’re all still using QWERTY is a very interesting topic. There are still others, such as COLEMAK, which was designed primarily as a remedy for QWERTY typists who don’t want or need to change to the radically different DVORAK layout, but would like to pick up some speed and make typing more comfortable. Try this: Map your caps lock key to backspace. Now, when you make a mistake, backspace is right under your left pinky instead of having to reach all the way to the upper right corner.
If you want to pick up a third-party set of keycaps, you will want to learn to spot keyboards with non-standard layouts. There are a couple things to look out for. ANSI layouts are more common in the US while ISO keyboards are more common in, well, the rest of the world. You can tell them apart by looking at the enter key. The other thing to look at is the bottom row of keys. You will have an easier time finding and installing keysets if you have a standard bottom row. If you think of any single character key like, say, the Y key, it has a size of one unit or 1u. Larger keys can be thought of as multiples of 1u. In a standard bottom row, the spacebar is 6u and the ctrl, win/cmd, alt, and Fn keys are all the same 1.25u size.
How I Got Started
I had been eyeing a Das Keyboard for a couple years and figured I would pay a premium for the name. After some research, I picked up a Cooler Master XT full-size keyboard with Cherry MX Blue switches. Blue switches are recommended for typists, so I went for them. Typing on this keyboard was much louder than typing on the Dell keyboard supplied by my office. It actually made me feel a bit self-conscious. To try to address this, I got a second Cooler Master XT with Cherry MX Brown switches. Going to brown switches made a minor improvement. The majority of the noise was produced when the key cap would land on the top of the switch (this is called “bottoming-out”). To reduce the sound, I got a set of o-rings that fit onto the shaft under the key cap and soften the landing when the key bottoms out. This was working pretty well on the brown switches, so I got another set to put on the keyboard with the blue switches. I was really happy with how this turned out, but I still had the stock key caps.
You don’t need to get after-market key caps but, with most mechanical keyboards, you can. I picked up a set of Ducky PBT key caps. They were gray with blue modifiers. The legends were engraved, not printed so, from a distance, they looked like blank keys. I pulled my stock keys and moved the o-rings to the new keys. When I was all done, it looked really good. After using it for a while, I noticed that the enter key on the tenkey would stick in the down position. I looked at it and determined that one of the stabilizer inserts was loose. I figured it was falling out and jamming between the key and the stabilizer or the switch housing. So, I bought some new stabilizer inserts from WASD. I also preemptively bought a tube of silicone grease just in case lubrication was part of the problem. I put the new inserts in and greased the stabilizer bars and the stabilizer inserts. I tested the key. It still got stuck.
OK, Google: PBT keycap stabilizer problem
This time, I hit gold. My Cooler Master XT keyboards came with ABS key caps. ABS is a plastic that is cheap to produce, has a shiny finish, and can be made pretty thin. PBT key caps are typically thicker than ABS key caps. The increased thickness of the PBT key cap reduced the clearance available to the stabilizer bar. When the key went down, the lower run of the stabilizer bar would come up and grind against the inner wall of the key cap. If this was really the problem, then all the keys on stabilizers should be affected. I tested each key and, while the problem didn’t present itself as acutely on all of them, it was still there. On my right shift and enter keys, it felt like a hitch in the action of the key relative to keys without stabilizers.
The cure for this is to create clearance by removing material from the inside wall of the key cap. This can be done with sandpaper, a rotary tool, or a hobby knife. I looked over some of my ABS caps and I could actually see where the inner wall of the key had been beveled to create extra clearance for the stabilizer bar. Those geniuses knew what they were doing! I sanded down the inside of the key caps with some 200 grit sandpaper wrapped around a bamboo skewer. Now they work flawlessly.
I Wish I Knew
- Get a couple keyboards that you will probably like.
- I like full-size keyboards, but there are other sizes
- Learn about switch options. If you want a variety of key cap options, get switches with Cherry MX compatible stems.
- Learn to spot ANSI and ISO layouts and non-standard key layouts
- Just buy a bunch of supplies from WASD.
- key pullers, at least two
- O-rings, at least two sets
- stabilizer inserts (for Costar stabs)
- silicone grease
- maybe sandpaper
The Rabbit Hole
- Purchase and use an entry-level mechanical keyboard
- Purchase and use an imported or top-shelf mechanical keyboard
- Purchase and install a set of key caps, o-rings optional
- Customize a programmable keyboard
- Commission a custom keyboard build
- Build your own keyboard
- Make your own key caps