Keyboards are the kind of thing you don’t really notice until you have to switch out your old clunker for a new one.
You can feel the difference almost immediately, like putting on a new shirt that hasn’t been washed. Everything feels a little too crisp and a little too tight.
Once that newness wears off, you really start to feel the difference between your old pal and your new friend. The difference is even greater if you’ve switched from a standard keyboard to a chiclet-style or a split-board style.
We’ve used all three at one point or another, and we have a clear favorite: the chiclet keys you see on Apple keyboards. Their low profile and small size make typing on one of those old, raised key platforms seem like your fingers are trying to scale Mount Everest.
What kinds of things should you look for when you’re switching to a new set of keys? Is one of these keyboards better, in a practical sense, than the other? Great questions; we’re going to answer them in the next few minutes.
Let’s look at a few of the mechanisms that make keyboards work.
It’s All About Spacing and Response
Did you know OSHA has a set of guidelines for keyboards? It’s true: Click here to read the “Design and Use” section of their Keyboards page.
Their recommendation is that keys in the same row have between 18 and 19 mm between their centers. So, there should be 18mm of space between the middle of your H key and the middle of your G key.
Also, there should be 18 and 21 mm between the center of a key and the key below it or above it.
The way a key responds when you press it with your finger is important. The mechanism that dictates how easily your key rises and falls is called the “switch”. According to the experts at PC World, you’ll find one of two switch styles: scissors or rubber dome.
If you’ve ever pried a key off your keyboard, then you’ll probably recognize at least one of these two switch styles. Some manufacturers (Apple and Gateway, for example) use scissor switches because they give keys a lower profile.
It doesn’t really matter which one you choose, just make sure there’s enough resistance from the switches to keep your hands comfortable. Too little resistance can result in a lot of erroneous keystrokes.
Tip: If you want to get into the minutiae of how we got our QWERTY keyboards and what other letter placements exist, check out this interesting post from Das Keyboard.
Chiclet, Ergo or Totally Normal? You Decide…
We mentioned the chiclet-style keyboard earlier in this post and we’ll lead off with it in this section. Apple is usually seen as the inventor of island keys, but we found out through SuperSite for Windows that Sony laptops were using island keys long before Apple did.
From a manufacturer’s perspective, chiclet keyboards are low-profile, which means you can make your laptops even thinner than you could with normal keys.
On the typing side of things, low-profile keys mean that you don’t have to put as much effort into pressing a key. The distance that key has to travel to activate its corresponding letter, which means you can use less force. Thus, you get a smoother, faster typing experience.
If you look at your wrists when they’re just relaxing on a break room table, you’ll notice that they’re straight. What you’ve witnessed is the natural resting position of one of the most important joints in your workplace body.
When we take to our keyboards, our wrists are forced to work at an angle. Consequently, they spend the day laboring away in a position they don’t really like.
To counteract this unnatural occurrence, keyboard designers have created angled, split-board components that keep your wrists straight as you type. Microsoft’s Natural Ergonomic Keyboard 4000 may very well be the most popular type of keyboard in its class.
According to 919 reviewers on BestBuy.com, the NEK400 is worth far more than its modest $27.99 price tag. The flagship ergo board gets a 4.5 rating.
Apple’s chiclet keyboard, on the other hand, scores slightly better with a 4.7 rating from more than 1,300 reviews. However, their product will set you back $49.99.
While not as trendy as the other two styles we mentioned above, the by-the-book keyboard has its supporters. Some people like the feel of raised, chunky keys.
And if you really love these keyboards, you’ll have no problem getting them on the cheap. Thrift stores usually have a handsome helping of these classic pieces in their electronics section.
However, don’t get fooled into thinking those broad-shouldered keys are strictly a thing of the past. You can still find them in every electronics store/section, and they are still making people happy.
The Logitech MK270, a standard-issue keyboard from the old school, gets 4.6 stars from more nearly 300 reviewers at Best Buy.
Which Would You Choose?
All of these keyboard styles exist because they have their loyal tribes of admirers. Which camp do you find yourself in?
If you’re conflicted between island keys and an ergonomic keyboard, you might want to check out this review of the Microsoft Sculpt … problem solved.