A case for better keyboards

— 11:14 AM on September 23, 2011

PC enthusiasts have a tendency to focus their attention on what's inside the box. Indeed, we're guilty of that here at TR. Most of our time is spent reviewing core internal components, which are easy to evaluate objectively—and with pretty graphs. These components contain the most exciting new technologies, and they largely define the capabilities of our PCs. In some ways, however, they're also very far removed from the computing experience.

The high-tech Tinkertoy set that makes up the modern PC is typically hidden away inside an enclosure that sits under our desks. You might have a case window or easily accessible internals, but how much time do you really spend poking around in there or peering through the plexiglass? I'll give you a hint: not nearly as much time as you spend pecking away at your keyboard. But you probably didn't drop nearly as much on your keyboard as you did on your last graphics card, processor, motherboard, or hard drive. Why not?

For whatever reason, a sizable segment of the enthusiast population seems to place precious little value on physical interfaces. I'm amazed at the vague, lifeless keyboards I've seen attached to otherwise high-end systems worth thousands of dollars. I get that the cheap stuff works, but so do Celerons and $50 graphics cards. You won't find many enthusiasts running those.

It pains me to admit that I have been guilty of skimping myself. For years, I pecked away at a Microsoft Comfort Curve keyboard with mushy rubber-dome switches. The keyboard's wider stance and slightly larger keys were a good fit for my sausage fingers, and my forceful typing style never fell short of bottoming out the squishy keys. Then, a few months ago, I picked up an wireless Enermax Aurora keyboard for my home-theater PC. Scott reviewed the full-sized version a couple of years ago, and the chopped-down, couch-friendly model uses the same scissor switch mechanism for its keys. The more I used those keys, the more I became dissatisfied with the rubbery, imprecise response of the Comfort Curve in my office. It would have to go.

After a little Googling, I settled on a Das Keyboard—specifically, the Model S Professional Silent. The Das uses Cherry MX Brown switches, which have a tactile "bump" just before an actuation point halfway through their 4 mm travel. With a $123 street price, this particular unit is pricey for a mechanical keyboard but also cheaper than most of the individual components inside my PC. Since I'm apparently managing to make a living banging out words on a keyboard, I rang up the business expense and popped down to NCIX to pick it up.

At first, I was rather unimpressed. The keyboard's glossy top panel is made from the sort of awful, smudge-prone glossy black plastic that should be banned from anything within reach of greasy fingertips. After years on the Comfort Curve, the Das' standard layout felt a little cramped, too. The comparatively small key caps didn't make adjusting any easier. Then there's the Silent moniker, which is laughable at best. Each keystroke generates a clearly audible cha-chunk.

But man, what a cha-chunk.

This isn't an annoying or rattling clickety-clack. My keystrokes ring with a throaty, mechanical thunk that's nearly as satisfying as the perfectly balanced key action—which, I might add, is delightfully consistent across every single key on the board. The simple act of typing feels good. That might seem like an odd thing to say, but I caught myself smiling during some otherwise mundane Excel data entry the other night because I was enjoying the simple act of punching digits into the numpad. The sensation is even better when I'm writing at speed, which makes the keyboard purr with a staccato of keystrokes. Despite the din, there's a softness to the acoustic profile that keeps the additional noise from being distracting.

Key switches may be relatively boring in the realm of modern hardware, but they're a fundamental connection point with our PCs, and one that's all too often an afterthought. The average enthusiast probably logs thousands, if not tens of thousands, of keystrokes in a given day. If you sit at a keyboard for a living, like so many of us do working both within and outside the tech industry, odds are your keystroke count is even higher. Yet I see so many scoffing at the notion of dropping a Benjamin or more on a mechanical keyboard. Do the math. The cost per keystroke is minuscule, especially when one considers Cherry's reputation for durability. Remember, too, that peripherals tend to be in their prime for much longer than the components that live inside our our PCs. A solid keyboard with good switches isn't likely to become obsolete anytime soon.

While the Cherry MX Browns work for me, they're far from the only option. Mechanical switches are available with a range of characteristics, including bump-less linear travel for gaming, different actuation forces for a lighter or heavier touch, and clicky feedback if you want to drown out the nagging of your significant other. If none of the mechanical options feel right under your fingertips, quality scissor-switch mechanisms can be found in keyboards like Enermax's hard-to-find original Aurora, its tragically glossy Acrylux successor, and Apple's chiclet-on-aluminum design for desktops.

Live with good key switches for a little while, and I'd wager you'll kick yourself for not upgrading sooner. So, the next time you price out a new CPU, graphics card, motherboard, or SSD, ask yourself whether you've spent enough on your keyboard lately. There's a lot of room for meaningful upgrades outside the box.

Tip: You can use the A/Z keys to walk threads.
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