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Apple's aluminum keyboard


Metal, white plastic, and scissor switches
— 9:30 PM on October 14, 2009

For someone who's written at length about the Das Keyboard, ABS M1, and IBM Model M this year, Apple's aluminum keyboard certainly seems like an odd review candidate. And it is, to an extent. Those other three devices have noisy, mechanical key switches and very traditional designs, but the Mac keyboard is thin, flat, and quiet—and it comes to us from a company many accuse of favoring form over function.

Truth is, despite my penchant for clicky keyboards, I've become increasingly fond of typing sessions on my aluminum MacBook. The chiclet design definitely took a few days getting used to, but something about the responsiveness of the keys, their large and flat surfaces, and the clearly defined spacing allows me to rattle away hundreds after hundreds of words without getting tired. It feels good, too.

I eventually decided to take the plunge and purchase the desktop version. If typing on the MacBook was so comfortable, then surely a desktop keyboard from the same company with the same design would be right at home connected to my desktop PC. Was I right in my assumption? Could the low-profile chiclet keys pry me away from their mechanical cousins for good?

A look at the animal
Sleek, black mechanical keyboards like the Das Keyboard definitely look good, but they don't really come close to the Apple device's aesthetic flair. This thing almost makes you embarrassed to have an untidy desk, and it took me a little while to feel comfortable eating in front of it. Part of that probably had to do with the pristine, white chiclet keys, which do an unfortunately good job of highlighting blemishes and stains. A smooth, slightly flexible aluminum plate surrounds the keys, and a white plastic surface with rubber feet goes below that.

Apple went with a very low-profile design, in which the front edge lies only 0.2" (5 mm) above the desk surface, and the rear beam props the back edge to a height of 0.67" (17 mm). If you're not happy with the angle or just want the keyboard to lie flat on your desk, well, too bad—Apple provides no adjustments of any kind.

That rear beam includes a pair of USB 2.0 ports on either side, which come pretty handy if you'd like to plug in a camera or USB thumb drive without having to find a spare port on your PC. Just don't try any oversized connectors or drives, because they'll just lift up one side of the keyboard in comical fashion.

Viewed from the side, the Apple keyboard's fixed angle may remind one of traditional desktop layouts, which position alphanumeric key rows in an arc to make them easier to reach. You won't find an arc here, however; the chiclet keys all lie perfectly parallel to the keyboard's surface. Considering the slight angle, that design means your fingers aren't always perpendicular to the key caps. I've become particularly aware of that fact when hitting keys on the row above the space bar, since my fingernail will sometimes make contact before the tip of my finger. Good thing I keep a nail clipper handy on my desk, I suppose, although the Apple keyboard definitely isn't forgiving.

Prying off key caps reveals a plastic scissor-switch design and a collapsible rubber plunger tasked with providing the necessary resistance. Apple uses the same type of switch in its MacBook keyboards, but oddly, it doesn't feel quite the same here. The MacBook keyboard is a little springier and louder, whereas this one has a softer, smoother feel that provides less tactile feedback. You might chalk that up to the angle, but I expect it's due to a design difference. Perhaps it's the different backplate, or maybe Apple just gets different companies to make the two keyboards.

Many of us have seen laptop-style keyboards before—heck, our Editor-in-Chief even reviewed one a few months back—but the Apple keyboard manages to distinguish itself even among that crowd. Not only are chiclet keys a rare sight outside the laptop world, but this device also has a strange, futuristic, and some might say impractical look in addition to that. It also has a very tight footprint, which can definitely come in handy on cluttered or cramped desks. The USB cord Apple provides isn't quite long enough for folks with their PCs sitting on the floor, but the company thankfully chucks in an extension in the box.