reviewapples aluminum keyboard

Apple’s aluminum keyboard

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.


The layout
Being an Apple keyboard, this aluminum and plastic contraption is designed to pair up with Mac minis, iMacs, and Mac Pros. I don’t have any of those systems lying around, however. I just plugged the device into my Windows 7-powered desktop PC.

Thanks to the wonders of the USB standard, Windows happily detects and lets you use the Apple keyboard without any fuss. However, you’ll come to realize sooner or later that Mac keyboards aren’t quite identical to their PC cousins. Specifically, there are no Windows keys, the control and alt keys sit side by side with an Apple-specific “command” key, several special keys (like print screen and insert) are missing, the F-keys go all the way up to F19 as they extend over the numeric keypad, and the numpad itself is arranged a little differently, with the * symbol in the corner with both – and + below it.

This screenshot from Mac OS X’s Keyboard Viewer app provides a good overview of the layout. If you’re wondering about that gap next to the F12 key, there isn’t one—the Apple keyboard has an “eject” key in that spot. (No, it doesn’t do anything in Windows out of the box.)

By default, the Windows key maps itself to the Command key, and the “clear” button on the numpad works as the num lock. If you want print screen, scroll lock, or other PC-specific keys, though, you’ll need to install some type of third-party software. Apple’s own Boot Camp drivers might be a good start, since Apple wrote them to make sure Mac users could do everything they needed in Windows. Problem is, Apple doesn’t distribute those drivers on its website. Your best bet is to borrow a friend’s OS X 10.5 or 10.6 installation disc or just to Google around a little bit for the Boot Camp driver package. You’ll find something.

The Apple drivers let you use secondary media functions imprinted on some F keys. Be that as it may, I’m not so crazy about Apple’s Windows software, so I’ve personally opted to use AutoHotkey. It costs nothing, consumes just over 1MB of RAM, and lets you re-assign keys yourself via a small configuration file. Here’s what mine contains:




Translation: I swapped the alt and command keys on both sides of the space bar, and I bound F13 to print-screen. I still can’t use the insert, scroll lock, or media keys, but I don’t have much of a need for them.

The experience
So, is this keyboard actually any good? Two weeks ago, I would have said no. Two weeks before that, I would have said yes—but only if you use a couple of half-height CD jewel cases to prop up the front end. It’s weird, but my satisfaction with this keyboard seems to have followed a sort of inverted bell curve over time.

I was initially pretty happy with it, but the angle quickly became a problem, and I started to get tingling sensations in my wrists after long typing sessions. Propping up the front end helped, since it made the keyboard feel flatter, like the one on my MacBook. I eventually got sick of that and decided to switch back to my IBM Model M. Re-adjusting was difficult, though. The Model M’s keys just seemed too high up, and my wrists had trouble finding their old position.

I begrudgingly decided to give the Apple keyboard a second chance. I’m now typing this review on it, and it seems pretty much fine. No wrist tingling, no discomfort, no problems. The low resistance and short travel time provide a nice, sharp feeling, and typing feels more effortless than on any proper desktop keyboard I’ve tried before.

As with all low-profile keyboards, however, this one has a few unavoidable shortcomings. The general flatness means your fingers are the only things making contact, so it’s easy to start typing at the wrong angle or on the wrong set of keys by accident (hunt-and-peck types probably won’t have that second problem). The short travel distance makes it a little too easy to press keys too vigorously and tire yourself out, as well.

Apple’s aluminum keyboard also has a couple of unique issues. One of them is the caps-lock key, which Apple has rigged not to register very brief keystrokes, purportedly to “reduce accidental activation.” That’s all well and good, except I regularly run into problems when typing acronyms: it’ll ignore the first caps-lock keystroke and register the second, so the acronym will come out in lower-case and the text following it will be in all-caps (think “amd’s NEW rADEON hd 5870 IS PRETTY FAST”). I realize some view the caps-lock key as a pointless waste of space, but trust me, it comes in handy when you’re typing computer-related acronyms all day.

Also, there’s a little, ahem, security issue you should be aware of. Someone at this year’s Black Hat security conference figured out (PDF) how to load a keylogger into the Apple keyboard’s firmware. Such a keylogger could be difficult to detect, and since it would reside in the actual keyboard, it would survive a hard-drive wipe. This is definitely something to be aware of, but I’m not too worried. Let me explain.

According to Ars Technica, the keylogger can only be installed on an already-compromised computer—so, someone would need to have complete access to your system either physically or via a Trojan horse before being able to do anything. At that point, you can kiss your privacy goodbye either way. Second, I’ve yet to hear of such a keylogger appear in the wild as a genuine security risk. Finally, I would expect any real-world implementations to target Mac OS X, and I’m using this keyboard in Windows 7. I think I’ll live. Users more paranoid than I (or with more stringent security requirements) may wish to shop for another keyboard until a fix comes out, however.

I didn’t expect to ever say this, but I like the Apple keyboard. Oh, sure, that statement completely ruins my street cred with the clicky keyboard crowd, but what can I say? Mechanical switches work fantastically in full-size desktop keyboards, but laptop keyboards are becoming a fact of life as notebook computers eclipse desktops in popularity. If you like typing on a particular type of laptop keyboard, is it so wrong to get a similar desktop device?

I don’t expect the Apple keyboard to last anywhere near as long as my old Model M has, and I don’t expect to keep using it indefinitely. Right now, though, I’m just enjoying the ride, and it’s nice to be able to type without deafening everyone during conference calls and podcast recording sessions. Germophobes will no doubt appreciate the chiclet design for other reasons, too: if a crumb falls between keys, I no longer go “oh well.” I simply brush it off of the aluminum backplate, and that’s the end of that. (Good thing, too, because popping off those scissor-switch keys is a scary experience.)

Should you blow $49 on this slab of aluminum and plastic? I definitely wouldn’t recommend it unless you’ve already tried a good chiclet keyboard and liked it. These things aren’t for everybody, and since I found this device to have a lengthy learning curve (or habituation curve, at least), many users may simply hate it. You might say this is the kind of keyboard you either love or hate—you know, kind of like Apple products in general.

Cyril Kowaliski

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