There are a handful of things which I am a Big Nerd about. “Big”, here, is multiplied by the inverse of the quantity of people that are also nerds about some topic. In this instance, the topic is keyboards. Did you know that there is a whole forum devoted to keyboard topics that many people don’t even know exist? I didn’t, until a year or so ago.
Let me back up a little. Years ago, I had a Microsoft Natural Pro—a thoroughly worthless keyboard for the experienced typist. It was free, and I had been hearing about these split ergonomic keyboards and how they are good for your hands, etc., and so I plugged it in.
If there’s one thing above all others a keyboard should do, it is to reproduce the input sequence entered. The MS Nat had this habit of inserting keys you didn’t press. It only ever happened when I was typing particularly fast, so it took a long time to determine I wasn’t just making typos. It turns out that I could get it to spam arbitrary keys, or even entire key sequences (a four-letter word plus newline, in one instance), at will. While that might be amusing in, say, Starcraft though—it’s not so amusing when all I want is to knock some words out.
I went in search of a keyboard. When you read about keyboards, it’s not unlikely that you’ll find references to the “clicky keyboard”. I certainly did, and it jogged something positive in my memory. I decided to get one. Which keyboards qualify as a “clicky keyboard” can be a bit vague, but if there is one keyboard that would be the clicky keyboard, it is the IBM Model M. This thing is ancient, and it looks it. You could use it for self defense and then plug it in to blog about the encounter. I picked one up for about $5 on eBay and that was that.
If you care about typing, you will recognize the benefits of the Model M straight away. It uses buckling spring key switches which give it a crisp, distinct, tactile feel accompanied by a loud click when a key is pressed. The tactile and audible feedback coincide sharply with the key activation. This contrasts with the common rubber dome switches where the feedback comes significantly before the actual key press is registered—which can lead to thinking you hit a key when it didn’t actually register. In other words, this keyboard told me precisely when I hit a key and it told me in no uncertain terms, and I liked that.
The problem with the Model M is it’s old. A have-to-be-careful-not-to-get-one-with-the-big-PS/2-connector kind of old. It has no Windows key, which didn’t bother me very much, and it wasn’t USB (although I learned later that there are certain things that make PS/2 superior to USB). It’s also ugly, which didn’t bother me much either since I’d rather spend my time typing on my keyboard than looking at it. And so I typed on the Model M for a long time. Eventually I even dropped $100 on a modern remake of it by the company that now owns the patent, Unicomp. This was the beginning of a pattern, though I didn’t know it at the time.
The Unicomp was a bit smaller, still as heavy, had USB and Windows keys, and in every respect felt just like the Model M. It had one of those eraser mice built in, which I removed, and Unicomp was nice enough to send me replacements for the “dented” keys that surrounded it. I still have that keyboard, and I use it when I play around with keyboard layouts, when I want to type fast and well, or when I’ve taken my daily driver somewhere else. I may never have replaced it if I hadn’t learned a bit more about keyboards.
While I find buckling springs to be really nice, there’s no denying that they are loud and heavy (by heavy I mean that they require significant force to activate a key). The main reason I hadn’t gone to a quieter, lighter keyboard is that I didn’t know any existed that were worth typing on. Enter Cherry. Cherry key switches have a pretty significant following online, and I ran into a Cherry proponent on IRC. He was so enthusiastic that I decided to look into the subject again, and I soon decided to spring for a new keyboard. That keyboard was a Filco Majestouch Otaku with Cherry brown switches. Cherry makes a number of key switches, and they are color coded to describe their characteristics. The browns are light and quiet, almost the polar opposite of buckling springs.
The Filco is sexy.
It also happens to be a pretty good keyboard, which is nice since it set me back about $140. True to the description, it was quiet and soft, and the tactile feedback closely matched the key activation. On top of that, it was compact—particularly in comparison to the boards I had previously owned. Another great thing about this keyboard is N-key rollover, which means that the keyboard will register key presses no matter how many buttons you already have pressed. This is actually a bit complicated and expensive to implement in a keyboard, which is why it isn’t so in most of them. It doesn’t have a huge effect on typing, although if you have a really bad keyboard like that MS one from before, it can crop up. It really shines for gaming, since the keys you use there can be many and in any arrangement.
All of that is nice, and I really wanted to like this keyboard. I could never quite trust it, though. As long as I’ve owned it I’ve had a problem with chatter, primarily with the space bar. Chatter is a keyboard term that describes pressing a key once but having it register more than once. At first I thought I was making typos, or that I had a heavy touch from typing on buckling springs so long and was just triggering keys on accident. I put up with it for a year before I finally got fed up and did a little homework. When I read about chatter, it was an “aha!” moment for me. Here’s the explanation, but—oh—my keyboard had just left the warranty period.
I e-mailed the folks at EliteKeyboards (where I had bought the Filco) describing my trouble and asked what it would cost to have my keyboard worked on, or at least purchase some new switches that I might install myself. To my surprise, they kindly agreed to honor the warranty. Unfortunately, though the problem seemed absent when I first got the keyboard back, it seems to have fallen into its old infuriating habits shortly thereafter. I don’t regret buying it, though; it is quite a nice keyboard. The problem isn’t drastic, but its infrequency is what makes it frustrating. I can’t trust it to output what I input and, as I wrote way back at the start, a keyboard’s job is to reproduce the input sequence.
I now had a bit of a dilemma. If Cherry gets such high ratings from keyboard enthusiasts, but I had this kind of experience with their switches, can I trust the internet to advise me on a replacement? I suspected that if I got a keyboard with Cherry blues, I wouldn’t have the same problem. Was it worth spending another $130 on though? I decided that if I was going to do this again, I might as well go all the way. There is another contender out there: Topre.
Topre makes a unique mechanical keyboard that is a hybrid of rubber domes, springs, and capacitive key switches. Specifically, the capacitive switches eliminate chatter, and boy had I had enough of that particular problem! Topre boards are also highly acclaimed by people who use them, but even among keyboard lovers those people seem to be rather few. With a $245 price tag, that’s not surprising.
The Topre isn’t quite as sexy as the Filco, but it is still quite attractive. It is USB, but that’s not really going to impact me any. It claims 6-key rollover, though I’ve measured ten. In short it doesn’t lose any functionality for how I am going to use it, but how does it feel? How does it react? I found out yesterday.
I was amazed by the difference. It’s softer to the touch and quieter than my Filco, but still feels crisp. The tactile feedback corresponds nicely with the key activation, and I have yet to encounter any keyboard problem I can think of. After typing a handful of words I could tell that I’d finally found another keyboard I could trust to faithfully reproduce my input, and that’s all I wanted in the first place. There is only one problem now: I’ve taken this keyboard to work—what am I going to type on at home?