Magnificent mechanical keyboards
April 26, 2012
While people love to talk about how intuitive touch is as an interface method, the cold reality is that for certain applications, legacy input formats still reign supreme. For example, for writing, there is no unseating the keyboard in one format or another, as writing by hand is slow and cumbersome for longform input. 1
Keyboards themselves are a rather interesting animal, which can be analyzed from several perspectives. There’s DVORAK vs QWERTY, for example, and strong arguments for practicality either way. But perhaps a less niche argument is design implementation, where we have mechanical keyboards in one corner, and cheapo rubber dome and scissor keyboards in another.
Shawn Blanc just wrote a good piece on this very topic, and if you’re at all interested in how mechanical keyboards are becoming the new in thing among the blogging elite, be sure to read his piece on clicky keyboards.
We won’t go into detail here about why a mechanical keyboard is better than most mass-produced keyboards today, save for mentioning that the tactile nature of the former is what gives them a place in our hearts. Some people go all googly over the sound, but we consider that secondary to the feel. It may be a matter of min-maxing, but as Shawn can attest to, a good keyboard does make a difference in typing speed and accuracy, and over the long-term, the investment in a more expensive mechanical keyboard may be worth it.
Shawn rounded up three different mechanical keyboards in his review. One was a legacy Apple Extended II, while the others were modern mechanicals: the Das Keyboard and the Tactile Pro 3. To the casual observer, those are perhaps the big three options2, but there are actually a lot more possibilities based around different types of switches. Of the keyboards Shawn tested, two use Alps mechanisms and one uses Cherry blue switches. Don’t worry about the differences, just know that both are considered very good for typing and not much else.
Not just for typing.
The other big area that keyboards excel at is gaming, and other than the PC gaming industry’s propensity to push the edge of the graphics race (which nerds love), superior controls are the other reason why PC gaming remains so full of vigor; no matter how convenient a handheld controller is, the mouse and keyboard combination maximizes human reflexes for the most intense gaming experience possible. For this reason, some savvy gamers have pushed the envelope by acquiring mechanical keyboards to further maximize their game.
Without going into too much detail here, the crux of the issue is the activation point for a given key; gamers want to know exactly when a given action is registered, and they want it to be quickly repeatable as well as predictable. As such, they prefer keyboards that allow them to ride the activation point, whereby they float their fingers on the keys at the point where a given action is registered. However, they also don’t want the keys to be too soft, offering enough resistance such that unintentional pressure doesn’t cause a key to register unexpectedly.3
For gaming purposes, none of the keyboards Shawn reviewed are great. In fact, the blue Cherry MX switches are not prefered for gaming at all, and while some claim the more linear Cherry black switches are ideal, most of the research we conducted pointed at the Cherry brown switches as more preferable, as they still provide appropriate tactile feedback. Another option many pro gamers opt for are Topre switches, usually with an actuation force of 55g.4 Topre switches are actually capacitive in nature, and are a sort of hybrid mechanical switch, which offers great tactile feedback and the smoothest force gradient available. They’re also the most expensive switch out there.
What about for the iPad?
We started looking into all of this ourselves some months back when we realized that we missed our old IBM Model M. We played around with many a keyboard during our past gaming days, but most were rubber dome keyboards and therefore equally bad. We kept a Model M around for casual use and loved it, despite it being a loud clacker. When we left desktops behind and started using Powerbooks/Macbooks, we didn’t revisit keyboards until we made the iPad our main computer. To this end, we picked up an Apple bluetooth keyboard, which is conveniently sized for travel, but uses the same scissoring mechanism that laptop keyboards do. We’ve said before that we consider a physical keyboard a necessity for longform writing on the iPad, and to this end, wouldn’t it be nice if we could have a better keyboard companion?
The first problem is, obviously, the wireless connectivity. Mechanical keyboards don’t typically come with bluetooth connectivity, so we have to connect the keyboard to our iPad using the camera connection kit. That’s not sexy, but it works.5
The second problem is form factor. If you only write longform on your iPad at home, maybe this isn’t a problem for you, but a typical 103-key keyboard is a massive beast, and most people can do without the numpad. If you’re to take your mechanical keyboard on travel with you, having a smaller physical footprint is always beneficial.
Fortunately, for the Cherry switch lovers, Leopold makes tenkeyless boards with whatever switch you prefer. If you’re willing to spend another $200 for Topre switches, Realforce makes tenkeyless models also (model 87u), with their traditional model offering variable-weight keys, and other models offering specific actuation forces across all keys.6 Finally, there’s the Happy Hacking Keyboard (HHKB) Pro 2, which has the smallest footprint of the bunch, but with the added problem of a built-in USB hub. This means the iPad won’t power the HHKB Pro 2 without some sort of auxiliary power source.7
Because mechanical switches take up more physical space than the scissor switches used in laptop-style keyboards, there’s no way you’ll ever match the footprint of the Apple bluetooth keyboard, but the HHKB Pro 2 is reasonably close.8
Of course, if you go this route, the last consideration is finding a suitable iPad stand; we’ve relied on both the WINGStand and Incase Origami in the past, but both are designed to work with Apple’s keyboard, so neither will work with the HHKB Pro 2. It took us awhile to discover the Origami and WINGStand, which are the top two solutions for typing on one’s lap with an iPad and physical keyboard, so we might have to hack something together from scratch in order to make the HHKB work even half as well.
We just put an order in for the HHKB in gray/black9, as well as for some USB accessories so we can experiment with powering the board properly. If all goes well, it will mean we can charge the iPad while we’re using the keyboard, which was always a concern of ours in the past when we mused about using a wired keyboard instead of a bluetooth one.
Once we have all the parts in hand, we’ll be sure to report on our findings.
Surely there are those who still swear by longform handwriting, but those people can’t argue it’s faster than keyboard entry when done on a computer. ↩
At least, these are the big three in the Mac world. Windows users don’t have the Apple Extended keyboard as a legacy option, but they have the infamous IBM Model M instead. ↩
There appears to be a movement among Asian gamers prefering less resistance on keys, whereas the opposite is true among western gamers. This may correspond to the dominant gaming genres, however; RTS games that are more popular in Asia may benefit from less resistance on the keyboard, whereas in first person shooters (FPS) where accidental keystrokes may prove to be a greater downside, additional resistance is prefered. ↩
The actuation force relates to how hard a key must be pressed in order to register. For comparison, the Apple Extended keyboard has an actuation force of approximately 65g, while the Das Keyboard’s activation force is about 55g. The higher the actuation force, the more tired one’s fingers are also likely to become during longform writing sessions. ↩
There doesn’t appear to be a bluetooth-capable mechanical keyboard still in production, which is a shame. ↩
The variable boards require less actuation force on the keys your pinky is likely to hit, with the keys under your dominant fingers requiring the most actuation force. This is great for typing, but arguably not so great for gaming. ↩
You can either use a powered USB hub, else a USB Y-cable that connects to your power brick. We haven’t tested either with the HHKB yet, but in theory it should work. ↩
The HHKB Pro 2 is about half an inch wider than the Apple Bluetooth keyboard, but is also about an inch less deep. It’s also taller, obviously, but that’s the part you can’t do much about because of the switch height. ↩
The HHKB Pro 2 comes in white and dark grey, and in either colour with or without printed characters. The darker option is dark grey instead of black because the keyboard characters are printed using dye sublimation, which means in order to be visible, they need to be darker than the background surface. The dark grey/black combination is very subtle, in which the characters are really only visible in a bright room. ↩