Keyboards

Submitted by peter on Mon, 02/05/2018 - 03:57

One of the most popular hardware subjects is the keyboard. Everyone has a favourite. My articles on keyboards started in the 1990s and always produce arguments. This page starts in 1997.

1997

I sold Honeywell keyboards to people who wanted the best. The keyboards had the smoothest and longest lasting keys in a beautifully curved board for minimum wrist stress. Experienced typists ordered the keyboards to replace whatever was supplied with their computer.

At the time, the keyboards were $200 cheaper than the top of the range German keyboards and only about $40 more than the typical mass produced rubbish. Several heavy duty keyboard users purchased the German keyboards then switched back to the Honeywell keyboards.

One customer used 50 keyboards per month. No matter what brand or price, her super fast typists burnt through every other keyboard. The Honeywell keyboards lasted a year and some typists improved their speed.

2007

My old Honeywell keyboard disappeared and I tested replacement keyboards. The most expensive replacement was the least satisfactory. What should you look for in a keyboard?

I gave away my old Honeywell keyboard with an old computer back in 2007 after more than ten years of full time use. A long life is important but not anywhere as important as the health of your hands and wrists when typing, or the accuracy of your typing, or the speed.

The key movement is the most important factor and none of the replacement keyboards were as good as my old Honeywell. Bring back Honeywell keyboards.

The Honeywell keyboard dates from last century. In 1993 Honeywell sold their keyboard manufacturing to Keytronics, so my original Honeywell keyboard could be from earlier than 1993. The first really good keyboard that I used was an IBM keyboard using metal slides on the keys and magnetic switches that provided perfect bounce. The magnetic component is called the Hall Effect switch. The Honeywell keyboards where the only other keyboards to perfect movement and retain reliability.

Reliability

Cheap keyboards bend because they have no metal frame and the cheap plastic substitute is not rigid. Cheap plastic keys create friction when they slide and wear out quickly. Metal, a hard non corrosive metal is perfect, create the smoothest slide. The closest equivalent in plastic requires an intermediate Teflon sleeve, silicon lubricant, really good design, and careful manufacturing, none of which are present in cheap keyboards.

Cheap keyboards might feel good when new because the manufacturer used the right design and materials but it usually does not last because the soft slippery plastics wear out. Cheap keyboards have no design targets while medium quality keyboards are designed to last ten million keystrokes and the most reliable keyboards last fifty million keystrokes.

Is ten million keystrokes a lot of keystrokes? There are over 100 keys on a keyboard which means an individual key has to survive only 500 thousand keystrokes. Some keys are used more than others, which means you could strike the space key, or another popular key, 500 thousand times before the z key, or a similarly less popular key, is struck less than 10 thousand times. The imbalance of usage means a high usage key will fail when you use your keyboard perhaps only two million times.

What is two million keystrokes to the average typist? A word can average eight keystrokes which means a word and a space use nine keystrokes. Allowing for the occasional backspace, allow ten keystrokes per word which brings two million keystrokes back to 200 thousand words or one hundred pages.

Most keyboards last longer because the usage is more evenly distributed but some usage is out of proportion. When you type indented text, you can use a small number of tab keys or a large number of spaces. I use tabs. Some typists use spaces and destroy their spacebar long before the rest of they keyboard is worn out.

So how long did my old Honeywell keyboard last? I purchased one Honeywell keyboard back when they had metal frames, which would easily be before 1993, then another just as they converted to plastic frames, which would be the early 1990s. The first keyboard was foolishly given away after more than ten years of continuous use. I supplied the keyboard with an old computer because I though I could get more Honeywell keyboards forever.

The average novel is 220 pages. My first book was 1100 pages. Allow for my working toward perfection, something impossible in writing, and the average page was typed, retyped, edited, and reedited at least three times. That makes the 1100 page manuscript a 3300 page effort, or 15 novels. Pick up 15 novels and imagine typing them.

That 3300 pages of typing was completed in six months. Repeat that twice per year for most of the years from 1993 to the end of 2006. 24 years by two lots of six months by 3300 pages. That is over 150 thousand pages. I slacked off some months, bringing the total down closer to 100 thousand pages. If one keyboard can last 100 thousand pages and another keyboard can be faulty after 100 pages, you can see why a slight extra investment in a good keyboard can repay itself many times over.

RSI

RSI, or Repetitive Strain Injury, is related to stress as are some forms of arthritis and many other diseases. A good keyboard lets you type an 1100 page book without stress while a bad keyboard creates stress from as little as 20 minutes into the first few pages.

The perfect keyboard for you is not the perfect keyboard for me or anyone else as the keyboard has to fit your hands and balance the weight of your keystrokes. If the keyboard is too light, you will strain yourself trying to not type more than you want and if the keyboard is too resistive, you will wear yourself out thumping the keys.

The only valid test is to type for an hour or two. Do you feel strain in your wrist or anywhere else?

Feel

When you use a keyboard, you press a key down until you feel or hear a click then you release the key. Feeling the click is more important that hearing the click because your fingers can react immediately to the feel. Audible clicks are just distractions that jumble with all the other clicks in your office. The best keyboards have good feel and almost no noise.

You feel a very light springy resistance to the downward stroke, just enough to stop you accidentally pressing a key. On a great keyboard, you feel the click part way down and can immediately release the key, with the spring returning your finger and key to the original up position. The perfect feel uses hysteresis, which was originally related to the magnetic component in early keyboards. The stroke downwards is slightly different to the stroke upwards and the result is an upward pressure immediately the keystroke activates the keyboard, followed by a spring backwards that lifts your finger up without you having to stress yourself.

On some keyboards you do not feel anything until the key hits the bottom of the stroke and your fingers go crunch into the key. Modern membrane keys are notorious for having no spring at the bottom of the keystroke. The better keyboards have a thicker membrane to bounce you back and the really good keyboards have metal springs to bounce you back. The perfect keyboard has Hall Effect magnets.

Noise

The cheapest keyboards are rattly squeaky rubbish because they are made of the wrong plastics and poorly finished. Some of the more expensive keyboards are equally noisy because the designers are deaf. The designers must sit all day with their heads jammed between laser printers and shredders, until they are deaf as cardboard boxes. They then design keyboards that feel and sound like they are made from cardboard boxes. The worst of those keyboards ended up on some of the Dell computers I had to use when on assignment.

Luckily for Dell users, not all Dell computers get cardboard keyboards. Strangely, the cardboard feel is not directly related to price as shown by one of my $20 cheap keyboards working better than a $125 major brand keyboard. The $125 keyboard might last longer than the $20 keyboard but I would rather type on a succession of the $20 keyboards than the $125 keyboard.

Technical Stuff

There are some technical measurements you can look for in a keyboard but do not expect to find them except for a few rare expensive keyboards.

Travel

Travel is the measurement of a keystroke length. If the keystroke is too short, you cannot swing your fingers enough to circulate blood through your muscles. If the keystroke is too long, you waste time, a common problem with old mechanical typewriters. 4 mm to 5 mm, about a fifth of an inch for Americans, is a comfortable distance for my large fingers and 2 mm, less than a tenth of an inch, is comfortable for ladies with dainty hands and long fingernails.

That comment about dainty hands and long fingernails is because a friend had fingernails longer than the knife I use to take the skin off oranges. At work we spent some time together finding her exactly the right keyboard so she could type without endangering her nails. The result was a very flat keyboard with very short travel, a keyboard design that is popular today because it is cheaper to manufacture.

Pre Travel

This is the distance the key travels before activating the letter, number, or character. You need a pre travel long enough to pump blood around your muscles. If you get pain in your muscles then it could be lactic acid build up from not enough movement.

Activation Travel

This is the distance the key travels when activating the letter, number, or character. The distance should be immeasurably small but some sloppy keyboards have a significant variation. A bad keyboard will show activation travel as a need to press keys a long way sometimes while a short distance other times. You can also get keyboards where two keys sitting next to each other will require different movements to activate them.

The ideal keyboard has exactly the same movement to activate every key and just slightly more pressure to activate the spacebar so that you will not accidentally knock the spacebar while reaching for the keys along the top of the keyboard.

Post Travel

The most important part of the travel is the post travel, which is total travel minus pre travel and any actuation travel. Post travel is the distance your fingers have to stop moving before crashing into the bottom of the stroke. You want post travel at least as far as the pre travel and a gradual increase in back pressure during the post travel so that your fingers can bounce back naturally.

Post travel is made important by the complete lack of post travel in most keyboards.

Activation Force

Cherry quote an activation force of 60 cN for one of their keyboards and their competitors quote from 30 grams up to 80 grams with 50 grams being an average. You want 30 or 40 grams for the light touch hands, 60 grams for my heavier fingers and 80 grams for the spacebar to prevent accidental activation.

KeyTronic inherited the Honeywell keyboard and had a fascinating range of keyboards I could not find on retail sale in Australia. KeyTronic are now contract manufacturers with no focus on keyboards.

Keystrokes Before Failure

Cheap keyboards are designed to survive only their 30 day guarantees. Medium keyboards last ten million keystrokes while the top keyboards last 50 million keystrokes or more. Some keyboards last a long time but only if you thump them progressively harder. Some keyboards will die if you spill coffee on them while others will survive through coffee as rough as Starbucks coffee.

The keystrokes measurement assumes even use and not the constant thump on one key that you get with some games, or the phosphoric acid attack of some cola based drinks. The thin electrical contacts assume you are not near salty ocean breezes or the constant humidity of a Darwin summer.

For a good brand the measurements are based on average conditions while the lesser brands base their tests on climate controlled clean air environments with key pressures matched to the needs of the keyboard, not the user. Within a brand, there can be a range of models from great down to the bottom of the cheap/nasty rejects from second rate Chinese factories. Manufacturers do themselves a disservice by placing the cheap/nasty products in the same brand as the good stuff.

Keystrokes before failure is a good guide to reliability if they keyboard fits your normal stroke pressure and length. If there is the slightest mismatch then you will strain your hands. The same mismatch will make your keyboard fail early.

Example

Here is an example of a modern keyboard that is longer lasting with a good feel.

SteelSeries 6Gv2

A few years ago I purchased a SteelSeries 6Gv2 keyboard, which was last on sale at $139, replacing a solid but harsh Cherry keyboard. The 6Gv2 has a better movement than what was then an expensive Cherry keyboard. The Cherry keyboard has now dropped in price.

Both keyboards have a solid feel. The 6Gv2 has a better movement. The Cherry made my fingers hurt from the short hard stop. Using the Cherry, you had to hit the keys to make them move then they would bottom out with a solid thump sending a shock back into your fingers. The 6Gv2 has enough movement to let your fingers stop naturally after activation. This wonderful extra movement is mentioned above as post travel.

Conclusion

Choose a keyboard that fits your typing style and hands. Type for two hours straight and feel the result. If there is the slightest strain on your hands or arms then choose another keyboard. My comments might help you find the perfect keyboard before painful lumps appear in your wrist.