If you were to go on Amazon and search for computer keyboards, you’re likely to be blown away by the variety of options and different technologies used. Not only are you inclined to choose the wrong model if you don’t understand the array of technologies, but you’re also missing out on the amazing mechanical and electrical designs that remain hidden under the similar plastic shells. Fortunately, keyboards are much easier to classify and understand than you may think—and knowing this will make it much easier to understand your keyboard.
Before delving into all of the technology we use today, it is important to understand why keyboards look like they do today. The first keyboards, in the sense that we know them, were designed as integral parts of the typewriter, which was developed in the 1870s. It was back then that the QWERTY layout was devised.
How the Keyboard Was Designed
The QWERTY layout was devised so that the characters we use most often are easiest to access, and the characters we use less are on the fringes. That, like the story Ben Franklin is the reason for daylight saving time, is apocryphal. The true reason nearly all of us type as we do today is because the QWERTY layout was the only way that typewriter engineers in the late 1800s could arrange the keys without the metal bars to which they were attached from grinding and mashing together.
With those problem-causing bars in mind, it is time to talk about one of the main ways to categorize keyboards: the switches. A switch is the mechanism that a keycap travels on as it goes up and down during a keystroke. Unless you’re a Portland hipster, you won’t see any intertwined metal bars anymore, but you will mainly see two different forms—linear switches and rubber-dome switches.
Linear switches are the most common with quality mechanical keyboards. Often considered to be the best-performing switches for desktop keyboards, linear switches ensure that the key travels in the same straight path every time it is hit. Normally, the key is attached to the switch via grooves in the plastic, and the switch travels down to the activation point (the point where the input of the keystroke is recognized by the circuit and sent to the computer) using its own set of grooves.
1. This is a common type of linear switch with a spring for resistance.
Linear switches often are spring-loaded so that the pressure needed to press the key increases as it reaches the activation point. The amount of pressure differs depending on the model of switch and strength of the spring. These quality switches are ideal for those who sit at a computer a lot of the day and like a click and clack sound. But BEWARE: Many sellers try to suggest that their keyboards have these high-quality spring switches, but in reality they are lookalikes with rubber-dome switches hidden underneath.
That being said, rubber-dome switches can be quite good, and are suitable for most people. Often found under “Chiclet” keycaps, the style of keycap popularized by Apple, rubber-dome switches are small rubber domes that collapse to make contact with an activation point found in a plastic membrane.
2. This scissor switch with a rubber dome is found on most Apple keyboards.
Despite being more brittle, these switches require a shorter travel distance for the keycap and are much quieter than most linear switches. When a typist presses a keycap, the key does not go down a straight path, which is why if you press the corner of a Chiclet keycap, the entire keycap will tilt towards that corner. The best solution, used by Apple, is using a rubber-dome/scissor switch combination. Adding a scissor action, like a folding director’s chair, allows the key to be more securely guided onto the dome with little resistance.
How to Spot a Fake
This then brings up the knockoff linear-switch keyboards that secretly have rubber domes. Unless a mechanical keyboard says it has a “Cherry MX,” “Cherry MX-style,” or some other spring switch, you should assume it is a keyboard that has plastic guides attached under the keycaps that guide the key onto rubber domes. While some of these keyboards can be quite good, most are not.
These keyboards are insanely common and even made by household name brands. It costs only a few dollars more for a manufacturer to make a keyboard with linear switches, so the knockoffs, by nature, are likely to be neglected in other areas. One can even buy a much higher-quality keyboard with linear switches from an unknown brand for the same price as a “top-tier” knockoff from a name brand. The best quality-to-price ratios tend to be either buying a rubber-dome/scissor switch keyboard with Chiclet keys or a non-name brand keyboard with linear switches.
While the most common way to discern between keyboards is via the switch type, it is worth noting that once the metal arms of the typewriter went away, new keyboard layouts arose. The reason? QWERTY is inefficient by design. Based on the common typed characters, a typist is only typing on the home row 32% of the time; meanwhile, the top row is used 44% of the time. That equates to a lot of unnecessary reaching.
A More Efficient Layout
In 1936, due to the physiological issues caused by typing using the QWERTY method, Dr. August Dvorak created the Dvorak layout. This layout really mixed up the letters and symbols from the original place on the QWERTY layout, but the results speak for themselves. When using the Dvorak layout, 57% of a typist’s keystrokes are made on the home row.
Keyboards with the Dvorak layout are easy to find in many models and switch forms. Software exists to change the inputs in your keyboard’s circuit to allow a change from QWERTY to Dvorak, as long as you’re able to remove the keys and rearrange them.
Perhaps the most efficient and simple layout is Colemak. Unlike Dvorak, Colemak is not a dramatic shift from QWERTY. Nearly every key that moves is just shifted one or two spots. Most low-frequency keys are not moved, and only two keys are hit using the other hand. In addition to being an easier adjustment from QWERTY, Colemak even beats Dvorak with 61% of keystrokes being on the home row.
3. Here is a heat map of the most common keystrokes with a Colemak layout. You can see the concentration of keystrokes on the home row.
While many innovations in the keyboard field have gone toward improving functions stemming from the typewriter, newer and bolder alternatives have emerged. There are countless specialty keyboards with interesting designs and technologies, but a few are ripe for mass adoption.
Among these are the laser-projection and virtual keyboards. These inventions take the keyboard into the age of wearable and holographic technology. The laser-projection keyboard projects a keyboard onto any flat surface and registers keystrokes. Virtual keyboards, like the Armkeypad, allow a keyboard to be viewed through smart glasses with the help of a smart watch. Since both of these concepts are in their infancy, they pale in comparison with the ease and speed of a desktop keyboard. But, it is easy to see the potential for these concepts as advances are made in the technology.
Improve Typing with Feedback
Some of the more interesting innovations are those that don’t just change how we interact with the keyboard, but change how the keyboard can interact with us. While in the early stages, some Logitech and other brands of mice are using vibrating feedback. Though you will not find this in keyboards today, you may soon.
The ability for a keyboard to deliver information to a typist through a computer has big possibilities and may change how we interact with desktops. In a similar vein, there are inexpensive keyboard add-ons that provide tactile feedback. Though not as technologically sophisticated as vibrating feedback, products like Keybodo Tactile Character Recognition allow a typist to feel specific characters as they type to engage the brain more effectively when typing on a keyboard, which causes increased speed and reduced mistakes.
4. This is Keybodo’s Tactile Character Recognition. There is also a sticker version for individual keys, so it can be used on any keyboard.
Keyboards are an interesting market, because like cars, it is “what’s under the hood” that counts. But unlike with car sales, it is not always clear what is under the hood from the seller’s website, and a “test drive” is only in the form of buy-and-return. That is why it is important to know specifically which traits you desire, and to carefully examine the descriptions and images. The best-engineered keyboards often provide the most information because the manufacturer is proud of its competitive advantages. When examining keyboard technology, remember that high price is not a sign of the engineering quality, and that its form should fit your function.