Computer Keyboards

Computer Keyboards

Over the years I have owned a number of different computer keyboards. These have varied in quality, ease of use and reliabilty. Years ago when I  started work I used an IBM computer. This had a keyboard with a nice solid feel and a firm clicking action. Several years on and these keyboards ,the IBM M series, are a collectors item with some people modifying them to work with modern computers.

Most of the keyboards available today are of two types.

First the membrane keyboard. This has a rubber or plastic membrane below the keys. As they are depressed the membrane forms a contact with the printed circuit board and you see the matching character appearing on the screen.

The second type of keyboard uses mechanical switches. These have a small mechanical switch under each key which closes when you press a key and the character appears on your monitor. These are often referred to as Cherry MX keyboards after the Cherry computer company which first made them popular.

There is a third type of keyboard made by the Japanese company TopRe which uses a unique electro capicitance switch to sense when a key is pressed. The TopRe keyboards are among the more expensive keyboards you can buy and opinion on them is sometimes divided.

A keyboard might just seem to be a device which allows you to type information into a computer but it is an essential peripheral and there are marked differences between the different types.

Membrane Keyboards

Membrane keyboards are usually the cheapest type of keyboard available. They are usually supplied as standard if you buy a new PC. Some of the better ones are not bad.

However, over the years I have found that they can sometimes have a vague typing action. This often leads to errors as you may hit the key at a slight angle or not depress it fully or the membrane wears out.

The other problem with a membrane keyboard is that if you spill some liquid on it by accident you can ruin the keyboard. I know people should keep beverages (both hot and cold) clear of computers but it is a fact of life that they do not. Years ago I worked at a university and the number of keyboards which had to be replaced due to “beverage related incidents” was very high.

The range of membrane keyboards is vast so you can buy one with all the backlights and additional multimedia switches you might want.

Mechnical Switch aka Cherry MX Keyboards

These keyboards use the different grades of Cherry MX switches. The MX switch type is indicated by the colour of the switch. The most common types are Red, Black, Brown and Blue.

There are also some more obscure types such as the Clear, White, Grey and Green ones but the first group are the most common and popular.

The differences between the types of switches are best described by how they feel to use and the purposes to which they are best suited.

There is a small industry in replacement keycaps and add-ons for MX keyboards so you can easilly replace the keycaps from a standard white on black set with some different designs. Some are very garish so if you fancy a set in orange,pink, lime green or even camoflage etc it can be yours. It is also possible to buy replacement keycaps which have the characters at the front of the key instead of the top.

Then there are the add ons such as dampening rings which make the keys quieter. On my keyboard I have fitted some aluminium keycaps over the cursor movement keys which helps keep them clean.

The mechanical switch or MX keyboard certainly provides for more accurate typing and has a firmer feel as the key is pressed. They are also more robust compared to membrane style keyboards.

MX Switch Types

The most common types of mechancial switches are:

Red –  A linear switch with a simple up and down action and a light touch.  This is very popular on gaming oriented keyboards. Arguably becoming the most popular type of MX keyboard

Black – Another linear switch design but this one has a firmer action. The black is one of the oldest MX designs first seen in 1984. Due to their firm action the black switches are popular in industrial applications such as point of sale keyboards.

Brown – A tactile non clicky switch. The Brown switch uses a bump stop to indicate that the key has been fully depressed. I think that this is probably the best all rounder of the MX boards. It is equally suited to gaming, data entry and office use. Possibly the most popular along with the Red variant

Blue – A tactile clicky switch. This one clicks every time you depress it fully. Popular with typists but can be noisy.

A more detailed explantion of the above with diagrams and the more obscure types of switch is in the very detailed guide from The Keyboard Company .

The Keyboard Company also sell two sets of samplers which allow you try the different types of switch for yourself so you can decide which is most suitable for you.

As a result of their flexibility MX switches are very popular in custom designed keyboards and some beautiful designs are available from companies such as Datamancer  at a price. I also saw a range of custom made wooden keyboards a while ago which looked great and used fine woods such as oak and birch but were very expensive.

Backlit Keyboards

Many keyboards available today are of the backlit type. With MX type keyboards these use LEDs under the translucent keycaps to provide a range of lighting effects. On membrane keyboards the backlighting works differently.

There are many colours of backlit keyboards available. Some allow you to cutomise the colours or have wave effects with a random pattern of changing lights. Many also have additional keys for media use.

I have owned three backlit keyboards.

The first was a membrane style keyboard which came as standard with an Alienware PC I bought years ago. Normally I build my own PCs from components or upgrade older machines to keep them up to date (time and money permitting). However I needed a new system in a rush so I bought this one off the shelf. The board is not a bad one but I found that I often made typing mistakes as a result of not pressing the key fully.

The next two backlit boards I owned were MX style keyboards.

The first was a MX Red from Corsair. This received good reviews in a number of computer magazines to which I subscribe. As I like other Corsair components (cases etc) I bought one when I placed a bulk order for some components to build a new PC. A big mistake. After a month the LEDs started to fail and I read around on the the Web and discovered that this is very common problem with this range of boards. Strange how the magazine reviews failed to mention that !!!

The second one I owned was a MX Brown keyboard made by the Taiwanese firm Ducky and called the Shine (a silly name I know). Not a bad board and solidly made but this time after three months some of the LEDs failed.

I own a number of computers so the two backlit boards with failing or failed LEDs are used with two older PCs and replace some very old membrane style boards. The keyboards work for typing but some of the LEDs ,which should last a long time, do not.

Although I like technology and gadgets on occassions I find myself questioning how useful some things are and if I really need them. This is pretty much the case with me and backlit keyboards.

I cannot see the point in having a keyboard which, for example, glows red sitting on your desk and can be a distraction. Another example of this is the “Light In Motion” feature on my new Asus monitor. This illuminates a red ring on the base of the monitor stand and is an annoying feature as it is in your peripheral vision when looking at the screen. Thankfully it can be turned off.

For my main PC ,which I use daily, I thought about the type of keyboard I needed. I came to the conclusion that for practical reasons the only lights which serve a purpose for me are ones indicating that either NumLock, CapsLock or ScrollLock has been pressed.

So no backlit keyboard for me thank you very much. If I am typing and need some ambient light I have a very useful device called a desklamp which I can turn on.

As for additonal multimedia and macro keys I have little use for them. Several software packages I use allow me to map functions to the Function keys on the top row of the keyboard or a mouse click which suits me fine.

As I use this PC for different tasks such as documents, writing, data entry, programming, web browsing and some gaming I decided on an MX Brown version. The only indulgence was that I fancied a distinctive case.

I thought long and hard about buying a “Baron of Cypress” keyboard from Datamancer. This is a handsome beast finshed in copper with black leather but I baulked at the price tag of $1200 (or £900+ in proper money). I could buy a new PC for that !!!

Eventually I bought a Filco keyboard in a redwood case from the Keyboard Company to which I added a set of aluminium cursor keys from Overclockers . filco_kobo_redwood_cover_large

Not the flashiest keyboard I know but it suits me just fine.