Splurge on a Better Keyboard, It’s Worth It

(Bloomberg Businessweek) -- Like most people working from home, you’re probably using a keyboard that sucks. Laptop versions are squished, and the ones bundled with desktops are invariably going to underperform. If you’re looking for an upgrade, here’s what you should know.

Why are people so obsessed with keyboards?

“The keyboard is the thing that people touch the most, out of all the things in their lives—your fingers can spend eight hours a day on this one object,” says Martin Krzywinski, a staff scientist at the Michael Smith Genome Sciences Centre in Vancouver who’s well-known in keyboard circles for measuring the strain and speed of typing on various layouts. The only comparable item, he says, is your mattress. “Try to find something that you love under your fingers.”

Why are mechanical keyboards so beloved?

Underneath every mechanical key is a keyboard switch, which provides a fulfilling tactile feel when you press it. Most switches have a spring inside. You can purchase mechanical switches with hundreds of variations on click, noise, and force intensity.

What’s with all the colors and the “cherries” in the names of the switches?

Cherry is the name of a trusted German company that manufacturers keyboard switches. A few years ago, its patent for the Cherry MX switch expired, and the market has been flooded with imitators.

What do ergonomists like?

David Rempel, an expert in hand and arm biomechanics and a professor emeritus at University of California at Berkeley, makes these suggestions:

  • Go thin. “The thinner the keyboard, the straighter the wrists,” he says, explaining that in the 1980s reporters using 2-inch-thick keyboards developed repetitive motion injuries.
  • Skip the number pad. You want your mouse as close to the keys as possible, so your right hand, wrist, and arm are strained minimally moving back and forth.
  • Don’t be cheap. Spend at least $50, Rempel says. You’re paying for consistency with each stroke and from key to key.
  • Read the specs. The “make force,” which is the pressure required to push a key, should be 50 to 70 “gram force” (often just represented as “g”). Below 40g results in accidental keystrokes; over 70g fatigues your fingers and wrists.
  • Stagger keys. Keys in vertical rows, which require less motion from your fingers, will be an adjustment. “Typing is a repetitive motor activity embedded in the brain, and when you go to vertical columns, it throws you off,” says Rempel.
  • Consider a split keyboard. “They’re easier on your forearms and tendons and muscles,” he says. (This reporter types with her hands 2 feet apart and loves it.)

Should you stick with Qwerty?

Yes, stick with the standard layout—Q-W-E-R-T-Y in the upper, lefthand corner of the keyboard—particularly if your work involves the pauses that programmers and writers have to take to think. Only people typing at furious speeds need consider alternatives.

What would those alternatives be?

Qwerty was designed to prevent typewriters from jamming up when adjacent keys were pressed. You can program higher-end keyboards for layouts that let you type faster, such as the Dvorak or Colemak. The latter is easier to learn because its layout is similar to Qwerty (only two keys move to the other hand).

Is there a way to try out another layout without going full Dvorak?

Yes. Krzywinski invented his own ideal arrangement, Carpalx. The beginner version introduces only the five most-optimal key swaps, and you can swap one at a time if your keyboard is programmable.

So what keyboards should I try?

  • Microsoft Sculpt Standard wireless ergonomic keyboard with a slight split.
  • Logitech K800 Classic rectangle design, backlit, quiet, wireless.
  • Corsair K70 Rainbow-lit mechanical keyboard with smooth switches that’s widely used by gamers.
  • Azio Retro Want one that looks like a typewriter? This is it.
  • ErgoDox EZ Darling of alternative-curious typers. Fully reprogrammable key layout, fully split, fully customizable (lighting, letters, clickiness, etc.). Pricey.
  • Keyboardio Model 1 A thing of wooden beauty—like a guitar. This is the one you leave your heirs. (There’s a waitlist to purchase it.)
  • Keyboardio Atreus Hyper-portable, hyper-programmable. Your fingers never stretch—in fact, they never leave the home row. It’s got 44 keys vs. 104 on a standard keyboard and 78 on a laptop. (Available for preorder.)

What do I do if I like one?

Manufacturers stop making certain models, and warranties often don’t last long. Krzywinski says: “Buy 10. Because if it breaks, you’re done.”

©2020 Bloomberg L.P.

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