John is a fervent writer, gamer, and guitar lover. Former automatic-transmission repairer, welder and hobbyist game developer.
So you’re looking for a new keyboard, but you’re not sure what to get. The price ranges covered by keyboards are vast; you can pick a cheap one up for less than the price of a couple of large coffees. But should you?
As with many things in life, the answer is not a straightforward one size fits all kind of affair. There are a few aspects of the humble keyboard that can be considered universally better for all users, but even they are mitigated by things like price and form factor. So with that in mind, we’re first going to go over some of the key (pun not intended) features to consider in keyboards, and then look at some of the most common use cases.
We’re not necessarily talking extras here (though that will be a factor considered) but rather the basic components of the keyboard itself.
The way a keyboard connects to your device is an essential thing to consider. For the most part, if you buy a keyboard that connects via USB, you’ll be fine. But if your use case doesn’t present you with a USB connection, or if you buy, for example, a bluetooth keyboard for a device that doesn’t have a bluetooth connection, then your keyboard is useless to you. No matter how perfect it might be in other respects.
Another thing to consider is your wider setup. If you only have one USB connection, buying a USB keyboard will mean you no longer have a free USB port. You might consider buying a USB hub to get around this, or even a keyboard with built in USB ports. If you intend to use your keyboard with a phone or tablet, you’d almost always be better off with a Bluetooth keyboard.
Second to ensuring the keyboard will actually work is the cost of the keyboard itself. For most people, cost will be the main driving factor. As mentioned above, you can buy very cheap keyboards these days, but they are, well, cheap! Which is not to say they’re worthless. If you just need a keyboard to access a device occasionally (a home server, for example), but won’t really be using it a lot, then there’s no sense in spending a small fortune.
On the other hand, there are extremely high-end keyboards that cost more than some complete computers. And for the most part, you do get more for your money. But do you need the extra?
If money is no object, by all means, get the best keyboard you can. But for most of us, there will be a budget, and with a budget there will be compromise. You need to factor what features you get for your money against what you need from your keyboard.
This is the fundamental aspect of keyboards that very few regular consumers consider. Now, if you’re the aforementioned occasional user who will be barely touching their keyboard, you can skip this. But if you type a lot, game, or do anything that means using your keyboard often, you should consider the keys you’re going to be typing on.
The keycaps themselves will typically be either be the regular dished style found on most keyboards, or chiclet style keys which are flatter, and often found on laptops. The keycap itself is entirely a matter of preference. For a lot of keyboards, they can even be changed. It’s what’s underneath the keycap that matters.
Keyboards: Which Switch Should You Get?
The actual switch that registers your keypress is what makes or breaks a keyboard for power users. There are a lot of switch types, but unless you want to dive into that world head first, it’s enough for this article to say the main difference is between mechanical and non-mechanical switches. In almost all cases, mechanical is better, but it is also more expensive.
Rather than considering switches, however, it would be better to simply factor in the feel of the keyboard (assuming you can try before you buy). What you’re looking for is the most comfortable typing experience you can get. That will typically mean switches with less resistance and less travel needed to register a keypress. That usually means a mechanical keyboard, but if your budget won’t allow that, you can find many good non-mechanical keyboards.
Extras are where it really comes down to your specific use case scenario. The aforementioned built in USB ports is one example. Another would be built in function buttons for controlling things like media playback.
A particularly useful feature—if you need it—is macro keys. These are keys with no specific use that can be programmed. This is particularly useful when gaming, or using high end software such as any Adobe Creative Cloud applications.
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You can even get keyboards with little screens to display certain information. But as with all the rest, you need to weigh up what features you actually need against what you’re willing to pay for.
So what things should you look for based on your specific use case? Here I’ll go over some of the most common things that power users do with their overworked keyboards.
Yes, okay, this is a pretty obvious one. But I’m specifically referring to typing in long, repetitive stretches. This might apply to authors, bloggers, even programmers. People who will spend much of their pattering away at their keyboard.
A wrist rest should be considered essential for this kind of user. If one doesn’t come with your chosen keyboard, purchase one separately. A mechanical keyboard would be ideal, however if that is not possible, find a keyboard with low key travel. Pressing small keys down doesn’t seem like a big deal, but at a rate of hundreds of words per minute over long periods, your wrists will thank you for choosing a keyboard that doesn’t make you work any harder than you have to.
The final aspect of your keyboard to consider is ergonomics. The aforementioned wrist rest factors into this, however there are also certain keyboard form factors designed specifically to be as comfortable as possible for long duration use.
The above comments on wrist rests and mechanical keys apply here also. Perhaps more so, seeing as typing will typically mean a wider range of motion than the average gamer, who will be using far fewer keys. This means they are more at risk of a repetitive strain injury. Be sure to take breaks.
Beyond that, programmable macro keys are particularly useful in this use case (though make sure they’re allowed if playing multiplayer games!). Another thing to consider in this case is back lighting. Many gamers will often play in the dark, or low lighting, either because of immersion or simply because they haven’t realised it’s dark! It’s not great for your eyes to be staring at a monitor in the dark, but if you’re going to do it, a back lit keyboard might be a sound investment.
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On the Go
This is the trickiest of all. If you plan to be taking your keyboard with you—perhaps you connect it to your tablet or phone, or just don’t like the built in keyboard in your laptop—then you want it to be portable. Unfortunately, quality keyboards are rarely portable.
If you intend to use your portable keyboard for typing as mentioned above, you should sacrifice some convenience for a better keyboard. You’re less likely to damage yourself carrying a slightly bigger, heavier keyboard around than you are typing for hours on end on a cheap keyboard.
On the other hand, some kind of wireless connection—either regular bluetooth or via a wireless dongle—would definitely be preferable to having cables floating around in your baggage.
This can apply to audio producers, movie editors, or 3D modellers. Basically anyone using specialist software that would likely be all but indecipherable to people who aren’t experts in it.
In this case, macro keys may be useful, but also be sure to choose a keyboard with changeable keycaps. This way you can customise your keyboard to suit your specific use case. Other than that, the things that do and don’t make sense will vary depending on the specific software you use.
And that’s your lot. Don’t feel overwhelmed by all the options when buying a new keyboard, most of the options aren’t too important unless you’re a power user. The best rule of thumb is to always get the best keyboard you can afford… unless you’re hardly ever going to be using it, in which case get the cheapest keyboard you can find!
This article is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge. Content is for informational or entertainment purposes only and does not substitute for personal counsel or professional advice in business, financial, legal, or technical matters.
© 2018 John Bullock