You can buy a keyboard for next to nothing, and it will work for years. But if you spend any large amount of time on a computer, you need more than something that just works. A bad keyboard could do long-term damage to your wrists. Aside from that, you want something that will be comfortable and let you type fast and accurately. Divide the cost of a good keyboard by the number of hours you’ll spend using it, and you’ll see it’s an inexpensive investment.
Keycaps and switches
The keys of a keyboard are, in effect, contact switches, but the way a typical keyboard does them puts cost savings first. Under the keys, there’s a flexible plastic membrane. It provides resistance when you press a key down. Underneath it are two layers of metal tracks, separated by an insulating layer. There’s a hole in the insulation under each key. When you press down, the two tracks make contact.
After enough use, these layers will permanently deform. Keys will remain in contact or won’t make good contact. They can start to bounce, producing the same character twice. They’ll become erratic before they become stuck for good.
High-quality keyboards have individual switches built into each key. They last longer than membrane switches. They provide a more distinct tactile feedback. Some kinds make an audible click.
Keycaps make a difference too. The keys on low-priced keyboards are just printed with the letters. Use them long enough, and they’ll start wearing off, with “E” and “R” going first. Higher-quality caps are engraved, so they’ll last a lot longer before they wear down.
For touch typists, the little bumps on the “F” and “J” keys help to find the home position. On low-priced keyboards, they wear down quickly. If you lose both the printing and the bumps, there isn’t much left. Better caps have more durable bumps.
Holding your hands straight ahead and close together isn’t the most natural position. Some keyboards are split in the middle, with the two sides angled out, to give the wrists a more comfortable angle. Some people love these ergonomic keyboards, and some don’t care. You should try one out and decide if it feels better for you.
The split can be fixed or adjustable. An adjustable-split keyboard lets you find the angle that suits you best. Sometimes the sides are tilted from the horizontal. Some keyboards have a built-in wrist rest to improve typing comfort, with or without a split.
Gamers want the highest possible response from their keyboards. A tenth of a second can decide whether you or the orc walks away from the battle. Gaming keyboards include features that non-gamers can use, too.
The best gaming keyboards use high-quality key switches. Translucent, backlit keys are popular. They let the keys stand out more, and they’re also useful for people who have to work while their roommates are asleep.
Anti-ghosting lets you hit multiple keys at once and have them all come through. With conventional keyboard designs, if you press keys so fast that more than one is down at the same time, some may be “ghosted,” not seen by the computer. Keyboards with membrane switches are prone to ghosting. Anti-ghosting means fewer missed keystrokes.
Many models come with customizable keys. This lets gamers put their favorite sequences under a single key for faster reaction time. They’re also useful for storing favorite editor commands.
Operating system compatibility is an important consideration with these keyboards. You have to program the custom keys and adjust the backlighting through your computer, so make sure the necessary software is available.
What’s best for you?
Choosing a keyboard is a personal matter. Everyone’s hands and working habits are different. Some of your friends or co-workers probably have high-end keyboards. Ask to try them out and see how they work for you. Keep in mind that any change will feel odd at first. You should get in at least fifteen minutes to get a sense of whether a keyboard suits you. Look at the choices and prices on available keyboards and pick one that’s right for you personally. Your hands will thank you.