|Professional Mechanical Keyboard Comparison|
|Reviews - Featured Reviews: Input Devices|
|Written by David Ramsey - Edited by Olin Coles|
|Sunday, 27 September 2009|
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Professional Mechanical Keyboard Review
There are a lot of keyboards out there. Some keyboards are wireless; others offer lighting effects, programmable displays, and drivers that remap the keyboards to configurations optimized for specific applications and games. But if you're a serious typist - a professional who thinks that a keyboard's primary duty is to enable fast and accurate typing, and not to glow prettily or adjust your speaker volume or display the number of missiles left in your launcher, then you might be interested in a professional mechanical keyboard. Benchmark Reviews looks at a wide selection of available high quality keyboards to see which might be the best for you.
The Age of the Dinosaurs
Back when a typical desktop computer cost $2,000 or more, $200 keyboards were not uncommon. Professional-level kit like the IBM Model M, the Northgate OmniKey Ultra, and the Apple Extended Keyboard were examples of the care and thought manufacturers put into a product that would last for years under heavy use. Even computers ostensibly aimed at hobbyists like the Apple ][ or Atari 800 had keyboards comprised of individual mechanical switches.
Many of these keyboards still do daily duty in the hands of the faithful, who gladly pay high prices (as I write this, a restored Northgate OmniKey Ultra keyboard is for sale on eBay with a "buy it now" price of $399) for pristine examples.
What made these keyboards so expensive? Individual mechanical key switches, with long travel (3-4mm) mounted on heavy metal base plates; double-shot sculpted keys whose legends could not wear off, and a general quality feel set these keyboards apart from the modern variant, typically a featherweight plastic contraption using mushy, rubber-dome key switches.
What really distinguishes these keyboards apart from their modern brethren is the feel: the positive "snap" or "click" that a buckling-spring or snap-action mechanical key switch makes. The "snap" gives you tactile and auditory confirmation that the keystroke has registered and the computer has received the key stroke. With the better rubber dome keyboards, you'll feel a "pop" as the dome collapses, but that does not necessarily mean the keystroke has registered!
But individual mechanical key switches make a keyboard expensive, and a $200 keyboard makes no economic sense for a $399 desktop computer you pick up at Best Buy. Even a $50 keyboard is too much. Most OEM keyboards these days cost less than $5 to manufacture and are available at $20 or less at the retail level. Virtually all modern keyboards use some variant of the "rubber-dome" key spring, in which the spring action to push the key back up after it's been depressed is provided by a dome molded in a sheet of rubber under each key. Depending on the keyboard, the dome may be part of the actual switch mechanism, with conductive material on the underside of the dome bridging contacts on a circuit board beneath it when the key is pressed, or the dome may merely provide the spring effect for a membrane-switch keyboard.
For those of us who grew up with real keyboards, there's something profoundly unsatisfying about typing on even the best rubber dome keyboard. It just doesn't feel right. Add to this the fact that many low cost keyboards omit things like N-key rollover (the ability of the keyboard to sense when multiple keys have been depressed, one after the other, before the original key has been released), and fast typists suddenly find themselves slowing down and making mistakes. And somehow the ability to mute your computer's audio from the keyboard doesn't seem nearly as cool as it did in the store.