Clicky keyboards for productivity and happiness

Shawn Blanc has a great blog post on clicky keyboards — or more to the point, old fashioned mechanical keyboards.

If you’ve been using computers since the early 1990s or earlier, you’ve probably used a mechanical keyboard at some point, but have long forgotten what it’s like. I know I have. You’ve probably gotten used to today’s cheaper keyboards and have forgotten what it’s like to really feel a key being pushed in.

Writers in particular have clung to more expensive mechanical keyboards while the world has gone to cheaper membrane keyboards or scissor-switch membrane keyboards for laptops. The editorial staff at my work enjoys their clickier and louder keyboards, one of the hallmarks of mechanical keyboards. John Gruber and other major Internet writers swear by mechanical keyboards as well.

The legendary Apple Extended Keyboard II is a mechanical keyboard. So is the IBM Model M keyboard. If you remember using one of those, you know what a mechanical keyboard feels like.

People like the way that the Apple Extended Keyboard II feels so much that one of those old keyboards goes for a few hundred dollars if they are in new condition. Even a well used, yellowed Apple Extended Keyboard II goes for $20 or so, more than many people pay for a brand new, modern keyboard.

Why pay money for a used, yellowed, big, hideous keyboard? It turns out that a lot of people prefer the feel of a mechanical keyboard to what we have today, which are cheap keyboards made with rubber domes like a TV remote. Mechanical keyboards of yesterday use mechanical switches that actually move up and down and provide a deeper throws.

In particular Blanc really likes the Das Keyboard:

I wouldn’t go so far as to say that the Das Keyboard has eliminated all computing drudgery, but I would say that it has greatly enhanced the act of typing. Especially the act of typing for long periods of time, which I happen to do on a daily basis.

The construction of a mechanical keyboard is much more friendly to typing. As I discovered by taking several typing tests (the results of which I share below), a mechanical keyboard actually does help me to type both faster and more accurately. The sound of the keys clacking and the feel of the key switches clicking makes for an aura of productivity and work that fills the senses.

When using a mechanical keyboard you don’t just see your words appear on the screen as you type them, you also feel and hear them. A mechanical keyboard engages all the senses but smell and taste. Which is why you should always type with a hot coffee at your side.

Compare that to what ErgoCanda has to say about membrane keyboards:

Membrane keyboards are typically inexpensive and can range from firm to soft feel depending on the design of the rubber dome, however most have a ‘softer’ feel due to the ‘sponginess’ of the dome. They are the least durable of keyboards, with ratings typically in the 1 to 10 million keystroke range. Over time some keys become inelastic and other overly elastic, creating a variance in how much force is required to type throughout the keyboard. This can be caused by various factors, including buildup of debris, rubber fatigue, manufacturing imperfections and even ultraviolet radiation. As such while a membrane keyboard may be rated at 10 million keystrokes, the force and performance of the keys can be affected in as little as a few months of use.

A variance in how much force is required for different keys doesn’t sound like something that is going to lead to a lot of typing speed and accuracy.

Blanc also did some typing tests and found that he was significantly faster and more accurate when typing a mechanical keyboards, the Das Keyboard, than he was with the keyboard he had been using for four years, the Apple Bluetooth slim keyboard (the same keyboard I use. Whereas he was able to type 74 words per minute at 93 percent accuracy with the slim Apple Bluetooth keyboard, he was able to type 91 words per minute with 100 percent accuracy with the Das Keyboard. If he were using that keyboard for eight hours or more a day that could be serious productivity.

What concerns me more than raw speed was the accuracy. Over the course of a normal work day, a 93 percent accuracy rate is going to add up to quite a few typing mistakes. Those mistakes will either show up in your work or cause you to slow down and correct them. Over a full year that could be a lot of lost productivity.

So, why aren’t mechanical keyboards used much anymore? They are much more expensive and people have largely moved to laptops, which can’t accommodate larger mechanical switches and keys. I suspect that as computers began to become really commoditized in the 1990s with a focus on price, corners had to be cut somewhere. Ironically, the main way people interact with their computers was one of the corners cut.

The laptop issue can’t really be solved, but many people do work at desks for most of their days and at our desks we could have higher quality external keyboards. I have a laptop at work connected to an external keyboard, and this is a fairly common work setup.

At work I have a keyboard that costs less than $20. At home and at work I have multiple monitors because it increases my productivity, but shouldn’t something as simple and yet important as a keyboard also be taken into account? The keyboard is one of the main components of everyone’s computer setup. If you spend a lot of time typing — not everyone does — doesn’t a keyboard that increases comfort, pleasure, speed and accuracy warrant a look?

I spend a lot of time, energy and money trying to find good software setups that make me more efficient. I’m not typing this post in Word or our website’s CMS because I feel that Byword makes me more efficient, and it’s a more enjoyable typing experience. I owe it to myself to at least look more into how I can improve my actual hardware.

I’m going to give a mechanical keyboard a try this year. Yes, I’ve been perfectly productive on my Apple and Microsoft keyboards, but for how much time I spend typing I owe it to myself to see if I can find a keyboard that makes my job better. The Das Keyboard for Macs costs $133, which seems like a lot for a keyboard considering how much I have been spending on them the last decade or so (usually not much), but then I have to realize that a good keyboard should last me years. Not to mention that I spend a lot of money every year trying new software to see if there are better ways to do things, and the rest of my hardware setup is exactly cheap.

The reason I don’t buy cheap computers is that more expensive setups make me more productive and happier. It’s the same reason that you shouldn’t go cheap on the chair you’re sitting in all day.

But why have we taken keyboards for granted? It’s like putting a real cheap steering while into a nice car. If the steering wheel feels cheap and makes you a worse driver, how much are you going to get out of that nice car?

The downsides of mechanical keyboards, beyond price, is that they are much louder and uglier. For some environments, a loud keyboard could be an issue. Das Keyboard has a quieter version that is worth checking out if you think your coworkers or family members may not like you having a loud keyboard.

The ugliness is more concerning. There is no reason for mechanical keyboards to look like ugly keyboards from decades ago. Perhaps if mechanical keyboards begin to become popular again some of the makers will invest in making keyboards that actually look nice. I can see people not going for a mechanical keyboard on looks alone, and I wouldn’t blame you.

I encourage you read Blanc’s full post. It’s very informative and he explains how he feels about the different keyboards he tried (and even has audio files for how they sound!).

If you wish to learn more about mechanical keyboards — perhaps more than is humanly necessary — I recommend this guide.

What is your keyboard like? Have you given much thought into which keyboard you have and why?