Not All Keyboards Are Equal!

I am in the middle of an edit just now. I do not need distractions. I do not need disturbances. No, I need time to sit and concentrate on the flow of this story.

But I’ve just received something. The nice man from the delivery service came and handed me a heavy parcel. Not a toy, an essential part of my working environment: this is my first time typing on my new, Filco Tenkeyless keyboard, and I have to say, it is glorious. The keys feel just like those I used to adore on the old keyboards of the early 1980s: there is a slight click as the key is depressed, and the feel is light and easy on the fingers. Just like the IBM Displaywrite keys which were, I believe, buckling spring keys. Never heard of them? Why should you? We’re into keyboard geekdom here.

This is a distraction

So, what am I typing on this for?

As some readers of WriterlyWitterings will know, I have been trying out different methods of getting my books down on paper. This year has been particularly hard, with too many deadlines charging at me like a herd of bulls. Usually I manage to write a couple or three books a year, but the last two years have been tough: my mother’s death in ’15, my best friend’s in ’16, and this year my father’s – have all conspired to assault my creativity.

At first I thought that the best way to get words down would be to change my methods. I picked up a pen and started to write longhand instead of typing straight to screen; however that was not effective. It was so much slower to get the words down that I was left even further behind. This year I decided to give it one last go, but it didn’t work for me and as soon as I could, I reverted to form and began typing. For the future, I will be working with pen and paper with the basics, determining the main flow of the story, writing down characterisations and that sort of thing, but not the main elements of the story. I have to type it up as the story develops.

Apple is nice to look at

I began to get interested in different keyboards a little while ago. My Apple keyboards are good, but I tend to find that they last me about two years each. The recent metal versions with soft keys have lasted a little longer – but after a while they get to be hard work.

The reason is, that the keys are set out on top of a sheet of rubber or similar stretchy material. That is how most keyboards are made nowadays, with each key pressing down on the mat underneath, and making an electrical connection below. It’s brilliant for cheapness of manufacture, and it’s why keyboards generally cost so little, but it’s not good for the typing experience. Keys feel soggy and unresponsive. Also, over time the rubber mat becomes stiffer and the keys grow harder to type on. It’s a gradual effect, not instant, and the user often doesn’t notice until they get a new keyboard and there’s a sudden revelation about how bad the old one was. With mine, after typing on them consistently for two or three years, that means I’ve typed about nine novels (each of them between 70,000 and 120,000 words long). That means the keyboard looks rather naff, with each of the keys rubbed off. Usually, by the time I notice that the A, S, E and N keys have disappeared, I know it’s time to get a new input device.

Where do you go for a keyboard?

I started out looking at Amazon and eBay, of course. I don’t like either of them, but they do have a selection to look at. They have many models from all kinds of company. But if you’re like me, and will be typing for hours at a stretch, you don’t necessarily want the cheapest version. There are two things in my office that keep me sane. One is a good chair, the other is the keyboard. With both of them sorted, I’m fine to go. If either is poor, my working day won’t go well.

So I began to start looking, and I found a delightful firm called, oddly enough, the Keyboard Company.

It’s a great little outfit based in Stroud, I think, and all they do is keyboards. Small ones, large ones, ergonomic ones, Dvorak ones, ASCII, ISO … you name it, they’ll have it. And the guy who is Managing Director, Bruce, is an inspiring, evangelical salesman when it comes to the different types. I started chatting to him over the wires via email, and soon started thinking about different systems I could use.

I mentioned that I had been a computer salesman back in the 80s, and he immediately knew the type of device I would like. He mentioned the buckling spring IBM types, when I told him about the IBM Displaywrite keys that had a subtle little ‘click’ in the middle of their travel. Apparently that was caused by each key having a spring that, as the key was pressed, would buckle under the pressure, and bend sideways to tap the side of the key’s cylinder (this shows one in operation). But he had already mentioned Cherry MX Blue keys by then. And as I listened, I knew I was hearing my future!

Okay. Here’s the geeky bit.

Two lovely Filco keyboards

The MX Blues are individually sprung, but they have a clever mechanism that has a sliding component before the key actuates (see here). When you press the key, the top part slides down until, after a couple of millimetres, it hits a second section. That is when the key registers and makes its connection, typing the letter. But the key continues down for another couple of millimetres, until it hits the buffers. This means that you have a fabulous experience, if you are a touch typist. The keys all feel the same, but they give you a distinct ‘rattle’ sound as you hit them, which in its own right is a kind of incentive to continue typing. The noise grows addictive. But so does the feel of the soft ‘click’ halfway down the travel of the keys. You can feel immediately when your fingers have activated the buttons.

Other Cherry MX switches operate slightly differently. The Blues are known as “Tactile” and “Clicky”; the Browns are “Tactile” and “Non-Clicky”, while the Black and Reds are “Linear”. For me, and for touch-typists generally, the Blues are best.

Filco, the keyboard maker, are a Japanese company who build their keyboards in Taiwan. They wanted to make stronger, more reliable and robust keyboards. Their interest was originally in the gaming market, I believe, but the popularity of their designs led to their rapid expansion.

Goodies

In terms of design and quality, this certainly feels the part. The keyboard is a solid lump. It feels like you could use it as a cricket bat, should you be so inclined. There is no flex if you try to twist it, and when you pick it up, you know you have some serious working machinery in your hand.

One reason for this is the quality of the Cherry MX keys. They are designed to last for over 50,000,000 depressions. Each is a separate working machine. You can buy keyboards with different buttons as I mentioned above. I believe that gamers tend to prefer the quieter “Linear” types. Personally I love these Blues with their click and tactile bump in the middle of the operation. It is so easy to feel when your depression has been registered by the computer.

Now, I am an Apple user. So far I’ve not come across any issues with keyboard mapping. I did find some of the buttons have moved. Instead of the Command key next to the space bar operating the copy and paste functions, for example, it’s now the Windows key (which is set where the “Alt” key was on the Apple. I’m quite sure that I will get some issues after using this for a while – and I’ll update this review then. For now. the only problem I’ve found is that the volume controls don’t seem to work from my keyboard. Fine, I’ve migrated the volume controls to the screen’s top line, and can adjust that from my trackpad instead of the keyboard. Just now I don’t care. This is, for me, a crucial ingredient to my writing. It is a data-input device for words. And it feels wonderful!

Gorgeous keyboard

The main difficulty I have so far is that it’s just so much fun typing on this thing! The sound, the feel, it’s just perfect. The keys are nothing special to look at, with simple white caps that will, I suspect, lose their writing within a couple of years, but the main thing is, that they work so smoothly. The only slight difficulty I’ve experienced has been that the right hand ‘Alt Gr’ key seems a little high, and occasionally I hit it with the palm of my hand, which brings up the “Spotlight” display. Not that it’s a real problem. I’m sure that I’ll soon get used to it. As matters stand, I’m back to enjoying typing again. I didn’t expect this to have such a dramatic impact on my typing quite so quickly!

All in all, a superb piece of kit.

I also have to commend Hugh and the team at Keyboard Company for the way that they send their products. I can quite understand why Terry Pratchett used to buy his from this same company.

First, the keyboard arrived superbly well packed. The keyboards (I had two delivered) arrived in their own boxes, sealed in another carton for safety. I ordered on the Wednesday, and they were with me on Thursday, for which many thanks, Keyboard Company.

The keyboards both arrived with a protective plastic cover. I don’t know whether these are intended to be used as travel protectors, but I’ll be keeping mine. They’re ideal as dust-covers when I knock off work, and seem robust enough that I can use them when I take the keyboards out (the second is a BlueTooth device which I can use with my iPad). The other things in the package were a pair of nail files, which personally I don’t use, but which I can easily imagine would be gratefully received by some customers, and a pair of table mats. The cable that came with it is a standard USB cable, and I was glad to see that it had a velcro strap to keep it tidy on the desk – it is a good metre and a half, I think, so untied it would soon get to be a pain. There was also a socket adapter to allow the keyboard to be plugged into a different computer – I haven’t bothered to look at this. I don’t need it!

My Tenkeyless keyboard is a full-sized keyboard less the numeric pad on the right (which I never use, and just takes up a lot of desk space). It has very effective rubber non-slip feet at the front, and two more that wrap-around legs that you can pop out at the back to raise the angle of the board. I always have to use these. There is no keyboard made that I can use comfortably without raising the back. This model is connected via wire to the Apple. The cable is a USB wire. I was a little disappointed to find that there was no USB connector on the keyboard. I’d have expected to be able to use it as a mini-hub like the old Apple clear plastic boards, but my iMac has enough USB ports to make it rather irrelevant. I just have to plug them into the back of my screen.

That, I think, is pretty much it. I can already tell that I’m going to love this keyboard. It is gorgeous, and has a fantastic action. I adore these keys with their little click and the rattle as I work. I’ll get a video together before too long, when I’ve been using it for a while and will let you know how it’s getting on.

Right. Now to get back to the next book. Wish me luck!

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Comments
31 Responses to “Not All Keyboards Are Equal!”
  1. Excellent post, Michael – Let’s hope a happy typer is a happy writer :D

    Like

  2. Johan says:

    Great choice of keyboard! Filco is a respected brand in the mechanical keyboard-community.

    It is possible to very easily replace the keycaps (with preferably a wired keycap puller) – if you ever feel the need to do so. The keycaps will eventually start to loose their legends and start to shine, so that might be something to consider, when you have a keyboard that will last you for the rest of your life. The keycaps must be Cherry MX-compatible and support the UK-ISO layout (I assume that’s what you’re using?).

    My recommendation would be some set made in PBT plastic with dyesub printed legends. Those are almost impossible to wear out.

    A great source of information is Deskthority.net if you want to know more about anything related to keyboards.

    Happy clacking!

    Like

  3. Reblogged this on Chris The Story Reading Ape's Blog and commented:
    Looking for a more pleasant writing experience? Maybe Michael has the answer 😎

    Like

  4. Rosina Farley says:

    Fascinating Michael, thank you for such detail. I’ll be following up and exploring because my cheap (and nasty) keyboard is doing in more than my brain. Rather like the thought of cheerful encouraging clicks as letters wend their way to the screen. Using the protective cover as a dust buster is a good idea too.

    Like

  5. That looks impressive! Personally I destroy keyboards so often that my tactic is to buy the cheapest I can find. I was brought up with typewriters and the best of those I ever used was the IBM Selectric II keyboard – just a wonderful experience with exactly the right level of tactile response (helped by the ‘hum’ of the motor and the crisp feel as the golfball spun and struck). No computer keyboard has come close… but you’ve tempted me to look at the Filco.

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    • I think that this is much like the Selectric keyboard (it’s been a long time since I tried one!). The main thing is, to get the Blue MX keys, I think. The Brown versions are a little lighter, and don’t have the same little “click” that these keys have. If you like 70s/80s IBM keys, I think you’ll love this. And hopefully it’ll last you and me a lot longer than our usual two year toys!

      Like

    • Johan says:

      Destroy as in using them a lot out or are you just a very heavy typist that bashes the poor keyboards to pieces? :) If you are a heavy typist, perhaps the Cherry MX Green (heavier version of MX Blue) or Cherry MX Clears (heavier version of MX Brown with a larger tactile feedback) could be two options? They are harder to find though.

      Liked by 1 person

      • I type a lot! And as you point out, modern keyboards are usually made for cheap mass production – not durability. I’ll check those models out.

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      • Good luck with them, Matthew!

        Liked by 1 person

      • No, it’s very much a case of wearing them out. I’ve had the problem for the last twenty odd years. I write a minimum of two books a year, more recently three, and that has a toll on the keyboards. The letters always wear out, and the recent models, with rubber under the keys, soon get soggy and unpleasant – but this is a very lovely piece of kit. I enjoy picking up the keyboard and starting to type!I do find these Blues just lovely to write on.

        Like

  6. cybaea says:

    Congratulations on the keyboard and good luck with the next book. And the one after that. And the next….

    Like

  7. Lindsey Russell says:

    Oh never mind the new gizzmo – I’m in love with your new dawg! She is beautiful. You need to do a post just on her, what is her name? And it looks like you’ll have a fight on with your son for her affections.
    The lettering I wear out are: a, s, e, t, i, o, m ,n, and l – but they are on my naff laptops, my ancient desk top keys are still legible. However all my keyboards have an audible ‘click’.

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    • Many thanks. I’ll be putting up a piece on the hound later today (probably the first of many)! Keyboards do need that audible quality for me. I am seriously adoring this keyboard!

      Like

  8. April Taylor says:

    I was fine until you mentioned nail files. I have long nails and touch type. And I do like a number pad on the right of the keyboard. I accidentally spilled nail polish remover on my Apple keyboard two weeks ago and a writing friend suggested a K70 Blue mechanical keyboard. At the moment, I am getting by with the keyboard that came with the iMac. However, I am in the market for a new keyboard, but not if I have to shorten my nails! Yes, shallow is my middle name.

    Like

    • I don’t see why you’d need to shorten your nails to use this type. In the past, when I was a salesman, I specialised in WP and office automation, so many of my clients were women – and some in particular had very long nails! I had to get this keyboard because I got fed up with the Apple Magic keyboard. It is very nice when new, but it just isn’t good to type on when you’re writing 5,000-7,000 words a day. When you’re typing like that, you need something that has better feel and a more precise action. Good luck with the new one (when you choose it!). I can heartily recommend The Keyboard Company – and no, I’ve no affiliation with them and paid full price for my keyboard!

      Like

      • April Taylor says:

        I have taken your advice before regarding pens and pencils and it has always been sound, i.e the pencil with the sharpener in the top and the see-thru fountain pen which writes like a dream. So, looks like I will be taking it again!!! Thank you for the post. You have clarified a lot of issues.

        Like

      • Glad it was useful. One of those blogs where I’m talking about stuff which I worry may be blindingly obvious, having been a keyboard fiend for 35+ years, and I think I’m just spouting stuff everyone knows already, so many thanks for the positive comments!

        Like

    • Lindsey Russell says:

      Tut, tut! Nothing edible or spillable near the keyboard! I also periodically have long nails, then I cut them, not for ease of typing but because it is the nails that chip off the lettering. Why can’t computer companies make keys with indented letters?

      Like

      • April Taylor says:

        Tut, tut indeed. A lesson in how not to multi-task and hurry at the same time! It is vanity. I know in five years, short nails will be de rigeur because the arthritis in my fingers is just starting to make its visual appearance and I will end up with hands like my mother’s. At which point the nails will be no more. However, lesson learned.

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      • Sorry to hear that, April. Hope it takes a lot longer for the arthritis to become a problem. Horrible, I know.

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      • There are some who laser cut out the lettering and insert different coloured plastics into them. I have to admit, I don’t really care about worn keycaps. I was looking at a keyboard that had no letters at all on the caps – but then saw this Filco and succumbed!

        Like

  9. ammoniadroopy says:

    I am interested, why did you not get a bluetooth keyboard for the iMac as you did for the iPad? No leads to tangle.

    Like

    • Apologies – new puppy means I forgot to reply!

      I did consider them, but Bluetooth keyboards are that bit more expensive. I am not sure what you mean about buying one for an iPad – I had an Apple BT keyboard for my iMac. The iPad I’ve inherited from my father when he died this year, and I’ve never used a keyboard with it – my daughter has pinched the thing anyway. To be honest, I never used the iPad. I spend so many hours in front of computers that the idea of staring at a tablet as well just didn’t work for me!

      No, I decided that what I really needed was an old-fashioned mechanical keyboard like the ones I used to use. Bluetooth becomes more useful/relevant when you tend to sit back with a keyboard on your lap. With my work throughput it’s much more important that I have a good, ergonomic desk setup. And I have to admit, this keyboard is working out to be perfect for my needs. Light key action, superb little click when the keys engage, and all in all money very well spent.

      Like

  10. Lindsey Russell says:

    But it all comes down to money – just had the house chain below me collapse causing the person I was buying from to pull out altogether so now landed with fees for a house I won’t get and as my old lawn mower went with the rubbish clearance I’ll have to buy a new one. All on a basic state pension – hence the cheap pens and paper. Ho hum.

    Like

    • April Taylor says:

      Been there, done that, Lindsey. You have my wholehearted sympathy. I frequently say that if I did not have Paul, I would be living in a hedge bottom somewhere. And though people will praise you for picking yourself up and carrying on, what alternative do you have? I am unbelievably lucky in being a kept woman and I never let myself forget it.

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