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Keyboards buying advice: all you need to know when buying a keyboard

Here's where we share with you everything you need to consider when buying a new keyboard.

Keyboards buying advice

Professional programmers, typists and Windows gamers have in common an appreciation for a high-quality computer keyboard. For many aficionados, that means a Qwerty PC keyboard with traditional mechanical switches under every key top.

See Group test: What is the best Keyboard?

If you spend a reasonable amount of time working or playing on a computer, you can’t beat a good mechanical keyboard. That’s in contrast to much more common mass-produced models with soft-dome membrane switches under the keys.

Nearly all mechanical keyboards have ignored the wireless memo. Gamers demand wires, since wirelessly transmitting key presses introduces potentially game-losing latency. Serious typists also appear to accept the battery-free simplicity of a traditional PS/2 or USB cord that tethers the board to the PC.

A mechanical keyboard is made of individual electrical switches, with longer working life and typically a more tactile feel that doesn’t deteriorate with use. Whereas a cheap membrane keyboard may have a lifetime of around 5- to 10 million operations per key, good discrete switches are rated at more than 50 million. That could be the difference between a keyboard that lasts two years and one that survives decades. Should a switch expire, you might even replace it rather than the entire keyboard.

Mechanical keyboards often allow faster, more satisfying typing, although key clatter can be distracting to neighbouring colleagues.

Cherry switches

Arguably the best key switch for a truly tactile touch is the Cherry MX Blue, which produces a distinctive high-click sound when pressed. But a fast typist in full flow can sound like a demented sewing machine, so quieter alternatives have been developed.

As well as the Blue, there is the non-click – or linear – Cherry MX Black. This has a smooth, uninterrupted journey from rest to actuation, and will prove a little quieter. The Cherry MX Red is almost the same, but with less resistance (around 45 centinewton rather than 60 centinewton).

Sought after by gamers, these linear switches are not so popular for simple text typing as they don’t give any bite feedback. So, a quieter yet tactile switch was developed: the MX Brown. This may
be the best compromise for quietude in a professional typing pool.

Other switches are available, but less common. There are Alps Electric types in the classic Apple Extended Keyboard and in Matias’ Tactile Pro. Programmers and PC veterans may also remember the buckling-spring mechanical switches of the IBM Model M keyboard.

Further upmarket, giving the requisite tactility, but not strictly mechanical, are the capacitive electrostatic spring switches found in Topre keyboards. Expect to pay closer to £200 for a Topre Realforce keyboard. These are tuned in such a way that depressing the outlying keys requires less finger pressure.

Key layout

Also consider the key layout. Most computer keyboards seen today are a variation on the IBM PC layout of the early 1980s, modified by Microsoft with the addition of a proprietary super key in the 1990s: the Windows key was first seen in Windows 95.

In contrast to the huge choice for Microsoft-fueled computers, other platforms often suffer with that platform’s hand-me-downs. But Unix and Linux users sometimes prefer their crucial Control (Ctrl) key closer to home, in place of the Caps Lock. Mac users expect to find their super key – the Command (Cmd) marked with the ? Bowen knot or older  Apple logo – immediately to the left of the Spacebar. Some keyboards allow you limited hardwire customisation through DIP switches, or you can manually uproot keys and change their mappings in software on your chosen computer.

Extras

High-grade construction is important. Also look out for potentially useful additions, such as backlighting, USB hubs and detachable USB cables. The latter lets you use a cable length that suits your setup, rather than spool up the multimetre cable built into most keyboards.

Conclusion

When space is limited and you don’t need full-size keys, you might find room for the Cherry G84-4100. Despite its small size it includes all the legacy IBM PC functions you’ll need, but it offers far from the satisfying mechanical action prized by typists. The two Matias keyboards in our round-up do offer some of that rewarding feel, although we were less impressed by their clunky, resonating chassis. For Mac users, the Tactile Pro also indicates every non-alphanumeric character, but makes for a rather busy-looking board.

Das Keyboard also caters to Mac users. Its Cherry Blue switches earn it our recommendation on that platform, although we’d prefer to see a UK layout version of this model.

Ducky keyboards such as the Shine 2, aimed at gamers, seem to cram in just about every useful feature, along with technicolour backlighting. They come at a price, but are deserving of a warm recommendation if you have the budget.

Still expensive but slightly more in reach is the Filco line, which features incredibly solid construction and a practical design. You can choose between full-width and tenkeyless options, with the key legends edge-printed or on top.

Cherry’s G80-3000 has a disappointingly plasticky build quality, but it makes available at a more affordable price the addictive feel
of a mechanical keyboard with Cherry MX switches.

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