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I got to thinking about this subject the other day as I was agonizing over the purchase of a replacement mouse on one of my systems.  My wife claims she “gets it,” but I suspect she secretly gets a chuckle about the sheer amount of time I can spend agonizing over the purchase of something as simple as a new mouse or keyboard.


The part of her that “gets it” is in tune with the fact that I spend an enormous amount of time at the computer – and hey, it pays the bills so it qualifies as a justifiable work expense.  At the same time, even I’ll admit that spending my spare time for weeks on end reading online reviews, dry testing display models in stores, even borrowing friends keyboards/mice for short periods of heavy practical use, might fall into the category of “a little extreme.”

At the same time, it amazes me how little though most people put into their keyboards and mice.  The simple fact of the modern workforce is that if you have a white collar job, you’re probably spending at least a couple hours a day at the keyboard.  And I’ve lost track of the number of people I’ve heard complaining about wrist pain and general discomfort from spending too much time at the keyboard.  Or watched people repeatedly lift their hands from the keyboard to shake out their wrists.

So here it is, I’m going to give a bit of unsolicited advice.

Cheap commodity keyboards/mice – you get what you pay for.

The keyboard that came free with your computer, and the $10-$15 KMart special you picked up as a replacement, is going to be junk.  The free ones you get with a computer package are looked upon by manufacturers as essentially a dead cost.  They don’t really get anything for it, so they’re not willing to put any significant expense into designing/manufacturing them.  I’m not going to pick on any given manufacturer, because the free keyboards/mice you get are almost universally bad.

In terms of the keyboards, a key problem is in the “action” of the key.  They’re almost all based on a membrane technology – the key is held aloft by a rubber membrane with raised “bubbles” for each key.  From a manufacturing standpoint, they have the advantage of being cheap to make and fairly reliable.  But from a typing standpoint, they have a major drawback – a lack of positive feedback.  They feel “mushy”, for lack of a better term.  They offer only slight resistance, and the only tactile indication you get of a completed keystroke is when the key bottoms out on the backplate, creating a hard stop that, over time, is really quite hard on your fingers.  Your mileage may vary a bit here – over the years I’ve had a couple of free keyboards that were actually fairly reasonable.  I wouldn’t call them good, but they weren’t horrible either.

When it comes to mice, there are a couple of points that can really cause your hands grief. First, the shape of a basic mouse is awful.  No matter how you grip it (either the “palmed” grip or the “claw” grip), that overly rounded shape just doesn’t provide a good shape for your hand to conform to.  They’re too smooth and shapeless for forming to your hand.  The second drawback is weight, and this one seems a bit counter-intuitive.  Cheap corded mice weigh next to nothing.  This might seem like a good thing at first, as it takes so little effort to move it across a surface, but that’s also a drawback.  Because they’re so twitchy, skipping along with the slightest puff of wind, people have a natural tendency to grip them more firmly in order to keep them steady.  Added to the overly round shape that doesn’t lend itself to a good grip, and this can create a lot of strain over the long haul.

If it comes down to a choice of spending extra on a mouse or on a keyboard, I would actually recommend spending a bit of extra money on the mouse.  Day to day, people spend a lot less time typing then they do holding the mouse and clicking on things (we’re talking for the average user surfing the web etc. – for me, the relationship is inverse, I spend way more time typing than holding a mouse).

Laptop keyboards are only good for short stints.

Seriously.  There are varying degrees of “bad” when it comes to laptop keyboards, but I have yet to come across a laptop keyboard that I would call “good”.

The first flaw that laptop keyboards have is that they pretty much all use a variation of the membrane keyboard.  As mentioned above, over long stints, this is really hard on your fingers, and I’m not going to go into it again.

The second thing that makes them even worse than basic commodity keyboard is layout.  Due to the physical constraints of a laptop, specifically size, the layout and spacing of the keys gets shrunk down.  This second part is less of an issue for people who are well used to laptop keyboards, but I would contend it is still an issue – the traditional keyboard spacing is the result of over a century of fine tuning, from long before the age of computers.  It evolved to its current size and spacing for very good usability reasons.  Making it smaller will not improve things.

So, where do we go from here?

Well, there are a couple of good rules of thumb to follow.

1. A cheap commodity keyboard is probably better than the keyboard on your laptop. Seriously.  I understand the move toward portable computing, but if you have designated time where you’re going to be working on your laptop for extended periods at your home or office, invest in an external keyboard and mouse – even if it is just a cheap commodity keyboard.  You don’t have to take it with you everywhere you go (it kinda defeats the purpose of “portable”), but most of us have designated spots where we do most of our work.  Have an external keyboard and mouse in that spot, ready to plug in.

2. Membrane keyboards aren’t evil – just the cheap ones. It is possible to make a membrane keyboard that has good feedback.  This is really tough to describe to someone who’s never experienced it.  Basically, what you are looking for is a keyboard with a deeper travel – the distance between when you first begin to apply pressure and when the key bottoms out.  Also, it is important that the key responds before it bottoms out – that the contact happens for a few milliseconds before the key crashes into the bottom plate.  Third, a really good membrane keyboard will provide haptic response at the point of electrical contact, but before the key bottoms out.  What this means is that there is some physical feedback – a slight push-back or increase in resistance, when the circuit completes, but before bottoming out.  It doesn’t take much, your fingers are remarkably more sensitive than you realize and can detect very slight differences.  Over time, without even realizing it, you will automatically start to pull back on the down stroke before the key bottoms out, and this will greatly reduce the repetitive impact strain on your finger joints.

3. Mechanical keyboards rule – except they tend to be really noisy.  The Model M Keyboard, first released in 1984 and still produced to this day, is considered by many to be the none-plus-ultra of keyboards.  It has a “buckling spring” mechanism that provides fantastic feedback and depth of play.  It is also known to be incredibly reliable and long lived.  There are two main downsides to the “Model M” style buckling spring keyboards (the mechanism itself can be found in a wide variety of keyboards).  First, it makes a hell of a racket.  These are the noisy keyboards we all remember from the offices of the 80s and 90s.  I prefer a more quiet keyboard, although I do have a board with the Model M mechanisms attached to one of my home servers, and frequently use it as a spare for quick trips to the data-centre.  I’ve also been known to hook it up to any of my primary computers if I’m going to be spending extended periods typing – while hard to explain, it truly is a pleasure on the fingers to type on.  My typing speed increases and number of typos drop.  The second downside to them is that they tend to be quite pricey, even basic, relatively featureless ones run around $100(US).  Personally, I find this to be an acceptable price to pay for comfortable keyboarding.  For some, that might be a bit much.

5. Gamer Keyboards – Your Mileage May Vary. Hoo-boy, this could open up a whole can of worms.  In general, “gamer” targeted keyboards tend to be of higher quality and have better feedback.  But not always.  A lot of them come with a pile of special functions, buttons, macros, blinkinlights, that drive up the cost without actually making them better to type on.  If you’re going to head down this route, be sure to spend a fair bit of time reading customer feedback reviews.  You’ll get a pretty good sense about the quality of the keyboard on any system with more than a few dozen reviews.

6. “Ergonomic Layout” keyboards, also known as “split layout” keyboards. Yah, whatever.  I know a few people who swear by ergonomic layout keyboards.  I also know that they drive the vast majority of people who’ve already learned to type on a flat keyboard nuts.  Personally, they drive me nuts.  The keys just aren’t where they’re supposed to be.

6. Mice – get something with a bit of shape and heft to it. Really, it isn’t much more complex than that.  You can go to extremes here, but mainly you want something that weighs a bit, won’t skip across the mouse pad when you turn a fan on, and “feels right” in your hand.  There are lots of stores that have test mice on display, give them a try, see how it feels when you cup it in your hand and slide it across a surface.  Cordless mice actually have a bit of an advantage here, because the battery adds a bit of extra heft.  Higher end corded mice replicate this by actually adding metal ballast weights – some have fixed weights, some have adjustable weights.  In general, I find mice with indented concave buttons and sides to be preferable, and you will see this type of feature in the vast majority of mid to high end mice, but it comes down to preference and what feels right in your hand.

So, what mouse did I end up deciding to buy?

Here’s where I could shill for product placement, but I won’t.  The truth of it is, after scanning online, and visiting a few stores, I couldn’t find a mouse that I liked as much as the one I have now (which has, sadly, been discontinued).  I found myself with a bit of spare time, so I dis-assembled and refurbished the mouse myself.  Cleaning off the electrical contacts, crazy gluing an internal broken plastic bracket that held the ballast weight in place, and then re-assembling it.  (It had gotten knocked off my desk onto the hardwood floor, which was the start of all my trouble).

In a way, that says a lot.  If you finally find that “right” keyboard and mouse, it’s like finding that perfect pair of hiking boots.  You know, the ones you’ve had the uppers re-stitched, and the soles replaced, and have generally given a lifespan far beyond what was originally intended.  You do it, maybe partly for sentimental reasons, but largely because a good hiking boot, that just fits, is hard to find and almost impossible to replace.

4 Responses to “I Have no Sympathy for Your Carpal Tunnel – Buy a Decent Keyboard you Cheapskate.”

    You can have my microsoft natural keyboard when you pry it out of my cold dead hands. Unless MS has a new model out that I like better.

    Grelmar -> Give it a week – I promise you will NEVER look back at a squarish keyboard again.

    I have made several attempts at various “natural” keyboards, and I just can’t make them work for me. I’m not saying their bad, just that for most people, they’re unworkable. Too much ingrained muscle memory in flat keyboards.

    I’ve used a ms natural. Took a bit of time to get used to but it wasn’t half bad once I settled in.

    That being said, I scored about four original model m with ps/2 connectors back around 1998 and used them up until I got some USB versions with the extra windows/command keys in 2007.

    I’ve driven my cow-orkers mad with my clackety-clack buckling spring keyboards for aeons now. I get a an extra 20-30 wpm out of them vs ms natural and easily 40 more than a bog standard keyboard.

    Living in the unix shell kinda needs a decent keyboard.

    I’d almost say that any kind of sysadmin work requires a decent keyboard, even Windows. You just seem to spend an awful lot of time typing.

    I’m all in favour of the executroids and marketroids using cheap membrane keyboards – the less of their noise I hear, the better.

Something to say?

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