I love Microsoft’s ergonomic keyboards. I got a Microsoft Natural Keyboard in the 90s and used it until a handful of years ago when it just got so old and grody that I felt it had to be replaced. I replaced it with the Microsoft Natural Ergonomic Keyboard 4000 which I liked even better, especially with its negative incline. But I have had a problem with the semi-colon key no longer hitting properly. I was going to buy a new 4000 but I thought, what the heck, why not get one of the mechanical keyboards? The keyboard on the 4000 is nice but I bottom out when I hit the keys and that can’t be great for my fingers nor is it a very nice feeling. I summarize below what I learned about keyboards and why in the end I couldn’t find the keyboard I really wanted.
1 My ideal keyboard
Split keyboard design I really like these designs. I find them extremely comfortable to type on for long durations. A few times I tried normal straight keyboards and found that they actually caused my wrists to hurt. To be fair I don’t know if this is because a straight keyboard requires my hands to sit in the wrong position or because my arms are now used to the split design after more than a decade of typing that way.
Normal Keyboard Layout I do most of my typing on PC style keyboards but I do a non-trivial amount on my laptop. I don’t want to have two completely different keyboard designs where switching between them is a pain. That’s why some of the more extreme ergonomic keyboards aren’t on the menu, they move keys like delete, shift, space, return, etc. around.
Great Keys! I want keys that take a light hit, don’t require bottoming out to be sure they are hit right and are QUIET. No buckling springs for me.
Mac compatible My home machines are all currently Macs so I need a keyboard that works well with them.
Multi-Key Rollover (a.k.a. Ghosting) Cheaper keyboards don’t actually hook every key to its own unique sensor. Instead they combine keys together. This means that if one presses certain combinations of keys together or types too quickly then keystrokes will be lost or misread. USB unfortunately has a limit of 6 simultaneous keystrokes that its protocol can read. PS/2 has no limit but good luck finding a modern computer with a PS/2 port. In practice I suspect USB is fine. But one only gets those 6 simultaneous keystrokes if one’s keyboard actually assigns each key it’s own switch which is more expensive.
10 Key Whenever I need to enter numbers using 10 key is much, much nicer than the keys at the top of the keyboard so a keyboard with a good built in ten key is a nice bonus.
No batteries, no Wireless I want a keyboard I can bloody well plug in. I know, I know, the batteries last forever. But seriously, it’s just one more thing to go wrong.
2 So what’s up with the keys anyway?
There are many claims made for the ’magical’ qualities of mechanical keys as opposed to dome or scissor keys. See here (or here if you want pretty pictures too) for a good explanation of the different key types. I have gotten to try out lots of dome switch keyboards and I don’t like any of them. The keys tend to be mushy and I always bottom out when I use them. Scissor style keyboards, such as used in laptops, are a little better but in my experience not by much. I actually have used buckling spring keyboards way back when the earth was still cooling but I never liked how hard you have to hit them nor the noise.
Of the modern mechanical keys the only ones I’ve had a chance to play with personally are the MX Blue, Brown and Red.
Both the Blues and Browns have very similar feels with a distinct bump at the activation point and then a separate bump when bottoming out. The first bump lets the typist know they have activated the key without having to have the jarring experience of bottoming out. The main difference, near as I can tell, between the Blues and Browns is noise. The Blues have a very distinctive loud click while the browns are less noisy. But the difference in noise level isn’t as huge as one might think, nevertheless I prefer the Browns.
The Reds have no distinctive bump on the way down so one just bottoms out. The reds I tried were really mushy.
3 The contenders to replace the 4000
|Keyboard||Split?||Normal?||Key Type||Mac?||10 Key?||Multi-Key Rollover||Cost|
|Microsoft Sculpt||Sorta||Yes||Dome Switch||Yes||Yes||?||$60|
|Kinesis Freestyle2||Yes||Yes||Dome Switch||Yes||Overlay||?||$159|
|Goldtouch V2||Yes||Yes||Dome Switch||Yes||Overlay||?||$119|
|Truly Ergonomic||Yes||No||Cherry MX Brown||Sorta||Overlay||Yes||$229|
|Kinesis Advantage||Yes||No||Cherry MX Brown (Or MX Red with the LF)||Yes||Overlay||?||$325|
|Maltron Dual Hand 3D||Yes||No||?||Yes||Yes||?||$600|
|Kinesis Maxim||Yes||Yes||Dome Switch||Yes||Available for $60 separately||Yes||$139|
|Microban Split Design Keyboard||Yes||Yes||?||?||Yes||?||$40|
Microsoft Sculpt A bit smaller than the Microsoft 4000 it doesn’t seem to have as good a hand position as the 4000.
Kinesis Freestyle2 ErgonomicInfo has a good review here and here. You have to buy a framework to rest it on, the VIP kit which provides tenting and a palm rest seems like the right combination. But it uses regular dome switches. I got to try one at the office and I found the keys to be nothing special and the 4000 more than meets my ergonomic needs.
Goldtouch V2 I couldn’t find one to test but it uses dome switches. Also it’s setup really doesn’t make much room form wrist rests so when you aren’t typing there really isn’t anywhere for your hand to go.
Truly Ergonomic The keyboard uses Cherry MX mechanical switches but it doesn’t have a normal split and the feedback on geekhack is while the keyboard isn’t bad it seems to have issues on the Mac and their customer service is apparently not terribly good. An even bigger issue is that they have moved around a bunch of keys so typing on other keyboards after getting used to this one will, I suspect, be challenging.
Kinesis Advantage This is the latest Kinesis advantage keyboard and while the reviews on it are generally very good it doesn’t use a normal layout so I would have to be able to switch back and forth which is a pain. I actually got to try out the LF which I believe uses MX Reds and I found it mushy. The keyboard I tried out had a 10 key plug in that used MX Browns and those I liked a lot.
Maltron The complaints about the Maltron are mostly that it feels cheap and support isn’t terribly good. My personal impression is that the Maltrons are designed for people with serious physical disabilities, not dilettantes like me.
Typematrix 2030 Looking around the web at various reviews nobody seems to get too excited by this keyboard. I get the logic of the small design and matrix layout but I’m not sure how big a difference it really makes and I really don’t want to have to learn a new keyboard layout since it doesn’t use the normal one.
Kinesis Maxim This is basically a more aggressive version of Microsoft’s Natural keyboard with the ability to set the separation distance between the two halves of the keyboard. The keyboard has been around for years and honestly I just don’t see it giving me (in my specific case) much more than the Microsoft keyboards.
Microban Split Design This seems like a reasonable equivalent to the 4000 but I don’t see anything that would motivate me not to just buy another 4000.
4 And the winner is.... nobody
Unfortunately it seems like the keyboard I want doesn’t exist. I actually started a thread over at GeekHack asking if anyone knew of a split design keyboard that met my various requirements and used decent keys. The answer was - no. It was suggested that the Goldtouch V2 or the Kinesis Freestyle2 might be a reasonable substitute since they met all my criteria (more or less) but the use of mechanical keys. I tried the Freestyle 2 and it’s keys are as mushy as my 4000 so that wasn’t interesting. I haven’t had a chance to try a Goldtouch. But for now, it appears, I’m just plain out of luck.