The return of the quiet keyboard

Today I bought my second Logitech K750 solar-powered keyboard. I kind of broke the original version at work when trying to get it working with the USB receiver. But I got a lot of use out of it before my gentle destruction of it, so I’m not perturbed.

But you may be thinking (well, probably not), why would I buy one when I have the CTRL mechanical keyboard with the best keys ever? A good question! These are the features I wanted:

  • Wireless. I could easily swap it in and use it as needed.
  • Numeric keypad. This is one of those things I occasionally need.
  • Quiet. The keys are very quiet, making it the perfect alternative when even I get a little tired of the CLACK of a mechanical keyboard. It happens!

And that’s about it, really. The solar part is a bonus, because it means I never need to buy batteries. It was on sale for $20 off, so I decided to go for it. The only issue right now is the keyboard has a slight curve to it, making it a bit bow-shaped. This means that if I press hard enough on the keys or the board itself, it noticeably flexes, as most of the bottom surface is actually not flush against the desk. This is an issue I did not have with the previous model. It’s not terrible because the keys work with a fairly light touch, but I may still take it back. I’ll mull for now.

And so my vast keyboard collection expands by one more. In a way it’s good that my new PC’s motherboard doesn’t support Bluetooth (a baffling omission, really), as it prevents me from trying out any of the vast number of Bluetooth keyboards out there. Mind you, a $15 USB Bluetooth adapter would fix that…

Lousy keyboards of yore

The Wall Street Journal published a column today by Joanna Stern in which she reports that Apple’s butterfly keyboard used on its MacBook, MacBook Air and MacBook Pro laptops is still having issues three generations in. This prompted Apple–currently facing a pair of class action lawsuits over the design–to offer an apology of sorts:

“We are aware that a small number of users are having issues with their third-generation butterfly keyboard and for that we are sorry. The vast majority of Mac notebook customers are having a positive experience with the new keyboard.”

Apple didn’t say they were sorry for first or second generation butterfly keyboard owners, likely because every one of those keyboards is guaranteed a free keyboard replacement up to four years after purchase.

Apple has effectively admitted there are issues with all three generations of the butterfly keyboard. I have gone from hating the feel of the keyboard (mine is the dreaded first generation) to tolerating it. I’d prefer to have more travel on the keys and have them be quieter/less clicky, but could otherwise adapt to them. The third generation, with its silicone membrane is apparently a little less noisy, but I’ve yet to test it out in a quiet-enough environment to notice a difference. Also, the membrane apparently contributes to heat build-up, creating a new avenue for issues to arise.

All said, what John Gruber calls “the worst products in Apple history” are perhaps hopelessly flawed. I mean, if issues are still coming up after multiple fixes, maybe it’s time to move on to another design entirely?

The MacBook is overdue for a refresh. If Apple doesn’t kill it, the next version of it may show if Apple is staying all-in on what appears to be a fundamentally broken design, or gives up and goes for something else, like adapting the low-profile scissor switch design used in their external keyboards for their next generation of laptops.

I’m leaning toward the latter at this point, mainly because of today’s apology. It feels like the beginning of the groundwork to kill the butterfly design and bring in something butterfly-like, but with none of the fragility.

And while reading about this today, I came across PCWorld’s The 10 Worst PC Keyboards of All Time. The butterfly keyboard isn’t on the list, as it dates all the way back to 2007. Still, it’s a fun–and horrifying–read. It’s kind of amazing how many computer keyboards didn’t have a backspace key.

My keyboard history and a short CTRL keyboard review

In one of those “down the rabbit hole” journeys that happens when I get caught up searching for something on the web and get inexorably drawn into finding and poring over a bunch of unrelated things, I came across the D2D YouTube channel.

Dave Lee seemed personable enough and I liked his low key style, so I kept watching for videos that would interest me and lo, he had one featuring one of my weirdly favorite computer topics: keyboards.

I used to collect computer mice like no one’s business and I still change up semi-regularly (my current mouse of a Logitech G703 wireless, which I’ll review separately. Super-short review right now: Great mouse except for battery life.) but the pace of collecting mice has dropped off over the last few years, perhaps because mice are generally improving enough that I don’t see the need to keep searching for something better.

Which brings me to keyboards.

For some years after I got my first PC (way back in 1994) I just used whatever cheap keyboard I could find, ones that would go for $10-15 today. They were all pretty much the same. The biggest change was when they started including a dedicated Windows key. It seemed weird at the time.

But after I’d upgraded my rig a few times I became more particular and started looking for keyboards that had backlighting or extra keys. I eventually decided the extra keys/macros were something I never used, but backlighting was nice to have, as my computer space was not brightly lit.

Fast-forward to around five years ago when mechanical keyboards became a big thing. I didn’t pay much attention at first because they seemed absurdly expensive. Well, they were absurdly expensive, really. I was intrigued, but not enough to buy.

As I spent more time working on laptops, I found myself starting to prefer the low-travel keys they featured and settle on a desktop keyboard that emulated the style. Although it was not backlit, my computer space was now brightly lit, so it was no longer a priority. The keyboard was wireless (nice, but inessential) and runs off solar power. This is nicer than expected because it meant that I literally never have to worry about batteries.

The worst aspect of the Logitech K750 is probably the glossy sheen the keys and surrounding surface have. Under bright light it can produce surprisingly annoying glare. Glossy is never good on keyboard.

Although happy enough with the keyboard, curiosity got the better of me and I got a Cooler Master Trigger mechanical keyboard. It has red backlighting, extra macro keys, and a weird setup that disables the Windows key by default. I never warmed to it at all and quickly set it aside, regretting the decision to buy.

But buyer’s regret never stopped me, so I next picked up a more business-oriented Das keyboard. It had blue switches and I learned to love the CLACK. However, like the K750, it had a glossy design I came to dislike and it was big and bulky. A tenkeyless design (without the numeric keypad) would be better ergonomically and take up less space. From here I experimented with some tenkeyless designs using red, brown and blue switches. They were all fine, but none really clicked (so to speak), though the blue switches remained my favorite.

Then Dave Lee posted a video for what he declared the best keyboard ever, the CTRL keyboard, featured on Massdrop. I was intrigued and liked the clean look. Thee drop ended before I could buy, but eventually came back and I placed an order.

It took a few weeks to show up and I had to pay an additional fee to actually collect it, so it came out to be very expensive in the end–over $200 Canadian. Although it has a few flaws, it has become my favorite mechanical keyboard and the reason has nothing to do with anything Dave mentions in his video, but rather in the choice of switches.

I was intrigued by the description of Halo Clear switches as having the clickiness of cherry switches, but with a smoother, more “velvety” feel, so I took a chance and ordered the keyboard with them, trusting they would live up to the description.

And they did. And they are the key (ho ho) reason why I really like the keyboard and have finally ended my great keyboard quest.

For now.

The good points:

  • Halo Clear switches are clicky, but smoother than blues and a bit quieter, too
  • Backlighting offers a good set of options
  • USB Type-C connections on opposite ends of keyboard allow for easy cable management
  • Switches are actually hot swappable if you’re into that
  • Aluminum chassis is very solid
  • Works great with both Windows and Mac

The not-so-good points:

  • With the backlight off, the lettering on the keys is very difficult to see. Not a big deal if you’re a touch typist, but something to be aware of.
  • The removable feet will almost always pop off if you try moving the keyboard by sliding it around the desk. Folding legs would have worked better.
  • The default backlight mode is a strobing rainbow effect, which you will see every time you connect the keyboard. It is pretty, but entirely impractical, so you have to go through a series of FN-key shortcuts to get back to something “normal.”
  • I found all but the white backlight color to be too garish, even after adjusting the brightness down.
  • Sometimes the backlight controls will stop responding, forcing you to unplug the keyboard and start from the strobing rainbow again.
  • The keyboard configurator is clumsy

Really, I think any reasonably well-made keyboard with Halo switches would win me over, but even apart from them, the CTRL is a sold offering. Overall, I’m happy with the purchase and typing is once again a satisfyingly clicky experience, though now with a pleasingly softer touch.

My rainbow keyboard

One day I’ll write up a proper review of the CTRL keyboard I got through Massdrop. I actually quite like it. But it also prompted me to make my first YouTube video. Or at least the first one I can remember.

When Windows reboots, the keyboard shuts off, then when it comes back on, it goes into its default backlight mode. It looks like this. The effect is so pronounced you don’t even need to actually watch the video, just look at the still image from it. But go ahead and watch it, it’s only two seconds long and it’s magical.

Now, you might be thinking, “Who would consider a strobing rainbow pattern to be a good choice for a default backlighting scheme on a keyboard?” and then answer quite sensibly, “Absolutely no one.” And yet we know at least one person would, given the video evidence above.

It takes a few keystrokes to set the backlighting to what I prefer (white, no strobing), but this is a textbook example of just because you can do something doesn’t mean you should (technology edition).

(Also, the video was made from the two-second live video clip from my iPhone. It’s like video-making for lazy people with no attention spans. Perfect for me!)

I pulled every key off a keyboard, just to watch it die

Actually, I did it to put sound-dampening o-rings under each key cap. I think it was 88 keys total and yeah, it took a good long while. I don’t recommend it as a hobby, unless you’re trying to learn patience and plenty of it.

I did this on the Cooler Master Masterkeys S keyboard I recently bought. It has red switches, which are allegedly quiet, but they are more “quiet” in practise, because while they don’t have the loud (and strangely satisfying CLACK) of blue switches, they definitely do make a distinct click when bottomed out. And my typing involves a lot of bottoming out. And the clicking has a vaguely unpleasant hollowness to it. I experienced some regret over the purchase, but decided to order a full set of o-rings after some testing with a set of six and now that I’ve cushioned all the keys, I can state a few things:

  • the o-rings definitely have a significant effect on sound. The keys still click, but it’s much more quiet
  • the o-rings also eliminate most of the hollow feel of the keys
  • it’s still a mechanical keyboard and the keys feel very solid, though the 8 key is curiously shifted slightly up from the others:

As you can see, the F5 through F8 keys adjust the speed of the keyboard, allowing the user to type at dangerously high velocities.

I like it, but I’m still adjusting to it and honestly, I think I may prefer the CLACK of blue switches. The feel is just so weirdly nice.

So my keyboard kaos has settled down for the moment, but there may be one more keyboard in my future…

Keyboard kaos

I have a keyboard conundrum.

I am typing this on a Logitech K750 wireless solar-powered keyboard. It’s got low travel, laptop-style keys, but they still have more travel than, for example, the keyboard on the current-gen MacBook Pro. It’s pretty quiet to type on. My main complaint is that there’s no tenkeyless version. I’d prefer that so I can move the mouse closer to the keyboard, as I don’t use the numeric keypad all that often. Also, it’s got a glossy surface around the keys, which is reflective and mildly annoying. Still, it’s pretty good.

But I miss the mechanical keyboard I was using previously, a Das with blue switches–the noisiest ones you can get, pretty much. But it felt very nice to type on. I’d thought about getting a tenkeyless version (not from Das, they don’t make one), but after trying out the WASD six-key tester that includes all six popular switch types, I finally decided a tenkeyless with red switches would be a better choice. The red switches would offer the benefits of mechanical keys, but without the loud clicking and with less force required for actuation. Win-win.

I ordered the Cooler Master Masterkeys S with red switches and it arrived today from Amazon.

The keyboard works fine, but I was immediately surprised at how much noise it still makes despite having “quiet” keys. There’s no distinctive blue switch CLACK but it still definitely makes a distinctly unquiet click when keys are pressed. Also, the sound makes the keys seem weirdly hollow. I’m not sure I like it.

I’m thinking a tenkeyless with blue switches may be the best choice after all.

BUT…I just tried testing the six red o-rings that came with the WASD tester on the Cooler Master keyboard and I like the results enough in terms of noise reduction that I’ve ordered a full set of o-rings. I should have them in a few days and I’ll see if they do the job. If not I’ll consider exchanging it for the blue switch version or maybe go for a custom-designed WASD keyboard, which, while pricey, would definitely say ME. I’m not sure if that’s a good thing.

Anyway, I now have a whole pile of keyboards:

  • Das mechanical with blue switches
  • Filco mechanical with brown switches (tenkeyless)
  • Cooler Master mechanical with red switches (tenkeyless)
  • Logitech K750 scissor switch keyboard
  • Another solar-powered Logitech designed for Macs/iOS devices (no keypad but not tenkeyless, either)
  • Yet another Logitech low travel keyboard, the K380–but not solar-powered!
  • A Corsair gaming keyboard with mechanical switches that I hated so much I don’t remember the details, but it disabled the Windows key by default and you had to run a macro to enable it. It also weighed 100 pounds.
  • Probably a few others I’m forgetting

I may need professional help. Or maybe another keyboard.

I don’t like the new MacBook keyboard

I’ve had a MacBook Pro, officially known as the MacBook Pro (13-inch, 2016, Two Thunderbolt 3 ports) model when checking About This Mac from the Apple menu, for the better part of the year, and in that time I’ve grown used to the extremely low travel keyboard it uses, but I’ve finally realized I don’t like it.

Others have mentioned it’s not fun to type on and that may seem somewhat glib, but it’s true, at least as far as my own experience goes. My greatest fear–that the low travel and extreme firmness of the keys would lead to sore fingers during long typing sessions–was unfounded. I’ve typed thousands of words over hours on the thing and my fingers have emerged intact.

But it’s still an oddly joyless experience, something I hadn’t even thought in relation to typing until I started using it. I always feel like I’m on the verge of making mistakes by hitting the wrong keys, it’s annoyingly clicky without any of the benefits of a mechanical keyboard and every time I go back to any other keyboard I regularly use, like the Logitech K780 or even the previous wired Mac keyboard with numeric keypad, I’m reminded of how much more pleasurable the typing experience can be. The new MacBook keyboard feels like something that’s meant to be used only sparingly. Maybe that’s why the touchpad is so gigantic on the newer models.

The 2016 MacBook Pro is kind of an odd thing. Parts of it are great, like the display and touchpad, while others, like the keyboard, are unsatisfying compromises.

It’s actually got me thinking about getting a Windows laptop again because there is no escaping this keyboard now. Apple is on the verge of killing off their last models that used the old-style keyboard (the models date back to 2015).

HP has a new edition of their Spectre x360 coming out later this month. I’ll give it a test drive if it’s carried locally. If the touchpad is tolerable and the keyboard is better, they may just have a sale.

Anyone want a slightly-used MacBook Pro (13-inch, 2016, Two Thunderbolt 3 ports)?

UPDATE April 2, 2018: My search for a replacement laptop is documented here and here. I am still mulling over a replacement as of this update.

Now that my MacBook Pro is out of warranty, I am starting to experience what I call KA, which is not related to the mumbo jumbo in Stephen King’s The Dark Tower. KA is Keyboard Anxiety, the fear that something will happen to your keyboard, necessitating an expensive repair.

The Wirecutter has a section of their MacBook guide specifically addressing the design and reliability of the keyboard:

And across the scores of professional reviews and hundreds of online comments we’ve seen since this keyboard design debuted, few people say they love typing on it. Many people admit that, like us, they’ve gotten used to the new keyboard, while others actively dislike using it.

Here’s another article on the new MacBook keyboard that highlights issues with the design, which notes how it’s all but impossible to remove the space bar for repair without breaking it, so if the space bar is not working right, you’re likely looking at getting the entire top assembly of the MacBook replaced, since the keyboard is an integrated part of it. The cost of the replacement, out of warranty, can be hundreds of dollars, even if it’s just that single key that is not working. This keyboard design was done in the name of making the laptops ever-thinner and lighter. I think this is probably peak Apple form over function, as they have retreated on their “thin or die” philosophy since the development and subsequent fallout over the butterfly mechanism the new keyboard uses. The iPhone 7/8, Series 3 Watch and new iPad are all thicker and heavier than their immediate predecessors (though not by much).

Also amusing is the official Apple support document on How to clean the keyboard of your MacBook or MacBook Pro. Hold your MacBook (minimum cost $1729 Canadian before tax) at an absurd, near-upside down angle and spray air into it. I especially like the second image where the guy doing the cleaning is apparently palming the MacBook instead of actually gripping it. He’s putting a lot of faith in that left hand:

If reliability problems are as bad as they may be, I suspect this will be a rare case of Apple retreating on a design, though I expect them to spend at least another generation trying to fix it first. If they do abandon it, the result will probably be slightly thicker and heavier laptops, but other companies have demonstrated that light and thin is still quite possible while retaining a more traditional laptop keyboard design.

Keyboards are hard

A month after posting about getting a new keyboard, I do not have a new keyboard.

But I did break out two of the three (!) mechanical keyboards I already have to test them again.

Playing around with the Filco with brown switches convinced me of two things:

  1. The form factor without numeric keypad is the way to go.
  2. Brown switches are not the way to go.

Playing around with the Das with blue switches left me more uncertain. First, the Das specifically is big and heavy and I’m not really into big and heavy for my keyboards anymore. It also has a glossy finish. Note to keyboard manufacturers: NEVER DO THIS. The gloss attracts fingerprints and reflects light like crazy. It doesn’t look good, it just looks distracting.

I still like the feel of blue switches but having used a Logitech K750 for a good long while now, it’s a big shift to go from a low-travel soft touch laptop-style keyboard to one that CLACKS with great force.

So it’s made me wonder if my other choice from the above-linked post, red switches, might be the way to go. You get the reliability of a mechanical switch but without the CLACK, you get the handy non-keypad form factor, and you get keys that actuate without requiring a lot of force.

I’m still undecided.

I’ll pledge to make a decision before National Novel Writing Month starts. That means I have one month. If it goes like my attempts to come up with ideas for NaNoWriMo, I will not be announcing the recently-placed keyboard order I’ve made on October 31. But we’ll see.

I kind of wish Logitech made a version of the K750 without the numeric keypad. I’d grab that in an instant. They do have smaller keyboards, but they all either connect via Bluetooth (yuck) or don’t have full-size navigation keys or both. Why is there no Goldilocks keyboard? Or why can’t I find it?

The answer in one month!*

UPDATE, April 29, 2018: I just ordered the Cooler Master MasterKeys S, a tenkeyless mechanical keyboard with red switches. It’s significantly cheaper than the customizable WASD keyobards I’ve considered, so it will serve as a (still pricey) test drive of red switches. I will make a new post to describe how it goes. And how clicky it is.

*answer may or may not be included.

Mechanical indecision

I recently bought a Cherry MX switch tester from WASD keyboards. It’s cute in a geeky sort of way and makes for a decent conversation piece:

I don’t actually leave it parked beside my mouse.

Its purpose is to let you try different types of mechanical keyboard switches without spending $1000 on six full-size mechanical keyboards. It also came with cute little o-rings that can be inserted to dampen the sound. The blue switch on the far right, for example, makes a very loud CLACK when you bottom out the key and I hit keys like someone trying to ring the bell on a strongman machine at the fairground, so this is important to me.

But after clicking and CLACKing I am still uncertain which one I like best. The blues actually feel nice to me and the noise isn’t really an issue since I’m just typing all by my lonesome here. The browns I find unsatisfying. They lack the satisfying CLACK of blues and feel like an inadequate compromise between the blues’ firmness and noise level.

The reds have very little CLACK and are fairly quiet as a result. The action is smoother than the browns, so they seem like a good choice if I decide noise is important after all. Possible drawback: accidental actuation if my fingers go rogue, since they require less force (especially compared to the blacks as noted below).

Blacks feel like firmer reds, with little difference in noise.

Clears feel firm but have less CLACK. Sort of a kinder, gentler blue, even if they require about the same force to actuate.

Finally, greens are, according to WASD’s mechanical keyboard guide, “almost identical to the Blue switches, but have a harder spring for a much higher actuation force.” This does not strike me as a good thing.

Reading over the above, I can rule out:

  • brown switches (unsatisfying compromise)
  • green switches (blues have the same CLACK but don’t require as much force)
  • clear switches (very similar to the greens)
  • black switches (no CLACK and requires a lot of force)

Of the remaining two:

  • blues have great CLACK and moderate actuation force
  • reds have no CLACK but require less force than blues

So it really comes down to CLACK or no CLACK. I am leaning toward CLACK.

I may bring out my DAS blue switch keyboard again to remind myself what blues are like. The eventual new keyboard will be an 87-key model, meaning it will not include the numeric keypad (which the Das and my current Logitech keyboards have). Smaller keyboards are more ergonomic and I don’t really use the numeric keypad that often (and can always get a separate one if I really missed it).

WASD lets you choose both the design and color of the keycaps. I’m still experimenting with the trillions of combinations but I’m liking this distinguished black and gray variation I came up with that uses a centered layout for the lettering:

I shall decide soon™.


HP to aliens: Be careful with our keyboards

If you happen to buy an HP PC you may find a slip of paper inside the keyboard box with a warning about the keyboard. You may think it’s the usual warning about carpal tunnel or something but no, it’s a warning about breaking the keyboard.

HP keyboard warning
Keep your dirty alien hands off our keyboards

The two handy tips, summarized:

  1. To prevent breakage, don’t bend the stand legs back until they break. Also, to avoid car accidents, don’t crash your car.
  2. Apply light pressure when using the keyboard. This implies that it’s possible to type with enough force to break the keyboard. Either these are very flimsy keyboards or HP imagines anyone using them will pound the keys like an angry villain with super strength*.

The best part, though, is the hands. Those splayed out appendages are like a Rorschach test. One glance and they look like pine air fresheners you’d hang on the rearview mirror, another glance and maybe they are tree trunks or deformed octopi or alien claws.

Since it is impossible to type without putting some kind of downward pressure on the keys, the illustration can be interpreted as telling you to not use the keyboard for typing. This would certainly keep it the legs from breaking. A good warning, then.

* based on my experience using keyboards in public–with many a broken leg, missing, stuck or wobbly keys–I think there may in fact be a lot of villains with super strength out there typing away

The cowardly keyboard

I have a thing for keyboards.

When mechanical keyboards came back in vogue I started buying them, trying to find one that felt just right.

My first was a CoolerMaster Storm Trigger with blue switch keys.

CM Storm Trigger

It’s a fine keyboard in many ways and I like the solid clacky feel of the keys. When I resist pounding on the keys like a deranged ape they aren’t even that loud, really, because they actuate before being fully engaged.

However, there were some things I didn’t like:

  • the Windows key doesn’t work by default. You have to enable it in a profile. This is because it’s a GAMERZ keyboard and gamerz don’t need Windows.
  • it’s extra wide due to the macro keys,. I have never used macro keys on a keyboard.
  • the red LED lighting is distracting. When it’s off the keys are hard to read.

So I searched on and got a Metadot Das Keyboard, also using blue switches.

Das Keyboard Professional

No backlit keys and a standard keyboard layout, no funny macro stuff. It would seem ideal, except for one thing.

The keyboard casing is glossy and the keys are as well, to a lesser extent. They reflect light and my computer corner cubbyhole has a light that sits nearly directly above the keyboard, so this becomes a problem.

Onto keyboard #3: The Filco Majestouch 2. This one has brown switches, which are less clacky.

Filco Majestouch Keyboard


(The lovely green border came as part of the stock photo.)

On balance I don’t mind the brown switches but if push came to shove I think I find the blue switches a little smoother in feel. The lack of a numeric keypad was a bit disconcerting at first but I realized I never used it much and the narrower width of the keyboard more than makes up for it. The finish on the keyboard is nicely matte so the keys are easily readable. I think if this keyboard had blue switches it might cause me to end my search.

But it doesn’t.

But Filco makes a model that does! Now I just have to find a retailer.

Also, their website is a charming pastiche of quaintly clumsy English and images like this:

I conclude with this video of the Ducky Shine 3 Yellow keyboard. This is a keyboard with backlit keys. And the keys are blank.

The exciting world of new keyboards

I have a Saitek Eclipse keyboard and the main reason I got it was for the backlit keys. They’re cool in a geeky sort of way and practical in low-light conditions. However, I discovered over time that I preferred not working in low-light conditions on the computer, so the backlit keys seemed less necessary. What was worse, though, was the lettering on the keys being obliterated by my apparently acid-spewing fingers. The E, O, P, A, S, H, L and N keys are all smudged to the point of being nearly unreadable. Awhile back I had bought the Microsoft Digital Media Keyboard 3000 which, as the name implies, comes with a hojillion multimedia keys that do everything but iron your clothes and walk the dog. I pulled it out and remembered why I had not taken to it when I first tried it. The keys are ‘low travel’, which is fancy keyboard talk for the keys not sticking up as much and being scrunched a little closer together. The idea is you don’t need to press down as far or stretch as much, thus saving wear and tear on your fingers, whether or not they spew acid.

I find it makes me more prone to make typos because it feels funny. However, this seems as good a time as any to do battle once again with that unforgiving shrew, Mavis Beacon. Stay tuned!