A few months ago, I built a new PC. Quite a bit of research went into deciding the components and making sure that they were compatible. One of the easiest decision was buying the keyboard – Microsoft’s Natural Ergonomic Keyboard. Why? Mainly because it looked neat, sounded cool and was fully loaded. If I had done more research about keyboards then, my decision might just have been different.
This keyboard buying guide aims to break down the technicalities into a set of simple factors that you should consider before deciding on a keyboard.
Computer Keyboard Buying Guide: Factors to Consider
Duh! I know what you are thinking. Price is a very obvious factor that most of us consider, but I thought I should explicitly mention it as the pricing range of a keyboard can vary a lot. On Amazon itself, you can get a keyboard from the $10 HP K1500 to $1600+ ‘The Seafarer’ keyboard which boasts of steampunk brass design and typewriter-style keys. (The Seafarer is a super-premium keyboard, which has attracted a slew of sarcastic reviews. If not for anything else, you should check out for the hilarious reviews I don’t often see on Amazon.)
Consider how much you use you are going to get out of your keyboard and how much you are willing to pay for it. I would consider a price range of tens of dollars to a few hundred (say $300) as optimal to get a nice, high-quality keyboard with all the bells and whistles that you want. Beyond that, you are likely paying for brand name, unique design, features or physical keyboard customization options.
Keyboard Form Factor
Keyboards come in various form factors. Some manufacturers may wander off the beaten path and come up with keyboards that offer different keyboard sizes and key spacing, though most manufacturers have major product lineups based on established keyboard sizes.
You should consider the space available on your desk and whether portability is a factor before settling on a size.
Standard, full-size keyboards
Nobody calls them 100% keyboards, but that’s what they are. They have the arrow/navigation keys, function keys, a Numpad and may even have additional programmable keys.
Also called 80% keyboards, they do not have the Numpad.
Also called 60% keyboards, they do not have the Numpad, arrow/navigation keys or even the function keys row.
There are multiple variations of the compact keyboards being produced by manufacturers. Often, these keyboard size variations are commonly seen in laptops of different sizes.
Compact keyboards with arrow keys
Also called 65% / 70% keyboards, they do not have numpad or navigation keys and the arrow keys are adjusted within the layout under the ‘Enter’ key.
Compact keyboards with arrow and function keys
Also called 75% keyboards, they have the function keys row at the top, but no Numpad or navigation keys. This keyboard size can be seen on the MacBook Pro.
Connectivity and Interfaces
Wired (USB or PS/2)
If you are looking for a wired keyboard, check the length of the cable that comes with it. Some keyboards, like the Apple Aluminium full-sized keyboard, come with a ridiculously short cable. You might need to get a USB extender to attach it to your PC.
Check for the interface that the keyboard offers. Some keyboards and mice come with the PS/2 interface, even though it is a legacy port. Older Motherboards often support PS/2 and have few or no USB ports. If you already have the PC or laptop to connect the external keyboard to or if you are deciding on a Motherboard as well, check the supported ports and see which one would be right for you.
Check the Bluetooth version on the device that you plan to pair with the keyboard. Get the keyboard with a Bluetooth version supported by your device. An alternative might be to get an adapter to give your device the needed Bluetooth capability.
Many keyboards, like the Logitech Wireless Solar Keyboard with Unifying Receiver, use different technology for pairing with the target device. This is not equivalent to Bluetooth and they often state it explicitly, but it is not too difficult to miss.
You should consider if you need a keyboard with backlight. It can be useful sometimes and I am quite used to having it on my MacBook Pro.
I inadvertently end up working on my PC in the dark at times and though I don’t really need to look at the keyboard much, I wish I had remembered to look for backlight when I selected my keyboard.
You are going to use the keyboard most of the time you spend on your PC, and thus your comfort is paramount. It’s good to have a keyboard that has an adjustable height as well as tilt so that you can adjust it to a level that is right for your setup.
Several keyboards come with a wrist rest or you can just buy one separately for your keyboard. Ergonomic keyboards are consciously designed so as to reduce strain on your wrist and fingers. You should also try to pick up habits to save your wrists from chronic pain and RSI (Repetitive Strain Injury).
Personally, I do not really feel the need of a wrist rest when using thin keyboards like the Apple Magic keyboard. For thicker keyboards, for me, it is quite essential as the wrist and fingers are operating at a weird angle and cause unnecessary strain on them.
Keyboard Types (Based on the switch type)
Keyboard types are primarily differentiated on the basis of the switch technology used. There are several types of keyboards and key switching technologies used by them. But in an attempt to avoid going deep into technicalities, here are three prominent types of keyboards that you will come across.
Membrane Keyboards (Often with a Rubber Dome)
Though both membrane and rubber dome switches can be used separately, a combination of membranes with rubber domes is the most popular type of external keyboard design in use today. These types of keyboards are usually not loud and cheaper on the pricing side.
Scissor-switch keyboards use a variation of the rubber dome switch and are widely used in laptops. This is because they reduce the distance needed for the key to travel before your keypress is registered. This has a huge advantage in reducing the size of the keys and the weight of the keyboard.
Apple’s external keyboards, like the Magic keyboard, use scissor switches and so most of the devices in the MacBook series. The notable exception being MacBook (2015 and ahead) which has a keyboard with Butterfly switch.
Mechanical Switch Keyboards
More commonly known as Mechanical Keyboards, this is a type of keyboard that has a large, dedicated community behind it. Mechanical switches themselves come in a large variety and thus, there are a lot of considerations to take into account while going just for a mechanical keyboard.
Here are some of the defining traits of a mechanical keyboard.
- It is ‘clicky’ and loud, though the loudness factor varies by the types of switch you use.
- It is usually heavy, given the individual mechanical switch for each key.
- Highly customizable – You can customize the look and feel of your keyboard by choosing the switch you want to use and the keycaps. Custom keycap designs can personalize the look of your keyboard and make it unique.
- Durable. They are built to last for ages, though that does not mean that other types of keyboards may not last for a long time.
Getting the correct switch is necessary for a great experience with a mechanical keyboard. Cherry MX series of switches are the most popular mechanical switches. Check out the comparative traits of different types of Cherry MX switches below.
There can be a standalone guide about buying a mechanical keyboard, but till we get to it, you should consider that mechanical keyboards are not for everyone. Before you commit to a mechanical keyboard, you might do well to try out a key switch tester.
Mechanical keyboards are an acquired taste. For most users, regular keyboards (membrane switch) or laptop-style keyboards (scissor-switch) would be recommended.
This is a bit of a quirky consideration that is probably not useful for most people. Your default keyboard has a QWERTY layout, and while that is the most popular key layout, there are several variations out there that are considered to be more optimal for use. This can be from the point of view of ease of use, typing speed (words per minute), and even ergonomic considerations.
One of the most commonly known alternatives to QWERTY is DVORAK. It claims that you need lesser finger movement to type words, reduces errors and helps you achieve higher WPM while reducing repetitive strain injuries. These claims are challenged and though some users may love the experience of moving from QWERTY to DVORAK, it is not for everyone.
There are quite a few interesting questions on Quora that can help you learn more about DVORAK if you are interested. If you want to experiment with Dvorak without actually investing in a keyboard, you might want to get a Dvorak keyboard cover and change the system setting to use Dvorak layout.
Of course, there are many alternatives to QWERTY layout, with Colemak being another popular alternative.
Don’t like what is out there? Build Your Own Keyboard.
Yes, you can build your own keyboard, but it is really not recommended for everyone. There are a lot of great keyboards out there and unless you have been there and tried a lot of them, you don’t really need to build your own. It can certainly be a fun, and possibly expensive, project though.
Keyboards we use (or would like to use):
Note that we haven’t actually used all these keyboards. Some keyboards listed here are based on our usage experience, others are based on research.
Full-size keyboard with a split key layout, an ergonomic design with wrist rest. It lacks a backlight. The split key layout may need some getting used to.
Full-size keyboard with a slim form factor and a USB port on the side. It has a very short connecting cable. You might need to use a USB extender cable with it. Also lacks a backlight.
Compact size wireless keyboard, slim form factor and runs on batteries. Highly portable but has no backlight.
Das Model S keyboard is a full-size, mechanical keyboard that comes with various MX switches. It is a full-featured keyboard. A backlight is present in some models.
When I consider getting a mechanical keyboard, Model S will be on my shortlist.
A full-size, gaming keyboard with extra programmable keys. The keyboard supports multi-key input that is ideal for gaming. Not only is the keyboard backlit, you can have a choice of color of the backlight.
An overkill of a keyboard for non-gamers, Logitech G510s would be my go-to keyboard if I go looking for a gaming keyboard.
A unique TenKeyLess keyboard with an advanced ergonomic design. The keyboard has extra programmable keys.
This keyboard is going to need some time to get used to, but when I want to level-up the ergonomic requirements, this would be the first keyboard I would consider.
When I first started the research for this article from the point of view of non-techies, I did not expect the field of keyboards to be so wide. There are so many factors to consider, that it is very easy to miss something. Hope this guide can help you make an informed decision when you look to purchase your next keyboard.
Which factors matter to you the most when you consider buying a keyboard? Do you have a favorite keyboard? Share with us and help others make a more informed decision.