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Geeking out on Keyboards, Part II

Posted in Computing, Hardware

This is Part II of me talking about keyboards. Read Part I for more context.

It’s been a couple of months since I’ve converted to using the Kinesis Advantage on both my desks at work and at home. It’s definitely a more specialized—and expensive—ergonomic keyboard, one that is strongly opinionated on what makes for comfortable typing.

Physical keyboards are unabashedly mechanical, and getting the feel of key presses right is one of the most underrated aspects of good keyboard mechanics1. In particular, a key’s actuation point—how deep it has to be pressed before it registers as a keypress—is critical to that feel.

This manifests in the form of the type of key switch used.

Dome Switches

The default is the dome switch, used mostly by inexpensive keyboards as well as those rubber/flexible keyboards which attach to tablets. Rubber or metal domes are placed beneath the keys, and presses are registered when the dome is depressed with finger movements.

Their major problems are that the domes don’t provide much tactile feedback, and there is only one way to activate the depression mechanism. It results in overly hard key presses, known as bottoming out onto the very base of the keyboard. They are common and cheap to manufacture, but do not feel great and is ergonomically troublesome.

Scissor Switches

The scissor switch is more common on laptops and portable keyboards, and is recognizable by the physical thinness of the keys. I’ve also seen many desktop keyboards—the default Dell keyboard, Apple keyboards, Microsoft’s Sculpt ergonomic keyboard—move to this design, presumably to foster a sense of familiarity with laptops.

Scissor switches also use domes to register keypresses, but their keys are much shallower, with keypresses registered via a scissor spring mechanism. I’ve liked scissor switch keyboards for a long time; the shorter travel makes more less finger movement, and I found that the scissor switch mechanism is sturdier overall2.

Mechanical Switches

Finally, mechanical switch keyboards are well-regarded for their key typing feel. Mechanical switch keys are notable for housing complete switch mechanisms within every key, which allows for custom attentuation points distinct from key travel. In other words, pressing key the down slightly will register the press, and your fingers will be saved from the wear-and-tear of bottoming out against the base of the keyboard tray.

It took me a while to understand this, and a while longer to train my fingers to stabilize at that attentuation point to minimize finger travel. The mechanical spring also provides a satisfying click as well as some finger resistance, which again help with ergonomics.

In modern computer use, I spend most of my time typing between scissor switch and mechanical switch keyboards. Other aspects of keyboards, though, also play major factors in typing comfort and efficiency. More on that in the next post.

  1. The corollary is that those laser-projected keyboards are completely worthless.

  2. Incidentally, Apple’s new Macbook, with its new butterfly key switches, uses sturdiness as a selling point. I wasn’t convinced in my time spent with it, however.