How to Buy a Keyboard

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When you sit down at your PC, where do your hands go? They go right to the keyboard, and they will likely stay there until you get up to walk away. With so much time spent dealing directly with the letters and keys, why would you ever settle for the generic keyboard that came bundled with your desktop PC? A good keyboard can spell the difference between frustration and efficiency, between gaming defeat or victory, and has a serious impact upon your joint health. For these reasons, and more, it pays to know what makes a keyboard a good fit.

Connectivity Options

The simplest way to connect a keyboard to your PC is through a wired USB connection. Keyboards are usually plug-and-play devices, with no additional software to install (with the exception of some gaming keyboards), meaning that plugging in the keyboard is all of the setup you’ll need to deal with. Unlike wireless keyboards, a wired device will draw its power from the USB, so there are no batteries to worry about. Wired connections are also preferred for gaming use, as wired connections are free from the lag and interference issues that wireless alternatives are prone to.

If you want more freedom and less cable clutter on your desk, however, it’s hard to beat a wireless keyboard. Instead of a wired connection, wireless keyboards transmit data to your PC through one of two primary means: an RF connection to a USB receiver, or via Bluetooth. Both have their pros and cons, but if you want to reduce the number of cables on your desk and gain the flexibility to use your keyboard at a distance—whether it be on your lap or across the room—wireless is the way to go.

Most wireless keyboards connect to the PC via the same 2.4 GHz wireless frequencies used for cordless phones and Wi-Fi Internet. A small, dime-sized USB dongle—small enough to plug in and forget about—provides the link to your PC. Companies use proprietary connections like these because they allow for optimal battery life. These USB dongles also provide connectivity to more than one device, meaning that you can use the single adapter for your wireless keyboard—or keyboards, if you have one at work and one at home—as well as one or more computer mice, assuming that all are the same brand.

Bluetooth options are regaining popularity of late, largely because they don’t monopolize a USB port, they offer compatibility with other devices, like tablets and smartphones, and because the stable, easy-to-manage Bluetooth connections are ideal for use with more mobile devices, like tablet PCs. In regular use, a Bluetooth connection gives you roughly thirty feet of wireless range, but may not match the battery life offered by devices with an USB dongle. New innovations, such as hand-proximity sensors tied to power and connection management improves the battery life over older Bluetooth devices, which maintained an always-on link, draining battery quickly.

Key Switches

One aspect of keyboard design that you’ll see mentioned in reviews—but that most people don’t give a second thought—is the type of switches used for individual keys. You may not care about the specific mechanisms that reside beneath the keys, but you will certainly feel the difference. The three primary types of switches are silicone dome, scissor switches, and mechanical switches.

Budget keyboards, such as those that come bundled with a new desktop PC, generally use silicone dome switches, which use two dimpled layers of silicone membrane, forming a grid of rubber bubbles or domes as the switch for each key. The springiness of the silicone rubber makes for a soft, mushy feel as you press each key. The switch type also requires you to bottom out with each keystroke, pressing the key to the bottom of the key well to type a letter. And because repeated flexing of the rubber membrane causes it to break down, silicone dome switches lose their springiness and responsiveness over time.

Some newer keyboards mimic the low-profile chiclet-style keyboards found on laptops and ultrabooks. While a few of these keyboards use plain silicone dome switches, many use a scissor switch, which adds a mechanical stabilizer to each key for a uniform feel, and an attached plunger under each keycap allows for shorter key travel. As a result, scissor switch keyboards have a shallow typing feel, but are generally more durable than rubber dome switches alone.

Ask any keyboard enthusiast, however, and you won’t hear praise for domes or scissors—instead, they’ll be singing the praises of mechanical switches. These keyboards are a bit more intricate, with a spring loaded sliding keypost under every key. There are several variations available, each tweaked to provide a slightly different feel or sound, but generally, mechanical switches provide better tactile feedback and have more of the “clickety-clack” sound that many associate with typing. The sturdy switch mechanisms and long-lasting springs are significantly longer lasting, and more easily reparable. These switches also register each keystroke with a much shorter amount of travel, making them ideal for touch typists.

Layout & Features

Not all keyboards are created equal. In fact, not all keyboards are even laid out the same beyond the standard QWERTY keys. Roughly half of the keyboards available offer a 10-key numeric pad, an ideal tool for anyone that frequently needs to tally numbers or enter data into a spreadsheet. Smaller distinctions include placement of arrow keys, and functions like Page Up and Down, Home and End buttons. Several newer models also feature keys dedicated to Windows 8 functions, such as the Charms Bar. Additionally, most current keyboards have basic media features such as playback controls and volume up and down.

Finally, gaming keyboards are often outfitted with software and extra keys for Macro commands, letting you pre-arrange complex strings of commands and activate them with a single press of a button. The number of macro commands that you can save, and the ease with which they can be created, will vary from one model to the next, but it’s a valuable tool.

Ergonomics

In order to stave off carpal tunnel syndrome and repetitive stress injury, many keyboards are available with designs that put your hands into a neutral position as you type. The result is not only greater comfort, but reduced stress to the joints and tendons, ultimately helping you to avoid painful inflammation and expensive surgery. Ergonomic features can range from the simple—like padded wrist rests—to the elaborate, with keyboards that curve and slope.

Standard vs. Gaming

While all keyboards offer the necessary keys for typing, sometimes typing isn’t your main concern. Gaming keyboards are designed for competitive use, equipped for maximum specialization and control, optimized for specific styles of gameplay, and built to exacting standards of responsiveness and durability. They also appeal to the gamer aesthetic, with designs that impress and intimidate with pulsing backlight, dramatic color schemes, and brutal functionality.

Premium gaming keyboards almost exclusively use high-grade mechanical key switches, sculpted keycaps, and offer numerous customizable features, like programmable macro commands, adjustable backlight, and function specific details, like textured WASD keys or swappable keycaps. Anti-ghosting is an essential feature, allowing multiple keystrokes to be registered simultaneously—something standard keyboards face limitations. Other extras include pass through USB ports or audio connections on the keyboard, which simplifies the process of connecting peripherals to a desktop PC that may not be easily accessed. These aren’t the sorts of bells and whistles everyone will use from day to day, but for players that invest time and money into gaming, gaming keyboards offer a competitive edge.

To see the top keyboards we’ve reviewed, check out The 10 Best Keyboards, and keep an eye out for new keyboard reviews.

By Brian Westover, PCMag


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