Keyboard Basher (Part 2)

1/23/2013 9:16:28 AM

I’ve talked about how the keyboard connects to the PC and the switch under the key, but I haven’t yet covered the physical key top. As this the part you actually strike, it’s important to understand that you can see plenty of variations here.

The top of the key is usually shaped in one of three different styles; flat, spherical or cylindrical. The flat key looks nice but is the worst design, because there’s no touch feedback to tell you if you’re hitting the key in the centre or off to one side. Dished designs train your fingers to hit the centre, improving accuracy, and most keyboards come with cylindrical depressions. It’s normally only old typewriter designs that use spherical, because it tends to make the key top smaller, and therefore harder to hit cleanly.

Description: Quad MK-85 Red LED

Quad MK-85 Red LED

Whatever their shape, the keys themselves are usually made from either ABS (Acrylonitrile Butadiene Styrene) or PBT (Polybutylene Terephthalate) Plastic, although Apple has made a few that had metallic tops to them.

If a choice is available, then PBT is harder wearing, though it usually costs more accordingly. How the key reacts to repeated use is also affected by the means that the keyboard maker uses to mark the key top.

The cheapest method and the one that Microsoft likes is called pad printing, which looks great for five seconds and is invisible just a few months later.

More hard wearing is laser etching, but the results of burning plastic using coherent light aren’t as aesthetically pleasing as other methods, and can make the key top uneven.

The two preferred methods are either dye sublimation or double-shot injection moulding. Both of these produce keys where the letter doesn’t get rubbed out, but they also look sharp and you can’t feel the letter form with your finger tip. The snag is that both these are only available on keyboards that cost the most.

Description: Steelseries 6G V2

Steelseries 6G V2

Having explained what to look for in a keyboard, let’s look at some popular designs and connect the dots, so to speak.

Filco Majestouch ($160 + VAT from the Keyboard Company)

This is a classic design that uses Cherry MX Black switches and it’s a USB design with a PS/2 converter supplied along with it. The 60g activation force and the 2mm activation point make this potentially ideal for gaming, but the linear action is also good for typing too. What’s especially nice about this design is that you can buy a key puller for the Flico design, and replacement tops when they’re needed. It might seem like lots to spend on a keyboard, but it’s an investment. You can get this design with other switches, if you’d like a different feel.

Qpad MK-85 Red LED Pro Backlit Mechanical Gaming Keyboard ($176 from Overclockers UK)

As gaming designs go, this is one of the more striking, and also rather expensive. What’s certain is that you’ll be able to identify all the keys even in complete darkness due to the LED backlighting on each individual key.

Qpad used the Cherry MX Brown switch on this model, and it comes with four special orange keys, which you can replace using the provided key puller.

Cherry G80-3000 Mechanical Keyboard ($104 from Overclockers UK)

This is another keyboard that uses Cherry switches, this time the MX Blue. As such, this is aimed more specifically at those who type long documents on a regular basis. This is almost an identical design to a Das Keyboard that shares many of the parts but costs twice as much, so the G80-3000 is something of a bargain at this price.

Description: Cherry G80-3000 Mechanical Keyboard

Cherry G80-3000 Mechanical Keyboard

Topre Realforce 105UB Variable Gold on Black ($307 from The Keyboard Company)

This is an expensive design, but it’s a very sophisticated keyboard that uses Topre switches. Where most keyboards have the same switch on every key, the Realforce 105UB has a range of actuation weights according to where on the keyboard the key is, reducing typing fatigue. Sadly, this only comes with USB, but it’s hardly a gaming keyboard so that’s not a big issue.

Description: Topre Realforce 105UB Variable Gold on Black

Topre Realforce 105UB Variable Gold on Black

SteelSeries 6G v2 Mechanical Gaming Keyboard ($120)

I’ve included this one, because it’s the keyboard I’m actually using to write this, and it’s not bad for typing even if it’s specifically built for gaming. It uses the ever popular MX Black switches, though it’s been rumoured that SteelSeries might release the design with alternative switches at some point.

Description: SteelSeries 6G v2 Mechanical Gaming Keyboard

SteelSeries 6G v2 Mechanical Gaming Keyboard

It comes with a USB to PS/2 adapter, and it has excellent anti-ghosting technology. The only downsides to this keyboard are that it’s invisible in the dark and laser etched key tops do wear eventually.

Where To Find The Best Ones?

If you have a particular design in mind, say something by SteelSeries, then there are many online retailers and stores that will offer you those. However, true aficionados will often seek out a supplier who specialises in the very best keyboards and can even provide replacement parts to keep a much loved input device in perfect working order.

Most online retailers carry the standard gaming keyboards from the likes of Logitech and Steelseries, but if you want something more sophisticated then you might need to look for a specialist distributor of input devices. One of these is The Keyboard Company (, which has a fantastic range of keyboards with all the information about the switches used in each. It stocks Realforce, Filco, Seal Shield, Matias and Cherry keyboards among others.

My only concern about buying keyboards without first-hand experience is that you can so easily be disappointed by a design that looked ideal on paper but less wonderful on your desk. Some direct experience is ideal, unless you already have a design that you’d like to replace.

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